Professional mobility and migrants integration


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at OECD 50th Anniversary & Forum of the America

08 June 2011, Montreal, Canada

Madame la Ministre, Mesdames et Messieurs,

C’est un grand honneur pour moi, et un plaisir certain, d’être ici à Montréal durant ces belles journées de juin et de participer à ce stimulant débat sur un sujet que je considère d’une grande importance, celui de l’intégration des immigrés. C’est un sujet capital pour un pays comme le Canada, mais aussi pour les soi-disant « vieux pays » confrontés au vieillissement rapide de leurs populations. Permettez-moi de faire un aparté. Je voudrais vous dire que l’immigration vers le Canada risque de sérieusement croître maintenant que notre nouvel indice de qualité de la vie a montré que votre pays était l’un des endroits où il fait le meilleur vivre ! Alors bravo !

We should not be blinded by the short-term. Because of the crisis, there is admittedly still a lot of labour slack that needs to be absorbed in some OECD countries. But the long-term trends have not gone away.
Baby-boomers are indeed starting to exit the labour force in increasing numbers, and young workers are fewer than they used to be. This will put downward pressure on labour supply over the coming decades. Consequently, labour migration will once again seem a valid option to help alleviate labour and skill shortages, along with greater labour force participation among under-represented groups, primarily women and older citizens.

In fact, we seem to be heading towards a turning point for labour migration. OECD countries as a whole are much more open to labour migration than they used to be. Almost all OECD countries are indeed expecting to recruit more and more highly skilled migrants in the coming years, in occupations where the domestic supply is insufficient. Several have implemented reforms to increase attractiveness as a receiving country, for foreign workers in general and skilled workers in particular. Multilateral agreements have to a certain extent paved the way, such as the GATS for intra-corporate transfers, the Treaty of Rome for free circulation within the European Union, and NAFTA in North America for professionals in certain occupations.

But the situation is somewhat more complicated than the issue of just relaxing restrictions and opening up more broadly to skilled foreign workers. To understand why, we need to look at how countries recruit highly skilled migrants. 

There are essentially two ways to do this. I will call the first one the Canadian way, even if Canada is not the only OECD country which follows this route. It is to invite candidates for permanent migration to apply and to admit a certain number, selected on the basis of their characteristics. It is not necessary for them to have a job before they arrive. We call it supply-driven labour migration, because it is based on the initiative of the potential migrant. And countries like Australia or Canada have no problems attaining their target levels with such supply-driven migration.

The second is the European way, but is also how things are done in the United States, Japan and in the temporary labour migration regime in Canada. Here workers from abroad can only immigrate if they have a prior job offer from an employer. It is demand-driven, because it depends on recruitment by the employer. But some countries with demand-driven systems talk a lot about their difficulties in attracting and retaining immigrants. 

What I would like to suggest is that many OECD countries would have large numbers of candidates for high-skilled migration with a supply-driven system. The supply of possible candidates for emigration in origin countries is extremely large. The issue is not really one of attractiveness, but rather of whether or not employers are willing and able to recruit persons who may not speak the host-country language proficiently, if at all, at the outset, or have the exact panoply of skills which they require. For highly skilled potential migrants, the latter concerns are real obstacles, and those coming from countries and workplaces where international languages such as English, Spanish or French are commonly used, have an advantage.

This is why attracting enough high-skilled candidates for some countries may require introducing elements of supply- as well as demand-driven migration in their immigration regimes.

Now I am sure this audience would agree that increased international mobility of the highly skilled is a good thing. But there may be a limit to how much countries would be willing to accept. Can one imagine, for example, a free-circulation regime for highly skilled migrants within the OECD zone? I think it is fair to say that many countries would fear being overwhelmed by the likely increases in its inflows and many other countries by that of their outflows.

International migration, moreover, is not just a matter of attracting highly skilled workers. Most countries would also say that they wish to retain them. They will be more successful at this if the highly skilled receive a stable residence status upon arrival, one which allows them free movement in the host-country labour market without fear of having their residence permit revoked should they lose their jobs. This is the case currently for permanent migrants to Canada. With the ability to move around and take their skills to where they are most needed, immigrants are more likely to end up working at jobs and earning wages commensurate with their abilities and hence to stay on. And destination countries will gain more from their presence when there is a good match between the skills of migrants and the jobs they hold.

Achieving this goal, however, may sometimes require governments to intervene to reduce discrimination in hiring and promotion. Employers sometimes make decisions about hiring based on preconceptions about the expected productivity of certain immigrant groups. This may reflect ignorance as much as racism. But in practice, the consequences are the same, namely immigrant candidates not being considered for jobs or promotions on the basis of their own merits. No one is a winner as a result of such practices. 

Ladies and gentlemen, OECD analysis show that, with some exceptions, the highly skilled are generally much more likely to emigrate from countries than the lesser skilled. Globalisation is likely to accentuate this phenomenon in the future and demographic evolutions will provide an extra push. The role of governments should not be to hinder this development, but rather to facilitate and accompany it. History has rarely been on the side of those who fear change. Let us build smart migration policies, as we all stand to benefit.