Helping migrants through the crisis

Daniel Leclair/Reuters

As the world economy splutters back to life, policymakers have been focused on ending the jobs crisis. But despite the arsenal of policies aimed at assisting young people, the long-term unemployed and the unskilled, one of the most vulnerable groups of workers risks being forgotten.

Immigrants were key drivers behind the economic boom, by adding skills and productivity to economic capacity. Now, almost everywhere migrants are feeling the brunt of deteriorating job markets as a result of the economic crisis. Unemployment among the foreign-born labour force soared in all OECD countries. In the United States, for instance, unemployment among immigrants more than doubled from 4.3% in 2007 to 9.7% in 2009. And in the last quarter of 2009 unemployment rates of the foreign-born labour force were over 15% in Belgium, Ireland, Finland, France and Sweden. Spain reached a dizzying 28.3%–that’s over 11 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate of the native-born labour force in Spain. Of course, different countries’ experiences vary widely depending on how hard the economy was hit and the composition of its immigrant population.

Immigrants are particularly vulnerable during prolonged economic downturns, and this crisis has had the effect of throwing many immigrant workers out of work at a higher rate than for native-born workers. In addition, immigrants who can move around freely for work are coming in smaller numbers, and employers are doing less recruiting from abroad. Overall, legal immigration of foreign nationals into the OECD fell 6% in 2008, the first decline after five years of averaging 11% growth.

Immigrants tend to work in sectors which are more sensitive to changes in the economic climate, that is, where demand for workers rises sharply in good times and drops fast during bad. Take immigrant youths. They have suffered disproportionately during this crisis, and the comparison with native-born youths, who suffered more than prime-age adults, is striking. In Ireland, the employment rate of young immigrants dropped by 15 percentage points, almost twice that of native-born youths. The difference has been considerably worse than that for native youths in Denmark, Spain and the UK. The situation is slightly more balanced in Austria, Canada and the US, though the unemployment rates for immigrant youths in these countries remains high.

The dangers this poses are well documented, including “scarring effects” that can result when immigrants who have not found a job soon after entry into the labour market eventually find it even harder to do so down the line. After all, employers are often wary of people who have been out of work for a long time.

Few governments have adopted new or additional measures specifically to address migrant workers. Instead, most countries have relied on existing labour market measures or other general instruments adopted in response to the crisis. In theory, immigrants should benefit more from these measures, since they tend to be over-represented in the groups they target; but in practice, this may not be the case.

Many immigrants may find it hard to access various employment schemes. In Norway, for example, the share of immigrants in ordinary labour market schemes declined between November 2008 and 2009, despite the fact that unemployment increased more among the foreign-born than among the native-born. In some cases, to qualify for help or training, applicants must demonstrate a minimum length of residency in the host country.

Meanwhile, short-term work schemes have been one of the main ways of keeping people in work in several countries. Often, however, they do not apply to temporary workers, a category in which immigrants are again over-represented.

Although most countries have addressed rising unemployment levels among immigrants through mainstream labour market policies, one country that has dealt with the issue using special measures is Japan. In many other countries, immigrants are often offered such programmes upon arrival. But in Japan they were introduced because most low-skilled labour migrants who lost their jobs were evidently ill-equipped to find new employment themselves.

The crisis hit Japanese manufacturing and construction–both major employers of foreign workers. From November 2008 to January 2009, 9 300 new foreign jobseekers turned up in Japanese employment offices in regions with a high density of foreign residents. That was about 11 times higher than it was in the same three months a year earlier. Numbers peaked over the following three months at 14 800, before dropping back down to more normal levels.

What happened? Several measures were taken by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare to reintegrate foreigners who had lost their jobs back into the labour market. The counselling and assistance capacity at Public Employment Security offices–so-called “Hello Work” offices–were reinforced. The number of Hello Work offices with interpreters was almost doubled, to 126, and 31 one-stop service centres in co-operation with regional municipalities were newly established. Extra full-time consultants at such offices were hired, and weekly hours of consultations jumped six-fold from the fiscal year 2008 to the fiscal year 2009.

Vocational up-skilling and language training were also offered. Such courses were provided for about three months and included training in Japanese communication skills, basic knowledge on labour legislation, employment practices and the Japanese insurance system, as well as guidance on how to apply for a job. Once finished, job-seekers were transferred to advanced training and further support by employment counsellors until they finally found a job. In addition to these “active” benefits, these jobseekers received unemployment benefits throughout the duration of the training period.

But governments should consider other targeted initiatives as well, such as adapting existing integration programmes to cope with the specific challenges brought about by this economic crisis. As labour market conditions deteriorate, personal networks also tend to come into play for jobseekers. Immigrants are clearly at a disadvantage here. Governments can help bridge the gap by, say, providing mentors and encouraging enterprise-based traineeships.

Actions such as these have to be taken and taken quickly to keep immigrants in the workforce. But past crises have also shown that immigrant workers can be “victimised” during such times, in the sense that they may be subject to selective lay-offs and, with many native-born candidates looking for work, discriminated against in the hiring process. Care needs to be taken to ensure that hiring and firing practices remain equitable, and that equal opportunity and treatment remain the norm.

For more information, contact Jean-Pierre Garson or Georges Lemaitre, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs.


OECD (2010), International Migration Outlook, Paris

OECD (2010), Equal Opportunities?: The Labour Market Integration of the Children of Immigrants, Paris

Martin, John (2008), “Migration, globalisation and gender: Some key lessons”, in OECD Observer, N° 267 May-June


©OECD Observer N° 280 July 2010

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