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Understanding labour migration

To ensure that the growing global flows of labour migrants are guided correctly, we need knowledge. Why do people leave home, why do they go to specific countries, and how can that choice be influenced? And what are the consequences of their leaving for the people who stay?

Welfare state unattractive

Leaving your village, region or country and trying your luck elsewhere is an age-old and worldwide strategy for achieving prosperity and personal fulfilment. In a globalising world, more and more people are choosing this route. Political economist Alexandre Afonso is fascinated by the issue of how a country’s attractiveness for migrants is partly determined by the socio-economic policy it pursues. Afonso’s research has produced some surprising results. ‘Politicians often claim that a generous welfare state such as the Netherlands attracts immigrants like a magnet,’ he says. ‘But the figures show that this isn’t the case. Quite the opposite, in fact: the relationship is inversely proportional. The more generous the welfare state, the smaller the number of migrants. And it’s easy to understand why. A generous welfare state needs to have a high tax rate, so it’s expensive to hire workers in countries like Sweden, France or the Netherlands. Employers would rather mechanise their processes or increase labour productivity. In England, on the other hand, the situation is different. You even see people there walking around with boards telling you the way to the nearest McDonald’s. That says something about the price of labour. A country like that is more attractive for migrants, because there are more low-paying jobs.’

Because labour is cheap in the UK, people are hired to stand around with advertising signs.

People back home in Africa

Cultural anthropologist Caroline Archambault researches the sources of migration flows. She wants to know why people leave home and what it means for the people who stay. ‘In Tanzania, the men leave the countryside to find work in the cities. Often their wives choose to remain in the villages with their children as they find rural life safer, more fulfilling and empowering.’

In Kenya, Archambault saw that young Maasai people are leaving their villages to attend school in the cities. The traditional pastoral life didn’t require a school education. But drought, ecological exhaustion and privatisation of land are making that career choice less attractive. Over the last ten years or so, many young Maasai people have therefore been preparing for a different professional life. A striking aspect is that the community back at home tries very hard to maintain ties with the young people. Thus important rituals – marking the transition to a new stage of life, for instance – are drastically shortened and modified. They are often held during the school holidays, just like weddings and other celebrations. Conversely, the young people who emigrated also make sure the ties stay strong, for example by using Facebook for social control. Archambault has found that if a village elder abuses his power, he will be reprimanded by these young migrants via Facebook. ‘That means loss of face, so it works!’

Back to the facts

Academic research on migration often yields surprising insights. Researchers are trying to reintroduce the facts into a highly politicised debate, so that it can be conducted more efficiently and effectively.

Masai-vrouwen spreken bij een politieke bijeenkomst.
Maasai women speaking at a political rally


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