How the multinationals can help resolve debate on migration

An Haitian migrant woman sitting next to her belongings while seeking to resolve her legal situation to avoid deportation from Colombia and continue her way to Panama and the United States, in Cali, Colombia, on Aug 10, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

The West, it's obvious, faces a migration crisis. Across the ageing, stagnating economies of the developed world, citizens are revolting against what many perceive as an uncontrolled influx of foreigners.

The United States apart, most of these economies are also facing a prolonged crisis of growth. Under other circumstances, the solution would be obvious: restore vitality by taking in more creative and productive people from India, China and other parts of the developing world.

But how to do so, given the fraught politics of immi- gration? There's clearly something unsustainable about the West's current approach - the idea that countries won't seek immigrants, but will by default take in whoever lands on their shores or games the system to stay. Ironically, one answer may be found in a nation historically as opposed to immigration as any blood-and-soil European polity: Japan.

While Japan's immigration numbers remain minuscule, especially compared to countries like the US and Australia, they are rising. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the number of foreigners living in Japan has increased by 10 per cent. Japan's leaders have tried to dilute opposition by using a controversial programme to bring "technical interns" into Japan; their ranks have expanded 27 per cent in the same period.

Other countries have work permit systems of this sort, of course. Indian companies have long demanded more intra-company transfers to the United Kingdom, for example. And the US has the H1-B visa programme, under which corporations sponsor skilled employees. But companies are using the Japanese internship programme differently, training future employees in their home countries before they even leave. There is a vast difference - politically and culturally - between Indian IT service providers shipping cheap workers across national boundaries and "national champion" companies bringing employees from other countries back home.

Indeed, resistance to the use and abuse of work permit programmes by Indian IT companies is quite understandable. Firms have exploited the H1-B programme to import low-wage software engineers for specific projects - pejoratively known as "body- shopping". While this may improve efficiency overall, it does little for long-term productivity and innovation in either the US or India.

The comprehensive immigration reform package that almost passed a few years ago would have substantially reformed the US programme, allowing individual migrants to change jobs rather than depending on a single employer. This would have been good for everyone - except, that is, the IT companies which would have seen their business model evaporate.

An even more crucial reform, surely, would be for multinational companies to help select the kind of immigrants that their home countries really want and need, and prepare them in advance for life there. Logically, those who thrive in a particular multinational's corporate culture - so often shaped by the attitudes and instincts of the company's home country - should do especially well once they relocate. There's even a word for these employees in the management literature: "inpatriates". Once they arrive, the companies they work for can do what liberal governments would struggle to do - introduce the newcomers to local customs that help them build cross-cultural bridges. At Sweden's Sandvik, for example, the country's famed coffee breaks or "fika" served that purpose for Indian inpatriates.

There are few other options. Points-based systems such as those used in Australia and Canada - which grade possible immigrants on the basis of their age, whether they speak English, their level of education and so on - are inherently elitist. They would likely struggle in countries where egalitarianism is a crucial part of the national self-image. In addition, Australia and Canada already have relatively successful multicultural societies. More homogenous countries might implicitly prefer that those who they put on a path to citizenship be selected with an eye towards whether they can assimilate effectively.

Its recent troubles apart, the US had probably developed the most effective pathways to citizenship in the West, especially for skilled workers. Its higher education sector, the best in the world, served as a magnet for the talented; a year's grace period after they finished their schooling allowed students to find companies willing to hire them. The university experience aided their assimilation, and the job-seeking process served as a filter for useful skills.

Yet few places have as attractive a higher education system as the US; the task of screening possible future citizens can't be left to local colleges. Nor should it be left to bureaucrats, for that would require them to differentiate between various seekers of citizenship, something that violates deeply felt liberal principles.

Companies are better suited to the task. They will be quicker to identify the skills that will be useful and productive than governments ever could be. They can pick and choose possible immigrants in their home countries, which no government can do. And the ability to succeed in a particular company's corporate culture is a good proxy for how well immigrants will adapt to their new country. Perhaps the next thing that needs to be privatised is migration.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2016, with the headline 'How the multinationals can help resolve debate on migration'. Print Edition | Subscribe