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We Need Low-Skilled Immigrants
European Straits #30
With Brexit and Trump, 2016 is the year when harsh words spoken against immigrants have been followed by terrible action. And since it's impossible (and inappropriate) to counter openly racist arguments, the following discussion has been focused on immigration economics.
We've all heard the recurrent economic arguments against welcoming foreign workers. Immigrants supposedly take the jobs of local workers. Also, they join Karl Marx's "reserve army of labor", thus bringing wages down for all workers. This Marxist argument actually explains why big business has historically been in favor of more immigration, as noted in John B. Judis's latest book on populism.
On the other side are the arguments in favor of immigration. One is that in an adverse demographic context such as ours in the West, immigrants increase economic output. Another is that immigrants are more entrepreneurial, thus contributing to a more innovation-intensive economic growth. That’s because immigrants face so many obstacles on the job market, they'd rather found their own business; what’s more, migrating itself an entrepreneurial venture, with high risks taken in an adverse environment. A third argument points out that immigrants help us fill gaps on the job market when it comes to high-skilled work. Hence the idea underlying many Western leaders’ views: only highly qualified foreign workers (engineers, physicians, financiers) should be admitted to our countries.
Yet in fact there are also strong arguments in favor of welcoming low-skilled immigrants. For one, there are many low-skill, 'dirty' jobs that local workers refuse to take. A well-documented example is farmwork: crops are currently rotting in California because farmers can't hire enough hands following Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration (even though farmers are "offering salaries above minimum wage, along with paid time off and 401(k) plans"!...). Another example is childcare: many French nannies ("nounous") are foreign-born (see this article—in French). Then there are the many workers in the food industry: Chefs and restaurant owners in the US are actually freaking out because they’re now unable to hire all the staff they need to serve their customers. (By the way, read this fascinating piece on dishwashers as the most critical employees in restaurants.)
Why wouldn't local workers take those jobs? It’s not hard to guess: hard work, long hours, seasonal hiring, off-peak hours, long commutes. It's not that local workers are lazy, but there's a mismatch in expectations: most don't see themselves doing such jobs. Plus, local workers are more geographically mobile: if they're not that educated, they prefer to settle far away from large cities where housing is cheaper and commutes shorter. All in all, immigrants look like they're more likely to suffer harsher conditions in terms of wages, hours, housing, and transportation in urban areas. Dense Western cities remain an improvement compared to what they had to cope with in their home countries.
Finally, I think that low-skilled immigrants are all the more needed as we’re currently undergoing a techno-economic transition—from the age of the automobile and mass production to the new age of ubiquitous computing and networks. Each technological revolution brings about a new breed of positions that are impossible to fill with legacy workers (in the present case most new jobs will be less about making things and more about caring for people). The problem is that local workers have not been trained, culturally speaking, for these new jobs. What they see is the lack the social recognition, strong unions, high wages, and social benefits. Would a coal worker from West Virginia or a steel worker from Pennsylvania switch to elderly care? I think not. This is why we need immigrants to fill those positions.
Consider the dawn of the Fordist economy (the age of the automobile and mass production)—a period in which, by the way, immigration was at its highest in the US. At that time, immigrants (Irish, Italians, Germans) became the bulk of the new industrial workforce, willing to do the harsh work along assembly lines. Some (the Germans) were quite skilled and brought their industrial knowledge for the benefit of the emerging US manufacturing industries. But most of them hadn’t much to offer apart from their labor. They were supported by the infamous political machines, which contributed to turning them into proud citizens while covering them against critical risks at a time when the welfare state didn’t exist yet. And all joined forces in a new kind of trade union—industrial unions (CIO)—whereas the old craft unions (AFL) were unwelcoming to immigrants.
Here's my point: as we’re going through yet another techno-economic paradigm shift, closing the borders could very well deprive our advanced economies of this critical part of the workforce—all those hard-working immigrants willing to take the new jobs well before they become 'good' jobs (secure, middle class jobs). Would the US have become the core of the fourth technological revolution (that of the automobile) if it hadn't been for its low-skilled immigrants?
Here are a few readings:
Dirty Work: What are the jobs Americans won't do?, by Daniel Gross (Slate, January 2007)
The crippling problem restaurant-goers haven’t noticed but chefs are freaking out about, by Roberto A. Ferdman (The Washington Post, August 2015)
Immigrants Don't Drain Welfare. They Fund It., by Laura Reston (The New Republic, September 2015)
Sorry, Trump supporters, but the U.S. economy needs more immigrants, by Rex Nutting (Market Watch, July 2016)
The Soul of a New Machine: Political machines were corrupt to the core–but they were also incredibly effective, by Kevin Baker (The New Republic, August 2016)
Why So Many Poor Americans Don’t Get Help Paying For Housing, by Andrew Flowers (FiveThirtyEight, September 2016)
Why Are Immigrants More Entrepreneurial?, by Peter Vandor and Nikolaus Franke (Harvard Business Review, October 2016)
Never mind the robots; future jobs demand human skills, by Sarah O’Connor (The Financial Times, May 2017)
California Crops Rot as Immigration Crackdown Creates Farmworker Shortage, by Chris Morris (Fortune, August 2017)
The Danger From Low-Skilled Immigrants: Not Having Them, by Eduardo Porter (The New York Times, August 2017)
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John B. Judis (October 2016)
The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, by Vivek Wadhwa (October 2012)
Warm regards (from Normandy, France),