Only for Geeks
A conversation about prejudices cannot help but start with Franz Beckenbauer. Our "Kaiser" was not only the master of the killer pass with unshakable aim and a relaxed flick of the ankle back in the 70s. No, in his role as the coach of the German national football team he also developed a similarly deadly argument to support any prejudice or truism. Whenever he received a critical question regarding his platitudes, the nation's top ranking benchwarmer answered with confidence accompanied by the requisite dismissive hand gesture: "Des weiß ma, des ist bekannt!" (That is well-known, that is widely understood!) Causa finite. There is nothing you can do about it.
We might be inclined to forgive this didactic aphorism in one whose performance originates in loci well below the knee. It takes on a whole new meaning, however, when people who are remunerated for the work of the mind, scientists and politicians, fall into similar patterns of argumentation. Nowhere is it as painful to observe as in the debates about securing skilled labour and immigration. We know, we understand, so we don't really need to concern ourselves with hard facts and logical arguments.
The issue of immigration brings hardliner conservatives and do-gooder oriented liberals together in an uneasy alliance. Both oppose importing skilled workers from emerging and developing nations. The former because they "know" that we first need to get our unemployed into gainful employment, and integrating foreigners has never worked well anyway, the latter because it "is understood" that this would create a brain drain, utterly calamitous from a development policy standpoint, in immigrants' countries of origin. But both of these oversimplifications are wrong, as we will see.
Let us not get ahead of ourselves, however. First we need to explore the garden of lovingly tended prejudices and truisms that surrounds the issue of international professional mobility. We'll start with a true classic:
We would be hard pressed to find another sentence from the coalition agreement concluded between the Union and FDP parties in 1982 that gave rise to more heated debate than this one: "The Federal Republic of Germany is not an immigration country." The opposition at the time countered with data intended to show that immigration continued to take place on a large scale. The governing coalition retorted that this did not make Germany an immigration country, which they defined solely as a country that actively promoted immigration.
As is so often the case, linguistic wrangling about a definition disguised a much more comprehensive and deeper debate about the fundamental attitude towards immigration. The following much more infrequently cited sentence from the coalition agreement expresses this quite frankly: "Therefore any and all measures justifiable from a human-rights standpoint should be taken to prevent the influx of foreign nationals."
This discussion took place thirty years ago. Since then, the government and society have undergone comprehensive transformations. Demographic changes present completely new challenges, particularly when it comes to securing a skilled workforce. One would think. Yet in November 2010, Hessian Prime Minister Bouffier again stated: "Germany is not an immigration country. Immigration countries are those that officially want and work to attract immigrants." (Hamburger Abendblatt, November 25, 2010). In autumn of 2010 the CSU also entered the fray in a similar vein by asserting that Germany was not an immigration country in the seven-point plan for tightening conditions for immigration passed at the party conference in October 2010. Other thematised issues included deporting those immigrants unwilling to integrate and measures to make bringing family members to Germany more difficult. A clear attempt to make political hay from the public's subliminal fears of excessive foreign infiltration.
Happily responsible intellects like Rita Süssmuth and Armin Laschet are working on moving this discourse in a different direction inside conservative circles, and with some initial success. Hiring qualified employees from abroad, for example, has been easier for around a year now. The implementation of the EU Blue Card guidelines meant that opportunities for academics to immigrate to Germany improved considerably in summer 2012, particularly in the MINT area where there is a considerable shortage of qualified professionals. It has also become easier for trained experts to remain in Germany. At the same time, the government's Make it in Germany website has created a platform to appeal directly to foreign skilled workers and win them over for jobs in Germany. The initial pilot projects organised by the German Federal Labour Market Authority and aimed at attracting elder care personnel from China have been transforming these changes into concrete projects.
