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Labor Mobility in the Post-COVID-19 Era: The Case for Partnerships

Key Points

  • COVID-19 has not changed long-term demographic trends, which still require significantly more labor mobility to maintain the economic and social structure of high-income countries.
  • There is also good reason to want a more globally mobile workforce even in the immediate future following COVID-19, as migrants contribute to economic growth which will aid the recovery.
  • However, factors constraining labor mobility are heightened in the COVID-19 era; operationally, there is the additional challenge of ensuring migrants are COVID-19 free, and politically, high domestic unemployment is stoking nationalist sentiments.
  • In the near term, this creates two possible worlds: one in which the constraints win out, and one in which we build off innovations implemented during COVID-19 to move towards a well-managed mobile workforce, setting us up well for the much larger demographic need in coming decades.
  • We propose that the second world can be achieved through a broad coalition to validate the risky innovations undertaken during COVID-19 and to document the positive impacts of the actions they undertook.
  • We further propose that a good ‘mobility industry’ is core to resuming labor mobility, and will require collective action from a broad coalition to establish and develop a quality industry.
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COVID-19 has caused many to question the future of labor mobility. With rising domestic unemployment, increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, and health concerns around spreading of the virus through mobility, politicians, employers, and migration scholars and practitioners alike have wondered whether we are reverting to a less mobile world.

This is certainly one possible outcome; however, none of fundamental demographic drivers towards labor mobility in the long term, as laid out in a recent LaMP note,[i] have changed in the wake of COVID-19. High-income countries still face growing elderly populations and shrinking working age populations, meaning that in the coming decades they will need to rely on a mobile workforce to maintain their economies and social contracts.

Therefore, we propose that COVID-19 will lead to a world where labor mobility remains just as important but requires more partnerships. As noted, COVID-19 does not change the long-run dynamics of the need for labor mobility; it does, however, create a new operational and political challenges. These challenges are ones that require cooperation: between receiving and sending countries, employers, and ‘mobility industry’ or the actors which provide services along the mobility cycle. As such, rather than COVID-19 offering cause for pessimism about the future of labor mobility partnerships, we see it as an opportunity for a necessary invention. In this note, we will first explore how the dynamics around labor mobility change in a post-COVID-19 world. We will then explore how a partnership model, with a good ‘mobility industry’ at the core, can resolve these dynamics while building what has always been needed: a well-managed globally mobile workforce.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on Demand for a Mobile Workforce

As noted above, COVID-19 does not change the long-term demographic drivers of labor mobility, as laid out in depth in LaMP’s previous note.[ii]In the near-term, the effects on the demand for foreign workers are less clear. Many of the “essential” and migrant-intensive sectors had been predicted to face vast shortages in the coming years already before the pandemic. Nursing shortages ranged from 10,000 per year in the UK to 75,000 per year in Germany and 203,700 per year in the US; care worker shortages were even more dire, ranging from 38,000 per year in Germany to 1.3 million per year in the US.[iii] US care worker shortages are so dire that the vice president of policy of the US Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute admitted “it is impossible to imagine that the sector would survive without immigrants.” Other sectors such as agriculture, construction, and tourism all similarly face significant labor shortages in the years following COVID-19.  As mentioned above, the damaging impact of job shortages during this crisis has been apparent. In the post-COVID era, shortages are likely to become even more impactful as aging populations in OECD countries require increasing support and pandemics are predicted to become increasingly common.[iv]

At the same time, migrant workers are also overrepresented in sectors which have been the most hurt by the crisis. In the US, 20 percent of workers in vulnerable industries facing layoffs (such as accommodation food services, non-essential retail, personal care services, and building services) are migrant workers, a total of 6 million, relative to their 17 percent share of the total civilian workforce.[v] This is directly translating into labor market outcomes; a recent analysis showed that while employment rate of male migrant workers in the US in 2019 was six percentage points higher than of male native workers, by April 2020 their employment rate was two percentage points lower than that of male native workers.[vi]

In the EU, migrants have also been found to be more likely to be employed in risky occupations which are more exposed to COVID-19-related job losses (categorized as jobs in which do not allow for telework, are non-essential, and require face-to-face interaction).[vii] Tourism, which employs a shocking one in ten formally employed people, has lost more than 100 million jobs as a result of COVID-19 restrictions on movement; millions of these jobs were held by migrant workers, who make up a large share of the tourism workforce.[viii] It is difficult to project when these job losses may be made up, possibly implying a decline in the need for migrant workers in coming years. The OECD reports that “experiences from previous economic crises suggest that there might be disproportionate and long-lasting negative effects on the integration of immigrants…unless appropriate support measures are in place.”[ix]

Beyond sector specific impacts, migrant workers are vital to overall economic recovery. Migrant workers are well-documented to contribute to economic growth. A 2016 report estimated that because migrant workers move to higher-productivity settings, they boost global GDP; the report estimated that as of 2015, migrant workers contributed roughly $6.7 trillion, or 9.4 percent, to global GDP – $3 trillion more than they would have if they stayed in their home countries. We see the direct impacts of this in key receiving countries. In Australia, “real economic growth…over the last couple of years has been around 2 to 2.5 percent. Of that, almost one percent has simply been the effect of migration.”[x] “Under current policy settings,” experts in Australia estimate they will not be able to meet migration targets in the next decade,[xi] cutting off a critical source of growth as Australia struggles to recover economically. Similarly, Canadian GDP growth in recent years and its fiscal balance rely heavily on migrant workers; new additions of permanent migrants were down 30% in March 2020 relative to the previous year and down 45% for temporary foreign worker entries in the agriculture sector, undermining potential for an economic recovery.[xii] As António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organization on Migration, succinctly said, “If we are unable to relaunch migration and mobility safely – and universally – the world’s ability to recover from economic recession will be limited.”[xiii]

Ultimately, at the core of the discussion in the immediate term is not levels of labor migration, but labor mobility. In all times, but particularly in times of uncertainty and crisis, flexibility and the ability of workers to move where they are needed is critical to economic health. This was evidenced during and after the Great Recession in 2008. Evidence from the US following the 2008 recession shows that migrant workers’ employment rates rebounded more quickly than native workers,[xiv] possibly because migrant workers are more mobile than native-born workers, moving more fluidly across regions, industries and occupations.[xv] Evidence from the EU during the Great Recession also suggested that migrant workers responded to changing labor shortages across EU member states, occupations, and sectors more fluidly than natives, and that this flexibility allowed them to contribute to stabilizing labor markets during and after the crisis.[xvi] So regardless of levels of migration, in order to stabilize and recover post-COVID-19, we will need well-regulated, flexible pathways to connect workers to jobs globally.

