New Internationalist

If… migrant workers left the rich world what would happen?

Issue 379

There are 86 million economically active migrant and immigrant workers, including refugees, in the world today. Nearly half of them are working in North America and Europe.

In the home

Women and girls from all over the world are recruited to be domestic workers. Many leave children and families behind, choosing to care for others’ children in order to feed their own. Filipina women make up the majority of domestic workers in Canada and around the world. The organization GABRIELA estimates that between six and eight million Filipina women are living abroad as families in the rich world increasingly rely on foreign domestics so that both parents can go out to work.

In the fields

The rich world relies heavily on migrant workers. Without them significant sections of agriculture would collapse. Every year, approximately 18,000 migrant farm workers from Mexico and the Caribbean arrive in Canada to work in the agricultural industry. The United States depends heavily on legal and illegal seasonal farm workers to harvest fruit and vegetables – more than 44,000 in 2000. As a whole, the European Union needs 500,000 non-EU migrants for seasonal farm work that locals don’t want to do. In Britain the National Farmers Union has warned that parts of the agriculture and horticulture industries – with annual sales of more than $5 billion – could be forced to close if freedom to employ migrants were restricted. Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa would face similar problems.

In the economy

Many immigrants set up and run their own businesses, creating employment and fuelling economic growth. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, nearly a fifth of the population was born overseas and continued migration helps fill skill shortages. Migrants contribute much to the country’s economy both in terms of income tax paid and personal investment. In Australia one in four people was born overseas. Australian Government research shows that migrants pay more in taxes than they consume in benefits and goods services. This is repeated in Britain, where legal migrants contribute $4.5 billion more in taxes than they consume in services. In Canada migrant farm workers paid $11 million into Employment Insurance in 2000 but are not eligible to receive the benefit themselves. In oil-rich Saudi Arabia the departure of migrant labour would spell chaos – they constitute the majority of the workforce.

In the services

Transport, education, construction, tourism, cleaning and, above all, healthcare in rich countries rely on migrant labour. Some 70 per cent of people working in catering in London are migrants. Hotels, restaurants, cafés and bars in major centres like Melbourne, Toronto, New York and Dublin depend on migrants – often for their very existence. Transport jobs like taxi-driving are often done by immigrants. Without them the economies of bustling, dynamic cities would soon run into trouble. The British Hospitality Association has warned that it will have serious problems if it is unable to employ workers from abroad to do cleaning and catering jobs.

  1. Sources: ILO Facts on Migrant Labour, 2005; GEOPA-COPA; Victor Kennan ‘Immigrants are Driving the Growth Engine’ Guardian Unlimited, 25 February 2005. Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs; UK Home Office

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