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Research Office
11 December 2018

The Relationship between Immigration and the Welfare State

Why do some countries have more selective labour immigration policies than others? Melanie Kolbe, Assistant Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, and Elif Naz Kayran, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science, tackle this issue by developing an original measure of skill selectivity in labour immigration policies for industrialised democracies between 2000 and 2010. Their results point to a potential disagreement between policy reactions to socioeconomic changes, which originate from different regulations, and the societal worth of modern welfare states. Professor Kolbe shares first-hand knowledge on “The Limits of Skill Selective Immigration Policies: Welfare States and the Commodification of Labour Immigrants” (forthcoming in the Journal of European Social Policy).

What motivated you to come up with such an empirical puzzle in your research?

The idea for this paper came during my dissertation fieldwork in Finland. Interviewing policy experts, I learned that a lot of them found it problematic to grant privileges in admission conditions and work rights to high-skilled immigrants over lesser-skilled ones, as they thought it was unfair and incompatible with their understanding of equal treatment. My interviewees linked this back to the norms of their national welfare state, which is based on principles of equality and generosity. I found this fascinating and wondered whether this is a potential explanation of why some states are more selective than others in their labour immigration policies. So, I started to investigate this more thoroughly. However, in working through the potential theoretical relationship between welfare states and labour immigration, I found two juxtaposed explanations which respectively tap into different aspects of modern welfare states: one based on the logic of the fiscal cost of immigration, and the other based on the logic of decommodification and equal treatment.

What are the central contributions of your research to the existing debates in the literature on labour immigration policy?

In our article we demonstrate empirically that welfare states act not just as a source of concern over the fiscal costs of immigration, as has been argued in the literature quite a bit, but also that welfare states inform notions about the extent to which it is appropriate to select foreign workers based on skill. This sheds light on the relationship between welfare states and immigration in a new and complex way. Further, we provide a first measure of skill selectivity in labour immigration policies, i.e., how much the admission conditions and work rights differ between low- and high-skilled foreign workers. Beyond existing and instructive qualitative case studies, our analysis offers a quantitative comparison of 20 countries over more than a decade.

Relying on the evidence presented in your article, to what extent do European states produce similar empirical results compared to non-European states?

Skill selectivity is mainly a phenomenon among Western, developed countries. Most new programmes addressing skill selectivity have been introduced in Western Europe, while long-standing policies exist in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Furthermore, we focus on established welfare states which have experienced considerable immigration over the past decades. Among Eastern European or Asian states, however, skilled migration programmes have been less prevalent. These states are functionally quite different from Western, developed countries in regard to their immigration histories, current labour migrant flows, and also policy intentions. For example, states like South Korea often employ skilled migration programmes to entice members of their international diaspora to come back, rather than attract foreign workers per se. I think that in countries that have until recently served as migrant-sending countries rather than migrant-receiving ones, skill selectivity is often lower on the policy priority list.

How do you see the future of skill selective labour immigration policies in developed countries?

Given the current international discourses on greater migration “management”, we will see increasing attention paid to labour migration and interest in selecting and incentivising economically attractive immigrants. However, political aspirations and the reality of immigration policymaking will make it easier for some countries than others to do so, as our article argues. It may also provoke more discussions about the ethical side of skill selectivity and whether skill selection does not in fact aggravate policy restrictiveness towards low-skilled immigrants.

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Full citation of the article:
Kolbe, Melanie, and Elif Naz Kayran. “The Limits of Skill-Selective Migration Policies: Welfare States and the Commodification of Labour Immigrants.” Journal of European Social Policy (February 2019). doi:10.1177/0958928718819609.

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Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science.