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Why people migrate

Wage gaps

Most people migrate, either temporarily or permanently, to take advantage of opportunities in richer countries — to earn more money and widen their horizons.

The most tempting gaps in income are between industrial and developing countries. The largest wage gap between two neighbouring countries is between the US and Mexico. Hourly earnings for US workers are around $15, and range from a low of $10 in retail trade to $19 in construction. An average factory worker in the US earns around four times more than one working in Mexico, and 30 times more than a Mexican agricultural worker. On average in the US foreign-born men earned 71% as much as native born men in 2000, primarily because they were concentrated in lower-paid occupations.

Within Europe one of the widest cross-border wage gaps is between Germany and Poland. Polish factory workers earning $250 per month often therefore choose to spend their holidays in Germany where they can harvest asparagus for wages of $900 a month. Similar gaps are evident all over the world: between Burma and Thailand, for example, or between Mozambique and South Africa.

Does this mean that wages everywhere would have to be equal to stop migration? Probably not. In Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, there was large-scale migration from Spain and Italy to France and Germany. But as the wage ratios gradually fell fewer people chose to leave even though significant gaps remained. This was probably because people were thinking not just about the present but about the future. When prospects brighten most people prefer to stay at home.

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Onyx factory in Mexico

Worker polishing stones in a factory in Mexico. He could earn three or four times as much in the US.
Photo: Chris Lynch