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Modern International Labor Migration Patterns | The Gulf Cooperation Council States (GCC) |

Modern International Labor Migration Patterns

Onn Winckler

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While much of modern international migration is brought about by political factors due to both civil and international wars, the vast extent of international migration following World War II is comprised of labor migration, legal and illegal alike.

Although the current global recession led many developed countries, particularly those of the EU, to tighten control over the inflow of migrant workers, in effect, it did not change the trend of the steady increase of international labor migration. By 2010, the number of international migrants worldwide was estimated at 214 million - representing 3.1% of the global population - compared to 178 million in 2000 (UN, International Migration Stock). Their remittances amounted to $440 billion in 2010 compared to $132 billion in 2000 (IOM, 2012; World Bank, 2011:xi). These figures point to the fact that workers’ remittances not only substantially surpass official global development aid but surpass the GDP of many countries as well. According to World Bank estimates, workers’ remittances will increase to $536 billion in 2013 (ESCWA, 2012:16).

Paradox in Saudi Arabia’s labor market

“There is a striking paradox in Saudi Arabia’s labor market. Expatriates working in the Kingdom send home more remittances than those living in any country in the world apart from the U.S. Yet youth unemployment among Saudi citizens is higher than [in] every country in the Middle East and North Africa, except Iraq.”

John Sfakianakis (2011)

Following World War II, four main international labor immigration patterns have emerged:

  1. International labor migration as a fundamental tool for state building: In the English-speaking industrialized countries, namely, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the process of state building itself was, and still is, based on massive labor immigration. As such, the emphasis of the demographic policy of these countries is not natalist-based, but rather one which keeps labor immigration in line with labor market demands.

  2. Labor migration as a “no choice option”: This group is mainly comprised of the developed EU countries that have labor shortages. This situation has come about mainly due to prolonged low fertility rates which led to the rapid aging of the population and the “living without work” option as part of the “welfare states.” As these countries are “nation states” which strive to conserve their traditional cultural-religious nature, they try to find solutions for their labor shortage first through pro-natalist measures and maximized labor force participation rates and then through the labor immigration option. However, since these countries are democracies, many of the labor immigrants and their accompanying family members eventually succeed in becoming citizens of the host countries (Winckler, 2009:129-131; Winckler, 2010:9). The end result is that the percentage of the first and second generation of immigrants of the total population of these countries is steadily increasing. Due to the continuation of the extremely low fertility rates - much below the replacement-level (PRB, 2012:12-13) - these countries are steadily becoming labor immigration countries quite similar to the countries of the first category.

  3. A “near total ban” on labor immigration: The leading countries in this small group are Japan and South Korea. However, due to their prolonged extremely low fertility rates, even lower than in the EU countries (PRB, 2012:12), these countries started to gradually alleviate their strict labor-immigration policies in order to prevent a substantial deterioration of their dependency ratio. In the case of Japan, in 2010 the migrant workers numbered approximately 650,000, that is, 1.7% of the total workforce (IOM, 2012). In the case of South Korea, the number of foreign labor grew even more rapidly, increasing to more than 1 million in 2010, representing almost 5% of the total workforce (Michell, 2010).

  4. The unique GCC rentier labor-immigration pattern: Although labor immigration is not new to the Arabian Gulf oil-exporting countries, dating back to the beginning of the oil era in the late 1940s, following the October 1973 “oil boom” a unique labor migration pattern developed in these countries: not only did the nationals rapidly become a minority in the workforce (with the exception of Oman) but in Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait, the foreigners constitute a substantial majority of the total population as well. In this regard, Fargues and Brouwer (2012:231-232) noted: “The reluctance of the GCC governments to use the term ‘immigrants,’ preferring terms such as ‘foreign workers’ and ‘expatriates,’ also facilitates the classification of the GCC countries as unique.”

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Onn Winckler is professor at the Department of Middle Eastern History, University of Haifa. His major fields of academic research are political demography and economic history of the modern Middle East.
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