COVID-19 Heightens Barriers to Work on Labor Mobility

While even in the immediate future there is still a need for mobile labor, COVID-19 has increased the constraints around labor mobility. Even before COVID-19, each of the actors who stood to benefit from labor mobility (host countries, sending countries, workers themselves, employing sectors, the mobility industry) also faced significant constraints and risks in creating the collective actions that limit their possibilities for individual action. These constraints can be grouped into three buckets: operational and technical, political and reputational, and financial. Whether implicitly or explicitly, these constraints undermine actors’ ability and willingness to participate in jointly building the conditions for a more mobile workforce that benefits all. These factors are heightened in the COVID-19 era, and it is likely they will remain so for the medium term.

Operational Constraints

Operational constraints relate to factors within an actor’s internal or external operating environ­ment that limit its ability to successfully achieve and implement partnerships. These may relate to an actor’s internal awareness of its own needs, its aware­ness of or ability to reach partners who might address these needs, or its technical capacity to implement a labor mobility policy or program.

Operationally, mobility has become much more complex in the COVID-19 era.  As of the end of April 2020, 217 countries had restricted travel, including 97 countries implementing total or partial border closures, and 65 suspending arriving international flights.[xvii] These travel restrictions have prevented migrant workers from reaching their jobs, as well as from returning home if they lost employment.[xviii] While these measures are temporary, resuming normal mobility once the pandemic winds down will be difficult. Countries will have to implement large scale health screenings, re-issue visas for workers who returned home, and ensure the public that allowing mobility will not lead to new outbreaks.

In the same way that travel procedures changed permanently in the wake of 9/11, operational changes on who is allowed to travel where and how are likely to be in place well after the end of COVID-19.[xix] This is particularly true as “travel bubbles” are allowing mobility to resume within certain regions before it resumes broadly, potentially shifting mobility patterns. This has significant implications for labor mobility pathways. Operations to facilitate labor mobility will become more complex, requiring robust systems for health checks and significant coordination and delicate data sharing agreements[xx] between governments on both ends as well as mobility industry service providers delivering the health checks. Of course the extent and duration of these impacts depends on when an effective vaccine is widely available – for example, in the event that the Oxford vaccine proves effective and a significant portion of the global population can be vaccinated within the next 12 months,[xxi] mobility may rebound much more quickly. However, even in this ‘best case’ scenario, there is likely to be an increased focus on the health risks of mobility over the coming years. The World Economic Forum referred to this as “the rise of a new ‘health securitization’ migration rhetoric.”[xxii]

Political and Reputational Constraints

Political and reputational constraints relate to the authorizing environment of actors potentially inter­ested in forming a partnership on labor mobility. Political constraints refer to constraints within a gov­erning environment that limit the ability of govern­ment partners to authorize a policy or program relating to labor mobility. Reputational risk refers to the potential for nega­tive publicity or public perceptions, which have an adverse impact on an actor’s reputation, thereby weakening its relationship or credibility with its respective constituents. There is significant evidence indicating that these are the most binding constraints, and often relate to concerns around the domestic impact of migration, risks to the migrants, health and security concerns, and trust among all parties.

Operational challenges, while difficult, are more easily solved with technical solutions; the political response to migrants post-COVID creates a bigger worry. COVID-19 has already fueled xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments, beginning with xenophobia towards Asian migrants at the start of the outbreak[xxiii] but quickly spreading to pushes to curtail migration much more broadly.[xxiv] Nativist sentiments have been further fueled by the startling economic decline. This is in line with past experience; historical evidence shows us that economic recessions tend to lessen support for immigration.[xxv] To date, the US is the sole country which has established immigration restrictions in response to COVID-19 which are explicitly based on economic grounds;[xxvi] on June 22nd, the Trump Administration issued a proclamation expanding on previous restrictions to prevent foreign workers from filling 525,000 jobs (according to the administration’s estimates) in order to prevent these workers from competing with unemployed American workers for jobs. Other countries are actively trying to recruit furloughed native workers into roles traditionally filled by migrant workers, such as the “Pick for Britain” campaign.[xxvii]

On the other hand, the response to COVID-19 is highlighting the importance of labor mobility and of migrant workers. As borders closed and employers lost access to their migrant workforce, the very tangible impacts of labor shortages became quickly apparent. Fruit rotted in the fields[xxviii] while food prices increased (rice prices to a seven-year high) due to labor shortages.[xxix],[xxx] Countries that had already faced severe lacks of health care workers saw these shortages get even deeper at the worst possible moment as many doctors and nurses got sick and there was no one to replace them.[xxxi] Migrants are over-represented as “essential workers” responding to COVID-19 in most high-income countries.[xxxii]

With certain actors recognizing the contributions of migrants, widespread campaigns of support led to previously unthinkable policy changes. In a dramatic shift from its previous policy stance, Italy gave 600,000 undocumented migrants work permits in recognition of the need for these workers providing care and keeping food on the table during COVID-19.[xxxiii] Portugal has also temporarily regularized all migrants who had applied for a residence permit before the declaration of the state of emergency on 18 March. Despite border closures, Germany, the UK, Finland and others made special provisions to fly in seasonal agricultural workers.[xxxiv],[xxxv] Local governments have played a key role; in Canada, Prince Edward’s Island has fast-tracked immigration processes for health workers and truckers, while Nova Scotia has done the same for nurses.[xxxvi] Huge steps have been taken to improve the mobility of health workers, overcoming obstacles of skill recognition and certification that plagued the process for decades. For example, in Germany, some states have allowed foreign doctors with pending accreditation to be immediately deployed under the supervision of licensed physicians.[xxxvii]

Collective Action could Move Us Towards a More Mobile World

So far we have concluded three things: (1) long-term demographic trends still require significantly more labor mobility; (2) there is good reason to want a more globally mobile workforce even in the immediate future following COVID-19; and (3) the (already significant) factors constraining labor mobility are heightened in the COVID-19 era. In the near term, this creates two possible worlds: one in which the constraints win out, fueled by concerns around health risks and high domestic unemployment, resulting in maintaining or even expanding the restrictions on labor mobility put into place during the COVID-19 outbreak, and one in which we build off innovations implemented during COVID-19 to move towards a well-managed mobile workforce, setting us up well for the much larger demographic need in coming decades.

