Borders & Belonging: Are migrants the answer to labour shortages?
Hear experts dissect the Global North’s attempts to counter the ‘great retirement’ with more workers from abroad
Nations in the global North are struggling with labour shortages dubbed in the media as ‘the great retirement' and ‘the great resignation'. Unemployment rates are running at near-record lows. As a result many nations are letting more temporary migrant labourers in to fill the gaps. Is this a good idea?
In this episode we'll hear from someone on the frontlines in the fight for migrant workers’ rights: Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a group in Toronto, Canada, that comprises farmworkers, domestic workers and refugees, many of them are undocumented.
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Then host Maggie Prezyna speaks with two experts will share insights on the complexity of the labour shortage and how the migrant labour piece fits into the economic puzzle. Armine Yalnizyan is an economist and Atkinson Foundation Fellow on the Future of Workers, a regular media contributor and adviser on economic policy to the Canadian government. And Martin Ruhs, is the Professor of Migration Studies and deputy director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence. He is a migration policy advisor for various governments and international institutions.
Maggie is a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration & Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University and this new podcast is Borders & Belonging. Maggie will talk to leading experts from around the world and people with on-the-ground experience to explore the individual experiences of migrants: the difficult decisions and many challenges they face on their journeys.
She and her guests will also think through the global dimensions of migrants’ movement: the national policies, international agreements, trends of war, climate change, employment and more.
Borders & Belonging brings together hard evidence with stories of human experience to kindle new thinking in advocacy, policy and research.
Top researchers contribute articles that complement each podcast with a deeper dive into the themes discussed.
Borders & Belonging is a co-production between the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration & Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy. The podcast was produced by LEAD Podcasting, Toronto, Ontario.
Below, you will find links to all the research referenced by our guests, as well as other resources you may find useful.
Art and documentary
‘El Contrato’, by Min Sook Lee, National Film Board (2003)
‘Migrant Dreams’, by Min Sook Lee, Cinema Politica (2016)
‘This is Evidence: Re-picturing South Asian migrant men in Greece’, exhibit curated by Reena Kukreja (2019)
Donate or get involved!
Migrant Rights Alliance for Change
‘Canada and the U.S. both face labor shortages. One country is increasing immigration’, by Julia Ainsley, Joel Seidman and Didi Martinez, NBC News (7 January 2023)
‘Contending with the pandemic, wealthy nations wage global battle for migrants’, by Damien Cave and Christopher F. Schuetze, The New York Times (23 November 2021)
‘How the labour shortage got so bad’, by Armine Yalnizyan, Maclean’s (11 August 2022).
‘Immigrants could be the solution to Canada’s labour shortage, but they need to be supported’, by Rupa Banerjee, The Conversation (12 December 2022)
‘Nobody wants to work anymore’ and other falsehoods on Labour Day’, by Armine Yalnizyan, Toronto Star (5 September 2022)
‘The pandemic aggravated labour shortages in some sectors; the problem is now emerging in others’ by Eurofound (20 July 2021)
Research projects and policy
‘COVID-19 and the demand for labour and skills in Europe’, by Terence Hogarth, MPI (February 2021)
‘Immigration as a source of labour supply’, Statistics Canada (22 June 2022)
‘Labour shortage trends in Canada’, Statistics Canada (18 November 2022)
‘Publications’, by Armine Yalnizyan, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
‘The post-COVID-19 rise in labour shortages’, by Orsetta Causa, Michael Abendschein, Nhung Luu, Emilia Soldani, Chiara Soriolo, OECD Economics Department Working Paper Series (7 July 2022)
Ruhs, M. (2013). ‘The price of rights: Regulating international labor migration’. Princeton University Press.
Ruhs, M. and B. Anderson eds. (2010). ‘Who needs migrant workers? Labour shortages, immigration and public policy’. Oxford University Press.
Ruhs, M., Tamas, T. & J. Palme eds. (2019). ‘Bridging the gaps: Linking research to public debates and policy-making on migration and integration’. Oxford University Press.
Ide, T.R, Yalnizyan, A. & A. Cordell. (1994). ‘Shifting time: Social policy and the future of work’. Between the Lines.