Conclusion: In 2011 a net total of 300,000 foreign nationals immigrated to Germany. The government is working to keep these numbers up in future as well. So it would seem that Germany is in fact a country with a high level of immigration and one that seeks to attract migrants. Even if we take the strictest CSU definition, Germany has become an immigration country. Yet the at times clear incongruity between political rhetoric and actual policy is making it unnecessarily difficult to convince the public of the need for immigration.
Here is a rare case where many conservatives and union supporters are in complete agreement: nary a report on filling the gap in skilled professionals gets away without adding this particular homely. Before we promote immigration, the argument goes, we have to boost potential here at home. Then proponents of this idea point to the around 3 million unemployed who need to earn their own keep, to those who were initially pushed into part-time positions and could now be brought into better employment, and to the insufficient promotion of work-life balance that particularly affects the high number of skilled women who work part time.
The Federal Employment Agency counters this with raw data. In its "Perspektive 2025" publication, it demonstrated that if the rate of participation in employment by the domestic population remains unchanged with no appreciable waves of immigration, labour force potential, that is the number of people available to the labour market, will have dropped by 6.5 million by the year 2025. Even if all the realistic methods for increasing the use of domestic potential are applied, the Agency's Research Institute (I-AB) estimates it will require the immigration of more than 200,000 people per year to close the remaining gap (IAB Kurzbericht 16/2011).
Of course this in no way means that unemployment would drop to zero or that the low-wage sector would disappear. The mismatch between demand and supply on the labour market can never be fully resolved. We will also never be able to provide every dropout who is difficult to place in a high quality position with sufficient qualifications so that we could do without foreign labour. Quite the opposite in fact, since highly qualified foreign nationals often secure the jobs of less qualified domestic workers.
In fact a continually dramatically sinking and qualitatively poor range of skilled workers would lead to an outsourcing of production. Raimund Becker, Head of the Federal Labour Office, wrote in a by-line article at the beginning of October 2012: "If companies struggle to find applicants for open positions, then they will make decisions regarding investment and production accordingly. Less will be invested in existing and new production capacities, and capital and production lines will be moved abroad. (...) We should take great care not to interpret the demographic effect as an opportunity for full employment. The demographics do not solve any problems, they create new ones. For when companies adjust their capital stock in keeping with a dropping labour supply, this does not result in a larger range of available jobs."
In other words: if the supply of skilled workers does not remain at a somewhat constant level, we run a serious risk of our domestic economy shrinking. This would in turn mean that our social security system, which is based on cost sharing, would grow increasingly less effective, since an increasing imbalance between people paying in and those receiving benefits would result, in particular for retirement and health care benefits. Social security contributions and/or taxes would have to go up, which would in turn lower the competitiveness of our domestic economy and accelerate the downward trend. Additionally as gross domestic product drops and public revenue falls along with it, the percentage of state spending to service debt rises, resulting in increasingly less scope for investment. Taken together this effect could trap the domestic economy in a downward spiral. Raimund Becker is very clear on this point: "It is a fact that we can only meet our estimated future labour needs and as such save our social system through qualified immigration."
Conclusion: It is quite apparent that the issue at hand is not an either/or between using the potential of domestic qualified workers and immigration. Both must be leveraged simultaneously to keep the supply of qualified workers relatively constant and maintain the prosperity of our communities. The high-ranking consensus group on the need for qualified labour and immigration headed up by Armin Laschet and Peter Struck came to the same conclusion in its final report ("Vom Anwerbestopp zur Gewinnung von Fachkräften", pp. 88).
There is another factor in favour of working to attract qualified people from emerging and developing nations in particular today: with the exception of France, all the industrialised countries are facing similar demographic changes to those in Germany. Additionally there is China, whose one-child policy and simultaneously booming economy will result in a dramatic gap in qualified workers in the years to come. These countries will all be competing on the global market for the limited resource of human capital just like they currently battle for rare earth metals and minerals. The only way to survive this competition is for a country to present itself early on as an attractive destination and reliable partner. This goes double for a country like Germany where the language is not very widespread and which is not widely known for its welcoming culture.
