Employees Without Borders: Understanding the Impact of Migration on the Workplace

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Written by Ana C. Rold

While the issue of human migration continues to create polarizing tensions between political parties in the United States, it is undeniable that immigration has historically had a deep and profound impact on the political, social, and economic landscape globally. With globalization continuing to dominate every aspect of modern life, migration—including immigration, emigration, and the displacement of refugees—has had an especially large influence on the world economy and the job market. From the migrant workers that make up a large percentage of the U.S. workforce, to the multinational employees that work in international corporations, now more than ever we are beginning to see how jobs transcend borders. While the ever-changing job landscape appears to be leading toward a borderless job marketplace, it is important to keep in mind the steps the private sector and governments will have to take to get there without conflict.

In the United States, immigration and refugee issues have become an especially hot topic in recent months. Despite current political tensions, however, the fact remains that immigrants perform a large percentage of jobs in the U.S., with sectors such as private households, textile and apparel manufacturing, agriculture, accommodation, and food manufacturing employing the most immigrants out of all industries. In total, a 2014 Pew report shows that 17.1% of the total U.S. workforce—or 27.6 million out of 161.4 million workers—is made up of immigrants, with 12.1% entering the U.S. legally and 5% entering undocumented. The same 2014 Pew report also shows that while no specific industry is made up by a majority of immigrants, in terms of specific jobs, 63% of personal appearance workers (a category that includes jobs such as manicurists, makeup artists and the like) 60% of agricultural work and 55% of sewing machine worker jobs are performed by immigrants.

While immigrants may not make up a majority of job holders in the U.S., the fact that over 17% of jobs are performed by foreigners shows that the dismissal of foreign-born peoples would have disastrous consequences. This past February, a U.S. nationwide protest known as “A Day Without Immigrants” was held in order to demonstrate the potential effects of tightened immigration laws in the U.S., with restaurants, daycare centers, markets and other businesses closing for the day in protest of these prospective immigration bans. In the restaurant industry, for example, statistics show that nearly 23% of restaurant employees—and 45% of chefs in particular—are immigrants, and with the closure of dozens of restaurants throughout cities like Washington DC and New York City on “A Day Without Immigrants,” a simulation of what a migrant-less workforce would be like could be felt throughout these cities.

But what is it exactly about migrant workers that make them uniquely important to the U.S. economy? A recent Sodexo Workplace Trends Report highlights three key reasons why these foreign-born workers are valuable to U.S. economic growth: first, the free movement of skilled workers between countries contributes to both national and global economic growth and competitiveness; second, the easy flow of labor can be used to fill job shortages in specific sectors; and third, migrants who are empowered with the freedoms of U.S. citizens are oftentimes better consumers who create new and untapped markets. Perhaps most importantly, a WEF report shows that contrary to popular belief, the U.S. population is projected to grow much slower in the next few decades, leading to an aging U.S. population that will be unable to fill the 54.8 million jobs that are expected to open up. Immigrants will be necessary to filling this long-term worker shortage, and perhaps most encouraging of all, evidence suggests that increases in foreign-born workers will not decrease wages and employment available to U.S. citizens, but will instead complement it.

While the U.S. may continue to struggle with the issue of immigration for a while more, on a global scale, international businesses have been hiring multinational workforces for decades—a model that demonstrates a potential solution to the U.S. issue of migrant workers. In the UK and Luxembourg, for example, language programs—such as pairing up foreign-speaking workers with English-speaking colleagues, or providing employees with no-cost language classes—are being introduced by companies in an effort to bridge any cultural and language gaps in their workforce as well as increase the inclusivity of foreign-born workers. Similarly, companies such as McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Chobani also claim to employ a large number of refugees, with McDonald’s Deutschland employing over 900 refugees since 2015, Microsoft donating desktop computers to refugees in Germany, and Chobani’s workforce comprising of roughly 30% immigrants and refugees. Ultimately, these companies demonstrate potential practices that U.S. businesses can adopt in order to create a space where migrant workers can not only adapt, but also thrive.

In the end, it will be of utmost importance for U.S. businesses to promote safer and more inclusive environments for both citizen and migrant workers in an effort to remain competitive in the global market. On the flipside, it is crucial for migrant workers to invest in language skills and proper assessment of existing professional skills in order to gain employment in a field most suited to them. With both parties working together to create a better work culture, businesses will prosper from the unique edge migrant workers can give them, and workers can gain the benefits of a secured livelihood. Ultimately, globalization continues to dominate the international economy, and it is critical that the U.S.—both supported and led by foreign-born workers—join in on this trend.

About the author:  Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network.  She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.