The question now is: What can we do to make sure we end up in the second world? Ultimately, the world after COVID-19 needs what it has always needed: a mobile labor force which is well regulated to mitigate the risks that come with people moving. However, as was evident well before the pandemic, this does not mean policies will mirror this need. The heightened risks (both politically and operationally) will make it difficult for any individual actor (whether they are a government official, employer or sector association, ‘mobility industry’ representative, financier, or member of civil society) to make a stand for labor mobility following COVID-19; if an individual actor were to stand alone post-COVID-19 and advocate to resume labor mobility and carry forward the policy innovationsmade during the crisis, the predictable political fallout would fall entirely on that actor.

Operational challenges of ensuring workers show up COVID free are also at best costly and at worst unreliable when borne alone. In the absence of partnerships, this need either falls to the already over-tasked public health officials in the receiving country, or requires arriving workers to ‘quarantine in country,’ which is expensive and inefficient for both employers and workers. Quarantining in country is particularly burdensome for temporary and seasonal workers, for whom it eats up a significant portion of their working season, reducing the returns to work abroad. Both of these models are not viable at scale. At the same time, placing this burden solely on the sending country offers its own problems, as health systems in these countries are also overburdened, and there is little incentive for them to assure quality of the screening process, leading to concerns around whether results can be trusted.[xxxviii] Already, Bangladeshis in Italy are being stigmatized as a result of thousands of fake negative COVID-19 test results (often without any test being conducted), some of which were used to return to Europe where the return migrants later tested positive.[xxxix] The stakes of such a failed operation are also higher; migrant workers bringing a renewed outbreak of COVID-19 could lead to a second wave of border shutdowns and retaliation against migrants.

The answer lies in acting as a group, rather than as individuals. Should a diverse coalition of actors speak out collectively, the political risks would be diffused amongst them, protecting individual actors. In acting together rather than separately, government officials and employers can make labor mobility more acceptable politically and work to create more positive perceptions. They can also build a base of research and technical knowledge, strengthening their own capacity and increasing trust in labor mobility systems. They can speak with a common voice and show that mobility is a powerful force for the good of everyone involved.  Further, operational challenges would be much more easily solved by having all needed actors at the table.

We propose to begin by identifying actors who have taken significant steps on labor mobility during COVID-19. These should include a broad cross-section of types of actors: governments (receiving and sending), local officials, employers and sector associations, mobility industry, and civil society. As noted above, several of these actors have taken large risks during COVID-19, to bring in migrant workers as needed labor and to protect their existing migrant populations. A coalition could serve to validate these risky decisions, and to document the positive impacts of the actions they undertook, while mitigating any potentially adverse effects they encounter. The coalition could further use its collective voice and evidence of impacts to take a stand against the decisions of other actors maintaining closed borders, giving in to xenophobia, or in other ways moving us towards the first of the two possible worlds. As noted by Marta Foresti of the Overseas Development Institute, the coalition should be sufficiently broad to allow for trading on interests and non-traditional alliances, as these dynamics have been behind much of the progress that was made during COVID-19.[xl]

Such a coalition would serve actors in three ways:

  1. Due to fragmentation and a lack of transparency, actors in this space are often not aware of other actors undertaking similar programs on labor mobility, or who have similar needs and interests to their own. Giving them this information can allow them to learn from each other and their experiences. It also builds a sense of solidarity and comfort from being able to point to other examples and how they played out. Such an approach serves to normalize the risks they take based on other existing examples, and to contrast themselves with actors moving backwards on labor mobility.
  2. Having access to this information will allow these actors to build a common story of why labor mobility in the post-COVID-19 era is positive and very much needed. Having a diverse coalition of actors will (1) broaden the audience for this narrative and (2) ensure all their interests and needs are taken into account. Further, this narrative can be bolstered with the evidence from their different experiences and contexts: evidence on the positive impacts, the low risks to domestic employment, and the low risks of disease spread when well managed.
  3. Based on this evidence and common narrative, coalition members and the external face of the coalition could offer support by undertaking targeted outreach when key decisions are being made on whether and how to resume and extend labor mobility as COVID-19 ends.

Building a Good ‘Mobility Industry’ through the Coalition

A key focus of this coalition should be to develop solutions to operational challenges posed by the need to ensure workers are COVID-19 free in a way which is reliable and not overly costly for any one actor. This is precisely where the role of an effective partnership of governments, sectors of employment, and a good ‘mobility industry’ come in. For receiving countries to be confident in robust health screening of migrant workers coming in, they will need to collaborate with sending country governments to ensure screening processes are in place and enforced. This increases the bargaining power of sending countries, as acting unilaterally to determine from where and under which conditions workers enter their country poses new risks to receiving countries.

Given that the public health systems in both countries are already overburdened, this also highlights a role for good ‘mobility industry’ actors. Mobility industry actors, responsible for overseeing the mobility process from sourcing and vetting vacancies to placing workers and supporting them in work abroad, could take on as part of the recruitment and compliance functions they take on anyway the additional responsibility of being sure arriving workers are COVID-19 free. This is the cheapest and most efficient approach to screening, as it is then integrated with all other recruitment and placement activities, particularly when done in the sending country where costs are lower.

