From Filipino electricians in western Australia and Indian petrochemical engineers working in the Persian Gulf, to Latvian stone masons in Northern Ireland, the world’s labour force is on the move.
Globalisation means that not only are companies are moving operations offshore to where there is cheaper labour – but workers are increasingly prepared to cross borders to find where the best jobs are.
Popular images of migrant workers are of the of the poor, the oppressed and unskilled. Yet according to Manpower, one of the world’s largest recruitment companies, they are more likely to be young, under 30 years of age, well-educated with university or vocational qualifications, and female as much as male.
This matters to employers who, according to Manpower, will increasingly be competing for workers, such as the managers at Irish meat processing plants “whose skilled Slovak butchers are being lured away by competitors in Norway”.
Unlike earlier migrations, today’s migrant workers are not on a one-way trip. Flights home are readily available. Irish emigrants began returning a decade ago as the economy of the “Celtic Tiger” boomed. Now, it is Indian professionals and Polish construction workers who are returning to seek new opportunities.
Competition for such workers is increasing. Even oil-rich Gulf states can no longer rely on a seemingly endless flow of cheap engineers and construction workers from the Asian sub-continent. One Gulf company, for example, told Manpower it was “starting to miss crucial project deadlines” because it could not “import the skilled expatriate engineers and project managers it used to be able to get easily.”
Propelling labour mobility over the next few decades will be huge demographic changes, in particular the ageing and stagnating populations in developed countries. According to the United Nations, Italy’s population is expected to decline from 57m to 41m by 2050 while Japan’s is projected to fall 17 per cent to 105m by 2080 .
Workers are also becoming more aware of their worth, with the internet providing much greater information on job opportunities at home and abroad, says Manpower.
Workers will also move within national boundaries to find work. China is currently struggling to accommodate “the rush of individuals leaving its poor western provinces in search of better jobs in the glittering commercial hubs of the country’s east coast,” it says.
Japan has also seen a huge population shift to its cities, imperilling its agricultural sector, while “Norway must deal with the emptying of its rural north and Mexico’s southern states contend with…a massive talent drain to the industrialised northern border states.”
Employers who have moved offshore in search of cheap labour can get caught out, however, as local economies develop and other multinationals move in, competing for a limited number of skilled workers. According to Manpower, it is not unusual for workers at call centres in Bangladesh to attend an interview, accept a new job and start straight away at a higher salary all in the same lunch hour, says Manpower.
The recruitment group warns that government policies restricting inflows of migrant workers, in response to populist demands, could prove counter-productive by leaving businesses short of both skilled and unskilled labour.
National immigration policies have concentrated on raising barriers to the unskilled while trying to encourage highly skilled professionals, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs.
But Manpower points out that blue collar workers are also in short supply, “to the dismay of many policymakers who, for years, have focused great attention on increasing the proportion of youth that attain university degrees and become knowledge workers, only to discover a vast talent shortage of blue collar workers now upon them.”
The result is a near-universal shortage of carpenters, decorators, bricklayers and plumbers in developed countries – jobs which are increasingly having to be filled by migrant workers.
“Years of relative under-investment in vocational trades are now having an impact in western countries like Norway where butchers, drivers. chefs, plumbers, electricians and welders are badly needed,” says the recruitment company.
Labouring and similar jobs were the most popular posts filled by foreign workers in Belgium, Canada, France, Japan, Singapore, Spain and the UK, and ranked “ within the top 10 list for Australia, Austria, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the US,” according to the Manpower survey.
The process is not new – think of the Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in 1950s and 1960s Germany, Jamaican bus drivers in London from the same period and more recently, British financial controllers in Shanghai, where 40,000 foreigners now work. What has changed is the universal scale and ease of labour mobility movements.