How Migrants Can Help Countries Fill Labor Gaps: Learning from Policymakers

April 5, 2017

Key Highlights
  • Migrants can help economies of sending and receiving countries, as long as each party pays attention to key areas of policy.
  • Migration opportunities should be in line with the skills lacking from the country’s labor force.
  • There are key lessons to be learnt from Kazakhstan, Korea and Malaysia, according to presenters at a World Bank course on jobs and migration.

Did you know that that today, Turkey and Pakistan host the largest number of refugees in the world? Or that the majority of international migration happens between countries in the South—i.e. between developing countries?

There are many misconceptions and myths about migrants and their effects on a country’s job market. But migrants can help the economies of both sending and receiving countries, as long as each party pays attention to key areas of policy. For example, in temporary worker programs, it is important for sending countries to focus on the pre-decision, pre-departure, migration and post-migration phases individually. Receiving countries, meanwhile, should look at promoting a better labor force experience through skills trainings and socioemotional support, protecting workers’ well-being and preventing overstays.

These were some of the issues discussed at a course on “Jobs and Migration,” which aimed to help participants understand how to design and implement job creation strategies and interventions. The course, held at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C, included over 200 policymakers and government representatives from around 70 countries.  

Economists and experts presenting at the course used case studies to explore lessons learnt from past World Bank research in various countries. Several examples demonstrated the importance of understanding that migration opportunities should be in line with the skills lacking from the country’s labor force.


Lessons from Kazakhstan, Korea and Malaysia

Here are some of the lessons highlighted at the week-long courses tackling issues on job creation and migration:

Kazakhstan was seeing many incoming low-skilled migrant workers from countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. But the government wanted to break into high-skill services and learn how to best leverage foreign talent to diversify the economy. Their goal was compounded with the problem of poor data availability. The World Bank reviewed Kazakhstan’s setup and came up with several recommendations for attracting and better retaining high-skilled workers.

The World Bank recommended that the government provide more language training and administrative support to migrants, and that it see the 10,000 foreign students in the country as an opportunity to meet skilled labor needs. Most notably, a lengthy visa process and difficulty getting foreign degree recognition were identified as barriers.

In Korea, one of the challenges faced was labor shortages in sectors like manufacturing and agriculture in Korea. To help address this, the government put together an employment permit system, comprising the government’s agreement with 15 Asian countries. The system allows temporary labor migration for unskilled and semi-skilled occupations. Held together by a robust administrative system, the employment permit system also provides counseling services for workers and ensures their minimum wage is the same as that of domestic workers.

Malaysia’s economy has shifted enormously over the past decade, focusing less on agriculture and increasingly on services and industry. And it is foreign workers that have filled the demand for low-skilled workers. A study found that while workers from foreign countries have different demographics from their Malaysian counterparts—they were younger and less educated—there was no evidence that foreign workers had a negative impact on the country’s overall productivity.

Participants of the two-week course said it was helpful to interact with counterparts with different viewpoints and situations.

“To inform policy-making with evidence and experiences of other countries—that’s really useful,” said Najwa Edries, head of the Jobs Fund at the National Treasury of South Africa.