Is it Time for a Trade Agreement on Labor Mobility? Part I

At any given moment, a company looking to source a product, be it sugar or software, has several advantages and resources at its disposal. As a result of trade agreements, import tariffs have been lowered. Rules are in place to minimize import barriers and to increase transparency about the rules. The company knows what goods it can import and under what conditions.

Despite the demand for labor that draws people to take desperate lengths to cross national borders, no such mechanisms exist for the labor market. Trade rules continue to relegate the issues of labor movement to the realm of domestic policy. The result is national immigration policies that marginalize the low-skilled or unlicensed service providers as well as the more highly-skilled and educated workers from certain regions of the world. These are the workers who migrate to pick fruit, mow lawns, clean homes, care for children and the elderly, and drive our cities’ taxis.

Refugees cross Hungary-Serbia border fence (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Refugees cross Hungary-Serbia border fence (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The current refugee crisis is the inevitable result of the absence of a regularized mechanism for handling the ongoing flow of labor across borders. The minimal system that exists is therefore quickly overwhelmed when there is an emergency, such as the outflow of refugees from war-torn Syria. The hundreds of economic migrants that annually take advantage of the summer weather have become hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war as well as the resulting poverty.

Germany’s offer to absorb up to 100,000 migrants, it is widely agreed, is motivated by the appeal of attracting young laborers to replace its ageing and diminishing labor force. Nor is Germany the only country facing this pending challenge. We know, for example, that the US economy faces a shortage of skilled workers in the not-so distant future.

Of course, some of these needs can be met locally. However, we have trade rules in place that limit the ability to stop the import of sugar because a country already grows its own sugar. Why not for labor?

Yes – we are talking about people and their livelihoods, not commodities. However, this is a concern that cuts both ways. Furthermore, a drowned bag of sugar simply dissolves. All that may wash up on shore is an empty sack. We should no longer be willing to stand by and watch people drown while grasping for a better life. Pope Francis, in his speech before the joint session of the US Congress, made an appeal to recognize the humanity in everyone and not be afraid of the numbers.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore that domestically, the unemployment numbers are also high. The US unemployment rate stands at 5.1% (as of October, 2015). It’s much higher among African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and youth, and varies by region. Unemployment rates in Europe are higher among immigrants. Could there be a connection between these anomalies across the domestic labor markets and the absence of a rational approach to labor mobility?

At the moment the crisis is on. However, if we do not take the time to simultaneously plan for a rational and normalized approach to labor movement, such crises will continue to recur. Is it time to negotiate a trade agreement on labor mobility?

. . . to be continued

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