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Businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the global migration debate


Migrant Labourer

A migrant from Honduras on the railway tracks on the outskirts of Mexico City. The UN estimates there are 232m migrants globally. Photograph: Stronger/Reuters


Powered by article titled “Businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the global migration debate” was written by Oliver Balch, for on Tuesday 19th August 2014 13.59 UTC

If the world’s estimated 232 million migrants all lived in the same country, it would be the fifth most populous nation on Earth. And their number is growing. As companies globalise, so does labour. Moreover, flooding, desertification and other predicted impacts of climate change could force millions of others to migrate.

Given the scale of global migration, business’ silence on the issue is odd. The private sector prefers to turn a blind eye, says Nava Hinrichs, managing director at The Hague Process on Refugees and Migration (THP), a Dutch non-profit. “What some companies tell us is that migration can be a very risky subject to get involved in because they see it as very political. Plus there are lots of stereotypes, with people often seeing migrants as lower educated and not able to offer many skills”, she says.

A forthcoming report by THP offers additional clues. Some businesses claim to be confused. ‘Refugees’, ‘expats’, ‘trafficked workers’, ‘non-resident aliens’, ‘migrant labourers’ – all are names for different migrant categories and can create a complex picture. Others maintain that the policy-making process is either too slow, or too marginal, for business to have any real impact.

Yet the case for greater corporate engagement is strong. Migrants comprise some of the world’s most vulnerable people, refugees forced from their homes by war or hunger, political exiles fleeing despotic regimes, individuals tricked by traffickers or sold into slavery. The moral obligation on companies to help protect those at the very bottom of the economic chain should be incontestable.

But some companies do, which is why migrant campaigners are marshalling a list of strong arguments. Risk management is frequently cited. Companies can potentially face costly penalties if illegal migrants are employed, either directly or via a supplier. The worst offenders face the threat of criminal persecution.

Potential upsides exist, too. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, companies will face a global shortage of 40 million skilled workers by 2030. Talent mobility, a term preferred by pro-migration economists, represents an obvious way for resolving this obstacle to future business growth and competitiveness.

“Highly-skilled individuals have a disproportionate impact on innovation and corporations are competing for a limited global pool of talent,” says Khalid Koser, a migration specialist at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and chair of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Agenda Council on Migration.

Diversity advocates are quick to point to the advantages of a varied, more international workforce as well. Not only can migrants bring alternative viewpoints and fresh thinking. They also carry local knowledge about their home markets, which could prove invaluable to employers that wish to expand.

“Diversity within a business is necessary in order to serve a customer base that is also very diverse,” Willeke Wenno, business development manager at the ECHO Foundation, a Dutch charity specialising in diversity promotion, is quoted as saying in THP’s ‘Labour Migration Works’ report (pdf).

Migrant workers provide considerable economic value at the lower end of the labour market too. Foreign workers will often take on non-skilled jobs that domestic workers decline, says THP’s Nava Hinrichs. The miserable pay such employment evokes reflects the migrant’s fragility in the labour pool, rather than the low value of their labour.

The private sector’s reticence to speak out isn’t entirely universal. A handful of companies are taking direct action in support of migrants. Through its charitable foundation, US money transfer company Western Union runs a multi-million dollar scholarship programme that provides migrants with skills training, language learning and further education opportunities. The initiative, which is open to two members of the same family, is designed to improve the employability of individuals looking to move abroad for work.


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