Big nations should compensate small countries for poaching skillsWritten by Sir Ronald Sanders
Thursday, 01 November 2007
The Caribbean has been losing its highly educated people to industrialised nations at an alarming rate. The situation is set to worsen with a proposal by the European Commission (EC) that European Union countries should introduce a “blue card” to attract highly skilled immigrants to fill much needed job vacancies. The proposal was unveiled on October 23rd by the EC President Manuel Barroso and Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner, Franco Frattini.
In announcing the plan, Frattini described it as a “global job advertising blitz” to attract engineers, doctors, nurses and IT workers from Asia, Africa and Latin American and the Caribbean.
There are two motivations behind the plan: first, Europe ’s population is aging but living longer, so the cost of keeping pensioners in social security schemes is rising every year. On present trends, the EC reckons that the burden of paying for the livelihood of one retired person will fall on two workers, whereas today the load is shared by four workers. Second, the fall in the population of working age, and the requirement for modern skills, has left the European market with huge gaps. If Europe is to remain competitive with the US and Japan , it requires skilled workers.
The EC has calculated that by the year 2030, Europe will have a shortfall of 20 million skilled workers.
The objective is to put the blue card scheme in place by 2009 while giving each EU member state the right to opt out of it if they wish.
The blue card will operate along similar lines to the green card system used in the United States of America (US). It would allow qualified immigrants to live and work in one EU country and then move to a second country. After five consecutive years, they could apply to stay permanently. Conditions of employment and social security would be the same as those applicable to EU citizens.
Other industrialised nations have been recruiting skilled persons from developing countries for years to keep their economies competitive and to create a band of workers whose contributions to social security schemes help to pay for the elderly.
Australia has been the leader in this area where 9.9% of its working population is highly skilled immigrant workers mostly from Malaysia , Singapore , the Pacific Islands and India . Canada ranks second at 7.3% of its working population. While a large chunk of these is also from Asia, proportionately the numbers from the Caribbean are high. Switzerland is next with 5.3% of its working population being immigrants, and then the US at 3.2% - again on a proportionate basis, the Caribbean numbers are high. And, finally, there is the EU at 1.7%.
Europe’s problem is that whereas only 5% of its immigrants are skilled workers, 55% of the immigrants to the US are skilled. The EC clearly intend to use the blue card system to catch up with its global competitors. As the EC President said, “With the European blue card, we send a clear signal: highly skilled workers from all over the world are welcome in the European Union”.
This may be a boon to some developing countries in Asia with large populations and relatively large pools of qualified people. India , for instance, would no doubt quietly welcome the EU opening its doors to 20 million skilled migrants by 2030. Producing more University graduates annually than several EU countries combined, a few million skilled immigrants from India would be an ant bite on an elephant’s back.
But small regions, such as the Caribbean , have to view this as a troubling development. Already, more than 80% of the tertiary educated people of Jamaica and Guyana work in industrialised countries. The figures are in excess of 60% for Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname , and the numbers are unacceptably high for countries such as Antigua and Barbuda , St Kitts-Nevis and St Lucia .
These small countries pay heavily to educate and train their people to tertiary level only to lose them to the needs of industrialised nations. This is, in fact, a huge subsidy being paid by developing nations to the economies of richer countries, while they, themselves, suffer from lack of sufficiently skilled personnel in both the public and private sectors.
And, while the EU Commissioners have said that to avoid a damaging brain drain in developing countries, standards would be set to limit or ban active recruitment, that statement is hardly worth the breath it took to utter it. Recruitment will be pursued by private agencies anyway, and the simple knowledge of the blue card’s availability is a big enough advertisement; little else is needed.
In Germany , where politicians predictably voiced their opposition to an EU blue card that is binding on Germany , the country’s business leaders supported it, saying that Germany is crying out for skilled workers such as IT specialists and engineers.
The industrialised nations are taking the cream of the skills from developing countries with no compensation. It is clear that this is a trend that will intensify in the coming decades.
This points to the urgent need for an international discussion on the issue of migration in several fora, including the United National Economic and Social Council, the International Labour Organisation, the World Bank, UNESCO and the World Trade Organisation.
There are several dimensions to this discussion but development lies at its core. Simply put, industrialised nations are benefiting from a transfer of resources from developing countries without compensation. At the rate at which this transfer of resources is projected to occur, small developing economies in particular will suffer not only from loss of badly needed skills, but also from little return on the large sums of money that they invest in training.
It is time that global arrangements be settled for developing countries to be compensated by industrialised nations for the provision of skills. Small, developing economies should waste no time in placing the issue on the international agenda.
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