Anderson, B., Poeschel, F. and M. Ruhs. (2021). “Rethinking labour migration: Covid-19, essential work, and systemic resilience”, Comparative Migration Studies.
Bauböck, R. & M. Ruhs. (2022). ‘The elusive triple win: Addressing temporary labour migration dilemmas through fair representation’. Migration Studies.
Martin, P. & M. Ruhs. (2019). ‘Labour market realism and the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees’. International Migration.
Ruhs, M. (2018). ‘Labor immigration policies in high-income countries: Variations across political regimes and varieties of capitalism’. Journal of Legal Studies.
Ruhs, M. (2017.) ‘Rethinking international legal standards for the protection of migrant workers: The case for a ‘core rights’ approach’. American Journal of International Law.
Ruhs, M. (2016). ‘The rights of migrant workers: Economics, politics and ethics’. International Labour Review.
Welcome to Borders & Belonging, a podcast that explores issues in global migration, and aims to debunk myths about migration based on current research. This series is produced by CERC Migration and openDemocracy. I'm Maggie Perzyna, a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University. Post pandemic, nations in the global North are struggling with labour shortages dubbed in the media as the 'great retirement' and the 'great resignation'. Unemployment rates are running at near record lows. Employers are clamoring for workers. Many nations are increasing the number of temporary migrant labourers allowed to work in their country to stem the tide. An outlier, Canada's looking to migrants on two fronts. On the one hand, by relaxing rules around which industries can employ temporary foreign workers. On the other hand, by raising immigration levels to unprecedented levels, Canada plans to welcome 500,000 immigrants a year by 2025. Today's episode will explore the question of whether migrant workers are the answer to the labour shortages we're hearing so much about. Two experts will share insights on the complexity surrounding the labour shortage and how the migrant labour piece fits into the economic puzzle. But first, we'll hear from someone on the frontlines in the fight for migrant workers’ rights.
When people speak up against bad wages or bad working conditions, if they're literally tied to their employer, as certain migrant workers are, then they can be made homeless. They're not allowed to work anywhere else. They're not able to get any EI (Employment Insurance) because the laws prohibit them from working for anyone else – the employer can literally deport them.
That's Syed Hussan. He's the executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. The Toronto-based organization is made up of farmworkers, domestic workers, and refugees, among others, many of them are undocumented.
What we do is we support the self-organization of migrants. So, for migrants to gather with each other, based on where they live, where they work, potentially language or immigration status, in the specific sectors and support them to take collective action to win what they need.
Members of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change come from a wide range of places, including the Caribbean, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Mexico. And while their lived experiences may vary, Hussan says that there are some important common threads that unite them.
Whether it's migrant farmworkers and gig workers who hold up the food chain, or migrant healthcare workers and care workers who are holding up the care economy, migrants are at significant choke points of capitalism, as well as being exploited. All of our membership is racialized working class people taking collective action to win changes.
And their collective action is paying off. Take for example, how they responded to a recent crisis in New Brunswick's lobster and crab industries.
These large corporations are taking over from smaller businesses, setting the wages for the fishers. Many fishers from Canada have refused to sell to these [corporations] and have taken various kinds of strike actions in order to increase the pay that they're being given. Now, all of these fisheries that is actually collected is brought in to be processed by migrant workers.
The consequences of this were dire. But through organizing and advocacy, Hussan says the migrant workers were able to secure their rights.
They actually won a contract where the employer has now written a contract out to them to give them the power to get, you know, to be paid, even if they're not working. And so, you know, so this is a story where people were literally starving, using food banks. Not even being able to access food banks, not being able to work actually having to pay to live in the country, who through collective action, won a better, fairer 2-year contract in the future, which they are now traveling across the East Coast training other migrant workers like themselves to take similar kinds of action.
And while this recent win is encouraging, Hussan says the most important way that migrant workers can safely continue to do their work here is through permanent resident status. It's through documentation, he says, that the migrant workers will be able to access the rest of their rights, including health care and employment insurance. Many thanks to Syed Hussan for sharing his experiences with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. Joining me to discuss the use of migrant workers to combat labour shortages is Armine Yalnizyan, a Canadian economist and Atkinson Foundation Fellow on the Future of Workers. She is a regular media contributor and government adviser on economic policy. And Professor Martin Ruhs, Chair in Migration Studies and Deputy Director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence. Martin is a migration policy advisor for various governments and international institutions. Thanks to you both for talking with me today.
