A guest worker programme for Syria's women


I have previously written that we should let Syrians come to work in Britain through a guest worker scheme, arguing that the effects for natives are unlikely to be very bad, and I suspect may well be positive. But how might such a scheme work? Typically guest worker programmes are seasonal, allowing workers to migrate during harvests to work in agriculture. The UK ended its Seasonal Agricultural Workers schemes in 2013 when it was scrapped alongside work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians being lifted. New Zealand’s programme has supplied workers for its growing wine industry, which quadrupled in size between 2004 and 2012 (from NZ$300 million to NZ$1.2 billion).

Britain’s agriculture sector is growing less quickly, and shows less of an obvious need for new workers. But we do have a problem with high childcare costs and, perhaps relatedly, low native fertility rates leading to an older population.

So I suggest we set up a guest worker programme for Syrians to come and work in the childcare sector here. This would reduce costs – labour costs account for around 78% of total childcare costs, in part because we have such tight regulations about things like staff:child ratios compared to most other Western European countries.

But interestingly, this could have a significant knock-on effect on fertility. A paper released last year found that, by reducing childcare costs, immigrant inflows can boost the fertility rate of high-skilled native women. By reducing the cost of having children, highly-educated women are able to have more of them (and may be less inclined to leave the workforce when they do have kids.)

Virtually all childcarers – 98% of them – are women, so the visa programme could be opened to women only without distorting the existing shape of the UK labour force.

This would have the added benefit of avoiding most of the crime that people (possibly exaggeratedly) worry about immigrants causing – the UK’s male prison population is about nineteen times the size of the female one (i.e., women account for 4.6% of the prison population). Of course we could require that applicants have English language skills as well.

This would also significantly boost the incomes of Syrians back home or in refugee camps – the New Zealand guest worker programme led to per-capita income gains of 30-40% in countries like Tonga and Vanautu with per capita GDPs significantly higher than Syria’s.

I have heard objections to this that Syrian women would simply not be allowed to come by their families, which seems to me to be a misreading of the strictness of Syria’s religious culture. But even if I’m wrong and there’s not much take-up, the few people who do come would still be made better off. The main downside might be what would happen to the men in Syria if the gender ratio became significantly lopsided – an argument against doing this on a massive scale, perhaps, but not against taking an extra twenty or thirty thousand people.

A programme like this is obviously going to be limited in scope. It won’t solve the Syrian crisis, but it could be very good for the people who take part. And it would have the nice bonus of reducing costs for British families and boosting the birth rate among high-achieving British women. So what are we waiting for?