For decades, clichés of highly educated migrants driving taxis or working in restaurants have been commonplace in Western societies. They’re testament to the old challenges of integration. But they’re now also markers of a new risk: that immigrants have become concentrated in jobs which automation and the gig economy could be about to destroy.
Immigrants in Europe are far more likely to work in jobs at risk of disruption by new technology than the native-born population, and they represent a disproportionate segment of the “gig economy”. Two new reports suggest that digital transformation could make migrant integration much more difficult — potentially causing a downward spiral in public opinion about immigration.
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But the changing nature of work doesn’t bring only risks. People working in integration policy will have much to teach other parts of government, as the problems they work on — helping people adjust to different patterns of work and changing social settings — become relevant to a far wider portion of the population. And handled well, this could be the opportunity to give those policy challenges the resources and attention they’ve long needed.
Migrants often struggle in the labour market
Immigrants have long worked in different types of job to native populations. But the socioeconomic impact of that difference could become enormous as technology transforms wealthy economies.
That’s because the risk of automation affects industries differently. In particular, new technology is more likely to displace jobs which involve a high level of routine — regularised tasks which it’s easier for machines to master. A report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that it’s exactly these highly routinised jobs that have high shares of immigrant workers.
Even educated migrants are more likely to have jobs which may be displaced by improving technology. Immigrants also receive less professional training and are more likely to be on short, fixed-term contracts, reducing their job security and prospects of finding new lines of work if made redundant.
These are labour market issues that migrants have always faced, according to Meghan Benton, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. She is a co-author of another report, examining the connections between the changing nature of work and integration policy.
Two of the key difficulties new migrants face are getting a first job on arrival and, after a settling-in period, finding more secure work with prospects of progression. Automation and gig work will make both, Benton said, “just that little bit harder.”
Traditional first jobs have been in sectors such as agriculture and unskilled service work, where opportunities may become much less numerous as technology advances. And the rise of the gig economy and other flexible economic models will mean that finding a stable career path and job security will be very difficult.
Job polarisation poses wider social risks
If changes in the nature of work affect migrants and locals differently, that could have damaging social consequences well beyond the effect on immigrants’ immediate job prospects.
One commonly floated hypothesis about the impact of new technologies is known as job polarisation: that the jobs most liable to automation are largely in the middle of the income distribution, leaving workers split between what scholars have called “lovely and lousy” jobs.
“A lot of the challenges that are faced by migrants are going to be very similar to the ones that are faced by people who lose their jobs to technology”
The risk, Benton explained, is that that divide could end up largely mapping onto the split between natives and locals. It’s widely thought, though there’s so far limited evidence, that immigrants are already overrepresented in the gig economy, which allows them to avoid discrimination and the need to find an employer willing to hire them for ongoing work.
That overrepresentation could become even more severe as many work opportunities disappear and those that remain require high level language and “soft” skills, Benton said. And the concentration of migrants in low-paid, insecure work is likely to hamper their social integration and heighten anti-immigrant attitudes among locals.
In that scenario, migration policy might start to look very different. The EU’s report suggests that automation could raise the question of whether there is still a need for migrant workers. It’s likely at least, according to Benton, to see an even sharper focus by states on attracting “global talent” and reducing pathways for lower-skilled immigration.
That outcome could be avoided with careful policy, however — potentially using some of the same tools that integration policymakers have developed for their own work.
“A lot of the challenges that are faced by migrants are going to be very similar to the ones that are faced by people who lose their jobs to technology,” Benton said.
In Sweden, for example, a series of fast-track training programs for refugees have cut the time to qualify for certain professions by several years. But other governments, in places like Germany, have been hesitant to experiment much with policies that might undermine traditional training programs, based on formal vocational education and long apprenticeships.
That reluctance might soon have to disappear. The challenge of rapid training, currently mostly of concern to those working in migration policy, could become relevant to large swathes of the population, if technology starts to disrupt whole industries and leaves people in need of retraining.
On the other side of the coin, the integration policy community has recently started to focus on social integration for new migrants who, because of their age or other factors, are unlikely to find full-time paid work. The German and Austrian governments have implemented policies to encourage — or often require — volunteering for refugees unable to find work.
Benton’s report suggests that the results of these programs have been mixed. Financial incentives to encourage social integration, such as making some welfare payments conditional on volunteering, can backfire and leave migrants spiralling deeper into poverty and isolation. And policymakers have been unsure about whether the programs’ purpose is to help refugees ultimately join the labour market or to serve as a real alternative to paid work.
Those questions, which governments are tentatively dealing with in the integration space, will become urgent if changes to the economy mean millions of people are unlikely ever to find sustainable work. The lessons integration policymakers are learning now could be crucial.
The problem, Benton explained, is that integration policy has rarely been given the resources or attention needed to solve these problems at scale. So while the challenges posed by the future of work might be familiar to them, even experts in integration don’t have ready-made answers.
Still, Benton said, “if you can’t solve a problem, the most important thing you can do is pinpoint it.” And progress has been made: “I think we are beginning to get to a situation where we know what the principles of good practice are, but we don’t really know how to make those reach everyone.”
It’s possible that growing political attention on automation and its associated social challenges could change that. New leadership and resources would give integration policymakers an opportunity to find ways of scaling their work up.
So far, though, no luck. “The average integration policymaker in Europe is not really able to command much cross-cutting thinking,” Benton said. Researchers studying the future of work, she added, often didn’t understand why she was contacting them for a report about integration policy.
People working in integration, as yet, don’t have the clout they’d need to make a difference. “I think it has to come from elsewhere,” Benton admitted. “It has to come from much higher up.” — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/The People Speak!)