Since the pandemic, it seems like every country in the global North is struggling with labour shortages. Why is this happening now?
Every country that had a baby boom after the Second World War is seeing that generation of workers, the biggest cohort of people that entered the labour market, and the first cohort where women thought they were just as good as men. That cohort is aging out of the labour market, sometimes more rapidly because of the pandemic. And we certainly aren't through it yet, but the beginnings of this phenomenon have already raised warning signs to people. You know, demographics is the slowest moving train on the planet. We could see this coming literally 50 years off and have not planned for it. So, everybody's been taken aback. Add to that the pandemic and its effects on reducing migrant workers being able to travel and the pandemic making people more sick now, even when they went back to work. And of course, the pandemic’s effects on some marginal businesses that either failed to stay functioning during the pandemic's long period of reduced demand or are now collapsing under the weight of central banks raising rates in lockstep around the world. So, there's lots of different moving parts to this story. But the big story is demographic.
Martin, do you have anything to add?
Yeah, I would agree that there's various explanations, but obviously, many OECD economies are rebounding strongly from the pandemic. Labour markets are tight and, you know, obviously, during the pandemic, there was quite strong government support for both companies and workers. And some workers who were supported have perhaps not yet returned to the to the labour market for various reasons, or at least not to employment in some jobs that they were previously in. And I suppose one big question is, and I think this is still being researched, is the extent to which workers' attitudes and preferences to certain jobs have changed. We've obviously had long standing shortages in sectors that offer low wages and poor working conditions, which is one of the reasons why we see migrants employed in those sectors. But the question now is whether citizens, local workers who use to work in those jobs, whether they are perhaps now less inclined to return to those jobs that are low pay, poor conditions, and maybe don't offer a good source of protection.
While many countries are reluctant to increase their immigration rates, Canada's an outlier. To address labour shortages, Canada's dramatically increasing immigration, while at the same time relaxing rules around the use of temporary foreign workers. Armine, what are the differences between those brought in through immigration versus temporary migrant workers?
Maggie, I am so grateful that you include in migration, these two pieces because often people talk about migration as if what we're talking about is immigration. Immigration is about accepting people to come and live, as well as work, in your country. Forever, if that's what they want. Transitioning to citizenship if that's what they want. But they can permanently reside in our country and take advantage of all the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. Whereas a temporary foreign worker can only come here to work or to study on a limited time basis. Those permits have been getting longer and longer, and they're being renewed more and more. But what's fascinating is that the degree to which we rely on temporary residents now to basically subsidize our post-secondary institutions, as well as ss to meet labour and skill shortages of employers, has just galloped ahead since 2006, well before the demographic crisis. As a way of meeting labour market needs without having to wait for immigration. In large measure that makes these workers who are both students as well as people that come here specifically to find work, sometimes specifically married to a specific employer for a specific period of time, there's like about 200 pathways into Canada and into permanent residency. I'm not kidding you. It's just an insanely Byzantine pathway in case you wanted to live here permanently. Without any discussion about this publicly, we have gone from basically being an immigrant nation, one reliant on newcomers to bring the skills that we need as well as expand our population base, to being one that is heavily reliant on temporary foreign workers. In 2021, for every single permanent resident, we permitted to live in Canada, we had 2 temporary foreign workers or international students are permitted to enter the country. This huge imbalance means that we are bringing in over a million people every year last year, it was 1.3 million people. We are bringing in so many people without any understanding that the majority of them are brought in temporarily to meet our needs, not theirs, and that a tiny minority of those people will make the transition to permanent residency. There's so many blockages in the pathways to permanence. So, we have never discussed this, we've gone from a nation of immigrants to being a nation reliant on temporary residents. That's no way to meet either labour shortages or build the country of the future.
Martin, can you tell us how European countries are dealing with the same challenges?