However, outsourcing this role to the ‘mobility industry’ requires strong assurances for all involved that the actor can be trusted. This is a problem which well pre-dates COVID-19, as bad incentives in the mobility industry have been responsible for worker abuse, excessive fees, and bad job matching.[xli] This has undermined the legitimacy of labor mobility in the past, and fed political opposition from both anti-immigrant and workers’ rights factions. The stakes are higher now, outbreaks from movement of migrant workers would lead to significant backlash for all involved. This requires building a mobility industry which meets agreed standards of quality, tied to regular quality assurance and vetting that these standards are being met.

In the coming months, we at LaMP will be setting forward proposals for a standard-setting mobility industry association, embedded in a broader coalition of government officials, employers, and migration researchers and advocates. This association would work towards a legitimate mobility industry, which could be trusted with solving operational challenges, improving outcomes for workers, employers, and countries alike. This would be accomplished by setting standards for industry activities, agreed to by governments, employers, and worker representatives. Meanwhile, the broader structure of the coalition would function as a ‘center of excellence’ for labor mobility, supporting stakeholders in working together to solve both operational and political challenges, and carrying forward innovations which will set us up well for the much larger demographic need in coming decades.

Rather than COVID making us pessimistic about the future of labor mobility partnerships, we see COVID-19 as possible mother of invention. Ultimately, the world after COVID-19 needs what it has always needed: a mobile labor force which is well regulated to mitigate the risks that come with people moving. Now this need is more complex, with new operational challenges requiring significantly more trust in the legitimacy of migration processes. This can be accomplished through a broad coalition of actors, working together to resolve political and operational risks and to build a good ‘mobility industry’.

About LaMP

Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) aims to increase rights-respecting labor mobility, ensuring workers can access employment opportunities abroad. Its overarching goal is to make it easier for its partners to build labor mobility systems at the needed scale, thus unlocking billions in income gains t people filling the needed jobs. It focuses on connecting governments, employers and sectors, the mobility industry, and researchers and advocates to bridge gaps in international labor markets, and creating and curating a repository of knowledge and resources to design and implement mobility partnerships which benefit all involved. LaMP’s functions include brokering relationships between potential partners, providing technical support from design to implementation of partnerships, and research and advocacy around the impacts of successful partnerships.


[i] Cepla, Zuzana. “Why Labor Mobility? The Looming Demographic Crisis in High-Income Countries.” Labor Mobility Partnerships. July 2, 2020.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Smith, R. and O’Donnell, M. “COVID-19 Pandemic Underscores Labor Shortages in Women-Dominated Professions.” Center for Global Development. May 13, 2020.

[iv] Dempster and Smith 2020.

[v] Gelatt, J. “Immigrant Workers: Vital to the U.S. COVID-19 Response, Disproportionately Vulnerable.” Migration Policy Institute. March 2020.

[vi] Borjas, G. and Cassidy, H. “The Adverse Effect Of The Covid-19 Labor Market Shock On Immigrant Employment.” National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 27243.

[vii] Garrote-Sanchez, D. et al. “Which Jobs Are Most Vulnerable to COVID-19? What an Analysis of the European Union Reveals.” World Bank Group Malaysia Hub. Research and Policy Brief No. 34. May 11, 2020.

[viii] Dempster, H. and Zimmer, C. “Migrant Workers in the Tourism Industry: How has COVID-19 Affected Them, and What Does the Future Hold?” Center for Global Development. May 19, 2020.

[ix] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “Medium-term impacts in terms of migration management and integration.” Managing international migration under COVID-19. Updated 10 June 2020.

[x] Young 2020.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Agopsowicz, A. “COVID-19 Derails Canadian Immigration.” Royal Bank of Canada Thought Leadership. May 29, 2020.

[xiii] Vitorino, A. “Without safe migration, economic recovery will be limited.” Al Jazeera. June 14, 2020.

[xiv] Kochhar, R., Soledad Espinoza, C., and Hinze-Pifer, R. “After the Great Recession: Foreign Born Gain Jobs; Native Born Lose Jobs.” Pew Research Center. October 29, 2010.

[xv] Orrenius, P. and Zavodny, M. “Tied to the Business Cycle: How Immigrants Fare in Good and Bad Economic Times.” Migration Policy Institute. November 2009.

[xvi] Kahanec, M. and Guzi, M. “How Immigrants Helped EU Labor Markets to Adjust during the Great Recession.” Global Labor Organization. Working Paper No. 33. 2017.

[xvii] Glaesser, Dirk et al. “COVID-19 Related Travel Restrictions – A Global Review for Tourism (2nd report).” UN World Tourism Organization. April 28, 2020.

[xviii] Moroz, H., Testaverde, M. and Shrestha, M. “Potential Responses to the COVID-19 Outbreak in Support of Migrant Workers.” COVID Living Paper. World Bank Group. May 26, 2020.

[xix] Meyer, David. “Social distancing in the skies, temperature checks on the ground: Welcome to the new era of air travel.” Fortune. May 21, 2020.

[xx] Benton, Meghan. “The Rocky Road to a Mobile World after COVID-19.” Migration Policy Institute, May 12, 2020.

[xxi] Gumbrecht, J., Thomas, N., Vigue, D., and Howard, J. “Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine appears safe and induces immune response, early results suggest, but more research is needed.” CNN. Updated July 21, 2020.

[xxii] Chugh, Abhinav. “Will COVID-19 change how we think about migration and migrant workers?” World Economic Forum. May 22, 2020.

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch. “Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide: National Action Plans Needed to Counter Intolerance.” Human Rights Watch. May 12, 2020. https://www.hrw .org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide

[xxiv] Banulescu-Bogdan, N., Benton, M. and Fratzke, S. “Coronavirus Is Spreading across Borders, But It Is Not a Migration Problem.” Migration Policy Institute. Updated March 20, 2020.

[xxv] Vogt Isaksen, J. “The impact of the financial crisis on European attitudes toward immigration.” Comparative Migration Studies. 7, 24. June 2019.

[xxvi] Chishti, M. and Pierce, S. “The U.S. Stands Alone in Explicitly Basing Coronavirus-Linked Immigration Restrictions on Economic Grounds.” Migration Policy Institute. May 29, 2020.

