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Political and economic uncertainty calls for greater business engagement in migration

The Global Agenda Council on Migration 2011-2012 addressed this issue by examining two separate, but interrelated, perspectives on the phenomenon of migration. On the one hand, the Council sought to leverage the World Economic Forum’s business network to raise awareness of, and increase engagement with, the topic of migration amongst private sector actors – which, for the most part, are largely absent from policy-making circles on migration. However, given the uncertain economic and political contexts faced by many nations in 2011, the Council also devoted particular attention to monitoring the impact of immigration “crises” on migration flows and policy-making around the world. Ultimately, the Council found that political and economic crises make business engagement in migration policy-making even more imperative.

In this report, the Council presents a summary of both perspectives: on the one hand, a view on the impact of migration crises on several continents; and on the other, arguments and case studies describing why and how business should become more engaged with migrants and in migration policy-making.


The onset of the financial crisis in 2008 heralded the start of tumultuous years, politically and economically, for a number of countries, both in the industrialized “North” as well as the emerging “South”. These twin crises had important repercussions for trends and policies in migration, which prompted their examination by the Global Agenda Council on Migration 2011-2012.

The absence of the private sector from the most important policy-making channels on migration, spurred the Council to action in several international forums. The Council examined the relationship between the private sector and migration in depth, and the impact that each – companies and migrants – can have on each other. As discussed in the second section of this report, the Council was extremely active throughout the session in an effort to bring the business perspective into migration policy-making channels such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development and The Hague Process on Refugees and Migration. In addition, the Council collected case studies illustrating some positive and productive interactions between businesses and migrants, as outlined in the second section of this report.

Finally, the Council collaborated in a new effort to improve our understanding of migration by supporting the World Bank proposal to initiate a Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development. This project, aims to mirror the IPCC process for climate change by initiating a global collaboration for knowledge on migration and is discussed in the final section of this report.

 1. Twin crises: New labour migration realities in the global economy

Unexpected trends and elements characterize a “new reality” for migration in 2011-2012. As outlined in the vignettes from Europe, Africa, the USA and Asia, presented here, not all nations or migrants have experienced the same economic and political crises during 2008-2012.

On the one hand, the financial and resulting economic crisis experienced in certain traditional host countries for migrants worsened conditions and opportunities both for native workers and for migrants in particular. For example, the economic downturn in the United States has made staying at home a more attractive offer for would-be migrants in fast-growing Latin American countries such as Brazil or Peru, and even Mexico. In Europe, the economic recession and fiscal crisis also put pressure on migrants and the informal labour markets in which they had previously thrived.

However, new data on hiring practices suggests that the destinations chosen by migrants may have changed, mirroring the rebalancing of economic opportunities which increasingly favours emerging economies. In 2011, the planned staff increases envisaged by employers in industrialised countries were were dwarfed by the intentions of emerging economies (See Annex 2). The greater economic opportunities on offer in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India and China appear to be affecting the flow of  migrant labour.

Meanwhile, India reports significant return migration of highly skilled and internationally experienced professionals. The number of irregular migrants returning from the US to Mexico may be equivalent to the number of outgoing irregular migrants. Despite these indications, the resilience of old habits during the crisis suggests that the balance between new entrants and returnees remained positive worldwide .

Politically-speaking, the numerous upheavals in 2008-2012 had repercussions on migration. In the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring of 2010 prompted significant movements of migrants and refugees from Tunisia, Libya, and Syria into neighbouring countries, in particular to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Ultimately the pressure was such that most of these would-be migrants were unable to leave or return to their countries of origin as desired. At a European level, the Italian response to the influx of Arab Spring migrants was met with sharp criticism from other European Union members, even to the extent of calls for an overhaul of the Schengen Treaty (the legal guarantee of the free movement of people within the EU). Not least, the tragic events in Norway in the summer of 2011 underscore the risk of extremist narratives capitalizing on the sensitivity surrounding migrants and their integration into European societies. Meanwhile, in a highly polarized political environment, US President Barack Obama launched a public debate in the United States in response to individual states seeking to limit or punish irregular migration.

