Who Needs Migrant Workers? Labour Shortages, Immigration and Public Policy


Who Needs Migrant Workers? Labour Shortages, Immigration and Public Policy Ruhs, Martin and Bridget Anderson ( eds .) Oxford : Oxford University Press ( 2010 ), 335 p ., ISBN 978-0-19-958059-0

The decade of economic growth that preceded the global economic crisis witnessed an upsurge in labour migration in many countries of Western Europe. This was partly because the eastern enlargements of the European Union in 2004 and 2007 made a large pool of labour available to work in the more affluent countries of the West. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, countries such as Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom saw an important increase in the share of migrant workers in their workforce. Now that the recession has increased unemployment and possibly fed mounting xenophobic resentments, many of these countries are seeking to devise labour migration policies which can be sustainable in the long term from an economic, social and political standpoint. This is particularly difficult because labour migration is a highly contentious policy field. On the one hand, employers claim that domestic workers alone cannot satisfy their skill needs even in times of recession. For instance, care for the elderly is increasingly performed by migrant – mostly female – workers, and this is likely to continue in the face of population ageing. On the other hand, trade unions and a large part of the general public may argue that migrants are just a more exploitable workforce possibly undercutting wages (Freeman 1995).

Based on research commissioned by the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee, Martin Ruhs and Bridget Anderson’s Who Needs Migrant Workers assesses the demand for migrant labour in the British economy through extensive case studies of different economic sectors: healthcare, social care, hospitality, food business, construction and financial services. The collection of chapters aims to provide an objective empirical basis for future migration policies by assessing whether the resort to migrant workers corresponds to objective needs in the economy, and the factors (e.g. the attractiveness for the native workforce, gaps in the training system) which underpin the use of migrant labour. The essays are organised in a very coherent and clear manner, each chapter assessing a) employer demand for labour b) the characteristics of the labour supply c) the use of migrant labour by employers and d) alternatives to labour migration in each sector.

Even if it deals with a single country, the book provides very interesting insights into the role of migrant labour in advanced economies in general (see also Devitt 2010; 2011). One of its many strengths is to show how the use of immigration is closely connected to other labour market institutions and policies, such as vocational education and training (VET) or employment protection. Even if the editors do not draw this link explicitly, the contributions show in many ways how the de-regulation policies carried out by successive British governments over the last decades have created an increasing demand for migrant labour. On the one hand, various measures of de-regulation have fostered the demise of the VET system, and made employers increasingly dependent on skills produced abroad. On the other hand, the jobs at the lower end of the labour market made possible by low regulation have been mostly filled by migrant workers because they are considered too precarious and badly paid by native workers. In both cases, immigration has been used to “fill the gaps” in these different types of mismatches.

The most striking example is the construction sector analysed by Chan, Clarke and Dainty. Due to low regulation and increasing cost pressures along opaque chains of subcontracting, this sector has increasingly moved down a low-skill/low wage route, poor quality of the end product, increasing wage inequalities across professions, and tax arrangements which allow a third of the workforce to be officially “self-employed” to escape social security contributions. This has had very damaging effects on the investment of domestic firms in education and training, so that employers have increasingly been sourcing their skilled craftsmen from abroad. In other sectors such as food production or hospitality, resorting to foreign labour has been used to solve the mismatch between the poor employment and wage conditions in the sector – partly underpinned by slack regulation – and the unwillingness of British-born jobseekers to accept them. Migrant workers, by contrast, are seen to possess a better “work ethic” than natives, particularly people on social benefits increasingly removed from the labour market.

The British example is particularly interesting in the context of current debates about migration policies but also about labour market governance in general. Immigration is for instance mostly left out of the debates about de-regulation as a way to reduce unemployment, whereas it can be an important alternative channel of labour supply when native jobseekers are not willing to take up low-wage employment. Moreover, the analysis also brings interesting insights for the Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) perspective (Hall & Soskice 2001), in which the idea of distinct skill production systems feature prominently. Hence, it is striking to observe that liberal market economies such as the UK, but also the US, are sourcing a considerable amount of skills from other countries, thereby strongly challenging the idea of coherent and self-sufficient national systems of skill production.

There are three points which in my opinion could have been developed further in the book. First, despite a chapter comparing the UK and the US by Philip Martin, a stronger comparative focus and insights from experiences in other countries would have been welcome to put the British case in perspective, particularly compared to continental European countries. Second, the book examines economic, social and cultural causes of the use of migrant labour, but only marginally tackles the political consequences and feasibility of different labour migration policy options. Set against the high degree of politicisation mentioned above, a more precise blueprint for policy change would have been enlightening. Finally, international cooperation in this domain is not mentioned at all. Sourcing skills and workers trained at great cost in other countries has obvious re-distributional consequences for both sending and receiving countries. The question of brain drain is briefly tackled in the chapter on healthcare where it is particularly prominent, but international coordination, in the framework of the EU or other international organisations, is left out of the picture. Considering that international migration is increasingly understood as a domain which cannot be tackled on a domestic basis alone, this aspect could have been addressed more thoroughly. In spite of this, however, Who Needs Migrant Workers should be highly recommended to anybody interested not only in immigration but in the governance of modern economies and labour markets in general.