[xxvii] Booth, W. and Adam, K. “Prince Charles wants furloughed workers to pick berries. Farmers wonder if Brits are up to the task.” Washington Post. May 21, 2020.

[xxviii] Booth and Adam 2020.

[xxix] Torero, M. “How to Stop a Looming Food Crisis.” Foreign Policy. April 14, 2020.

[xxx] Tan, H. “Rice prices surge to 7-year high as coronavirus sparks stockpiling.” CNBC. April 7, 2020.

[xxxi] Dempster, H. and Smith, R. “Migrant Health Workers Are on the COVID-19 Frontline. We Need More of Them.” Center for Global Development. April 2, 2020.

[xxxii] Fasani, F. and Mazza, J. “Immigrant Key Workers: Their Contribution to Europe’s COVID-19 Response.” IZA Policy Paper No. 155. April 2020.

[xxxiii] Kington, T. “Italy to give 600,000 migrants the right to stay.” The Times. May 07, 2020.

[xxxiv] Eddy, M. “Farm Workers Airlifted Into Germany Provide Solutions and Pose New Risks.” New York Times. May 18, 2020.

[xxxv] Corker, S. “Eastern Europeans to be flown in to pick fruit and veg.” BBC. April 16, 2020.

[xxxvi] Moroz, Testeverde, and Shrestha 2020.

[xxxvii] OECD. “Contribution of migrant doctors and nurses to tackling COVID-19 crisis in OECD countries.” OECD. May 13, 2020.

[xxxviii] Islam, A. “Bangladeshi migrants in Italy stigmatized over coronavirus certificate scam.” July 22, 2020.

[xxxix] Islam 2020.

[xl] Foresti, M. “Less gratitude, please. How COVID-19 reveals the need for migration reform.” Brookings Institute. May 22, 2020.

[xli] Smith, R. and Johnson, R. “Introducing an Outcomes-Based Migrant Welfare Fund.” Center for Global Development. January 16, 2020.

Workers on the Move: Addressing Global Workforce Challenges Through Labor Mobility Partnerships

Friday June 26 | 11.30 – 12.30 ET | Online


Original event link:



  • Gonzalo Fanjul, Co-founder and Head of Research, PorCausa
  • Ratna Omidvar, Independent Senator for Ontario, Senate of Canada
  • Julia Onslow-Cole, Global Government Strategies and Compliance Partner, Fragomen


  • Michael Clemens, Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development


Between 2050 and 2080, OECD countries will need at least 400 million new workers to maintain current pension and health schemes, resulting from a shrinking working-age population and a growing elderly population. Meanwhile, working-age populations in developing countries are growing faster than job creation, meaning large numbers will need to find jobs elsewhere. This creates an opportunity; workers who find jobs in richer countries can expect to increase their income by 6 to 15 times, making mobility a powerful tool for alleviating poverty.

However, the question looms of how labor market needs of this scale can be met. The current migrant population in OECD countries is at 119 million–far short of the estimated 400+ million needed in the not-distant future. All stakeholders would benefit from a system through which actors cooperate to better facilitate labor mobility, but face risks and constraints from cooperation which prevent this.

In this event, our speakers discussed these constraints to coordinated action on labor mobility, and how external support could help address these constraints. In response to existing gaps in this support, they discussed the design of a new organization, Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) which will work with governments, the private sector and employers, ‘mobility industry,’ financiers, and civil society to increase rights-respecting labor mobility, ensuring workers can access employment opportunities abroad.

The Looming Demographic Crisis in High-Income Countries

Why Labor Mobility?

The ‘Why Labor Mobility?’ series of policy notes explores the historic need for labor mobility from the lens of key actors:

  • receiving countries
  • sending countries
  • employers, workers
  • ‘mobility industry’

This first note in the series focuses on the perspective of high-income receiving countries, which are facing unprecedented demographic decline.

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Key Points

  • The ongoing and growing demographic pressures from the inversion of the demographic pyramid (more old than young) in high-income countries threatens the impacted economies in a number of dimensions, as their social protection schemes (e.g. social security, health coverage, etc.) depend heavily on contributions from the working to support retired and aged populations.
  • Based on the projections of the native born alone, the ratio of working-age to elderly populations in high-income countries will continued to fall from already low levels and, by 2050, will be below what are regarded as sustainable levels for every country.
  • High-income countries will need on the order of 400 million additional workers by 2050 to maintain the viability of their current pension and health schemes, without which there would need to be either substantial cuts in benefits or rises in tax rates.
  • Labor mobility, both more “permanent” migration and the use of temporary labor arrangements are an economically feasible solution, allowing high-income countries to close at least part of their labor force needs.


The world is about to face unprecedented challenges. With increasing life expectancy and declining fertility rates in many high-income countries, older populations will grow while labor forces will shrink.  The resulting demographic transition, the inversion of the demographic pyramid with more old than young, will be gradual but increasingly dramatic. Inevitably, these changes will adversely impact lives of families and individuals in those nations, as their governments will not be able to fund social security and health care programs that are heavily dependent on contributions from the working populations. Labor mobility can serve as an effective policy tool to at least partially address the looming demographic crisis in the high-income countries.[1]

Aging Societies Pose a Number of Risk for High-Income Countries

High-income countries around the globe are already facing demographic shifts. Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain (among others) have all seen continuous drops in numbers of newborn children since at least the 1970s, with fertility rates well below the 2.1 level necessary for a population to replace itself.[i] These demographic changes are likely to burden the high-income countries mainly through their impact on social security nets – whether public or private – which depend heavily on contributions from working-age populations supporting the retirees. Similarly, health care programs in those countries also rely on contributions from the younger, whose health-care costs are typically much lower, to cover care for the elderly.[ii]  Some authors warn that the countries may even enter a vicious cycle in which low fertility is passed from one generation to another. They argue that willingness to start a family depends partially on the couples’ ability to meet their material aspirations, but these desires are harder to achieve since the overall aging of the population puts more pressures on the younger generation’s finances.[iii]

In order to address these challenges, many high-income countries have implemented policies aiming at reducing impacts of this trend. Japan, for instance, has expanded its childcare services, parental schemes and child allowances to encourage higher fertility.[iv] However, its efforts appear to be largely unsuccessful as the country’s population remains among the fastest declining on the world. Unless countries find effective policies to address the issue, the effects of the ongoing demographic changes will be severe.

