I took part in a debate today with Martin Ruhs (Oxford) for Migration Mobilities Bristol on labour migration. I’ll put in a link to the full discussion when it is available, but meanwhile, here are my opening remarks:

We live in a world where extreme poverty coexists with great wealth and where the accident of birth with one nationality rather than another has more bearing on someone’s life prospects than anything else. We also know that migration from poor countries to wealthy ones is more effective in addressing global poverty than just about anything else. Migrants from poor countries to wealthy ones gain access to more productive economies, earn higher wages than they would have at home, and send back valuable remittances to a degree that vastly exceeds the value of foreign aid programmes.

Meanwhile, wealthy countries need migrant labour to do the jobs that too few of our own citizens will do: agriculture and food, social care, health, construction, hospitality. (Jobs, actually, that once were invisible but which COVID has brought home the value of.) But immigration is also a hot-button electoral issue and nativist parties have enjoyed great success in promoting restrictionist policies that pander to anti-immigrant sentiment among electorates.

In response to this conflict between what is economically desirable (for both sides) and what is politically palatable to electorates, many economists have argued for the idea of a trade-off between openness and rights, suggesting that we can make the labour migration that “we” need more palatable to electorates to the extent to which the inferior and temporary status of those migrants is made concrete by depriving them of some rights. Here, migration is conceived of in transactional terms: “We” get a flexible and exploitable labour force, perhaps plugging key skills gaps; “they” get more money and voters don’t feel threatened that these incomers will displace them in “their own” country.
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