Yes, I think it's important to understand that the Canadian experience, I think it's very important, but perhaps also a little bit different from that of many other high-income countries. If you look at labour immigration policymaking across high-income countries, the predominant mode of admitting migrant workers and regulated labour immigration has for quite some time been actually through temporary labour migration programs. Now, of course, in Canada and Australia, and in New Zealand, as we just heard, we had a different history and different approach for a long time of admitting migrants through points-based systems and you admitted them permanently, with a view to long term integration. And we've just heard how that is changing in Canada, but most high-income countries have for a long time, use temporary immigration programs to regulate immigration. And when I say temporary, what I mean by that is, migrants are admitted initially on a temporary basis. And then some programs allow for an upgrading to permanent residence after some time and others don't. But the predominant way, certainly in Europe of admitting labour migrants from outside Europe, it's for these temporary schemes. And, again, as we just heard, one very important objectives of these temporary labour migration programs is to link the admission of migrant workers to some sort of assessment of the needs of the domestic economy, specifically, skill shortages and labour shortages. One important aspect of this type of immigration programs is precisely that migrant’s employment is limited to specific sectors and occupations that we think are in shortage. And the reason why some of these programs are often controversial, one of the reasons is that there is a big debate about you know, whether or not there is indeed a shortage and whether or not migrants provided through temporary migration schemes are the best answer.
Some economists argue that migrant labour can depress wages and slow innovation. Do you think this is accurate?
I think it is possible that migrants, that newcomers to the country can depress wages. It depends on what flavour of newcomer we're talking about. Whether we're talking about people that are permanently temporary, or people that are here and can stay. It also depends on what skill sets they're bringing. If they're bringing higher education, high skill sets, that's not going to depress the average wage, though it might actually temper the wage in the sector that they're being brought into if there was a bonafide skill shortage in that sector. But what we're seeing is, I think also in Europe, though, Martin can speak to this, in countries that are basically developed by settlement like the colonies, especially the Anglophone colonies, including Canada, and the US, Australia, and New Zealand. These countries have gone through various phases of just needing to throw bodies at the problem. In Canada, the last time we saw similar labour shortages was in the early 1950s, as we moved out of the Second World War's military economy and needed to create a civilian economy. And then too, like today, because of the pandemic and other reasons, we had labour shortages, supply shortages, as well as massive excess profits for the companies that were in place. The last time before that was at the turn of the past century, where industrialization and actually starting to expand the boundaries of Canada, meant that we were growing extremely rapidly, building the railroads and actually starting to build industrial capacity, as well as the ports. And all the primary manufacturing industries that Canada is known for and has been known for in trade for centuries. So, our profile is a little bit unique, but I think it is no longer quite as unique as Martin makes out in the sense that the European Union is also aging and aging quickly. So, what does that mean? It means you need more people. More people are leaving the labour market than entering the labour market. And that is happening across every type of occupational sector, and every type of educational background, and every type of skill set. So, we are looking at more newcomers but to Martin's point, this has not been a trajectory that we have been in before. And the idea that you can keep people permanently temporary is becoming a little more difficult. Globally, workers have not seen the type of bargaining power they are going to be seeing now and for about two more decades, for sure, in half a century. And that means that not only workers in domestic countries can ask for more, including more training, and more access to good jobs in the labour market. But people from the global South where we're drawing most of our newcomers, can also look for the best place to be. In short, countries, communities, and businesses need to be people magnets, if we are ready to compete with one another in the global foot race to find enough people to do the work we need done.
