Out of WorkUnemployment rate of immigrants relative to native-born, 2006 International Migration Outlook: SOPEMI 2008 (click graph for full table)

Myths and migrants

High unemployment and heated debates about migration often go hand in hand. A new book from the OECD Insights series casts a calm light on the human face of migration and on some of the more contentious issues.

One of the most widely heard accusations against immigrants is that they take jobs from locals, usually-it's claimed-because they are willing to work for less. How true are such claims, and do immigrants really harm the job prospects of natives?

As with so much else in international migration, there are no simple answers to these questions. The situation varies from country to country and from occupation to occupation- whether the immigrants and natives are low or high-skilled workers. The answers also depend on timeframes- immigrants may have a short-term, but little long-term impact-and whether we look at the state of the job market nationally or in a particular city or region.

None of this means that immigrants don't have an impact on native workers' jobs. All it is saying is that this impact isn't always easy to measure. Regrettably, in the absence of clear-cut data, rumour and anecdote may fill the gap, leading to the classic accusation against immigrants that "they're coming over here to steal our jobs".

What's the reality? Arguably, immigrants can help some local workers: For instance, if a family hires a migrant to care for children, it may allow both parents to go out to work. Or, if a restaurant hires migrants as waiting staff it may be able to expand its business, creating new jobs for managers that may well go to locals. Economists also argue that immigrants can complement native workers by doing work locals are unwilling to do, the so-called "3D jobs"-dirty, dangerous and diffi cult. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a BBC television programme interviewed Polish farm workers picking crops in the fields as well as some local men who were collecting social benefits. The Poles were paid £7, or a little less than $14, an hour, and seemed pleased with the work. "It's wonderful here," said one.

But at the state benefits office, locals derided the work. "No mate, I'd prefer to sign-on [for benefits] than do that," said one man, adding: "I don't want to work in like no cornfield. I don't want to work with a load of foreigners." As well as highlighting some xenophobic attitudes, the man's response hints at another accusation that's often made against immigrants, namely that their willingness to work for less drives down salaries-in some cases, to such an extent that locals just won't do the work anymore. There is some evidence that migrants do push down wages, but many economists argue that the impact is pretty small and that it doesn't last all that long. Those who are hit worst tend to be lower-skilled-and, thus, lower-paid-workers, and these usually include earlier waves of migrants.

It's also sometimes argued that an influx of immigrants is an easy solution that allows governments and employers to avoid systematically tackling deep-seated labour shortages by, for instance, raising salaries or boosting training opportunities for locals. Some argue that this situation already exists in many OECD countries when it comes to nursing and medicine. The availability of foreign nurses, especially temporary workers, means there's little pressure on salaries to rise or on hospitals to improve working conditions to encourage more locals to enter the profession.


Extract from International Migration: The Human Face of Globalisation, by Brian Keeley, OECD Insights series, September 2009. Order the book at www.oecd.org/bookshop

©OECD Observer No 274, October 2009

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