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The Big Question: Who needs migrant workers?

Updated Monday, 31st January 2005

For some they are the backbone of the economy; for others they are the biggest threat. It seems migrants are everywhere. Some countries encourage migration, while others have their borders shut. Yet hundreds of millions of people have left their country to live somewhere else. Millions start at the bottom of the ladder and work their way up, others have more attractive, specialised skills. So why do migrants get such a bad press? Are they undermining locals by taking away their jobs? Or are they an asset? The Big Question: Who needs migrant workers?

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Migrant workers' lodgings in Soweto, South Africa Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Omar Sattaur "This week's big question is presented by Omar Sattaur

You can find migrants worldwide in almost every country. There are now more than 175 million people living outside their home country: a population, if put together, that would make the fifth largest country in the world. Most left their homelands to find work and send money back to help their families. According to the Ronald Skeldon, of the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Sussex University, in the UK. He believes migrant workers are basically taking the jobs that native people don't want: "People become more educated and don't want to do certain tasks, so there's a demand for people to do what are generally called the 3D occupations - the ones that are dangerous, demanding and dirty".

Migrant workers are usually willing to take 3D occupations because, even though they get paid a low salary by developed country standards, migrants still earn more than they could in their original country.

Nelia Raagas ""The first time in this country, I found it a bit hard because, of course, the way of life is different. But nowadays I got used to it", says Nelia Raagas, from the Philippines, who works as a cleaner in the UK. She's been in the country for 25 years and earns around 10 times more than she would if she did the same job in the Philippines. "I send money back home every month. That's why I came here", she says. "When you're earning money here and sending it back home it's a big amount, so it's a big difference."


'Money sent back home totals more than is given in aid'

Remittances - the money sent back home from migrant workers to developing countries - total at least US$ 79 billion a year, which is more than is given in aid. Professor Skeldon says: "Remittances are important because it's a way of putting money back directly to the families - into their pockets. And for that reason it's seen as a means of alleviating poverty."


According to the World Economic and Social Survey published last year by the United Nations, the migration has no significant impact on the level of wages or employment rates among natives. On the other hand, incoming migrants expand the demand for goods and services, add to gross national production, and generally contribute more to government coffers than they take out.

Looking from this point of view, the suspicion of migrants seems unjustified. But there are other arguments against - and in favour of - migration.

"Migration can be harmful both to the receiving countries and to the sending countries", says David Coleman, Professor of Demography at Oxford University. "When the migration means that the receiving country can get away with underfunding its own enterprises and its own training, and it permits poor conditions to persist because they can rely on migrant labour, then that is harmful", he says.

Professor Coleman doesn't believe that remittances are always a good thing. "If all that happens to that remittance money is that it's used to buy land or build a bigger house or buy jewellery, then it'll simply have an inflationary effect. It will contribute nothing to gross domestic product in terms of productive activities. And there is evidence that this is the case in some Latin American countries and some Middle Eastern countries."

Another side of migration from developing to developed countries is the so-called brain drain, when skilled labourers leave their country of origin to work somewhere else. The average emigrant departing from Latin America or Asia possesses more than twice the number of years' schooling than the population they are leaving behind. From Africa, the emigrants have three times the schooling of those staying at home. The UN says this leads to a loss of innovation and creativity in their countries of origin.

In Zambia, out of 600 doctors trained in the country's medical school between 1978 and 1990, 550 are working abroad. The Zambian Vice-President admitted recently that the country is losing 25 nurses per month to the brain drain.

"Zambia is losing 25 nurses every month"

"We had a lot of teachers leaving Zambia, going to Botswana and South Africa. And recently, we've had a lot of nurses leaving Zambia and coming into the UK, where they've found better jobs for them", says Clementina Shaposha, who works on development issues at the Ministry of Agriculture of Zambia. "The migration of teachers and nurses has created a vacuum in Zambia. There is actually a shortage of nurses, and they are still going."

"The brain drain issue is an important one", says Professor Coleman. "There is no doubt that Britain and other countries have certainly gained a lot through all sorts of professionals coming from other countries to work in their sciences, in health services and all sorts of things. The problem is that to a considerable extent the west is poaching people from developing countries whose talents are really needed there."

Levels of migration is increasing. The world's migrant population more than doubled between the 1960s and the 1990s. In the period from 1960 to 2000, the number of international migrants to Europe (excluding the former Soviet Union) rose from 14 million to 33 million. In the United States - the main destination of international migrant workers - the number rose from 13 million to 41 million in the same period.

"The history of migration has taught us one thing - we cannot stop people migrating. When we do try to raise barriers, what we tend to see is the increase of irregular migration", says Professor Skeldon. "What I'm arguing for is to enlarge the doorways. Controlling population movement is not the answer. I think facilitating the movement is what we're aiming for."

This edition of the Big Question was first broadcast on 29th January 2005

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