Yeah, just briefly, obviously, when and how migration affects wages has been a long-studied question in research on the economics of migration. And by and large, I think research has found relatively small effects. And, you know, if we find negative effects, then those tend to be concentrated at the lower end of the income distribution. Of course, you know, migrant local workers with skills that are complementary to those of migrants might benefit, their wages might increase. And it's the people who compete directly with migrants in the same jobs who might face, who will face competition and who might face somewhat lower wages. And those workers are often existing migrants. So, a recent study, I think, has added to the idea that immigration often is most competition to existing migrants. So, we can have some effects there. But as far as innovation is concerned, I mean this is quite an important point. I think people often talk about the link between immigration and training and immigration innovation. And the concern, of course, being that the availability of migrant labour might discourage employers from investing in training domestic workers or from changing the production processes, making them less labour intensive through, for example, automation. And this is an area where evidence is quite hard to come by, I think. There are some studies to suggest that the technology used is endogenous. So that means that how things are produced, or how services are provided, does seem to depend on the available factors of supply. So, the same kinds of products, and the same kinds of services are actually produced and provided slightly differently across countries. So, in some cases, you might use more workers. In other cases, you might use automation to a bigger degree. There's some evidence for example coming out of the U.S. that in response to the inflow of Cuban migrants, in Florida, some manufacturing industries have actually become more labour intensive. Because there have actually been more workers around. But the broader point I want to make is it's not only about training and innovation. I think that the demand for migrant workers and their conditions are to a large degree influenced by the institutional context. So that includes wider public policies. The general types of labour market regulation, what kind of labour market do we have? How well are minimum wages enforced? Do we have collectively agreed wages? What kind of welfare state we have? What kind of housing policies? All these policies determine what kind of, for example, sector we have in social care? Does social care rely on low-cost labour? That is often minimum wage and often done by migrant workers? Or is it a different type of social care sector? So, I think it's not only about the questions, in my mind, it is not only about how migration affects wages and the incentives that employers have vis-a-vis training and automation. It's also about the kind of the sector, the sector as a whole, what kind of care sector, what kind of regulation do we want? How do we want certain services provided and products produced? And I think migrants often play an important role in that in that question.
Can I jump in?
Because I realized Martin has touched on an awful lot of very strong points and build on Martin's point about institutional settings. When you, you know, add migrants and stir, what you do is you add churn to whatever when they are temporary foreign workers, and not permanent residents. What you are doing is adding more churn to that specific labour market. And we are doing this deliberately in Canada. In the last year, we have increased the number of occupations that can enter under the temporary foreign worker program, which is tied to an employer, it isn't an open permit to work anywhere you want. And we have also increased the threshold of the number of workers in an individual establishment, that can be a temporary foreign worker from 10% to 30%. So ,we are deliberately adding churn to the labour market without an equivalent increase in the pathways to permanence. Right? We have increased pathways to permanence, but the ratio of those coming in as temporary residents transitioning to permanent residence and ultimately, citizenship status, has fallen because we're pouring people in. And we are pouring people in not just because of our institutional settings, but because of lobbying pressure by employers who wish to continue to keep wages low. In the last four decades, lobbying pressure by corporations has reduced taxes and kept wages low. Those were their two big demands, and so our institutions that did protect labour rights, were eroded. And when it comes to temporary foreign workers, there's lots of stuff on paper, but they can't exercise it. Because if they just lift their head up a little bit, they get deported. They can't stay. And in any case, they don't know their rights. So there has been a great deal of work with migrant workers’ rights association organizations to say people need to know what their rights are at the beginning. And they can't be exploited in this way. But instead of actually dealing with these issues, we are opening the taps for more of these people entering without knowing what their rights are, without being able to, you know, effectively exercise their rights. In this instance, because so many of these workers are low wage, we are keeping wages at the bottom of the income spectrum low because this is our solution to labour shortages.
So migrant labour can seem like a quick fix for governments and employers. What policies need to be in place to properly manage an incoming migrant workforce?
