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EU: Migrant Workers Might Not Be The Solution Some States Seek

Some European states are hoping that migrants from poorer countries can provide relief to current labor shortages. Britain, which has no work restrictions on immigrants from new EU member states, is one country that is benefiting from an influx of cheap labor. But some experts warn that dependence on imported labor is a short-term solution that harms countries' efforts to place their own unemployed in a position to compete for jobs.

London, 11 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Falling birth rates are threatening to cause labor shortages in developed and developing states alike.

Some of the more economically advanced EU states are looking to import cheap labor to meet their needs.

Britain, for instance, has no work restrictions on migrant workers from the new EU states, and is eyeing laborers from those countries and near neighbors to alleviate its labor shortages.

But some warn that depending on an influx of foreign labor is a short-term solution for developed countries. They also note that developing states are themselves experiencing lower birth rates, and will eventually need a larger workforce as their own economies grow.
Eastern Europe's birth rates have collapsed to some of the lowest levels in the world since the early 1990s

Professor David Coleman, a demography specialist at Oxford University's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, cites Eastern European countries as an example.

"In due course that labor supply will dry up. Eastern Europe's birth rates have collapsed to some of the lowest levels in the world since the early 1990s. And that means that in the next few years, when those age cohorts move up into the workforce participation age, there will start to be a marked shortage of young workers, and they will be needed at home," Coleman says.

Coleman says that Eastern European economies are ripe for rapid growth, particularly in those countries that have joined the EU already. Wage levels and living standards in these countries are expected to rise to close in on the levels seen in established EU states -- similar to what happened in Spain, Portugal, and Greece after they joined the EU in the 1980s.

"If that is the case than the [laborers'] motivation for moving will substantially diminish. In exactly the same way as it did from the formerly poor countries of southern Europe," Coleman says.

If such a scenario becomes reality, Coleman says, Britain and other EU states with labor shortages "will have to look very far afield at some very unpromising places to find cheap labor."

Migrant laborers are looking for immediate relief for their own economic situations, and are thus attracted to growth economies.

Christian Dustmann, a professor at London's University College, cites the situation in Britain as an example.

"The U.K. is a highly successful economy with sustained growth rates over the last seven years, very high number of vacancies, and -- compared to other continental economies -- very low unemployment. Now, economies in such a state usually need workers in various areas, which very often can't be provided by the local labor market. And that's when we see immigration," Dustmann says.

The problem Coleman sees is with countries' inability to meet that demand with their own unemployed, often because they lack needed skills or education

Coleman says this particularly affects minorities and women, who have higher unemployment levels and are often more dependent on welfare benefits.

If countries depend too much on migrants to alleviate their labor shortages, desperately needed solutions to problems with their own potential domestic workforce are sidelined, Coleman says:

"It's just a way of pleasing metropolitan desires for convenience, while ignoring the continuation and growth of really serious problems in our society as the result of undertraining, unemployment, and stagnation in the bottom layers of society."

Professor Dustmann agrees that importing labor instead of educating and training domestic labor is not a permanent solution. He adds, however, that the U.K. has been investing in education -- especially over the past eight years -- but says it takes time to see results, and countries often have immediate labor needs.

"He is perfectly right that immigration should not be a substitute for investing into education. But I don't see that this is the case at the moment in the U.K. However, the economy cannot wait for a new generation of people being educated. Economy needs people now. If these people are not made available, then the economy will have very serious disadvantage in international market," Dustmann says.

Professor Dustmann concludes that if skilled-labor demand cannot be met domestically, importing labor is preferable to another possibility -- companies moving abroad to find cheap labor.