The Sarrazin debate was an excellent example of the serious doubts prevalent in Germany about the ability and willingness of migrants to integrate. In his book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany is doing itself in), Sarrazin offered a great deal of documentation on problems with migrant integration. These are initially difficult to simply dismiss out of hand, cause for worry that should have given rise to an objective debate about the possible causes. But this was made impossible by what seemed a general competition to exhibit the most outrage at the very awkward, clumsy and provocative statements Sarrazin uttered while marketing his book. Any discussion quickly turned into a political brawl about xenophobia and Islamophobia versus freedom of expression. Polls gave Sarrazin confidence that the majority of the population was behind him, and indignant media demonstrated that all the minders of political correctness were against him. The very day his book came out I personally watched with astonishment from inside the Board of Trustees of the German Institute for Human Rights how people, none of whom had actually read the book, discussed whether or not we should immediately issue a press release "against" it (which did in fact happen without delay).
My sympathy for Sarrazin is rather limited. Anyone who so baldly pursues sales really cannot complain when he is subjected to impertinent attacks. The high level of agreement among the general public was, however, rather remarkable. It showed that the perception of problems with integration is very widespread, though this does not mean it applies to every ethnic group. Studies have repeatedly shown that the children of Asian migrants, for example, achieve higher secondary school and university graduation rates than the domestic population. Many of the families that came to Germany during the Gastarbeiter or guest worker period during the 50s and 60s have integrated exceptionally well. In general the level of successful integration always depends on the level of education and cultural openness of a given migrant group. But there is more to it as well! The openness of the host population and level of welcome expressed by the host country's culture are also very decisive factors. A country can communicate its "open arms" by developing language courses and a range of measures to assist integration. But it is even more important to promote an understanding among the public that immigration is necessary and makes sense. If, in keeping with Raimund Becker, we hail immigrants as the "saviours" of our social system and domestic economic prosperity and receive them positively, they will as a rule also be more open towards their host society and not withdraw into parallel structures. The opposite is also true: if immigrants are to play the role of saviour, they must have the linguistic and professional qualifications that allow them to adapt to living in Germany.
Conclusion: The integration of immigrants is not an automatic process. Clear criteria must be set when attracting foreign skilled workers. A high level of professionalism will reduce the danger of slipping into the dependence on the social system conservative circles are so fond of emphasising. A solid command of the German language (on the part of family members too) creates the foundation for intensive exchange with the local population. Politics will also need to change – a consistent refusal by the conservative camp to instrumentalise xenophobia would help promote the acceptance and as such the integration of migrants, as would ending the socially idealistic romanticisation by the left where immigration is often still portrayed as something everyone should view as enriching beyond and regardless of the utilitarian necessities of demographics. Though of course multiculturalism cannot simply be decreed.
But are we even allowed to attract qualified workers from emerging and developing countries? Is it ethical? What about the brain drain? Do-gooders have a clear answer to these questions: No! This perpetuates the disparities between industrialised countries and developing countries. It is fundamentally a continuation of colonisation, just through a different medium (e.g.: Hein de Haas in International Migration Review 44/1, p. 227ff (2010)). If we are going to push immigration, then only from industrialised nations.
Initially this all sounds quite plausible. And anyone familiar with the at times catastrophic conditions in the health sectors of many sub-Saharan countries in Africa will agree that there are countries where poaching more doctors and other health care workers would not be tolerable. In this sector in particular, a redistribution of the limited human resources purely based on the buying power of domestic economies cannot be the right solution. This is not just about economic interests; the bodies and lives of human beings are at risk.
