Has the pandemic shifted public opinion towards migrant workers in essential, but low-skilled, jobs?

The pandemic revealed that many migrants occupy essential jobs. How can this awareness affect migration policies? Banner image: Shutterstock/Dragana Gordic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has increased public awareness of the extent to which the workforce in essential sectors such as health, social care, food supply chains or transportation depends on migrants. The people in those industries were vital to maintain the functioning of the economy and ensure the provision of public services—especially health—during lockdowns and other mobility restrictions. Given their crucial role during the pandemic, this question has become a focus of new academic and policy work: Has the pandemic shifted public opinion towards migrant workers in essential jobs?

The category of essential workers includes both high-skilled occupations (e.g. doctors, nurses), as well jobs often considered as medium- or low-skilled (e.g. social care workers).  We already know that public opinion towards high-skilled migration tends to be very positive. For example, Naumann et al. (2018) conducted survey experiments in 15 European countries and found that high-skilled migrants are preferred over low-skilled ones, regardless of the respondents’ own educational levels and income.

The reasons driving the public preference for high-skilled migration remain the source of debate, though there is more consensus that negative perceptions of the economic and cultural effects of low-skilled migration likely play a role. 

Find more in the Forum Network: New Role Models: Amplifying migrant women’s voices in policy is the key to creating truly gender equal Europe, by Anila Noor, Ecosystem Builder for Inclusion and Equality, New Women Connectors

Yet, following the pandemic, we need to explore whether an essential job compensates for it being low-skilled in terms of public perception. And so we have a new question: Has the pandemic shifted public opinion towards migrant workers in essential, but low-skilled, jobs? This would include workers in the care sector, food industry, delivery services or transportation.

A recent study conducted in the United Kingdom during the first half of 2021 looked at public preferences towards admitting migrants, based on them working in different occupations that varied in their required skills and degree of essentialness. As expected, respondents were more likely to show preference for admission of migrants in high-skilled jobs. However, respondents were also more likely to show a preference for migrants working in essential jobs, regardless of the skill level of the occupation. The results suggest that the probability of being preferred for admission into the United Kingdom was 24 percentage points higher for migrants in essential jobs than for those in non-essential jobs. Comparing occupations of similar skill levels, lorry drivers for a supermarket chain were 23% more likely to be preferred for admission than waiters.

Before COVID-19, an occupation’s essentialness in public preferences towards labour migration policies was not a central focus of academic and policy discussions. Though some jobs may have always been more valuable to the public—based on perceptions of worthiness, social value or, indeed, their worth during a public health emergency—it is not possible to know the degree to which this has been affected by the pandemic. But given this new focus, we know essentialness is important for public preferences towards labour migration policies, regardless of whether it is a low-or a high-paid job.

Essentialness—as opposed, or in addition to skills—has key implications for immigration policy. Labour immigration systems worldwide have a clear preference for high-skilled migration, while imposing restrictions towards those coming to work in lower-skilled occupations (Fernández-Reino et al., 2020). It remains to be seen if these immigration systems follow the new evidence on public opinion and put more emphasis on the role of essentialness.

Find more about global migration in the OECD International Migration Outlook 2021:

Find more information on the state of health system performance in the Health at Glance: OECD Indicators

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Mariña Fernández-Reino & Carlos Vargas-Silva

Senior Researcher & Director, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford

Mariña Fernández-Reino is a senior researcher at the Migration Observatory. Mariña completed her PhD in Sociology at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in 2013 with a dissertation on ethnic educational inequalities in the UK. Before joining the Migration Observatory, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Horizon 2020 project Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration and Markets, where she investigated the labour market discrimination of ethnic and migrant minorities in Spain. Mariña is a quantitative sociologist and her research interests include ethnic educational inequalities, the socio-economic integration of migrants and their labour market discrimination.

Carlos Vargas-Silva is Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and Associate Professor at the University of Oxford. He is also the Director of the Doctoral Programme in Migration Studies and a member of Kellogg College. Carlos is co-founder and current Editor-in-Chief of the journal Migration Studies. He is Principal Investigator of a project that explores the social impacts of refugee resettlement in the United States and is the Oxford leader for the MIGNEX project, a large initiative on migration and development. His research focuses on the interaction of migration, including forced migration, with labour markets and public services in migrant sending and receiving countries. Carlos teaches in the MSc in Migration Studies at Oxford. He also supervises doctoral students interested in migration (in intersection with labour markets, development, and/or public policy) and welcomes new potential DPhil students interested in these areas. He also works with a vibrant group of post-doctoral fellows and is available for collaboration with early career researchers who want to consolidate their research in these topics.