Besides the obvious consequences of the decreasing population, and the accompanying increase in the ratio of older, retirement aged to younger, such as inability to sustain social security schemes, there are other risks.  There may be an overall economic slowdown since fewer people create less demand for goods and lower levels of investment.  Others believe that the declines will slow down progress, and thus cause stagnation of living standards, as fewer people overall will imply there are less for all activities, including those devoted to the research and development activities that create productivity growth.[v]

The Crisis in Numbers

Estimates show that once the current Millennials (those born 1981 to 1996, aged 24 to 39 in 2020) in high-income countries around the world enter into their 50s and 60s in about thirty years, their entire generation will face these severe consequences of not having sufficiently large youth cohorts behind them. By 2050, in the absence of migration, the working-age populations of countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)[2] is expected to decline by more than 92 million, while their elderly populations (over 65 years old) are predicted to

grow by more than 100 million people at the same time (Figure 1).[vi] Such dramatic demographic deficit pose potentially insuperable obstacles to funding existing welfare, pension, and health care programs in the rich countries.

Figure 1. While the working-age population in most OECD countries declines, these countries are gaining elderly citizens.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-06-15-at-5.46.42-pm.png
Source: Smith, R. and Hani, F. “Labor Mobility Partnerships: Expanding Opportunity with a Globally Mobile Workforce.” Center for Global Development. Report of Connecting International Labor Markets Working Group. June 2020.

To prevent such scenario, the impacted countries have to find effective ways to grow their workforce to maintain sufficient balance between working-age populations and the retirees. In 2015, the median ratio of working-age populations to the elderly in the high-income countries was 3.3.[3] However, for example Japan’s ratio fell to 2.5 already in 2010.*  These low ratios of young to old have never been seen in human history and most believe these are below levels at which countries can secure social

protections for their citizens at current contributions, but certainly no one can be sure these can support the existing social contracts.  Estimates of populations without migration show that by 2050, the ratio in nearly every high-income country will be below the lowest in the world’s history before 2010, and on average will drop to 1.8 in a zero-net-migration scenario, and to 1.9 even in the UN’s status quo[4] scenario (Figure 2).[5]*

Figure 2. The declining ratio of working-age population to the elderly has been a persistent trend in OECD countries.

Source: Smith and Hani 2020.

With fewer workers per retiree, it is unclear how governments can sustain their current social security and health care systems, indeed their fundamental existing social contract. Models show that if rich countries want to maintain their current – and already historically low – ratios of working-age to elderly populations through 2050, they will need more than 15 million workers per year, or a total of 400 million workers over the next 30 years (Figure 3).*

Such a number is massive. To put it into a perspective, the number is larger than entire population of North America (USA and Canada) as well as total population of West and North Europe, which accounts for 368 million and 302 million, respectively. In other words, the working-age population gap in the high-income countries is basically larger than overall population, including all age groups, of these two huge regions.[vii]

These projections of need for 400 million workers by 2050 are conservative as they understate the countries’ labor needs. The 400 million would only sustain the nations’ existing economic structure, which means they would likely need even more workers to sustain the current or achieve higher rates of economic growth. Moreover, the estimates assume that simply maintaining the balance between workforce and retirees is sufficient to meet labor demand.

However, several occupations, such as care services and construction, not only need more but also typically require younger workers. As people get older, the governments must ensure the economy has enough workers capable of providing more labor-intensive support that the aging populations need.[viii] For example, there were nearly 44,000 nursing vacancies in the UK at the end of 2019, and the number is projected to hit 100,000 by 2029.[ix] At the same time, about one in three UK nurses is expected to reach retirement age by 2026.[x] Also, the U.S. will need additional 203,700 new registered nurses each year through 2026 to meet the increasing demand and to replace retiring nurses.[xi] Already in 2010, majority of registered full-time and part-time registered nurses in the U.S. were between 45 and 59 years old. Overall, the U.S. expects 75 percent of the country’s workforce to turn 65 or older by 2050.[xii]

Figure 3. Massive labor shortages in selected OECD countries: Millions of new workers will be needed each year to maintain the current economic structure.

Source: Smith and Hani 2020.

Policy Options for Addressing the Looming Demographic Crisis

Ensuring adequate job creation for their populations has been historically the primary policy concern for rich countries, with policies striving to employ their growing working-age populations. However, as the demographic crisis spreads, priorities of the impacted nations change from “How do we provide jobs to our working-age population?” to “How do we get more workers for the jobs that need to be done?”

There are several ways the high-income countries could try to address the issue, but since many of the potential solutions are quite difficult, or even impossible in some cases, politicians have  taken little  action on this pressing policy concern.[xiii] For example, the leaders could try to offset the demographic gaps with higher taxes. However, since the average tax-to-GDP ratio across the OECD countries has consistently stood at 34 percent, nearly unchanged since the late 1980’s despite various economic changes, it seems unlikely that the politicians would be able to convince the public about the need to raise taxes to substantially higher levels now.[xiv]

Alternatively, the countries could reduce benefits for their elderly populations – another potential solution that is easier said than done. When the French government tried to cut pension benefits, even modestly, the government faced a wave of massive protests and strikes against the proposed increase in retirement age and ultimately had to back down. Moreover, as the populations keep aging, they become an increasingly important voting bloc and politicians’ ability to cut retirement, social security, and health benefits for the elderly will decline even further.[xv] In Ireland, plans to increase pension age were one of the main concerns in the 2020 general election, which resulted in defeat of the country’s establishment heavy parties.[xvi]

Leaders could also try to increase the number of native workers by urging people to enlarge their families. However, this solution seems unreliable as well, as it is unlikely to produce sufficient and consistent results. While the governments can encourage their citizens to have more babies, families are unlikely to follow the recommendations at high enough rates without stronger social security nets. In Italy, the government tried to promote a “Fertility Day,” to encourage Italians to have more babies. However, the campaign instead spurred a backlash, with critics arguing the issue isn’t Italians’ unwillingness to have children but rather the lack of support provided to families by the government and employers.[xvii] Other countries, such as Luxemburg, Ireland and France, offer universal child benefits and other child-related programs,[xviii] and yet their fertility rates remain low.[xix]

The effects of this option would be also quite delayed as by the time the new generation reaches working age, the demographic issue will continue to deepen. Moreover, there is “reverse population momentum” and since, because the demographic pyramid is already thinned or inverted even higher fertility, births per woman, will have a hard time raising population growth as there are fewer and fewer women in the key reproductive ages, so even a return to previous fertility rates would only slow, not reverse, the demographic inversion.*

Finally, there is labor mobility, which is also seen as politically impossible, but perhaps it is the least impossible of the impossibilities.