But can we extrapolate from this to draw a general conclusion that moving skilled labour across national borders always leads to the brain-drain effect? Surely not! One example is enough to prove the point: the GIZ is working with the Federal Employment Office to organize a small pilot project to attract nurses from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where more than 5,000 nurses are out of work. They receive very limited financial support from the government and many live on the breadline. If some are offered the prospect of a better life Germany, the burden on government systems to provide aid is reduced. And that is not all: practically every project participant sends some of their earnings home to those family members still in Bosnia. Here the immigration process has three positive effects: it gives skilled workers better prospects, helps the host country close a human resources gap and the country of origin also directly profits financially. So we could call this a triple-win effect.
The positive development policy effects created by migrants in their countries of origin are not limited to remittances alone. There is often a complementary effect when diaspora organisations get involved in development policy and design and finance smaller development projects. Depending on the respective profession, intense technology transfer often takes place. The Indian nationals employed in the Silicon Valley and the software firms they and their families have founded are one impressive example of this. Social remittances are also worth mentioning, such as when migrants promote the values of democracy and social market economy internalized in the diaspora in their homelands. And many migrants will return to their homelands sooner or later where they can generate economic value from the knowledge and skills acquired in Germany for both themselves and their countries of origin.
Additionally: the euro crisis is currently preventing us from clearly recognising the fact that all the industrialised countries, with the exception of France, are in the exact same situation as Germany. Winning over skilled labour from other industrialised countries cannot therefore be a successful long-term strategy anyway.
Conclusion: An across-the-board rejection of immigration from emerging and developing countries would be as wrong as the global, indiscriminate recruitment of skilled labour from any and all branches and countries based solely on Germany's own needs. We need to carefully identify those countries that have sufficient numbers of young people to be able to balance out the demographic deficits in the industrialised nations without themselves incurring damage. This alone is not enough, however. In the countries of origin we have to ensure that as many young people as possible have access to a good education so the local job market has enough skilled labour at its disposal. Our responsibility here arises not just from a dictate to act in a morally responsible manner. It also serves German interests. Only an approach to acquiring skilled labour that is also good development policy will work well over the long term. Germany is facing global competition for not just the best minds, but also for well-qualified workers. We will only continue to survive if we can win the support of the governments in possible countries of origin. Anyone who acts as a fair, responsible partner will have the best opportunities.
There are many options and possibilities. The brain-drain effect could be reduced if we also brought dropouts to train in Germany along with other qualified workers. Or we might design development programmes that would promote the growth of skilled labour in our partner countries, so there would be enough well-qualified people to satisfy both domestic and international demand. We could also increasingly apply programmes to improve the development policy benefit of immigration. Ultimately the decisive factor will be ensuring that the usefulness of the immigration process is greater than the potential cost for our partner countries.
We have arrived at the end of our excursion through the landscape of bias and prejudice to conclude that immediately investing in attracting skilled labour from emerging and developing nations is a necessity, and absolutely essential to the survival of our domestic economy. We have also seen that widespread acceptance of this process by the public can only be achieved if foreign skilled workers can be integrated. And we have also reached the conclusion that ensuring a sufficient number of skilled workers can only be realised if closely coupled with development policy goals.
These three insights taken together clarify how huge the step that Germany still has to take really is. Right now we have a Germany in which the job market and domestic policy continue to squirm at the idea of admitting the necessity of immigration. A Germany in which development policy research still hesitates to acknowledge the positive effects of planned immigration. A Germany in which integration policy is very hesitant to concede that a host country also has a duty to play its part.
The alternative would be so simple, yet seems so beyond our reach: overcoming these prejudices quickly and developing a holistic perspective on ensuring sufficient skilled labour, integration and development. To create a triple-win effect for everyone involved in immigration and make Germany an attractive destination for the skilled labour we need. Perhaps the Demography Summit in Berlin on October 4 was a small first step?
In closing, we'll return to Beckenbauer again and his immortal words "the Swedes are not the Dutch, that was quite obvious!" True for once. But perhaps in a world in which the mobility of international skilled professionals is growing in importance and tolerance and rationality in managing these processes are factors that affect prosperity more and more, it will at some point no longer be so important if they are Swedes or Dutch, Vietnamese or Germans.