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Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Recent events showing desperate immigrants drowning as they tried to cross the Mediterranean into Europe were heart rending because of the obvious loss of life but also because the streets of Europe are not paved with gold.

There are two major developments happening in the western economies which make thinking of going abroad to work less and less palatable.

On the one hand is the growing liberalisation of world trade. A trend that begun tentatively before, and gathered momentum after, the end of the cold war in 1989. The signing of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), the European Union, the beleaguered World Trade Organisation (WTO) and any number of trade agreements running now around the world are in response to this new momentum.

The increasing ease with which products can move across borders means that businesses are now free to set up factories anywhere in the world and transport their goods to their chosen markets.

By accident of history (Or Deng Xiaoping forsaw all this in the 1970s) China was maturing into the factory of the world, offering capitalists cheap labour and mass production. So especially in the US, the western economies have shipped much of their production to China, retaining the higher end innovation and conceptualisation work.

"It is estimated that the US lost more than three million jobs in the manufacturing sector since China joined the WTO at the end of 2001. The global financial crisis caused further stress and even though they say President Barack Obama’s administration has added at least 4.5 million jobs back into the economy, the reality is the majority are the lowest of low end jobs and the really high end jobs, very little in the middle...

While its true low end jobs have always been there for the picking, the greater number of immigrants – Mexicans and South Americans in the US and Eastern Europeans in Europe now means African immigrants are not the lowest earning labour anymore.

In addition the low end labour is now highly automated with the innovations in computer technology meaning it’s not enough just to be literate to work in the west.

That second point – increasing innovation, is also driving another trend – greater automation in the work place and therefore few and fewer workers are required for the same job with every passing day.

Banks are cutting staff because most transactions can now be done online; restaurants the same as waiters are becoming redundant replaced by automated ordering and paying systems; a handful of cleaners of commercial properties with hoovers and increasing discipline with regard to waste disposal are cleaning whole buildings.

If you really want to work abroad make sure you have a unique skill or are highly educated in a field that is in demand – more and more this is in IT and its related fields. And highly educated means PhD level not just your basic degree.

Of course this will not dissuade thousands of immigrants from making the trip in rickety canoes or marinating in sweltering shipping containers or once there on bona fide business, disappearing into the concrete jungles of their cities.

It is a brutal existence.

Our cousins are not telling us the half of it, for fear of besmearing the fairy tale existence they or you have convinced yourself they enjoy or because it’s just too grim to even begin to narrate.

But there is a cynical, more self-serving reason why once you are in any of those western economies and “get lost” they won’t put in as much effort ferreting you out as they would keeping you out in the first place.

"You the immigrant are useful for pushing down the labour cost for everybody and yourself. Because in your desperation you will do anything and for any amount of money to survive. Because unlike your home country everything is monetised and, far away from friends and family, charity is hard to come by...

It is no surprise that the labour unions are on the back foot everywhere you look. Previously unionised workers had a lot of leverage over their employers through their collective bargaining power.

So yes, life can be hard here but it can be harder elsewhere and it is only getting harder, forget the rosy picture Hollywood paints for you.

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