Could foreign workers fill the demographic gaps and complement the native workforce in high-income countries? In order to maintain the ratio of working-age to elderly populations above the 2.5 sustainable threshold, rich countries will need about 400 million workers over the course of the next 30 years.[xx] As discussed above, the number is massive. If foreign source workers were to fill the gap, they would account for 40 percent of the entire working age population in the high-income countries.[xxi]

However, there is a potential pool of workers emerging outside of the developed world. In countries that are not aging nearly as fast or even struggle to employ their disproportionately high numbers of young individuals, many people seek to move to wealthier nations. Still, since only about 119 million migrants from developing countries lived in high-income nations in 2017, the flow would have to triple over the next 30 years.[xxii]

Labor mobility is unlikely to represent the sole answer to the demographic crisis; however, it is a realistic solution to at least partially closing the deepening gap. Moreover, besides balancing the demographic shifts, foreign workers bring new innovative ideas, foster economic growth, and enhance culture of the hosting nations.

In Australia, migration has played a major role in the last almost three decades of country’s economic expansion. Over the last couple of years, Australian real economic growth hovered around solid 2 to 2.5 percent, out of which nearly one percent was a result of migration.[xxiii] At the end of 2019 (before the onset of COVID-19) the country’s government even forecast a budget surplus for fiscal year 2020, attributable to an assumption of high net migration.[xxiv]

While some could argue that rather than labor mobility, the high-income countries could overcome the consequences of demographic changes with increases in productivity and advancement of technology, recent trends suggest the opposite. Even Japan, the most homogenous among OECD countries which has been able to persist with a ratio of working-age to elderly population of less than 2.5 for some time with high savings and advanced automation technologies, had announced launch of a pilot program in 2018 to bring in more than 300,000 workers over the following five years to fight labor shortages.

Moreover, the rich countries pursuing automation is a massive economic distortion and potentially has negative consequences for wages of workers both in their home countries and globally.  Automation to displace low to medium skill labor is false economizing as labor is globally abundant and make locally scarce only by border-based barriers to movement.[xxv]

Overall, with the working-age to elderly population ratio falling to unsustainable levels, filling at least a portion of the labor deficit with foreign workers will help prevent a slowdown of the high-income countries’ economies and possibly even spur growth.


The world has been facing dramatic demographic shifts, which will have crucial implications for economies, fiscal balances, politics and societies in high-income countries.  Labor mobility offers a politically difficult solution, but perhaps more plausible and feasible than all other options.  Nations can at least partially reduce their labor force gaps caused by the ongoing demographic crisis by allowing more workers, who stand ready and willing, to come. There are also reasons to prefer labor mobility as a solution, as it fosters growth and brings innovation to the high-income countries along with a badly needed workforce. The issue is pressing. It is time for high-income countries to take action and invest into labor mobility systems, allowing for development of pathways through which foreign workers will be able to enhance economies and, rather than threaten, support existing desirable social arrangements.

About LaMP

Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) aims to increase rights-respecting labor mobility, ensuring workers can access employment opportunities abroad. Its overarching goal is to make it easier for its partners to build labor mobility systems at the needed scale, thus unlocking billions in income gains to people filling the needed jobs. It focuses on connecting governments, employers and sectors, the mobility industry, and researchers and advocates to bridge gaps in international labor markets, and creating and curating a repository of knowledge and resources to design and implement mobility partnerships which benefit all involved. LaMP’s functions include brokering relationships between potential partners, providing technical support from design to implementation of partnerships, and research and advocacy around the impacts of successful partnerships.

[1] Developed countries with key labor shortages are referred to as high-income countries.

[2] Data used for this note considered the following OECD countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

[3] We use the zero-migration variant of the UN DESA, Population Division (2015) data, which assumes net international migration for countries at the beginning of the period to be zero.

[4] The status quo ratio equals to the 2015 ratios of working-age population to 65+ population.

[5] Projections of population change based on a probabilistic model of changes in fertility, and normal mortality and migration rates.


[i] “Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Woman),” accessed June 2, 2020,

[ii] Lant Pritchett, “Only Migration Can Save the Welfare State,” Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2020,

[iii] Robin Harding, “The Costs of a Declining Population” (Financial Times, January 14, 2020),

[iv] “Government Response to Low Fertility in Japan ”(United Nations), accessed June 2, 2020, at

[v] Robin Harding, “The Costs of a Declining Population” (Financial Times, January 14, 2020),

[vi] UN DESA, Population Division (2015).