Well, I would say that I think the key challenge for governments to manage labour migration is in a way, to talk to employers. Employers need to be at the center of it. And employers often say no, they need migrant workers because domestic workers cannot or will not do the job. And I think it's then the job of government or the government department that is dealing with this to kind of critically evaluate what employers are saying. So, I think that the policy needs to establish, you know, whether or not there is a shortage. The reasons for the shortage. Is it just low wages? I mean, if the reasons are extremely low wages and poor conditions, questions need to be asked whether or not we want these jobs to continue as they are. Whether or not a vacancy pool exists because wages are not rising is that a reason for immigration? Most economists tend to think that if there's a shortage wages should increase, and the shortage should be reduced. Now, there might be reasons sometimes why wages cannot rise. And I think that a policy response should also ask if employers have considered alternatives. I think point being here, that there are big debates about how we measure shortages and whether or not, how we define shortages, how we measure them. Whether or not there are shortages in certain sectors. Trade unions, employers will often disagree on that. But then there's another important question is whether or not immigration is the most sensible response in a way. And the point here is that not all employers, but many employers will have alternative responses to shortages. So, one might be trying to raise wages to attract more domestic workers. It might be mechanization, automation response. For example, in agriculture, there might be a response, which actually includes offshoring. Now that might not be as desirable in certain sectors. Or impossible in certain sectors. But I think if it is the case that certain products can only be produced by bringing in migrant workers that are employed in very low wages, questions could be asked about whether a country should go on producing these things in the first place. The point I'm trying to make here is simply that employer demands, and employer arguments need to be scrutinized, managed. Often there will be a very good case for immigration. But checking the feasibility and desirability of these alternatives, I think is a very important debate. In a way that is not a technical question, it's a very normative question, because you know, whether or not the best response to immigration is raising wages, or more migrant workers at current wages, or automation, if that's the possibility. The response then is normative in the sense, it depends on, you know, in whose interests are we trying to make immigration policy? But personally, I would say that looking at the conditions at which employers want migrant workers, is very important. Because in a way, what you don't want is this to be demand for workers that can be employed, you know, only at prevailing wages. Again, economists like to think that if it's a shortage then employers should make efforts to improve wages to improve working conditions to attract more workers. If wages are very low, if we know there's issues around minimum wage, if we notice issues around exploitation, then in those sectors in particular, I think, one needs to be very careful and make sure that strong institutions are in place that actually protect basic labour rights as a basis for admitting migrant workers.
I couldn't agree with Martin more that we need a discussion about what those policies should be. We need an overt discussion about what we are trying to achieve, what is our aim? Are we trying to sustain standard of living for workers who are the consumers that propel the economy in Canada. 57% of GDP is propelled by consumption, household spending. And so, there is an interdependency between how much workers make and how much business there is. But we're also highly dependent on exports of commodities and auto. And in both sectors, you'd be surprised at how low the labour portion is. You know, Martin raised the very important issue of mechanization in sectors like agriculture. And I think that's going to be a new normal. As we move forward, we will find growing productivity and an even more rapidly shrinking need for so-called low skilled labour in these sectors. But the producers need to have the deep pockets to introduce this innovation. So, there's a whole other leg of the journey on how much do you want to turn the agricultural sector into large scale monopolistic or oligopolistic. businesses that have enough - pockets that are deep enough to be able to find this form of transformation at scale. The second part of technology is we just went through a pandemic, where for the first time, a significant share of the population was able to work from home. It peaked at 40% in Canada. And is now less than 20%. So, the majority of workers could never work from home, even amidst a pandemic and most of the people who lost their jobs during the pandemic were doing people-facing work that was non-essential. So, the majority of the work that we do, cannot be done remotely. But a significant share of it can be. And increasingly this is high skill, professional work. So, people that do coding, people that do public policy, people that do statistics, people that do deed searches and legal work. For the first time these are the occupational groups that tended to be paid better than the average worker, who's stability of income, if not outright, income level, might be at threat. Much as blue collar workers and manufacturing workers had been from the 70s to the 90s because if you can do it from Barrie, Ontario, why not do it from Bangladesh? So, I think there's going to be a brand-new form of technology, digitized technology that permits telecommunications, that might actually start to unfold at a new and different pace, post-pandemic. So, we will see maybe this variation, in where are the skill shortages. Because they turn out something like a million engineers every year in China. Where are the skill shortages globally for things that can be done digitally, or at least through a digitally intermediated interface? And where are the skill shortages for the things we need done in place? And I think you'd see more of a shift towards lower pay, and so called lower skilled workers. I want to touch on the care economy that Martin referenced. With aging populations, more of the care providers are aging out of the occupation, especially registered nurses and doctors, which tend to have a fairly old demographic profile. They're aging out, and they're aging into a society that increasingly needs people like them. So, it's a double whammy. We're losing providers due to population aging, and we're increasing demand for providers due to population aging. And that is going to happen again, all over the global North, wherever there was a baby boom, that's just the phenomenon. We're even starting to see it in the United States in the education sector, which I include in the care economy. Everything from cradle to grave, to take care of your body and mind, is what is at risk. And right now, in Canada, it's over 12 and a half percent of GDP. That outflanks any sector of the economy except for finance and real estate. And we are also seeing about 20% of the labour market and growing, that has a job in the care economy. We are going to be seeing huge shortages in that sector. And that goes from the lowest of the low, the people that change diapers, to the highest of the high, brain surgeons, all of it is going to be in need. But there are just so many moving parts to this story of labour shortages. The one part that I haven't touched on is the idea, do we have enough people? Last year 96% of all population growth [in Canada] came from newcomers. Canada is aging. It's aging less rapidly than many countries in Europe. Much slower than South Korea and China. But it is ageing. And we are in competition for younger workers with people around the world. And the issue of do we have enough of our own workers to do the job is clearly mathematically not true. But the fact is, we do not maximize the potential of many people who are sidelined in our own economy. I'm talking about Indigenous populations, people with disabilities, young people, and recent immigrants who are underemployed.
