Dimensions of Highly- Skilled Labour Migration

Engeneering assistant working on a highly technical device used to accelerate charged particles
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Engeneering assistant working on a highly technical device used to accelerate charged particles

by Ibrahim Awad

This paper focuses on the reflections of three sets of issues:

  • Highly-skilled labour migration (HSLM) issues in Europe;
  • HSLM in Europe relating to developing countries of origin; and
  • The impact of the global economic crisis on HSLM in Europe.

Labour is not a commodity. It must not be treated as such. This is not only an ethical statement. It is a practical recognition of the reality of motivations, objectives and wills of thinking creatures reacting to policies. Ignoring that workers are not inanimate objects of policies can only be at the peril of those who formulate and implement policies.

Second, for some the category of “labour migration” seems to only denote those immigrants admitted to enter European territories under such category. The reality, however, is that “labour migration” applies to all immigrants who join the labour market, whether they are admitted in the first place under, for instance, under the categories of “family reunion” or “international students”. Policies on “labour migration” should also be applicable to these immigrants. These policies are not only about admission; they also touch upon recognition of skills, portability of social security benefits, equality and non-discrimination, integration, return migration and other areas.

Before taking up the three specific issues, it is useful to recall that demand for HSL in Europe stems from mismatch between supply and demand for labour, on the one hand, and from reduced annual additions to native labour supply, on the other. This latter cause originates, in turn, in low population growth rates and very low fertility rates. In the medium and long terms, it is this cause that generates great concern since it will result in shrinking populations and labour forces.

Highly-Skilled Labour Migration in Europe

Large enterprises and multinational corporations in Europe, or in the United States for that matter, do not have problems of access to immigrant HSL. There are no complaints of labour shortages in large corporations. The issue arises for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Similar reasoning applies for Korea, where the labour migration reform in the early 2000s was formulated with these enterprises in mind.

In Europe, there are two regimes of migration and labour mobility. First, there is the intra-European Union (EU) regime. With variations according to old and new member States, adhering in 2004 and 2008, there is a regime of labour mobility.

Then there is the Third Country Nationals’ (TCN) regime of international labour migration. This in turn is divided in two sub-regimes: (i) a low-skilled labour (LSL) sub-regime with difficult access to the European territories and labour markets; and (ii) a HSL sub-regime with much easier access.

The two lists of shortage occupations in France provide a good example of the division in two sub-regimes of TCNs’ immigration. Highly-skilled occupations are open to TCNs. Low-skilled occupations are only accessible to workers from new members States for whom full labour mobility is not yet recognized.

However, in the long term, labour from new member States cannot meet demand in western and northern Europe. Fertility rates in new member States are even lower than in Northern and Western Europe.

Naturally, policies can be adapted to the changing environment, when the need arises. However, it is better that current policies are formulated with the long-term circumstances in mind. The discourse and arguments of today impose constraints on policy changes tomorrow. Higher scores achieved by highly-skilled workers for their diplomas or experience under the United Kingdom points system and the Blue Card EU directive are other examples of facilitated access for HSL.

The Myth of the single European Labour Market

In addressing “Highly-skilled labour migration in Europe”, an observation is in order. There is a misleading assumption about the existence of one European labour market. In fact, despite all efforts at integration and at creating a single market since the early days of European integration, the reality is one of juxtaposition of national labour markets with different labour laws, labour market institutions, social security systems, tax laws, languages and formal and informal social networks.

The low mobility rates between labour markets of EU member States are an eloquent manifestation of the inexistence to day of a single European labour market. This has its importance for the formulation of policies intended to attract HSL to European labour markets. An integrated labour market is certainly more appealing to workers from third countries.

The Blue Card

Theoretically, the Blue Card directive has tried to do that to some extent, in allowing admitted migrant workers under the scheme to move from the country of first entry to another member State. However, the fact of the matter is that the Blue Card directive does not change things a great deal.

By allowing member States to set the number of workers admitted under the schemes put in place in pursuance of the directive at zero, the conditions surrounding the migration of HSL can be kept at the same level they were before the adoption of the directive. In terms of the constitutional law of the EU, a question can even arise as to whether this is really a directive imposing changes in both law and practice on member States.

