However, there is something else quite obvious that rich countries could do which would have a dramatic impact on global poverty while also having the political advantage of making rich countries even richer. Globalisation has achieved the (more or less) free movement of goods and capital between countries and this has made the world much richer. But people are mostly still stuck behind political borders. Why shouldn't labour also be allowed to move to wherever it can earn the best price, i.e. to wherever it can be most productive? This would allow rich countries to import cheap low-skilled labour (e.g. to pick our asparagus and care for our old people) while the global poor would get access to higher productivity working environments (and hence higher pay) than they could find in their home countries.
According to a 2005 calculation by the World Bank, if rich countries globally used migrants to expand their labour force by just 3% this would generate $300 billion in gains for the migrants’ countries (via remittances) and would also save the rich countries more than $50 billion. That is more than twice the amount rich world governments currently send in aid and it wouldn't cost those governments a dime. Moreover, remittances are generally much better targeted to people's needs than governmental aid programmes and don't have their corrupting influence on poor country institutions and politics. The upshot is that rich countries would get even richer while doing far more good for the world than anything else they could try!
The obvious problem with this apparent win-win is that migration is a politically toxic issue in most rich countries, especially economic migration by low skilled workers. Conservatives worry that the arrival of lots of foreigners will change our way of life without our consent. Leftists also worry - though less openly - about the impact on social insurance systems and competition for housing and public services (previously). Rich countries have built welfare systems to protect people from bad luck and old age, but their level of pay outs depends upon the average productivity of those paying in and this will naturally fall with the arrival of large numbers of low-skilled workers.
If rich countries settled for a 3% programme then both of these political objections could probably be overcome. However, that would mean settling for considerably less than could be achieved. Therefore I suggest a more radical but still politically realistic plan. Rich countries should set up guest-worker programmes modelled on the UAE’s: strictly temporary work visas with limited legal rights and no path to citizenship. For example, a strict maximum of 5 years total, conditional on employment; no right to bring family; no settlement rights (e.g. can’t marry a citizen); and civil rights but not political or social rights (i.e. property & contract rights, but no voting or access to the welfare system). The point of such restrictions is to overcome the strong popular objections to large scale economic migration by restricting it as far as possible to a purely economic transaction. Migrants would not gain membership of the host society and would never be allowed to feel it is their home, and so their cultural impact would be minimised. They would be excluded from the official welfare system (though a basic social insurance system could be set up among them), and so wouldn't undermine citizens' existing 'birthright' economic privileges. They would mostly live in separate dormitory accommodation and make minimal use of public services, and so wouldn't compete with citizens for those basic necessities.
Ruthlessly enforced strict guest worker programmes would treat non-citizen residents in a systematically inferior way to regular citizens, and thereby they should satisfy citizens' moral prejudices enough to be politically viable. But they would also do an enormous amount of good by allowing hundreds of millions of the global poor to access life-changing economic opportunities. Most importantly, they would do far more good than our more idealistic moral principles have ever achieved in practise since although benefits for each individual would be modest, the number helped would be orders of magnitude greater. If you really care about reducing global poverty, this is the policy you should be campaigning for.
The main political challenge to this guest worker programmes comes from the likely losers, who will no doubt complain mightily about unfairness. (Hence the need for a positive campaign so that theirs is not the only voice that is heard.) Domestic low-skilled workers would have to compete with those from poorer countries willing to work for much less. One way or another they would have to find something else to do (such as supervising guest workers). Active labour market policies would help. Reassuringly the unemployment rate in the UAE hovers around 2%, and in Singapore (another major user of guest labour with a more diversified economy), it fluctuates between 3-5%. And for those unlucky enough to find themselves priced out of the market entirely, at least they will still have access to the welfare system (which rich countries could use their gains to upgrade, for example with a universal basic income).
It may seem sad that some people in rich countries won't be able to get jobs any more. However, bear in mind that this is also an outcome of high minimum wages and other politically popular policies. Moreover, building a wall to keep foreigners from doing work that we need done is an incredibly expensive way of supporting a society's least productive members. One can think of a guest-worker programme as simply a way for poor countries to expand their exports from things like T-shirts and iron ore that can be put on a boat to services that are non-tradable because location-based, like construction, fruit-picking, and care-work. Just as banning steel imports is an incredibly expensive way to protect steel workers' standard of living, so is banning poor countries from exporting their labour. The gains from trade are big enough to pay full compensation to the losers and still come out ahead.
