The discussions about the impact of immigration on the labour markets of particular countries are often fascinating.It is safe to say that in the political discourse, immigration is seen as a problem for one of two reasons:
- Immigrants work
- Immigrants don’t work
With regard to alternative 2, the allegation usually is that people from poorer countries tend to migrate into countries with extensive social protection and reap the benefits otherwise intended for the natives of the receiving country.The arguments presented against opening the Swedish labour market to East European workers following the enlargement in 2004 by the Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson can serve as a case in point: In November 2003 Persson made a surprising u-turn on the issue, started to warn about the risk for “social tourism” and suggested that Sweden followed the example set by countries such as Germany and France by restricting access to the national labour markets.Later Persson tried to justify his statements by declaring that mass immigration of labour would lead to increased support for xenophobic movements. Many observers in Sweden suggested that Persson might be playing the trade unions’ tune in this issue under the guise of anti-xenophobia and this leads us across the Atlantic to alternative 1.In the U.S. the problem has been stated in the opposite way compared to Western Europe: Complaints have concentrated on the role immigrants have in pressing wages, especially for low-skill work in agriculture and the service sector. In this case immigrants may work but at the expense of native low-skilled workers. This has formed the background for a recent political campaign to enact legislation that would limit immigration, especially from Central America. For an overview, see Slate from April 9 and May 8.How about the statistics, then?Well, in mid-April the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report which concluded that immigrants in the U.S. work (actually, unemployment for this group is slightly lower than for native U.S. residents), that immigrants of the first generation earn relatively less than their “American” counterparts and that immigrants of the first generation are more likely to work in agriculture and service.Actually, this conforms to the current knowledge but it serves to show that an economy can have immigration without sizeable negative effects. That inequality in the U.S. has increased during the last decades is also a fact but statisticians haven’t been able to link this to immigration. Slate’s Daniel Gross has this review of the report.What is interesting to note is that despite the differences in labour markets and party systems, the discussion about immigration tend to lead to fairly similar political noises: Immigration is bad, it undermines national institutions, immigrants are lazy, immigrants work too hard.In short: If only we had a closed shop, everything would be fine.By default Sweden happened not to implement barriers to workers from Easter Europe – a number of different proposals presented to the Swedish parliament canceled out each other in the most bizarre fashion. It didn’t lead to an influx of gold-diggers from the East and today the issue is almost forgotten in Swedish politics.In Denmark, the government negotiated an agreement this April with the Social Democrats, the Social Liberals and the Socialist Party – but without the Danish People’s Party – easing the barriers for Eastern workers. Maybe this report from the European Commission helped the consensus-building efforts.Oh, and by the way: This is not Göran Persson speaking. It’s the Danish Minister of Employment discussing the Eastern Enlargement in early 2004.