The Various Shades of Temporariness as a New Policy Challenge

Dr. Agnieszka Weinar

When stuck in the world of policy analysis, we tend to be bound by ascribed definition. Thus, temporary migration seems to be an unproblematic category, designated to describe low-skilled migrant workers moving with temporary work contracts to do menial jobs. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest shortcomings of contemporary migration policymaking. Temporariness is a stable feature of many migration patterns and each present policy-makers with a different set of challenges.

Let us think about the simplest way of telling a temporary worker from a non-temporary one: their entry rights. Only a handful of countries in the world offer permanent residence BEFORE setting foot on their territory (so-called countries of immigration, like Canada or Australia). Pretty much everywhere else everyone is a temporary migrant. This concerns family members reunified with their sponsors (crossing the border almost exclusively on temporary visas); asylum-seekers; first-time jobholders coming to work for an employer simply because they were hired from abroad; seasonal workers in agriculture coming under a bilateral scheme; intra-corporate transferees; trainees and researchers; also students. With time, they might hope to change their status to permanent, depending on the specific legal framework applied to each particular situation. However, upfront they are all temporary migrants.

The biggest policy challenge of our times is the exponential growth of temporary flows in comparison to permanent flows, even in the countries that traditionally favoured permanent immigration. For example, the yearly intake of temporary immigrants in Canada is now double of that of permanent immigrants. This worldwide trend suggests that destination countries are more and more interested in receiving workers rather than citizens. In other words, immigration is now becoming a labour market instrument rather than a nation-building instrument. What is interesting is that even the highly-skilled, an object of the global talent race, tend to be admitted as temporary workers first.

The precarious position of the temporary worker is not evenly distributed. A manager or a technician moving around the globe within the same organisation is well covered by social security and takes less risk. These examples are, however, less and less common. A recent study of the French expatriates prepared for the French government[1] shows, inter alia, that many mobile French are no longer well-paid ex-pats, but rather young people looking for better opportunities abroad, having precarious employment situations both in France and abroad. In the same vein, the myth of the well-paid highly-skilled researcher might already be old: many PhDs move around the globe looking for a chance of stable employment, building their careers on a series of temporary placements, their social rights and pension rights scattered around the world, and have limited ways of retaining them.

Temporary workers coming to work under bilateral agreements have the best chance of having their rights safeguarded, depending on the monitoring that the two governments put in place. The issues of portability of social rights and pension rights should be included in such agreements.

For example, the much-criticized Canadian Temporary Workers Program has some strands that work pretty well: where there is Canadian governmental monitoring of implementation, abuse can lead to prosecuting the abusers.[2] Still, social and pension rights of temporary workers coming in this stream are the same as other temporary workers’ who come individually, i.e. they depend on a provincial policy of granting access to such rights. It also depends on the existence (or not) of the bilateral agreements on portability of social security rights. Also, the abuse happens only in a couple of sectors traditionally prone to abuse (e.g. agriculture). The lower the skill level, the more abuse there is.[3] Out of 94,109 workers admitted in 2014 under the TWFP scheme, 42% were highly-skilled. Only 10% were admitted to low-skilled jobs in agriculture.

In comparison, German-Polish agreements on contractual workers from the period before Poland’s accession to the EU worked quite well assuring that the rights of the workers were met and that the pension and social rights of the workers were paid back to the Polish social security system.[4] That was possible because of the detailed bilateral agreements covering these issues and monitoring from both ends.[5]

However, where there are no bilateral agreements, the situation can deteriorate quickly. The supposedly privileged intra-EU mobility is one example. Polish workers in the UK and Italy after the accession often fell prey to unscrupulous recruitment agencies and employers.[6] The shady practices and de facto slavery were possible in Europe in the context of free labour mobility, not safeguarded by any bilateral agreement nor monitoring system. Again, this happened in specific sectors of the economy, most often in agriculture.

There should be a way of using temporary workforce in certain sectors where there is low interest from the native population. In addition, because many temporary workers do not necessarily want to emigrate for life with their families, emigration is a decision that brings about a completely new set of issues, more complex. However, the practices around these programs should be strictly monitored and never left for the free market to settle. In the case of low-skilled workers and economic sectors where corruption and abuse have traditionally been present, this is of outmost importance.

There are also other ways of dealing with the needs in traditionally shady sectors of economy. For example, in Australia each year well over 150,000 Work and Travel participants, mainly youth from other OECD countries, spend obligatory several months working on Australian farms. The issue of social or pension rights is not really discussed, maybe because we are talking about young people coming to work only for a year and for fun.

Mid-skilled and high-skilled temporary workers represent another set of challenges. Many of them use the temporary programs to escape deskilling: still working in their field, on their skill level, but agreeing to precariousness of employment in return. There is no simple recipe to assure their rights are covered. While in cases where bilateral agreements exist, they might be able to collect their pension rights across the countries (the example of the European Union). In other cases, they will not acquire them anywhere and thus lose them. This is a new phenomenon, and thus not well recognized by the policymakers. Yet, it will require new solutions and more international cooperation.