III. Further Moral Objections
This essay has the rather ambitious goal of persuading the very people whose moral ideals lead them to care most about helping the global poor to endorse a policy that sacrifices those ideals in a grubby compromise with political reality. Such readers are likely to have additional moral concerns.
Is there not something odious (even ‘apartheidist’) about treating migrants so much worse than our own nationals?
Yes, it does seem icky. But I invite you to consider whether such a reaction is reasonable to have or to act on in this case. This is not so different from how we normally treat the people whose work we benefit from. We don’t generally worry much about a Bangladeshi textile factory worker's social and political rights even though we may be wearing clothes that they made. It seems arbitrary to suddenly start caring about the quality of life of someone merely because they happen to be temporarily living in our country. It seems especially unreasonable to use this feeling as a justification for preventing such people from getting a job that will considerably improve their life-prospects and ability to support their family. Like crossing the road to avoid a Big Issue seller, perhaps it helps you avoid feeling uncomfortable but in a singularly unhelpful and selfish way.
Isn’t this just exploitation of poverty?
Absolutely! In guest worker programmes, rich countries allow their businesses to exploit the willingness of people from poor countries to work for lower wages because they don't have any better options. However, the structure of this is a mutually beneficial transaction between consenting adults. Moreover it can only succeed if these would-be migrants see it as their best option, so even if you think this kind of exploitation is morally wrong, stopping it would make them worse off. Once again, if your distaste for the thought of exploiting people gets in the way of letting them help themselves to a better life, then you are letting your high standards get in the way of achieving a much better world. Consider carefully whether this feeling of moral repugnance is actually justified in this case and how much unnecessary suffering the poor of this world should have to endure so that you can indulge it. How many parents, for example, should have to decide which children get to eat today or which ones have to go to work instead of school so that you can enjoy the feeling of having clean hands?
What about the potential for abuse?
Journalists have uncovered many accounts of unsafe working conditions and predatory behaviour towards guest workers in Gulf states over the last decades. However, these don't seem to be a necessary feature of guest-worker programmes but rather an outcome of how they are set up and regulated, and particularly the power asymmetry in the relationship between employer and worker. Governments can act to protect guest-workers' rights against predatory employers if they want to, just as they can act to protect regular workers' rights. The UAE, for example, has recently tightened its laws and enforcement to prevent employers confiscating passports and similar bad behaviour while also making it easier for workers to switch employers without losing their visa. Governments on the other end of guest-worker agreements, such as the Philippines, have also become much more proactive in regulating recruitment practises.
In addition, the potential for abuse should not be compared to an imaginary world in which there are no economic migrants because the law says there should not be. The difference in wages between rich and poor countries is so enormously attractive that millions of people are willing to risk their lives to reach the economic opportunity they offer. The US, for example, has an estimated 8 million migrants working illegally (5% of the workforce). As guest workers they would be much better off. They wouldn't have to cross dangerous rivers and deserts, they could travel freely back and forth to visit their families, and they would be in a much better legal position to resist predatory behaviour and unsafe working conditions.
Setting out to commodify migrants as mere labour seems callous. But in this case (as often in politics) striving to set higher moral ideals would end up doing much less good. By lowering our standards for the treatment of the global poor we will enable far more of them to help themselves to a better life. It is an unfortunate political fact that although many people in rich countries agree that the global poor should be helped somehow, very few are willing to give up anything much to achieve that. It would be nice if that wasn’t the case and we would all recognise the full dignity of human beings no matter their nationality. But we don’t live in that world and it is dishonest and harmful to pretend that we do, or that this will change anytime soon. Such hypocritical idealism is how we got rich democracies signing treaties promising to care for refugees while also using their navies to turn away their boats and bribing dictators to 'deter' them from setting out. Successful action on global poverty must be based on realistic political moral foundations: what most people actually care about rather than what the kind of angels we wish we were would care about.
The case for guest-worker programmes is that it would do an awful lot of good for people who need it while also advancing rich countries' own immediate interests. It thereby allows us to fulfil a vaunted cosmopolitan moral principle while still prioritising the nationalist ‘my people first’ concerns demanded by democratic politics. It is the best we can realistically do to help the global poor and that makes it the least we should do.
Further reading: Lant Pritchett. 2006. Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on International Labor Mobility. Center for Global Development ; Brookings Institution Press.
An earlier version of this essay appeared on 3 Quarks Daily