Creating Opportunities - Integration, Employment and Social Mobility: European Experiences and Scope for Manoeuvre


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, at the International Symposium on Integration, Employment and Social Mobility.

Berlin, 26 January 2009

Chancellor Merkel, Minister of State Böhmer, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be in Berlin at the 2nd International Symposium on Integration, Employment and Social Mobility. The topic of the integration of immigrants is a particularly important one in these challenging times as OECD countries grapple with the economic and financial crisis and the rapid rise of unemployment. Integration is difficult even in good times, so we need to double our efforts to manage it well in bad times.

For integration outcomes, the economic downturn is very bad news, and there is a fear that what is already an unfavourable situation will get worse. Indeed, past experience has shown that immigrants are among those hardest hit in the labour market during a downturn. They are overrepresented among job losers. Immigrants are also at a higher risk compared with native-born jobseekers of experiencing worse employment outcomes when the recovery finally gets underway.

We are talking quite large numbers here:  in more than half of the OECD countries, the share of immigrants in the labour force is ten percent or more, in Germany it is around 15 percent.

The issue is even more pressing now because of the many migrants who have arrived in OECD countries recently. Work at the OECD has shown that arriving just before or during an economic downturn has negative consequences - not only for their immediate labour market integration, but also their labour market prospects in the long term.

Even though some will return to home countries, many recent immigrants will remain in the host countries. Therefore, it is important that their integration remains a priority now, and that governments continue to invest in this goal. Today’s event is thus a very timely one, and it is also appropriate that we are focusing on the labour market. Integration also has major social and political aspects, but the labour market is key to ensure that immigrants and their children make their way in our societies. If we succeed on this front, we have probably won three quarters of the battle.

The OECD has been looking at country-specific experiences, including Germany, on the integration of immigrants and their children in the labour market and there are interesting lessons that I would like to share with you. We shall be discussing these lessons with ministers and senior officials at a High-Level Policy Forum on Migration which we are organizing in Paris on 29-30 June.

The first lesson is that much migration to Europe has consisted of low-educated persons and that institutions in many countries (especially the educational and training systems) have not always addressed well the particular needs of this population. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, over 40% of the children of immigrants in 2003 had mothers who had at best primary education. Promoting social mobility for such a population is a major challenge. It is not the kind of population which our institutions are used to dealing with. This is why special efforts are needed, not just in the educational system, but also to open up job opportunities more broadly in the labour market. Many jobs tend to be filled through personal contacts. Immigrants by definition have fewer of these.  

A second result – and it tends to nuance the one I just gave above – is that it is less the education of the parents than the geographic and social isolation of the immigrant population which affects the educational performance of their children and, later on, their labour market prospects. Immigrant enclaves have existed in every country, even in those like Australia and Canada where immigration is generally viewed as a success story. When they become large and permanent, however, when there is little outward mobility, then there is a problem. Linguistic handicaps then tend to perpetuate themselves and schools and classes tend to become heavily immigrant. This is not the sort of beginning out of which successful integration emerges.

The third result – it is a rather obvious but important one – is that labour market outcomes are better when immigrants are workers and have jobs upon arrival. Family migrants do not tend to work as much and asylum-seekers and refugees have the hardest time of all in the labour market. This is important to keep in mind if one wants an immigrant population that overall has better labour market outcomes. Adding labour migrants helps to redress the balance. Labour market outcomes for immigrants have been better in recent years in countries such as Greece, Portugal, Luxembourg, Spain and the United Kingdom, which have seen large numbers of labour migrants.   

A fourth result is that employers appear to attach little or no value to educational qualifications and work experience obtained in a non-OECD country. This is not just a question of recognition, it is also in some cases a question of equivalence and in others, a reflection of the level of language proficiency.

Governments need to make available more extensive and targeted language learning for all migrants but in particular for the more educated. The same goes for bridging programmes that will allow those who require them to make the transition into jobs matching their skills and qualifications in the host-country, rather than taking on jobs that are below their formal qualification levels.

Fifthly, there is the question of discrimination. This exists everywhere, but it is hard to identify and measure. One problem is that when certain immigrant groups are particularly low-educated and/or have generally unfavourable outcomes, employers tend to generalise and to place everyone from the group in the same boat. This may not be discrimination strictly speaking but it is ethnic stereotyping and it still hurts the labour market prospects of otherwise highly competent candidates. Policies thus need to address this kind of behavior as well as to combat the more unsavory, direct forms of discrimination against ethnic groups.

Finally, the public discourse on migration relayed by politicians and governmental spokesmen has to be exemplary. This does not mean censoring bad news, but it does mean transmitting to past and current immigrants, as well as to the general population, appropriate messages about the positive contributions of immigrants to economic and social life. It is all too easy for some public figures to convey subtle pejorative messages about immigrants, to win public favour and comfort certain individuals in their discriminatory behavior.

Thus, with immigrants and their children accounting for a large and growing part of their labour forces, integration policies have to be successful. We need to be able to ensure that immigrants and their children are full participants in our societies and economies. Experience has shown that this is not automatic nor is it necessarily simple. And there have been bad surprises.

The bad surprise is not only that immigrants have had difficulties integrating into the labour market. Rather the surprise has been that there continue to be difficulties for the children of immigrants born and educated in the host country, even when they have good qualifications. This is something we did not foresee. And it is an issue which transcends the current economic downturn.

Although the integration of immigrants has now become a priority in our countries, ironically it now seems that it will be the success of the children of immigrants which will be the benchmark by which integration will be judged. Let us hope that our policies will not be found wanting.

To confront the challenges of ageing, OECD countries have to get every able hand of working age to work: to extend retirement ages; to reverse the explosive growth of their sickness and disability lists of beneficiaries; to improve and increase adult education and life-long learning and to increase productivity by every possible means.

And they will have to resort to, or continue to rely on, and in many cases increase their reliance on immigrant labor. It is an inevitable path which makes it imperative and urgent to have a working, functional, successful policy about migrant labor. The crisis only reinforces this conclusion.


However, the challenges are not insurmountable. Indeed, while the majority of immigrants are relatively well integrated in the labour markets and societies in OECD countries, there is still much more potential in immigrants and their children. Successful labour market integration means to make the best use of it, to the benefit of both migrants and the host society.

Thank you.


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