EURA-NET Kickoff: Temporary Labour Migration: A Flawed System in Need of Reform

Professor Graziano Battistella

Temporary labour migration has always been a choice that some migrants have taken and a policy that countries have adopted. In recent history, some specific temporary labour migration programmes had been adopted but were later abandoned. The immediate examples that come to mind are the bracero programme in the US (abandoned in 1964) and the guestworker programme in Western Europe, abandoned in 1973-74. The conclusions of such programmes led to the idea that temporary labour migration was not the way to go. While Western Europe was discontinuing the guestworker programme, the Gulf countries were reinventing it as a systematic way to providing labour force to growing economies, and later, other countries in Asia went in the same direction (Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea), although with specific and significant differences. The Gulf countries want to ensure temporary status (2-3 years, renewable after returning to the country of origin) through the sponsorship system (kafala), whereby the foreign workers’ visa and employment are tied to the sponsor. Singapore and Malaysia utilized a combination of percentage of foreign workers per occupation and a levy on the hiring of foreign workers to control the number of temporary migrants. Taiwan fixed the maximum length of stay to a non-renewable two-three year permit and progressively relaxed the single-entry policy to 12 years. South Korea imposed a maximum of two renewals of the employment permit for a total work and stay of four years and eight months. In all temporary labour migration systems adopted in Asia, there is a heavy involvement of private mediators (called in different terms in countries of origin and destination). The lone exception is South Korea, which opted to government-to-government agreements, implemented through renewable Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with origin countries.

In the meantime, traditional countries of immigration (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have adopted different forms of temporary work arrangements (sometimes targeting highly skilled workers, other times focusing on agricultural workers) and which sometimes  include conversion into permanent residence status. Western European countries also continue to resort to small-scale, often seasonal programmes targeting seasonal workers, project-tied workers, trainees, border commuters and others.  The agricultural sector often requires seasonal workers. The transition of southern European countries from origin to destination of migrants was eventually regulated by deciding on an annual admission of temporary workers.

Contrary to impressions, therefore, temporary labour migration was never abandoned. It is prevalent in Asia, and it is utilized in different ways in other major areas of destination. Common to all programmes is the short term visa and contract; other than this, temporary migration programmes in Asia and in other regions present significant differences. In Asia, return to the country of origin at the end of the contract is mandatory while in many western countries contracts can be renewed while remaining in the country of destination. Temporary migration in Europe can lead to a long-term status, while this is not allowed in Asia; family reunification is allowed in Asia only for workers whose salary is sufficiently high to ensure that they can support the family.

In addition to its continuity, temporary labour migration was specifically recommended, albeit with some caution, by some scholars and various institutions, among them the Global Commission on International Migration, the UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development and the Global Forum on Migration and Development. The reasons behind such recommendations derive from the view that temporary labour migration maximizes the benefits for countries of destination, countries of origin and the migrants themselves.

In countries of destination, temporary migrants increase the flexibility of the labour market, fill the labour shortage in specific industries, and strengthen the competitiveness of certain industries. Such and other economic benefits are strongly based on the savings that labour migration produces: savings in the education and training of personnel, savings in social welfare benefits for the equivalent local population, and most of all, savings in the social costs of workers who do not settle and are without family members in the territory.

For countries or origin, temporary labour migration lowers unemployment rates, increases remittances and their development impact, and potentially leads to skills and knowledge transfer with the return of migrants. The social costs of temporary migration are considered relatively small because the absence of migrants is only for a limited period of time. Moreover, social costs normally surface in the long term and until then, what can happen years from now is anybody’s conjecture.

Finally, migrants benefit from temporary migration by way of increased earnings from gainful employment abroad. While social costs may be attendant to the migratory experience, periodic family visitations and ultimately the return of the migrant to his or her place of origin lower the costs of permanent displacement in another country and another culture.

If temporary labour migration is such a win-win-win experience, why are the recommendations to implement it always accompanied by cautious remarks? The reason is that temporary labour migration policies are often flawed. Are the flaws specific to temporary programmes or are they inherent in the temporary labour migration system? Based on the Asian temporary labour migration system, the contention is that the flaws are inherent in the system.

The temporariness of labour migration is fictitious. It is originated by a permanent demand for labour, met through temporary workers, whose migration experience is extended for many years, but always in a temporary status. A long time ago, scholars had concluded that nothing is more permanent than temporary migration. The increase of the number of rehires among Filipino migrants or the increase in the number of years that migrants are allowed to return and work in Taiwan is indicative of the fact that both employers and workers favour a medium- long-term migration experience over a short-term and temporary one, and this should be recognized and be accorded with an appropriate status.

Temporary labour migration is accompanied by sub-standard living and working conditions. Migrants are individual workers lodged often in common quarters (bed spaces) or barracks or labour camps, with limited opportunities for social life and interaction. Domestic workers live in the homes of employers who impose many restrictions. The objective of ensuring that migrants do not remain because the local societies are not willing or ready to incorporate cultural minorities reduces migrants to labour providers and denies them their humanity.

Migrants are denied some fundamental rights. The right to association and to collective bargaining is often not granted. Beginning with the recruitment process and ending with the sponsorship system in the Gulf countries, migrants have little negotiating power. Since migration is normally dictated by necessity and migrants often encounter debts to pay for the migration costs, their possibility to negotiate for better conditions is practically nonexistent. In some countries, not only are migrants not allowed to join or form trade unions, but they are discouraged from associating or establishing links with each other. In spite of some reforms, the sponsorship system in the Gulf countries requires the sponsor’s agreement for the migrant to return to the country of origin, blocking the possibility for migrants to sever the contractual relation.

Under the temporary migration system migrants do not accumulate social benefits. The limited duration of stay does not allow them to claim such benefits.

Temporary migration can lead to irregular migration. It happened in the past and it continues to happen because temporary migration is based on unrealistic and incoherent premises. Migrants can be victims of irregularities committed by recruiters, sponsors and employers or they can resort to irregular migration as the perceived alternative to the restrictions of temporary migration.

Finally, temporary migration is flawed because the win-win-win scenario depicted above happens in an uneven playing field. Not only are migrants the ones winning less; they are also the ones paying the price for the winning of others. Although this inequity is typical of any labour relation, it is excessively emphasized in the temporary labour migration system, at least in the form experienced in Asia.

Indicating the flaws of temporary migration in Asia does not mean that all temporary labour migration programmes have similar shortcomings. The crucial element to diminish the weaknesses in migration policies consists in increasing the agency of migrants. Migration as a choice rather than a necessity is a recognized principle to diminish the level of constraints and abuse associated with working in a foreign country. Thus, policies that offer the opportunity for migrants to decide, if they want, a long-term stay instead of a fixed temporary status, increase the level of protection and the fruition of rights for migrants. The reluctance of countries to provide such possibility assumes that most migrants would remain and this would diminish the benefits of temporary programmes and increase the economic, and most of all, the cultural costs for countries of destination unwilling to accept and address increasing cultural diversity. While it is not proven that most temporary migrants will stay for a long-term period (although this is often demanded by the labour market), it is also unavoidable that cultural and ethnic diversity must be accepted in an increasingly globalized world. To resist such a trend by exacting a heavy cost on migrants raises questions and erodes the sustainability and ethics of temporary migration programmes.