Has the COVID pandemic changed how migrant labour is viewed by government and the public?
Yeah, I think that's a good question. And, of course, soon after the onset of COVID, when we saw on TV, the pictures of people clapping for essential workers, clapping for carers, for example. You know, a lot of people realize, I think how we shine a light on the fact that migrants are involved in those, involved heavily in those essential occupations. And I think then a lot of people ask themselves, I also ask the question, whether that is kind of a window that might open up opportunities, perhaps attitudes might be changing, perhaps there might be a greater appreciation, both in terms of public opinion, but also maybe in terms of policymaking? I think that is a possibility that the research, I think that is now emerging on what has happened to public attitudes to migrants during COVID suggests that these attitudes have been quite stable. And a surprise, I think, also attitudes to migration during other types of crises, economic crises, there has been perhaps a surprising amount of stability. There's some research that suggests that people value migrants in certain jobs more than in the past, but that research is now already kind of two years old. And the big question was whether these effects are persistent or not. But I think it's an important question to ask, you know, if systemic resilience, the resilience of social services, if that is perhaps now a new or a more explicit goal of policymaking? As it should be, I suppose, then questions could be asked about what it means for immigration policy making it and for example about protecting the rights of migrants that are actually working in these jobs.
Armine, do you think the COVID pandemics changed how migrant labourers is viewed by governments and the public?
No, I think labour shortages have in Canada. I think Canada is one of the most unusual countries on the surface of the planet where we had a very generous approach to intake of newcomers. Though one could argue Denmark has an even more generous intake of newcomers. I just had this argument with somebody online the other day. We think of ourselves as one of the most generous and by scale and because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Denmark in the last year, more than doubled its intake of newcomers. But Denmark doesn't have the same general instinct to say that newcomers are really good for the country. Again, we're always talking about immigrants. When we talk about this, this phenomenon. People don't think about temporary foreign workers, because they are like the big invisible elephant in the room. And I don't know how much of that is by design. But I think we really need to be talking about it more explicitly. And yes, in that regard, people's opinions about migration, and in particular, exploitation of temporary foreign workers, at least got some visibility early in the pandemic, because we had so many deaths of agricultural workers and people providing care in the long-term care sector. And those were migrant workers by and large. So, I think that was an early sign of becoming aware of the stories because of journalism. But it still hasn't penetrated both public discourse and public policy.
As the boomer generation ages, and the great retirement expands, the effect of the labour shortage is predicted to last for quite some time. Looking to the future, how do you think this will affect migrant workers?