While there admittedly is demand for HSL in Europe, there are also needs for medium-skilled labour (MSL) and LSL. A study by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) clearly shows that in the next 20 years demand will essentially be for MSL.

LSL is at present and will also be in demand in the future. There are the low-skilled jobs shunned by native populations. But there is also a demand for care jobs for the increasingly ageing populations. Highly-skilled migrants themselves need low-skilled migrant workers for their personal services, such as child carers.

LSL migration can also contribute to meeting demand for HSL. Migrant domestic workers discharge highly-educated native women from their household chores allowing them to enter the labour market and participate in economic activity at higher productivity levels. LSL thus contributes to raising employment ratios and rates of economic growth.

Necessary Improvements

As a final observation to HSLM in Europe there is need for a necessary coherence among the issues of  migration, labour market and development policies of the EU. Policy-makers have to reconcile the objectives of these three policies and the sets of measures adopted under each.

Researchers and civil society actors should assist them in reaching this reconciliation. The realization of the objectives of the Lisbon strategy for employment, competitiveness and growth, through labour market and immigration policy measures, should not defeat the goals and accomplishments of development policy. The EU cannot allocate resources to develop knowledge and skills in developing countries to help them raise productivity, competitiveness and growth rates to only draw them out for the sake of stimulating its own economies.

Issues of HSLM relating to countries of origin

In drawing policies for HSLM in Europe, the interests of developing countries of origin should be taken into account. The wage and income gaps, in addition to conditions of work and job satisfaction, between Europe and developing countries are such that HSL would certainly be successfully attracted by competitive incentives.

But this can be at the expense of services provided to citizens of countries of origin. Populations of rural and poor areas in these countries are the first to be deprived. Sectors can be at risk. In a famous statement a few years ago, the secretary of health of an important country of origin said that the public health sector was about to collapse for lack of medical doctors and nurses. Large-scale emigration is known to exist among academics such as teachers, doctors, nurses from the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan, North African and South East Asian countries.

Encouragement of HSLM to Europe should go hand in hand with efforts at supporting education and training policies and institutions in developing countries of origin. The aim should be to enlarge the supply of HSL so as to meet demand in both, the countries of origin and in Europe.

It has been argued that better educated and trained human resources would only add to migrants or to those wishing to migrate. To face up to this prospect, measures should also be aimed at creating demand for HSL in countries of origin. Higher education institutions from both countries of destination and origin can work together on joint research and development programmes. Companies benefiting from highly-skilled migrant workers can set up production units in countries of origin.

The need for such efforts is mentioned in the preamble to the Blue Card directive. The operational provisions, however, are silent in this respect. Since the directive was adopted, no measures for enlarging the supply of HSL were formulated and published. This is important, particularly to counter the accusation of encouraging brain drain levelled at the directive in some developing countries.

The global economic crisis and policies on HSLM

The global economic crisis that erupted in 2008 did not bring about radical changes in national policies on HSLM. Away from Europe, some countries did not introduce any changes at all. In fact, they have considered HSLM as part of the way to recovery and resumed economic growth. This is the case of Canada and New Zealand.

Other countries made the implementation of policies on HSLM more difficult. They might have tightened the criteria for admission by raising the number of points required or by restricting the range of shortage occupations but did not change the policies as such. The criteria are adaptable to the business cycle; the policies trigger responses to long-term needs. Therefore criteria that have now been tightened can be later released when the economies pick up. This flexibility is salutary. 


EU member states find it necessary to increase incentives to attract more HSLM to their labour markets, they should do so taking into account in theory and practice of the developmental needs of developing countries of origin. They have to formulate and implement policy measures that increase the supply of HSL able to meet demand in both countries of origin and in Europe. Member States of the EU should be supported in their efforts to ensure coherence between their development, labour market and immigration policies. Objectives and measures under one policy should not defeat those pertaining to the other. This is only to ensure that resources are rationally used and the standing of the Union enhanced. Policy tools should be diversified and their flexibility reinforced.


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Dr. Ibrahim Awad is the Director of the International Migration Programme at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva.