Now Europe woos skilled immigrants with ‘blue cards’

By Shubha Singh, IANS

Several countries in Europe are finding it difficult to fill jobs that require highly skilled workers. The European Union (EU) does not have clear procedures for legal migration such as the migration channels that exist in the US, Canada and Australia. Business enterprises have to go through a cumbersome process to apply for work permits for their overseas employees.

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The European Commission (EC) has recently floated a proposal for a ‘blue card’ on the lines of the coveted American ‘green card’ to enable legal migration of highly skilled migrants to European countries.

Europe has long been a destination for illegal migration – unofficial estimates hold that there are about one million illegal Indian migrants in Europe. It could now become a destination for legal migration for Indians.

The ‘blue card’ proposal is a points-based system for highly skilled people, but many European countries are facing labour shortages of skilled and semi-skilled workers as well. As the skill shortages are likely to increase in the coming years, temporary migration of workers is seen as a solution to labour shortages.

The EC is also supporting a project in India for a regional dialogue for facilitating managed and legal migration between Asia and the EU under the aegis of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The IOM has signed an MoU with the Indian ministry for overseas Indian affairs for a pilot project to identify areas of labour shortages in Europe and matching them with skills available in India.

Initially five countries each in west Europe and east Europe have been selected for the pilot project. European countries require construction workers, health care staff, and skilled workers like plumbers, carpenters, steel fabricators, and heavy-duty vehicle drivers. Aside from identifying areas of labour requirement, the project would provide information regarding employment opportunities and act as facilitator between employers and recruiting agencies.

The IOM pilot project would help prepare the workers with requisite training and certification to go to Europe on fixed time contracts. It would also help upgrade migrants’ skills for the new work place environment and provide them with cultural counselling. The EU expects that regulated legal migration would reduce the incidence of illegal migration.

The EC has been working on a strategy for legal migration for several years. India is a major source of migrant workers in both the highly skilled and semi-skilled sectors, and when the EU begins a regular process of recruiting foreigners India is likely to be one of the important source areas for workers.

Several countries such as Poland have shown interest in bilateral arrangements for short-term migration. Poland has an estimated shortfall of about 80,000 workers for jobs in construction, agriculture and other projects. Though not a EU country, Canada has also shown an interest in associating with the IOM project.

Faced with growing shortages of skills in hi-tech areas, the EC has been concerned that the US draws more than 60 percent of the migrants in this category while a mere 5 percent chose European countries. Immigration is a sensitive subject in Europe and the ‘blue card’ would allow them to attract suitably qualified migrants who meet the local requirements, without actually opening the doors to general immigration.

The EC’s ‘blue card’ proposal will require clearance from the 27 EU members and could take more than two years to be approved.

The proposal is likely to generate controversy because of the sensitivity over immigration issues, especially as there is relatively high unemployment in some EU countries. EU members like Britain and Ireland are unlikely to agree to be part of the ‘blue card’ system. Immigration has become a major issue in several European countries where questions are being raised regarding the assimilation of the post World War migrants and their children into the host society. The idea of immigration also evokes among local workmen the fear of being replaced by low-paid Asian workers.

However, the demographics of Europe’s aging population will only increase the need for foreign workers. According to the EC estimates, the EU would require 20 million skilled workers in the next two decades, especially in the fields of computer technology and engineering. It is said that by 2020 it could become difficult to sustain several industrial sectors in Europe. An aging population in Europe means that a larger number of people would reach the age of retirement without adequate number of young adults entering the job market to replace them.

There are already skill shortages in areas like engineering, IT, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and education, according to the European Commission, and the absence of a regular channel for migration makes it difficult to recruit people for these jobs.

The expansion of the EU had sparked off fears that the more developed European countries would be swamped by the influx of people from the new entrants as EU borders expanded. The westward movement of people has taken place but at the same time it has resulted in labour shortage is new areas, especially where entry into the EU has resulted in major development works taking off the ground.

Individual European countries like the Czech Republic have already initiated a project to recruit personnel in the IT, biotech and medical fields. A few years ago, Germany had announced that it was looking for Indian computer professionals. But after a brief flurry of interest, the German government found to its dismay that there were few takers for jobs in Germany as Indian techies found the opportunities in the US more attractive.

Work conditions have to be made more welcoming to attract suitably qualified people as labour shortages force European countries to look outward for expatriate workers.

(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at [email protected])