[SCMP Column] At the heart of migration

February 27, 2017

This is not a trick question: when is a migrant not a migrant?

Answer: when you are talking to the International Labour Organisation, or in organizations like APEC, about internationally mobile labour.

For the past decade and a half, business leaders in the APEC Business Advisory Council have been battling to persuade officials to clarify and make transparent the procedures linked with managing the movement around the region of international workers – like how visas are issued, how the agencies that control the hiring or international workers are regulated, and how international workers are treated while they work away from home.

One of our biggest headaches has been that the minute we start talking about international workers, immigration officials come into the room, and begin talking about national security and illegal immigration. In the wake of the “9-11” terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre, the problem perhaps inevitably became even more fraught. These immigration officials had no interest in talking about the increasingly severe problems businesses are facing with labour shortages. That was not their job. Their job is to protect their countries’ borders against attack.

We in ABAC tried to resolve this problem back in 2008 by starting afresh. We created the concept of “Earn, Learn, Return” – the principle that international workers had no interest in migration. Their aim – in part driven by poor or low-paid job opportunities at home – was to go abroad to earn better incomes for their families, learn new skills, and then eventually to return to their homes and families.

The earnings saved, and the skills acquired, would hopefully equip them to build better businesses at home, and begin to build their own home economies. But while away, they don’t want to lose their welfare, health and retirement benefits. They want their overseas experiences to be taken account of on their CVs when they return home.

As part of this fresh start, ABAC systematically purged the words “migrant” and “migration” from our vocabulary. Migration issues are big challenges that require careful attention – in particular after the events of the past nine months, with the escalation of a serious refugee management crisis across Europe, and initiatives being taken by the US’s new president to clamp down on migration.  But they are quite separate from the challenges we in business are concerned about, and cannot be muddled.

For most big businesses across the region, the need to manage effectively the international movement of workers is more urgent than ever. We have an estimated 33m international workers currently working across the Asia-Pacific – about one fifth of the world’s total – but skills shortages across the region are getting more severe, and a combination of demographic and technology trends can only make them worse. It is our estimation that the economic costs of skills shortages in the Asia-Pacific will amount to around US$10 trillion between now and 2030.

So it is an urgent priority to businesses to get officials to put policies in place that help us meet the international worker needs more effectively. This involves having a clearer picture of our total skills pool and where acute shortages exist; having well-tailored vocational training programmes that make sure our local skills pool is as well matched to needs as possible. We can’t afford to be continuously diverted into arguments about migration, refugees, and people fleeing turmoil in unhappy turbulent parts of the world.

So it was distressing, to say the least, to arrive at a major APEC meeting in Nha Trang in Vietnam last week on creating a framework for the better management of internationally mobile labour, to find the word “migration” scattered liberally across the agenda.

We had a Japanese presentation on a positive immigration policy. We had a long and data-packed presentation from the ILO on their “Framework on Labour Migration” – with data that made it impossible to untangle international workers from migrants.

We had excellent presentations from an economist from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) who talked consistently about migration. When challenged, this economist patiently explained that our vocabulary problem could be solved very simply by replacing in his presentations the word “migration” with “mobility”. If it is so simple, why he did not replace the confusing “migration” word himself, to save us the aggravating and time-wasting diversion into discussions with border security and immigration officials? Silence.

So to all of those officials trying to help us in business tackle the region’s labour mobility problems, can I ask a favour: please consider purging the word “migration” from our vocabulary when we are talking about labour mobility. That way, we will save time by avoiding discussions in the wrong fora on the wrong issues with the wrong people.

As Asia’s economies face a serious ageing problem (Indonesia, Malaysia and perhaps Vietnam are our only exceptions), we face serious and urgent challenges in building workforces that will meet our needs in 20 or 30 years time. For ABAC, that means we have three priorities:
  •  We want support from all APEC economies in building a comprehensive and forward-looking regional skills map that tells us where the most acute skills shortages are in the region. APEC Australia developed an excellent template four years ago, but only a handful of our APEC governments are yet providing data. Our skills map will only have value when we have inputs from the majority of economies
  •  We seek progress on the detailed elements of the “Earn, Learn, Return” initiative.
  •  We seek progress in winning region-wide recognition of skills and qualifications. Given the complexity of this task, ABAC believes a sector-specific approach will be needed, with particular sectors being chosen as “pilots”. We have tentatively identified the aviation sector, the allied health sector, port workers, and the tourism industry, but are open to further suggestions.

It is a paradox that in spite of emotionally-charged arguments in the US and Europe about migration, so many governments in our region share our business concerns over the need to improve how we manage the flow of international workers, and appear keen to look at policy changes that will help. How frustrating it is that confusing and sloppy use of the word “migration” is putting these efforts in jeopardy.
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