Well, I think it's important to say that, as I said before, immigration is not going to be the only response to these shortages, to these growing shortages. Immigration will have to be an important part of the response. But there are also other things, especially increasing the labour market participation rates of some groups in our in our societies that currently have low participation rates, including some existing migrant groups and refugees. But immigration will be important. So, I suppose one thing that if you look at it rationally, you will say, well, there will have to be expanded legal labour immigration routes. And an opening up. Now the question is whether that's going to be happening. if you think about the politics of immigration. And again, I think that there are differences in Europe, of course, the politics of immigration are currently very, very difficult. I think there's a bit of a disconnect between kind of the big demographic arguments that kind of make clear that there's increasing shortages, particularly in certain sectors coming. And then the debates that were stuck in about shortages, and about, you know, employer saying one thing and trade union saying another thing. So, I think there's a little bit of a disconnect between this macro argument about demographics and about skills needs, which would suggest a more kind of even a more permanent immigration system that brings in people that have skills that were lacking. And the more micro based arguments about whether or not there is a shortage of specific sectors and what could be done about it. Now on politics, I think one thing that might be changing is that - at the moment I'm speaking about Europe now - but I suppose that's true for most countries around the world. I mean, labour immigration policy is really made in receiving countries. From a normative perspective, we think it might be desirable, it is desirable, I would argue, to think about the effects on origin countries, but in practice, I don't know of many countries who when they design the labour migration policies, who think much about the effects of those policies and other countries. But that might be changing now, because certainly in Europe, irregular migration, a lot of it labour migration has become very salient. And I think there's an increasing recognition that if you want to manage response to irregular migration effectively, you have to work with origin countries and transit countries together through some sort of migration cooperation. And of course, this is not new. Countries around the world have tried to control migration by working with transit counties, lower wage countries for a long time. And typically, this has been an exchange of money for migrants in the sense that high-income countries have for a long time thought that they could basically provide low-income countries with financial assistance in return for their help with stemming outflows of migrants. And I think there's a lot of debate about this and often it hasn't worked. It encourages, basically countries blackmailing other countries in terms of migration flows. But what we do know now, for example, in those discussions between European countries and African countries about migration policy agreements is that on the African side, one very strong demand, for understandable reasons, is not only money to help manage immigration, but also expanded legal pathways. Especially expanded pathways for legal labour migration. But that has not happened so far. But as I said, irregular migration is a high salience issue. The European Union and many EU member states understand the importance of having to work with origin and transit countries, and then legal labour migration will have to become part of these discussions. So that might change the debate, I think a little bit, even though it hasn't done so far.
We are entering about two decades, not just a few years, but two, two and a half decades, the smallest cohort of working age people supporting the biggest cohort of people who are too young, too old and too sick to work. We are going to need all hands-on deck. So, there's so many policies we can put into place to maximize the human capital, and just the pure human potential of the people that are our neighbours, and even people that don't live close to us. And I want to see a far more vibrant discussion of what we can do with what we've already got. So, I think there's lots of room, lots of room for hope, on how this discussion changes, who we are and who we want to be, as well as lots of room to challenge the status quo, which is very heavily reliant on low wage jobs. Did you know that Canada has been in a beauty contest with the United States for about 20 years on who has the biggest share of low wage workers in their economy and in the OECD, the contest has always been between Canada and the U.S. And at last count Canada was winning. You know, the Bank of Canada governor himself says the solution to labour shortages is just pouring more people in. With the explicit notion that it will suppress wage growth. But if that's our solution, to how we deal with inflation, news alert, all the things that kept inflation in a one to 3% bound for 20 years, all of those tail winds have gone. China is no longer the low wage factory of the world. Extreme climate events are raising the costs of fruits and vegetables from everywhere in the world and destroying herds and introducing new diseases, as well as destroying transportation grids. Oil and gas may be a fuel of the past, but geopolitical tensions have never been higher than since the Second World War. And we are seeing a brand-new evolution of global supply chains. So, what we are dealing with is a bunch of headwinds that will make it very difficult to get 2% inflation on the books again, as the new normal. Extremely difficult to get there. Certainly, won't be only through Bank of Canada policies, and may very well be through recession inducing and labour market policies like migration to suppress wage growth. But if you've got suppressed wage growth, very large, low wage sector of your economy and higher prices, that's a recipe for political unrest. So, I don't think that's the future, at least I hope it's not.
You're both leaving us with lots to think about here. Thanks to Armine Yalnizyan and Martin Ruhs for joining me today and thank you for listening. This is a CERC Migration and openDemocracy podcast produced in collaboration with Lead Podcasting. If you enjoyed the episode, subscribe to Borders & Belonging on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more information on the relationship between labour shortages and migration. Please visit the show notes. I'm Maggie Perzyna. Thanks for listening!
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