My  latest  column in The Asian Age and Deccan  Chronicle

Migration and sex have one thing in common.  It is good politics to appear to be “tough” on migration, as on anything to do with sex.  The politician’s response to both is riddled with hypocrisy. Which brings me to the latest spat between India and the United Kingdom over the latter’s decision to slap a temporary cap on the number of skilled workers allowed into UK from outside the European Union (EU).

Indians are predictably miffed. Interestingly, so are many Britons though their new coalition government has promised consultations with businesses and other interested parties on how new limits on Tiers 1 and 2 of the points-based system of issuance of visa should work in practice. The consultations are expected to set a permanent limit that would come into force on April 1, 2011.

Ever since the announcement, Leicester’s restaurant owners have been wailing that the immigration cap will hit their curry houses. The City of London —  the Square Mile and leading hub of global finance —  is equally worried. “Of course politicians need to respond to broader public worries about immigration, but expert workers are a special case. A cap on numbers may seem simple, but it fails to deal with the importance of certain categories of immigrants who are of substantial benefit to our economy. International businesses located in London and competing globally need at short notice to recruit staff or bring in people from other branches to develop or expand their operations. And they need the best staff, irrespective of their passports, and in a hurry,” argued Stuart Fraser, chairman of policy, City of London Corporation, in a letter to the Financial Times.  Britain’s Federation of Small Businesses has been scathing, calling the latest curbs on skilled non-European workers as “economics of the sixth form”.

The bald truth is that though migrant workers can put a heavy burden on public services, on balance, they contribute far more to the British economy than they take. Figures from Britain’s own Office for Budget Responsibility suggest that a fall in immigration could reduce the UK’s gross domestic product growth by as much as one per cent a year by the end of this Parliament.

To put things in perspective, however, while Britain’s new coalition government has been under fire from diverse quarters for its cap on skilled migrants, it is not the only one guilty of sending out a mixed message on a critical issue.

INDIA, WHICH has been quick to protest loudly about Britain’s latest curbs on skilled workers from outside the EU, does not have a national migration policy nor authenticated category-wise statistics on outgoing or incoming skilled workers.

Last year, thousands of Chinese workers engaged in engineering projects in India were forced to leave following a revised visa policy. The clampdown affected contracted projects worth more than $10 billion.

Is such a measure justified? It is difficult to tell. “We don’t have detailed information on industries and trades where we need foreign expertise or the numbers in which we need it. The Statistical Pocketbook of India does not have data on the number of foreign professionals who are working in India in specific industries”, says Binod Khadria, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Director of International Migration and Diaspora Studies Project. Looking for available Indian data sources on emigration and immigration of skilled workers for the forthcoming India Migration Report 2010 that his research team is preparing, he seems to have drawn a blank. Ready availability of such data would help India negotiate more intelligently and strategically on migration issues in bilateral and multilateral agreements, he asserts.

Prof Khadria, who rues the lack of coordination in understanding the dynamics of migration within India’s officialdom across various ministries, argues that it is in every country’s interest to have its emigrants face “stability” rather than frequent changes in the immigration policy of their destination countries. “We don’t have a long-term strategic vision towards migration to press for such stability in immigration policies. We only try to do short-term cost-benefit analysis,” he adds.

Countries have every right to decide who they would let in and who they want to keep out. But at a time when there is a global war for talent and organisations  are under pressure to focus on talent acquisition and to prioritise longer-term workforce planning, national policies which are rooted in pragmatism are more likely to yield dividends than those tethered to pure politics.

The moot point: there is a sharp distinction between legal and illegal migrants. Countries need to have a clear vision of their economic future and decide if importing talent would help or hinder actualise that vision.

Migrants, skilled or otherwise, are not inducted because employers are filled with the milk of human kindness but because there is an underlying economic logic in doing so. Anti-migrant lobbies who chant incessantly about “uncontrolled migration” conveniently overlook these distinctions and the fact that today when much of the developed world is still grappling with recession and protectionist forces are ascendant, those who get in have to clear stringent regulations and are experts in their own field.

China’s recent move to attract foreign talent is a telling example of the ascending power’s strategic vision. Chinese workers demanding fatter pay cheques have been in the news in recent times. Less known is China’s new policy to woo top-notch foreign talent to help promote economic and social development and global competitiveness of their country. China’s  National Medium and Long-term Talent Development Plan (2010-2020) promises favourable policies in terms of taxation, insurance, housing, children and spouse settlement, career development, research projects and government awards for high-calibre overseas talents who are willing to work in China. The Chinese government is also talking about improving the system for giving permanent residence rights to foreigners.

The national plan, a blueprint for creating a highly skilled national work force over the next decade, aims to transform the country from being “labour-rich to talent-intensive”, according to a news item put out by the Chinese government’s official web site last month.

Why is China, the world’s most populous country, rolling out the red carpet to skilled workers from overseas? It is because China realises all too well that tapping others’ brains is often critical to forging ahead — a lesson other countries can ignore at their own peril.

– Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached


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