Handbooks of Research on International Political Economy series
Edited by Leila Simona Talani and Simon McMahon
Chapter 8: Guestworker regimes globally: a historical comparison
From building sites in Dubai to farms in California’s Central Valley, the mines on South African’s Rand, and middle-class houses in Singapore, guestworkers have become a global phenomenon. Of the 230 million international migrants in the world today, according to the International Labour Organization, most are migrant workers, or people laboring outside their country of birth for more than one year. Approximately one-fifth of these are guestworkers, defined here as international migrants who are admitted on state-run programs for the purpose of labor on a temporary basis, and granted limited or no options for changing this status. The temporary labor migration schemes that create guestworkers nearly always funnel the laborers into low-skilled jobs. Historically, Europe stands out, with Germany often taken as a banner case, though several of its neighbors – Switzerland, the UK, Austria, Spain, to name a few – also run temporary low-skilled migrant worker programs. Settler colonial states, including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, maintain programs for guestworkers who have few options for becoming members of the nation, despite otherwise relatively open immigration regimes. In Asia, guestworkers fill out the labor force in the economic success stories of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Yet none come close to the Gulf States, host to 13 million guestworkers. About 50 percent of SaudiArabia’s work is carried out by foreigners on temporary contracts; in Kuwait and the Emirates, the figure soars to 85 percent.
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