 2. Business and Migration

While the business community recognises the importance of migration, it has tended not to engage in policy debates on it. It relies on legislators, NGO’s and academia to make the case for migration and to take the issue forward in an increasingly difficult environment marked by growing social resistance and persistent un- and under-employment in many receiving countries. The Council agreed that in taking the issue forward it would benefit from a deeper engagement with, and input from, the private sector regarding business needs and opportunities. Likewise, companies should give greater attention to their role and responsibilities in attracting migrant labour to new countries, and the impact on social cohesion of businesses shedding migrant labour.

How business interacts with migrants

Businesses engage migrants on a fairly regular basis, on the one hand as a pool of skills and talent for production of goods and services, and on the other, and increasingly so, as an important market for specific products.

Despite the slow and uneven recovery from the global economic downturn, and lingering high levels of unemployment in many markets, organizations around the world still report that they cannot find the talent they need, when they need it. Talent is becoming the key competitive differentiator, and countries and companies with access to the right talent are positioning themselves to succeed in the rapidly changing world of work. Yet globally, in 2011, 34% of employers report difficulties in filling positions due to lack of available talent – a three percentage point rise over 2010 .

As a result, unfilled jobs continue to number in the millions across the world, with an estimated 3 million in Europe alone and a similar number in the USA. While comparing labour-market data internationally is difficult, even with a margin for error, the conclusion remains the same: economies around the world miss out on major employment opportunities because of significant mobility and skill mismatch problems. The issue is not just about unfilled jobs – it is also about forfeited economic opportunities. To illustrate this relationship, the Council presents two cases highlighting the impact of migration on labour markets and the availability of skills based on ManpowerGroup experiences in Vietnam and Mongolia. For more information see here.

In this context, mobile labour – or migrants – take on an important new meaning for employers. Where the right skills may be unavailable locally, migrant labour can play an important role in ensuring productivity and economic growth. During the 2011 Annual Meeting of the New Champions of the World Economic Forum held in Dalian, Council Chair Göran Hultin spoke on the potential of well-managed labour migration policies to address the looming skills shortages that ageing populations in industrialized economies may face in a decade.

On another note, it has become clearer that thousands of migrants are businesses in their own right – entrepreneurs or small business owners themselves. Indeed, a 2010 study conducted by researchers at Duke University revealed that up to 23% of new technology and engineering companies in the USA founded between 1995-2005 had at least one immigrant founder. Across the USA, immigrant start-ups were responsible for creating US$ 52 billion in sales and 450,000 jobs . Likewise, migrants have begun investing in businesses in their country of origin. Migrants can therefore move from being employees or clients, to being employers and generators of new jobs.

Traditionally, many businesses have also engaged with migrants through corporate foundations and charity organizations, or through pro-bono efforts targeting migrants’ well-being, for example the Smart Foundation sponsored by the Philippine Long-Distance Telephone Company and the Es El Momento campaign sponsored by Univision Communications Inc. For more information, go to here.

 Yet business has been largely absent from migration policy-making

One obstacle to the engagement of business in migration policy-making is that the perspectives of the relevant actors differ greatly. While business approaches migration policy with a pragmatic and primarily economic view, governments and other actors approach migration in the context of security, human rights, etc. This misalignment has caused confusion – or even acrimony – in the past.

As a result of their distinct perspectives, the goals of the various actors, though legitimate, may also differ. While businesses are interested in ensuring labour mobility and therefore have a stake in controlled, but functioning borders, governments see the need, first and foremost, to secure borders, and generally control social policies.

The Council developed several ideas for improving collaboration to address the varying concerns of states, NGOs and businesses. First and foremost, the Council set out to disseminate a set of 10 policy-principles for migration developed by them in 2010, that all stakeholders can embrace (Annex 1). The Council, therefore, met business associations active in the area of labour and migration, including NASSCOM, the Confederation of Indian Industry, the US Chamber of Commerce, the International Chamber of Commerce and Compete America to present their policy principles.

Developing a common working agenda on migration for business and government is a second essential step to bridge the misalignment. To this end, in November 2011 Council members participated in a roundtable on business and migration during the 10th Club of The Hague Process on Refugees in Migration.

