Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Today's comments on migration in the UK press

The UK migration studies and associated commentaries are a sad day for the free movement of people around the globe. Its particularly sad also, to see purveyors of hate such as the Sun coming out with more reasonable statements than newspapers like the Telegraph and Mail. After a night spent digging through the application process for Australian skilled migration, I have to say that after looking at a points-based system, I can only see that such systems are explicitly designed with one thing in mind: to attract not the ordinary or low paid worker, but the brightest and best. And presumably into the brightest and best paid jobs too. Aside from the fact that the Australian system is focused on a desire to attract in talent, with a noticeable caveat that the social security system is ring fenced for a certain length of time, requiring the prospective migrant to bring along a large sum of a cash as a precondition, it contrasts strongly with the employer-focused system in Ireland, where it is the employer and not the employee who applies for and gets the VISA, nothing short of bonded servitude, and until fairly recently, all the employer had to do was prove he couldn't get staff here (which in most cases meant he was refusing to pay a living wage) in order to be allowed to import low-paid staff from elsewhere.

There is no doubt that the Irish system was and to a large extent remains, one of the worst systems of labour market exploitation in the developed world. However, do we really want a system where there are only two kinds of migrants: short term, low paid workers (usually students or young people), and long term, high skilled workers who will cherry pick the best jobs? I have a feeling that the latter in particular, especially in an Ireland teetering on the brink of a major recession, will cause even more political consternation than a large influx of low paid, working class migrants. Yet increasingly countries which have systems like this such as Canada and Australia, are held up as shining examples of "ideal" migration systems. The reality is that they are closed shops, intended for high skilled, middle class graduate labour - mostly of the kind that will fit in just fine with the chattering classes back home.

The US, in contrast, has been noted for its more open ended kind of working Visas. Yet quietly, after years of relatively liberal policies, the doors have quietly been shut. The generous VISA lotteries of the past have all but dried up, being replaced with nothing - in the long term I would guess that a points based, skills based, system will probably emerge, to look after the interests of middle America (although one wonders will the middle classes there actually look at the fact that such programmes put migrants into direct competition with locals for the best jobs - which is why they tend not to exist in many countries in the first place.)

Of course Australia and Canada are special cases: low population densities in Australia, coupled with a long history built on migration, can only result in a tendency to continue the tradition. Ireland of course, has the opposite: massive migration outwards, largely of unskilled labour, has been almost part of the countries history from the flight of the earls in the 1600s to the massive emigration trends of the late 1980s. Coping with the idea that Ireland might actually seem attractive to some people has been a big part of the difficult: I often suspect that the mythologies surrounding imaginary spurious asylum seekers are often rooted in a disbelief in the fact that anybody might really want to come here, and a desperation to find some justification for it. (Aside from blinkered racism of course).

Looks like its going to be a long, busy and expensive road ahead for the next 15 months for me anyway!

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