Home Why people migrate — 2. The need for workers   Next page (3. Development disruption)

Why people migrate

The need for workers

Another reason why people migrate is that many richer countries have jobs available for immigrant workers.

To some extent the demand for immigrants fluctuates according to economic cycles. During the period of rapid growth from the 1950s to the mid-1970s many European countries had a huge demand for workers, and brought in immigrants to fill the gaps. Asia's 'tiger' economies have also relied on immigrants at times of rapid growth. South Korea, for example, used to export millions of its own workers but by the early 1990s was facing severe labour shortages, particularly for construction, and drew in people from neighbouring countries.

The same situation is still evident in countries such as the United Kingdom which are desperately short of workers in many areas particularly in the the health and education services.

But the need for immigrants persists even during economic downturns. This is partly because once these flows start, they are difficult to stop; workers put down roots and want their families to join them. But more fundamentally the 'dual labour market', mentioned in the section on migration theory, persists and ensures there there is an irreducible demand for immigrants to do the less popular work that local workers reject.

This was highlighted during the economic crisis in Asia from 1997. The first instincts of the governments of Thailand and Malaysia was to halt employment of immigrants. But when farmers and factories complained that they now had no-one to do the work, their governments had to relent and remove the restrictions.

Nevertheless long-term immigrants are also more likely to be unemployed: in most European countries, unemployment rates for foreigners are twice as high as for native workers. This is partly because they often work in more unstable jobs, but also because of discrimination, unofficial and official.

Previous page - Next page

Cab driver in New York

Chan Chi, a New York cab driver from Vietnam.
Photo: Mike Dumlao