Economic Migration: No Simple Explanation of Immigration’s Impacts

… according to Mary Gilmartin.

The question of who wins from immigration is provocative. Many believe that working people don’t. Seen from this perspective, immigration leads to a reduction in wages and a deterioration in working conditions. Immigrants are perceived as taking jobs from and undercutting local workers, resulting in what has elsewhere been termed a ‘race to the bottom’.

This way of understanding of the effects of immigration is seductive. Unfortunately, it is also dangerous. It is not based on evidence. It doesn’t acknowledge the effects of different types of immigration. It creates tensions and divides between working people. It uses immigration as a scapegoat for broader problems in a society.

There is strong evidence that immigration increases wages for native workers

In the UK, with a similar labour market structure to Ireland, there is strong evidence that immigration increases wages for native workers. In Ireland, there is equally strong evidence of an “immigrant pay gap”. This shows that immigrants from the newer EU states (e.g. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia) earn significantly less than comparable Irish workers. There is also strong evidence, in Ireland, that immigrants lost jobs at a much faster rate than native workers when the recession began. Overall, then, there is strong evidence that wages for native workers are not negatively affected by immigration, and the employment of native workers is better paid and more secure.

These are general trends. They mask the very different ways in which immigrants enter and work in Ireland. Most immigrants in Ireland come from other countries within the European Union. Immigration from the EU, then, is seen as a source of labour for Irish society. Immigrants from the newer EU states are particularly likely to be hired for work that is described as 3-D (dirty, dangerous, difficult). This is work that is not considered “skilled” in Irish immigration policy, and so it is expected to be performed by non-Irish EU nationals. This work is often low-paid and precarious.

In contrast, many of the significantly smaller number of immigrants from outside the EU enter Ireland as highly-skilled migrants. Ireland’s labour migration policy is influenced by the needs of employers, and the classification of skills and skills shortages is made by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. This group makes regular reports on skills shortages in Ireland, and employers may recruit workers from outside the EU to fill these vacancies. Among the skills shortages identified in 2015 are software developers, nurses, surveyors, multilingual customer support, chefs and butchers. When immigrants are recruited in this manner, they are often valued employees who receive comparable treatment to their native Irish colleagues. If they work in highly-unionised sectors, such as nursing, they are also more aware of their rights as workers.

However, a growing number of immigrants from outside the EU now enter Ireland as international students. Many work – legally – in order to fund their studies, and their experiences as workers are quite different and often very difficult. International student workers are at high risk of irregularity. If they become irregular, they join many other workers in Ireland – both immigrant and native – who work in the “shadow economy”.

The presence of immigrants in a workplace can provide significant advantages to unscrupulous employers. Immigrants may be more susceptible to work-based exploitation for a variety of reasons. These include limited understanding of rights and entitlements or irregular status. Research by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, in sectors that include agriculture, domestic and restaurant work, paints a grim picture of the variety of ways in which exploitation may occur. So, while native workers may not necessarily suffer directly from the presence of immigrants, immigration as a process has the potential to lead to a deterioration in working conditions because of the exploitative actions of employers.

Immigrants are not responsible for a deterioration in working conditions. That is the responsibility of employers. The Irish State has also played a role in this, because of its failure to adequately fund the labour inspectorate. Instead, it has given the labour inspectorate additional powers to detect irregular workers, which creates new possibilities for exploitation. Workers, regardless of nationality, need and deserve protection. And workers have more to gain from supporting each other, rather than creating false divisions based on immigration status that obscure what all workers have in common.

Mary Gilmartin is Senior Lecturer at NUI Maynooth and author of “Ireland and migration in the 21st Century”.