[viii] Lant Pritchett, “Only Migration Can Save the Welfare State,” Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2020,

[ix] “Nursing Shortages Forcing NHS to Rely on Less Qualified Staff – Report” (The Guardian, November 27, 2019),

[x] Rachel Marangozov, Matthew Williams, and James Buchan, “The Labour Market for Nurses in the UK and Its Relationship to the Demand for, and Supply of, International Nurses in the NHS” (Institute for Employment Studies, July 2016),

[xi] Elka Torpey, “Employment Outlook for Bachelor’s-Level Occupations : Career Outlook” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2018),

[xii] Sepi McDonnell, “America’s Nurses Are Aging” (Allied Staffing Network, February 14, 2017),

[xiii] Lant Pritchett, “Only Migration Can Save the Welfare State,” Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2020,

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Patrick Collinson, “The French and the Irish Are Fighting Pension Age Rises – Will the British? | Patrick Collinson,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, February 14, 2020),

[xvii] Gaia Pianigiani, “Italy’s ‘Fertility Day’ Call to Make Babies Arouses Anger, Not Ardor” (The New York Times, September 13, 2016),

[xviii] Dylan Matthews, “Sweden Pays Parents for Having Kids – and It Reaps Huge Benefits. Why Doesn’t the US?” (Vox, May 23, 2016),

[xix] “Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Woman),” accessed June 2, 2020,

[xx] Lant Pritchett, “Only Migration Can Save the Welfare State,” Foreign Affairs, February 24, 2020,

[xxi] Lant Pritchett, “The Future Is Older” (Labor Mobility Partnerships, January 9, 2020),

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Evan Young, “Coronavirus Has Halted Immigration to Australia and That Could Have Dire Consequences for Its Economic Recovery” (SBS News, April 1, 2020),

[xxiv] David Crowe, “Budget Surplus under Threat as Treasury Considers Coronavirus ‘Wildcard’,” The Sydney Morning Herald (The Sydney Morning Herald, February 17, 2020),

[xxv] Acemoglu, Daron, and Pascual Restrepo. Rep. Low-Skill and High-Skill Automation. Journal of Human Capital, 2018.

Labor Mobility Partnerships: Expanding Opportunity with a Globally Mobile Workforce

Originally published here with the Center for Global Development

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By 2050, the prime working-age populations of OECD countries will have shrunk by more than 92 million people, while their populations over 65 years old will have grown by more than 100 million people. This means to maintain their current (and already historically low) ratio of prime working-age to 65+ people in the year 2050, OECD countries are currently facing a gap of more than 15 million workers per year, or a total of 400 million workers over 30 years. Meanwhile, estimates project that there will be close to 1.4 billion new working-age people in developing countries by 2050, of whom around 40 percent are unlikely to find meaningful employment in their home countries. Labor mobility offers a solution, connecting these potential migrants (who need jobs) to potential employers (who need workers). However, existing labor mobility systems are not developed to be able to handle labor flows of the size that are needed, and are constrained by negative public opinions of mobility. This report sets out the vision for Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP), which aims to be the first organization that actively works to increase rights-respecting labor mobility, ensuring that workers can access employment opportunities abroad.

Introducing a New Approach to Labor Mobility

This post was first published at the Center for Global Development.

OECD countries face a growing elderly population and a shrinking working-age population, while low-income countries have working-age populations that are growing faster than jobs can absorb them. Labor mobility offers a solution, connecting potential migrants (who need jobs) to potential employers (who need workers). The Connecting International Labor Markets working group convened around the question of how to make this happen, resulting in a proposal for a new organization: Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP).

Migrant Health Workers are on the COVID-19 Frontline: We Need More of Them

This online talk is hosted by Crawford School of Public Policy’s Development Policy Center and features CGD’s Helen Dempster and LaMP’s Rebekah Smith.

In most high-income countries, migrants make up a large share of health workers and are more likely to be on the frontline of the COVID-19 response. Yet, despite this reliance, most high-income countries have been resistant to increasing health worker migration for two reasons: concern over skill levels, and concern over ‘brain drain’ from low-income countries. COVID-19 is proving that many of these barriers are surmountable in times of crisis, and must be overcome, both to combat pandemics, and to address broader patterns of aging demographics.

In this talk, Helen Dempster and Rebekah Smith discussed ways in which we can address global health worker shortages during pandemics, and, in the long-term, build up the global stock of health workers to address increasingly worrying demographic impacts. This talk is based on the recently published blog post, “Migrant Health Workers Are on the COVID-19 Frontline. We Need More of Them.”


Helen Dempster is the Assistant Director and Senior Associate for Policy Outreach for the Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy Program at the Center for Global Development (CGD). Prior to joining CGD, she worked for five years in research communications at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the International Growth Centre (IGC).

Rebekah Smith is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Global Development, working with the migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy team. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP), a new organization which incubated inside of CGD. Previously, Smith worked at the World Bank, building institutions in countries (sending, receiving and transit) to facilitate labor migration.

The Future is Older

OECD countries are rapidly aging – their working age populations are shrinking, while their elderly populations are growing. This has significant fiscal and economic implications for these societies, yet thus far there has been no serious policy response. In this blog, Lant Pritchett explores these historically unprecedented and largely ignored trends.

Welcome to the LaMP blog!

Welcome to the Labor Mobility Partnerships (LaMP) blog! LaMP is a new organization currently incubating at the Center for Global Development. LaMP aims to be the first organization which actively works to increase rights-respecting labor mobility, creating opportunities for needed workers to fill jobs abroad while unlocking billions in income gains.

The Benefits of ‘Untying’: How to Move from Employer- to Occupation-Specific Work Permits

Agriculture workers on a strawberry farm (c) World Bank, September 2007

This post was first published at the Center for Global Development.

Untying’ work permits can reduce workers’ vulnerabilities, strengthen their wages, and improve employer productivity. But these benefits can only be realized if practical barriers to changing employers are removed. Here, we describe how. 

Alleviating Global Poverty: Labor Mobility, Direct Assistance, and Economic Growth

Originally published here with the Center for Global Development

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Decades of programmatic experimentation by development NGOs combined with the latest empirical techniques for estimating program impact have shown that a well-designed, well-implemented, multi-faceted intervention can in fact have an apparently sustained impact on the incomes of the poor (Banerjee et al 2015). The magnitude of the income gains of the “best you can do” via direct interventions to raise the income of the poor in situ is about 40 times smaller than the income gain from allowing people from those same poor countries to work in a high productivity country like the USA. Simply allowing more labor mobility holds vastly more promise for reducing poverty than anything else on the development agenda. That said, the magnitude of the gains from large growth accelerations (and losses from large decelerations) are also many-fold larger than the potential gains from directed individual interventions and the poverty reduction gains from large, extended periods of rapid growth are larger than from targeted interventions and also hold promise (and have delivered) for reducing global poverty.