Wednesday 18 August 2021

The Moral Case for Guest Worker Programmes

The United Arab Emirates is a small but rich rich country with a million or so citizens and nearly 9 times as many foreign migrants, mostly from poor Asian and Arab countries. In 2019 remittances home from these guest workers amounted to $45 billion (12% of GDP). In comparison, total overseas aid from rich countries in 2019 was $145 billion (an average of 0.3% of donors' national income). 

Another way of putting this is that one small country's entirely self-interested transactional relationship with the poor world is responsible for transferring 30% as much wealth as all the high minded moral principles of the whole world turn out to be worth. The lesson I draw from this astonishing statistic is that anyone who really cares about reducing global poverty should be looking at how to make more countries like the UAE, not vice versa.

The world is richer than it has ever been but billions of people continue to live in great poverty. Nearly everyone agrees that this is a bad thing, i.e. that a world without poverty would be better. But some people care far more than others about the moral responsibility that rich countries have to make that happen. You are the people I am writing this for. 

I agree with you that poverty matters and that rich countries should do all that they can to end it. But I argue that taking this goal and responsibility seriously requires acknowledging the disappointing political reality that most of our fellow citizens don't care as much as we do, and never will. Moral idealism is a powerful motivator for people to criticise our governments and exhort them to do what is right, but if it departs too far from the moral consensus of our society then it is unlikely to succeed, and it is success above all that we owe the global poor. The best our countries can be persuaded to go along with is much less than you or I would like, but still much more than they do. 

I want to persuade you to accept this bitter truth and then also to put your enthusiasm for a better world to work advocating for your own government to adopt one such moral compromise: guest worker programmes. By lowering rich countries' moral standards for the treatment of the global poor these will enable far more of them to help themselves to a better life than anything else rich countries might actually do. 

I. The Bitter Truth: Rich Countries Don't Much Care About World Poverty

There is a general political consensus that poverty is a bad thing. In rich countries this combines with communitarian moral intuitions to support a political consensus around intervening to help fellow citizens whose income falls below around $30 per day. However, while it is accepted that poverty is also a bad thing when it happens to people in other countries, this is a somewhat generic, free-floating humanitarian impulse. There isn't the kind of obvious moral connection - such as exists between members of a community - that would make their suffering a matter of our collective concern. 

The result is that there is a general consensus that it is a bad thing that so many foreigners are so poor, and hence, all else being equal, that it would be much better if that were not the case. However, there is no such consensus that fixing this problem is a particular moral responsibility for rich country governments in the way that helping their own poor citizens is. Therefore it is not surprising that alleviating global poverty does not rank as a political priority above many of the other things that citizens want their governments to do (to make life even better for them). It is in the category of nice but inessential things, like basic scientific research or a space programme or art museums. Rich countries should do something about world poverty if they can - and they certainly shouldn't make it worse - but not at the cost of anything really important. This is why we are in the situation where the richest countries of the world are willing to spend an average of 20% of their GDP on social spending for their own people but only 0.3% on aid to poor countries. 

Now you might think that the correct response to this nationalist 'our people first' moral prejudice is to change people's minds so that they come to see the plight of the global poor a higher political priority. As a moral philosopher I am of course sympathetic to the idea of using arguments to change people's minds. But as a realist I have to say that this hasn't worked that well so far. 

Peter Singer, for example, has spent 50 years arguing eloquently for ignoring any special connection to fellow citizens and valuing everyone as equal members of the community of humans no matter where they live. And therefore that we should donate more to help the global poor since every dollar spent on them can achieve more benefits than it would for someone whose basic needs are already covered. Singer's rhetorical efforts inspired the Effective Altruism movement. However, the overall impact of all this moral exhortation has been tiny. Cosmopolitan utilitarian arguments have failed to persuade very many people to give very much at all. They have only succeeded in directing some marginal additional funding towards charities that do piecemeal micro-interventions around the consequences of poverty, like deworming schoolchildren and supplying free mosquito nets in the African countryside. (For a fuller critique.) 

Another approach has been to analyse the moral relationship between rich and poor countries as analogous to that of a driver towards the pedestrian they crippled while drunk-driving (the philosopher Thomas Pogge is particularly prominent here). In this story the rise of rich countries is claimed to have come about by their systematic criminal exploitation of others (e.g. by colonialism), and so today's rich countries are morally responsible for fixing global poverty because they are responsible for causing it in the first place. Establishing such a moral connection - of criminal wrongdoing - ought to raise helping the global poor to (near the) top of rich countries political priorities. Many philosophers and activists find such arguments persuasive. But most rich country citizens do not. It doesn't matter if 'most citizens' are wrong. Politics is about practical legitimacy not philosophical truth. So long as most of our fellow citizens remain unpersuaded, such arguments cannot generate the kind of political consensus needed to support spending serious money or making significant sacrifices to help the global poor.
II. Guest Worker Programmes Are The Best We Can Do

This essay takes the view that the best we can do for the global poor is the least we ought to do, but also that the best we can do is heavily constrained by political feasibility as well as logistics and economics. In a democracy the best we can do is what the majority are willing to go along with, and this is something quite different and inferior to what purely moral arguments would require. 

For example, rich countries could increase aid programmes from their current pitiful level of $145 billion per year (representing an average generosity level of 0.3% of donors' GNI). However this would be unpopular since that money could have been spent on more nice things for their own citizens (hospitals, schools, child-benefit, etc), and lots of rich country governments are already worrying about how to raise the taxes to pay down their Covid debts. Hence that idea fails the political feasibility test. 

For another example, rich countries could reduce their trade barriers so that poorer countries can access more economic opportunities. Since trade benefits all parties (by definition) this would be a net benefit to rich countries and so it should be politically feasible even though industries threatened with competition would complain. However, rich countries already have very low or zero tariffs on almost everything that is easy to send around the world, so the impact of further liberalisation would be rather tiny. Hence this policy fails the economics test: it isn't big enough to matter. 

As a last example, poor country governments could reform their economies so that their citizens could have more economic opportunities. This is the main way that poverty has been reduced historically, most dramatically in China with Deng Xiaoping's reintroduction of markets and capitalism. However, while institutional reform may be the best solution to global poverty, it is not something that rich countries can do. Decades of bitter experience with conditional aid programmes has shown that you can't make a country's rulers reform unless they already want to, and they often don't want to (or fear to try) because the survival of their political regime depends on being able to guarantee the continued flow of loot to key insiders (Rules for Rulers). Hence, this idea fails the logistics test: it is outside the power of rich countries.

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