Fixing the freedom to move

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Recent marches in the United States by Latin Americans calling for some 12 million illegal immigrants to be given the right to reside and work in “the land of the free” are the most striking manifestation of a problem that affects every advanced country, although the issue is disguised in Japan.

In North America, and to a varying degree in Western European countries, immigrant labor is needed if essential services are to work properly and if crops are to be harvested. Individual residents of these countries accustomed to a relatively high standard of living are unwilling to carry out all the manual work needed to clean streets and put up buildings. These “dirty, difficult and dangerous” jobs, known as the three K’s in Japanese (kitanai, kitsui and kiken), have to be done by someone at least until human ingenuity can replace the jobs with machines. Some workers can be recruited from among unemployed resident citizens but only at wages that public authorities funded by taxpayers are generally unwilling to pay.

The chance for higher wages and the expectation of better living conditions naturally spur people in poorer countries to emigrate. Emigration can benefit poorer countries by giving emigrants the opportunity to send remittances back home and by reducing population pressures, unemployment and under-employment. It can, however, be harmful to developing economies if too many highly qualified people such as doctors, nurses or engineers emigrate.

An economic union such as the European Union cannot ensure full freedom of trade in goods and services without allowing freedom of movement within the union. In a genuine free-trade area, where competition is not unnaturally restricted, the availability and cost of labor can be as important as the absence of tariffs and nontariff barriers.

The recent enlargement of the union to include Central and East European countries has highlighted this problem. Some EU member states with high unemployment rates demanded, and were granted, temporary exemption from the rules on freedom of movement. This derogation is sometimes termed the “Polish plumbers rule,” since France in particular seems to have feared an influx of Polish plumbers and the loss of French jobs in the building trades.

Other member states such as Britain did not seek an exemption, and reports suggest that the British economy has indeed benefited from an influx of workers from the new member states. Now some other European countries, which had invoked the exemption, have apparently decided that it’s no longer in their best interests to maintain such restrictions.

Freedom of movement will inevitably remain a major issue for the North American Free Trade Area, especially between Mexico and the United States. The U.S. government, despite vociferous opposition from the left and right, will be forced to make significant concessions regarding residence and working rights for Latin Americans, not least because the American economy requires their labor.

The Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations under the World Trade Organization appears to be in trouble partially because of disputes over agriculture. So far, the need for new rules on freedom of movement to accompany rules freeing trade has not taken center stage. Nor has it become central to discussions on aid for developing countries and the bridging of the gap between rich and poor nations. The issue is more often seen in the context of refugees and illegal economic migrants. But it is going to be increasingly important in the contexts of both trade and aid.

Politicians, however, prefer to try to bury the principle of freedom of movement because they know that the question of illegal immigrants is a difficult domestic issue. Immigrants are generally poor and, perhaps as a consequence, more likely to be involved in crime than resident citizens. They are also more likely to suffer discrimination because of their habits, race and inadequate ability to speak the local language and conform to local customs.

Criminal behavior by a minority leads to demands that illegal immigrants be arrested and expelled. The fact that significant numbers of immigrants into European countries are people of Middle Eastern origin and of Islamic persuasion has increased residents’ fears following the 9/11 horrors and the bombings in Madrid and London. Paranoia toward immigrants in turn often unleashes a backlash from immigrant communities.

In Britain the issue has recently been given prominence by the revelation that convicted criminals who had been recommended by judges for deportation had been released into the community and that many were no longer traceable. This has led the British government, in a case of instant misgovernment, to call for an immediate new law demanding that all foreign immigrants convicted of an offense be deported. The proposed new rule was not thought out properly, as it does not take human-rights legislation and international obligations into account.

One halfway measure to remaining competitive without full-scale immigration has consisted of farming out service jobs to countries where wages are lower. With the development of high-speed and cheap telecommunications facilities, there has been a significant growth in locating British call centers offshore.

For various reasons, including knowledge of English and educational standards, many British call centers have been transferred to India. So people with questions on anything from insurance to computer problems may be routed to centers in Bangalore, for instance.

The abilities of call-center staff, however, often leave much to be desired and have left many British callers deeply frustrated. Amid the fierce competition, it is unlikely that offshore call centers will be brought back home as long as the difference in wages paid at home and abroad remains so great.

Japan has so far managed to keep the number of both legal and illegal immigrants relatively low, but Japan has not totally escaped the problems associated with immigrants, who are often accused of being primarily responsible for the rise in serious crime.

As Japan’s population continues to age and to decline, much more thought must be given to immigration problems. The issue of freedom of movement calls for much more informed debate.