Circular Migration – a new form of temporary labour migration?
The IOM World Migration Report (2008) defines circular migration as "the fluid movement of people between countries, including temporary or long-term movement which may be beneficial to all involved, if occurring voluntarily and linked to the labour needs of countries of origin and destination". Newland and Agunias identify circular migration as "a continuing, long-term, and fluid pattern of human mobility among countries that occupy what is now increasingly recognized as a single economic space". It denotes "a continuous engagement in both home and adopted countries; it usually involves both return and repetition".
Both definitions are linked to an "economic perspective" and do not really take into account social matters. Both take for granted that circular migration provides a win-win situation for the countries involved as well as for the migrants. The assumption is that migration occurs in a controlled/managed way and that agreements are respected by the parties involved. In a not so positive but more realistic scenario, circularity may be interrupted because of other circumstances like the end of an agreement or the strengthening of borders in the case of de facto circular migration.
The Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration (CARIM), based at the European Universities Institute, insists that circular migration is (or should be) temporary, renewable, circulatory (offering freedom of movement during each term),legal, respectful of migrants' rights, and effective in matching labour supply in one country with labour needs in another.
Circular migration patterns are often categorized by time: temporary and seasonal work migration; and by the skills-level of the workers: low, semi and high skilled migration.
The UN Migrant Workers Convention defines a seasonal migrant worker as "a migrant worker whose work, or migration for work that, is dependent on seasonal conditions and is performed only during part of the year", so we would find that most of the seasonal workers are those hired for agriculture work or during holiday seasons. On the other hand, temporary migrant workers are those who work in a destination country for definite periods, normally under a labour contract with an enterprise or an individual employer.
There continues to be a debate on how to define in a meaningful way the skills-categories. Furthermore, a skills-level can be characteristic of a job but also of a worker. And, in many cases, migrant workers might have no other choice but to take employment in a category that is lower than the one associated with their education. In some cases, for example, foreign countries do not accredit certain educational degrees.
In industrialized countries, demographic changes as well as changes in the labour force and the low level of remuneration result in a growing demand for migrant workers to fill vacancies in such sectors as construction, agriculture, house-keeping, child and elderly care. According to Stephen Castles, the question remains, however, whether these really are temporary issues that can be solved with temporary of circular migration schemes?
Historical context of the temporary labour programmes
Between 1945 and 1970 almost all industrialized countries used temporary labour programmes as a way to recruit migrant workers from lesser-developed countries. The United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and Belgium were the first countries that introduced such programmes in the 1940s. Germany, the Netherlands and Austria followed. According to Castles these countries were importing labour instead of people: "the idea was to ensure "rotation" by recruiting workers for a limited period, restricting their rights, and minimizing family reunion. Migrants were expected to accept relatively poor wages and conditions, make little demand on social infrastructure, and not get involved in labour struggles".
Both in the guest worker programmes in Germany and the United States, workers did not return to their home country. In the case of the US, the former bracero programme was stopped by a unilateral decision from Washington, primarily because of complaints from the unions. But foreign workers continued to be employed. This time, however, as undocumented or irregular workers. In Europe, guest worker programmes were stopped in the 1970s in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France and the Benelux countries.
According to the OECD's International Migration Outlook 2008, there were in 2006 some 2.5 million temporary migrant workers admitted to OECD countries, with the majority being employed in so-called low or semi-skilled jobs( in such sectors as construction, household work, cleaning or personal care). This is about three times as high as the number of permanent labour migrants.
One recent phenomenon is the increase of the number of women in the temporary or circular labour migration programmes. This is based on the assumption that female workers - especially if they are mothers - will more easily return to their home countries.
Circular migration - controversy continues
Kathleen Newland and Aaron Terrazas from the Migration Policy Institute write in their contribution to the 2009 Global Forum on Migration and Development that: "Circular migration should not be confused with conventional understandings of temporary migration, which does not build in the dynamism of a continuing engagement in both countries. With circulation, both countries stand to profit if migrants become better educated, more productive members of the community. Temporariness discourages the meaningful, high-return investments in people that are necessary for development and that contribute to economic growth. Employers have little interest in training a migrant whom they will never see again for higher skills or responsibility. This limits the occupational mobility of immigrant workers. Countries of destination, too, have little stake in the individual migrant who has no chance of becoming a member of the national community." MPI therefore weighs in with a pattern of migration characterized by a migrant's continuing engagement in both home and adopted countries" - a definition which assumes that circular migrants are integrated in both countries of origin and destination.
This view is challenged by Ana Avedaño from the AFL-CIO who states that "the programs that are now being touted as examples of successful circular migration programs are, in fact, the very same programs that were being touted as successful temporary worker programs-with the Canadian agricultural program most often cited as the example of a "best practice." For another, the purported benefits of "circular migration" are the same that were promoted in relation to temporary worker programs, which did not value workers' rights, but rather treated them as bundles that may be traded away in exchange for access to labour markets where wages are higher than in home countries." The ILO suggests to consider a different frame, one that doesn't treat migration as a problem but as a human condition that has existed throughout time, which should be addressed through a strategy for shared prosperity and not merely "managed."