Temporary Migration

views updated


A temporary worker generally enters a country for a fixed-time period for a particular occupation or employer, must leave when the period expires, and in most cases is not entitled to family reunification or adjustment to permanent residence. Temporary worker programs cover both unskilled and highly skilled labor. A typical program range was categorized by Heinz Werner (1996) as follows:

  1. One-year work permits for experts and executives;
  2. Border crossing permits allowing residents of neighboring countries or territories to enter the host country daily or weekly to work;
  3. Seasonal work permits;
  4. Project-tied contract labor authorizing entry for completion of a specific project; and
  5. Trainee permits allowing individuals to work in the country for a defined period of time to gain certain occupational or language skills.

Many countries simultaneously operate multiple programs.

The majority of temporary work is defined as contract labor, which includes both project-tied labor and seasonal labor. Often an employer or recruiter organizes workers for a specific project or for an agricultural season. Project-tied labor involves giving a contract to a foreign company, which can then bring in its own labor for the duration of the project. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has attempted to create standards applying to temporary workers that cover their employment conditions (e.g., hours worked, paid holidays, ability to unionize, access to social security, written contract), provision of equal opportunity, rights to family visitation, and the right to have their grievances investigated fairly.

Contract labor frequently is part of a bilateral agreement between two countries as one component of an economic development plan. Countries also use temporary worker programs to regularize the flow of labor, reduce undocumented migration, and improve bilateral relations more generally. Contracts under bilateral agreements, particularly for seasonal workers, often specify duration of stay, wages, employer, workers' rights (if any), and employer coverage of travel and housing.

Seasonal programs generally require certification of the unavailability of domestic labor prior to employers being allowed to recruit foreign workers. The duration of stay varies in length: three months in Germany, six months in France, nine months in Switzerland, and up to one year in the United States. The size of the programs varies from country to country as well: Germany admitted between 125,000 and 225,000 workers annually in the 1990s (and allowed for up to 20,000 information technology professionals); Canada admitted approximately 17,000 under its seasonal agricultural programs; and the United States permitted entry to approximately 75,000 unskilled temporary workers annually during that same time frame, as well as another 100,000 or so high-skilled workers.

Frontier programs have been used primarily in Germany (with Polish and Czech workers) and in Switzerland (with French, Italian, German, and Austrian workers). While there is no quota or required labor market test, employers must pay prevailing wages. Trainee program participants generally range from a few hundred to a few thousand per country, are not normally subject to a labor market test, and have limited opportunities for adjustment to a permanent status.

Certain nationalities tend to comprise the majority of the world's temporary workers; the Philippines, for example, is the world's largest exporter of labor. Filipino and Sri Lankan workers go to the Gulf States; Bangladeshi workers go to Singapore; Mexicans (in the lower-skilled tier) and Indians (in the higher-skilled tier) are prominent in the U.S. programs; Thai and Romanian workers can be found in Israel; Ukrainian and Turkish workers drift to Russia; Moroccan workers predominate in Spain; and Polish workers fill many of Germany's programs.

Similarly, only particular sectors and occupations have turned to foreign labor, historically and currently, to remedy micro-level shortages. Temporary workers played a vital role in driving twentieth century economic growth, including during European industrialization, during the United States's wartime labor shortages, during the Gulf States's oil boom, and during Asia's rapid economic growth in the 1980s. Specific occupations include physically demanding or dangerous jobs such as construction, agriculture, mining, domestic services, and tourism, as well as newer occupations such as computer programming and other highly skilled information technology jobs.

Common Issues

Regardless of country, all entities designing or managing temporary worker programs face similar challenges. Among the issues they must consider are: (1) the extent of government involvement; (2) the impact on the domestic labor force; (3) unintended, but predictable consequences; and (4) internal program consistency. The first issue was discussed above in terms of whether sending and receiving governments choose to engage in bilateral agreements, but it also includes considerations such as whether the program is administered by a government agency or the private sector, and whether the sending country is actively engaged in worker screening and in protecting the rights of its workers abroad.

The second issue is the challenge to design a program that avoids any adverse impact on the existing native-born work force or any financial advantage to employers in hiring foreign workers. Countries address this through a variety of means, including highly regulated recruitment requirements, worker quotas, required certification of labor shortages, provision of rights and benefits to foreign workers equal to those of domestic workers, access to social security credits, and taxes on employers who import foreign labor. Imposition of a tax for each worker aims to prevent employer dependence on foreign labor; often it is earmarked for a fund to train and recruit domestic workers.

Third, a review of previous temporary worker programs indicates that, in many cases, the creation of such programs stimulates additional migration by creating new migration chains that continue long after the program's termination. Governments, then, must be careful in designing new programs and in considering the potential consequences of existing initiatives that attract new pools of migrants. Research also has demonstrated that a small percentage of workers will likely remain in the receiving country after expiration of the program. Some receiving governments discourage this by allowing only short stays, providing workers with few protections, engaging in repatriation programs, placing responsibility on employers for workers' departures, and even seizing workers' travel documents. Some sending governments encourage workers to return by withholding a percentage of their pay until their return or by offering higher interest rates for the foreign currency brought home. Broader efforts include joint development programs with receiving governments that provide housing and job training for the workers upon their return home, as well as the ability of workers to earn social security credits for their work abroad.

Finally, many countries face the challenge of developing and maintaining internal consistency in their programs. Mixed policy messages, such as devising strict admissions regulations but allowing adjustment after a certain period of time, or issuing long-duration but still "temporary" visas, tend to undermine program success. Moreover, programs that have process-intensive, but ineffective, labor market tests and programs that have stringent but poorly enforced rules pose great challenges to the effectiveness of temporary worker programs.

See also: Internal Migration; Labor Migration, International.


Böhning, W. R. 1984. Studies in International Labor Migration. New York: Macmillan.

Cohen, Robin, ed. 1995. The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Congressional Research Service (CRS). 1989. Temporary Worker Programs: Background and Issues (1980). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

International Organization for Migration (IOM). 2000. World Migration Report 2000. New York: International Organization for Migration and United Nations.

Martin, Philip L. 1998. "Germany: Reluctant Land of Immigration." German Issues, Vol. 21. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Miller, Mark J., and Philip L. Martin. 1982. Administering Foreign-Worker Programs. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2001. Trends in International Migration. Annual Report. Paris: OECD.

Stalker, Peter. 1994. The Work of Strangers: A Survey of International Labour Migration. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labor Organization.

Werner, Heinz. 1996. "Temporary Migration of Foreign Workers." In Temporary Migration for Employment and Training Purposes. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Deborah Waller Meyers