Do Western economies need low-skilled immigration?  This article by Martijn Baert, Attorney at Claeys & Engels, considers. 

I recently had the opportunity to spend 3 months in the immigration department of Lewis Silkin in London. It so happened that I left Brussels by Eurostar on the exact same day that the French authorities started the evacuation of the infamous “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais. This coincidence reminded me of an uncomfortable distinction: the Belgian lawyer travelling to London in just over two hours compared to the would-be migrants living in appalling conditions with meagre chances to ever cross the Channel, let alone in a legal manner. 

This personal experience is only one demonstration of how immigration laws tend to divide between haves and have-nots. That is especially true for people migrating for economic reasons. For such migrants, qualifying as a “have” does not directly relate to their wealth, but rather to their “skills”, by virtue of  an academic degree (e.g. Belgium) or the level of their job (e.g. UK). In other words, individuals executing a high-level job or having an academic degree will be “haves” (i.e. having access to the regular labour market) whereas individuals executing a lower-level job or not having such degree will be “have-nots” (i.e. not having access to the regular labour market). 

It would be far from correct to say that highly skilled non-EU employees can simply walk into the UK.  As Neil Jennings stated in this recent article, highly skilled economic migrants are subject to an ever more formalistic and expensive application process, which some might say has been devised to actively discourage economic migration. But at least there are possibilities to get a highly skilled non-EU worker into the UK. For a non-EU citizen to legally travel to the UK - or Belgium, for that matter - to take up a low-skilled job is often simply impossible. 

The distinction in immigration possibilities between low-skilled and highly-skilled economic migrants is not new and can be discerned throughout Western European countries. The not always expressed but omnipresent reasoning behind it is essentially as follows: 

  1.  Economic migration is in principle undesirable and should be avoided where possible. Only if the labour market has an actual need for a specific profile can economic migration can be justified. The interests of employers and - certainly - individuals are of much less importance;
  2. Due to consecutive economic crises there is a sufficient supply of low-skilled workers. However, highly-skilled profiles are difficult to find in the labour market and are more likely to give an added value to the economy;
  3. Hence the conclusion that low-skilled workers should not be allowed to immigrate, whereas a flexible and demand-driven migration scheme for highly skilled workers is necessary.

The utilitarian view on economic migration under point 1 is a political choice that is in the end democratically legitimized by the electorate, which invariably seems to call for stricter immigration laws. For example, this fairly recent report from Oxford University’s The Migration Observatory leaves little doubt about both the importance and the negativity of public feelings in the UK towards immigration. The report shows that as of June 2015 immigration had become the most important issue in the UK for 45% of survey respondents, ahead of essential matters as the NHS, education, economy and unemployment. 77% of respondents agreed that immigration numbers should be reduced, although the viewpoints towards skilled migrants in shortage occupations are more positive. In light of surveys like these, most politicians would probably consider it political suicide to openly plead for increased immigration, let alone of low-skilled workers.

However, all this does not mean that the second and crucial part of the reasoning (i.e. there are plenty of low-skilled workers available on the labour market) is by definition factually correct. In other words: it is obviously correct that there is unemployment (although these graphs put things in perspective for the UK). But does this also mean that Western economies do not need low-skilled immigration to be future-proof?

Studies suggest the assertion that we do not need low-skilled immigration is untrue. Although important differences exist between individual countries and sectors of industry, it is in light of the current immigration strategies ironic yet somewhat unsurprising that the well-educated EU with its fairly accessible higher education programs would rather face shortages of low-skilled workers than of high-skilled workers. This extensive report, prepared for the EU Parliament, finds that “the vast majority of shortages are, indeed, related to low skilled occupations. Specifically occupation groups like metal, machinery and related trade workers, building and related trade workers, personal service workers and sales workers are the most needed. Highly-skilled profiles are, instead, needed only in a limited number of occupations and countries, with significant differences among Member States”. 

And as indicated in this paper from the Migration Policy Centre, it seems incorrect that low-skilled immigrants do not contribute to the economy. Low-skilled immigrants typically perform dirty or dangerous jobs, which are frowned upon by locals and are difficult to be mechanized or relocated abroad. By taking up jobs in industries such as the care or personal service sector, they can make it possible for other groups (such as women) to be “elevated” to the kind of jobs for which they are actually qualified. Moreover, low-skilled migrants can help in mitigating the effects of Europe’s ageing and shrinking population which poses a real threat to its welfare.

Of course, it would be untrue to state there is currently no low-skilled migration into Western European economies like the UK - that would be ignoring low-skilled EU migrants, persons migrating primarily for other reasons but eventually taking up jobs (e.g. refugees, family members...) and illegal immigrants.  But the EU route for low-skilled work comes under increased scrutiny, especially in the UK. One of the main drivers of the Brexit debate is undoubtedly immigration, and mainly concerning EU citizens who have unrestricted access to the UK’s labour market regardless of their skill level. It remains to be seen what the actual immigration effects of a Brexit would be. But even if the UK would successfully close its borders for low-skilled EU immigrants, that does not make demand for low-skilled labour disappear. Assuming that all these jobs will suddenly be filled in by local unemployed persons seems optimistic in light of what has been called “ethnicisation (the phenomenon that locals do not want certain jobs even if they are unemployed) and, perhaps more convincingly, the simple fact that unemployment does not automatically make someone suitable for a low-skilled job. In this regard, closing down intra-EU immigration could well have the effect of making the need for low-skilled labour more pressing. And where there is demand, supply will usually follow. Would it, then, be unreasonable to fear that the absence of legal immigration routes means that illegal immigration (and all societal problems linked thereto) will increase?

As The Economist has adequately put it: rich countries need migration to thrive. That includes low-skilled immigration. That says nothing about the legitimate need to regulate, limit and control low-skilled immigration from outside the EU - it is a fact that the level of control over EU migrants will always be limited if one wishes to participate to the EU’s internal market. And the question of whether low-skilled immigration should be temporary (“circular”) or permanent is clearly a difficult one. But in light of the facts, it is clear that this is a matter which the UK and Europe cannot ignore. Simply assuming that low-skilled immigration is not for us could prove to be a costly mistake.             

By Martijn Baert, Attorney at Claeys & Engels


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