Public perception of migrants also affects how businesses engage with the topic. Part of the reason businesses may be disengaged or discreet, is because of the pressure that public opinion exerts in certain parts of the world. The Council has thus undertaken to compile case studies that illustrate productive and positive relationships between businesses and migrants. The media can play an immensely important role in this regard in shaping public perceptions of migrants. Univision Cable News provides several interesting examples of this potential – presenting a different view of migrants in the USA through news spots and advertising.

Another challenge addressed by the Council is the fact that business tends to engage in policy debates on migration at a local or national level – and not so far at an international level. However, many of these issues require an international level of engagement and cooperation. To that end, the Council is exploring ways to strengthen the links between business and inter-governmental groups such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development. As a first step, Council members participated as key-note speakers at two important parts of the GFMD 2011 process. First, during the Labour Mobility Workshop in Berne, September 2011, where the World Economic Forum presented the Council’s work and the Talent Mobility Project during a private luncheon with businesses – and second, during the Civil Society Days of the GFMD 2011, where the Council Chair, Vice-Chair and several members participated as panellists in the proceedings.

3. Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development

The Council supported a World Bank proposal to initiate a Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KP), for the global public good. It will seek to highlight the benefits and challenges of migration for both the sending and receiving communities, as well as for migrants. It will also examine the size and drivers of migration as well as the development implications of migration within and between developing countries and from South to North. More specifically, it will: (i) provide an open, multidisciplinary partnership to debate, discuss and exchange knowledge on migration issues; (ii) generate a menu of policy choices based on evidence and peer-review; and (iii) assist sending and receiving countries to implement pilot policy operations and capacity building efforts, so as to evaluate and adopt selected policy choices. The KP will complement, but not attempt to replace or replicate, the functions of existing institutional mechanisms for cooperation on migration. This partnership is not a technical web platform for information sharing, but is a partnership among stakeholders.

The KP will hold regular consultations to identify areas for research and policy action, and exchange information with governments in developed and developing countries, civil society, private sector, and migrant organizations. The KP will also devote significant resources to dissemination and outreach activities. The main output of the KP will be a menu of policy choices for policy-makers. Other outputs will include data, analytical research products, operational toolkits, fact-books, and some pilot projects and capacity building activities. The KP will be a resource for policy makers, private employers, civil society, regional and multilateral development banks, donors, and other organizations involved in mainstreaming migration and remittances into national development plans.

The Swiss Government has agreed to enter into a partnership with the World Bank on this initiative, and the inception phase of this partnership process is expected to begin before the summer of 2012. After a nine-month Inception Phase, there will be a four-year long Implementation Phase. The secretariat will be provided by the World Bank. There will be a steering committee in which the Council is expected to play a big role. There will be several thematic working groups, each with between four and six eminent subject-matter experts.

Annex 1. Policy Principles on Migration developed by the Global Agenda Council on Migration 2010-2011

The policy principles defined by the Council are as follows:

  •  Policies should encourage the safe, legal and orderly movement of migrants.
  • The transaction costs of movement can be reduced substantially and should be made fully transparent.
  • Foreign workers should be guaranteed all labour and social rights that derive from legal employment and be responsible for complying with all pertinent laws and regulations.
  • Foreign workers should have access to all dispute resolution mechanisms available to domestic workers.
  • The employment circumstances of foreign workers would benefit from adherence to model employment contracts.
  • Up-skilling, recognition of qualifications/credentials, and portability of work visas for all legally resident migrant workers should be strongly encouraged.
  • Foreign workers in certain entry and work categories should have opportunities to earn permanent status.
  • Policies on temporary workers should encourage their safe and orderly return and reintegration upon completion of their contracts.
  • Enforcing return when options for permanent settlement are not possible and voluntary return is not pursued, must be done humanely.
  • Foreign worker policies should recognize the importance of meaningfully protecting the domestic labour force from unfair competition with temporary workers.
  • Migration and foreign worker policies should be transparent and those that implement them should be fully accountable.
  • Source and destination countries should devise and make greater use of bilateral labour mobility agreements.

Annex 2: Hiring intentions in industrialized and emerging economies. First semester 2012

The high rates of intention to hire expressed by employers in emerging economies such as Brazil, India, and China dwarf the intentions of comparable employers in industrialized economies across Europe and the USA.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual Members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated