There has not yet been research on how international migration affects the systemic resilience of essential services. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the contributions migrants make to the provision of essential economic activities and services, both in countries where these goods and services are consumed/accessed and along global supply chains. Migrants’ jobs and their behaviour in these jobs may well differ from those of citizens in ways that matter for resilience. For example, recalling the features of resilient systems identified in Section 3, migrant workers might be especially flexible, or conversely, immigration requirements might reduce flexibility. Similarly, migrants’ social capital may play roles in transnational networks that are relevant during crises. Thus, the employment of migrants could affect both the magnitude of the decline in performance of a system following a shock as well as the adjustment time (see Fig. 1).
Examining the link between migrants and systemic resilience requires comparative research at several levels. Migration is only one among various factors affecting resilience. A comparative approach is needed to disentangle the effects of migrant workers from the impacts of other factors, especially the characteristics of citizens employed in essential services and the effects of policies and institutions. For example, the resilience of the provision of health services in a particular country is likely to be shaped by its general systemic characteristics including how work is organised, regulated and has been prepared for a crisis. At the same time, migrant workers can affect resilience in various direct and indirect ways, many of which might not be obvious and need to be ‘discovered’ through research and experience. Therefore, we do not attempt to provide a list of concrete research questions for comparative analysis. Instead, we identify three types of comparative research set-ups that might shed light on how migrants shape systemic resilience of essential services: comparisons between migrants and citizens within one system (e.g. a system for providing social care in a particular country), comparisons across systems (e.g. across systems for providing care in different countries), and comparisons of the politics of resilience strategies.
Comparing migrants and citizens employed within the same system
The first type of comparative research explores effects on systemic resilience that are specific to migrants and do not arise for citizens even when working in the same jobs. There are a number of reasons why such migrant-specific effects can arise, including the migratory process: in the case of temporary migration, labour supply is conditional on ongoing possibilities to migrate. In the case of longer-term migration, it is conditional on the renewal of residence and work permits. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted that these conditions can translate into migrant-specific vulnerabilities for systemic resilience: border closures prevented migration, quarantine delayed and discouraged migration, and status renewals became uncertain. Ad-hoc policies mitigated these problems but did not fully resolve them (Section 1). Migrants might also choose to stay away from the destination country or to leave the country, as was observed for some migrants working in social care in Germany (Safuta & Noack, 2020).
However, the possibility to recruit migrants from abroad can also be an important source of resilience, particularly if the crisis is national or regional rather than global. From the perspective of destination countries when domestic sources of labour and skills are under strain during a crisis, migrants can be a temporary ‘back-up’ from abroad, provided the origin country is not as badly affected as the destination country. Such temporary support can be arranged through cross-border networks (formal or informal), and migrants are well-positioned to create cross-border networks. In the context of established bilateral or multilateral migration schemes, recruitment of migrants for essential services could be organised especially quickly. This could involve fast-track procedures for recognising or adapting migrants’ foreign qualifications, in order to avoid lengthy delays due to missing licenses or permissions.
In the destination country, unlike citizens, migrants face constraints imposed by immigration controls, and this could affect systemic resilience. Work and residence permits are often tied to a particular employer, which rules out changing jobs and equates losing the job with losing the right to residence. Therefore, migrants are often especially committed to their current job even under the difficult conditions of a crisis, thereby contributing to systemic resilience. As discussed earlier, employment restrictions can make migrants much more exploitable than citizens, and some employers might lower employment conditions in a way that has adverse impacts on systemic resilience. Similarly, migrants’ access to local healthcare and child care is often restricted (especially for irregular migrants), which can undermine their ability to work. Finally, medium and low-skilled migrants often have limited rights to family reunification. Migrants living more often alone than citizens may be advantageous in a pandemic but lack of family support could be detrimental in other crises.
In addition to the process of migration and the related effects of migration controls, the individual migration experience could matter for systemic resilience. The fact that migrants needed to adapt to the new environment in the destination country might mean that they adapt to a crisis situation comparatively easily. If they previously worked in similar roles in the origin country, this might help them develop workarounds: migrants might think more ‘out of the box’ because they are aware of different approaches. Diversity of work teams in terms of prior experiences, talents or training has been linked to stronger team performance (e.g. Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007).
Fourth, migrants’ average age and health characteristics may differ from those of citizens. Emigration often takes place at a young age and so migrants might on average be comparatively young while they work in the destination country. This may matter for resilience, as was evidenced in the Covid-19 pandemic when young persons faced a lower risk of falling ill (Promislow, 2020). It may also affect their adaptability. In addition, migrants might self-select based on the strength of their health (e.g. Lariscy et al., 2015). A ‘healthy-migrant effect’ would play a role for systemic resilience, notably during pandemics. If, on the other hand, migrant workers are poorly housed, they can face an especially high risk of infection (Koh, 2020).
For most of these differences between migrants and citizens, the implications for resilience can be studied within a single system, as long as it employs both migrants and citizens in substantial numbers. Using observations on both groups over time (at least before and after a shock), one can examine empirically how migrant workers fared, behaved, and affected the resilience of the provision of a particular essential service compared with citizens. This also offers an opportunity to examine similarities and differences with internal migrants, whose mobilities may be facilitated or constrained using non-immigration policies. These national contexts can also interact with global supply chains.
Comparing migrants’ roles across systems
The role of migrants in shaping systemic resilience may be largely determined by policies, regulations and institutions that differ between particular essential services and between countries (Section 2). This means that an effect ascribed to migrant labour might reflect the structure of an essential service – for example, a structure that relies on the strong involvement of migrant labour. In order to reach reliable empirical conclusions for research and policy, it will therefore be important to distinguish between effects specific to migrants (as discussed above) and effects from certain roles that migrants play in the specific institutional structure of an essential service. In other words, we need to study comparatively how different institutions and policies (such as different institutional designs of the care system) shape the resilience of the provision of an essential service, and what this means for the role of migrants.
For example, if national immigration controls allow limiting a migrant’s employment to specific parts of the country (a policy that varies considerably across countries), labour migration policy can be used to assign migrant health professionals to positions in rural areas (e.g. Hagopian et al., 2003) – and a sufficient presence of health professionals in rural areas may be important for the systemic resilience of healthcare. However, in other contexts such a policy might undermine resilience: migrants tend to be more geographically mobile within the destination country (Boman, 2011), and such flexibility can become particularly important during a crisis.
In systems for essential services that rely on flexible labour markets, migrants might work disproportionately in roles with low pay, non-standard working hours, and limited contracts. If the existence of these jobs affects systemic resilience (either positively through e.g. enhanced flexibility, or negatively through e.g. poor working conditions), migrant workers impact on resilience. Research has found that the availability of migrant labour can affect the skills mix and use of capital in production and may in some cases expand the number of labour-intensive jobs (e.g. Lewis, 2011). This suggests that migrants play specific roles in systems and can affect systemic resilience by influencing some of the institutional characteristics of the system itself.
When analysing the role of migrants within different systems for providing an essential good or service, it is important to consider the transnational dimension. The resilience of a supply chain is often dependent on laws and policies in a number of different jurisdictions, including the migration and labour policies of countries other than the country of final destination. Thus importing certain crops for example does not per se reduce reliance on migrant labour systemically, although it might alleviate national political concerns about this reliance by effectively outsourcing it to other countries. Such interdependencies through supply chains highlight the need for international collaboration in order to increase systemic resilience.
The following questions thus arise for comparative research on the role of migrants across countries with different systems for providing an essential service: how do systems that strongly rely on migrant labour perform in terms of systemic resilience compared with systems that make much more limited use of migrant labour? In other words, what does it mean for resilience when an essential service has come to rely heavily on migrant labour, compared with systems that have moved towards greater mechanisation, employment of citizens at rising wages, or reliance on imports (and thus greater use of migrants in the supply chain abroad)? Such comparative research can draw on cross-country differences in the reliance of essential services on migrant labour, differentiating by migrants’ roles and relating this to observed differences in resilience.
Comparing the choice and determinants of resilience strategies across systems
Building on research that assesses the effects of migrants on resilience within and across systems, it is important to ask whether and why particular resilience strategies are more or less likely to be adopted in different national contexts. We need to understand the factors that constrain and influence the (non-adoption of) particular resilience strategies by national governments, which requires comparative political and institutional analysis. It also requires that we examine how resilience strategies in particular countries are related to the institutions and policies of other countries. For example, as Covid-19 revealed, facilitating labour immigration during a global pandemic requires that sending states facilitate labour emigration.
As discussed above, policy responses to Covid-19 could include a change in the use of migrant labour within a given system (i.e. without changing the broader institutional and policy framework of the system) or a ‘regime switch’ to a different system (e.g. a change to a social care system with different institutional features that are more supportive of systemic resilience). The political choice among these strategies can be influenced by a range of factors. A first obvious factor are the material interests of different groups and the effects of different resilience strategies on them. A change in the use of migrant workers (e.g. in their numbers, the roles they fill, and/or the rights they are given) will create costs and benefits for different political actors and groups, and the same holds for a ‘regime change’ such as a significant change in labour market regulations and/or associated welfare policies. The distributional and other consequences of different strategies for improving systemic resilience can be expected to play an important role in whether or not particular policies are adopted. Similarly, stakeholders will seek to influence what exactly qualifies as an essential good or service. A comparison of official lists of essential services published by Italy, Spain and the United States, for example, reveals a strong overlap but also notable differences (Nivorozhkin & Poeschel, 2021).
Effects and path dependencies of institutions and associated social norms are also likely to matter for the choice of resilience strategy. A long tradition of regulating labour markets and societal norms that value high degrees of socio-economic security, solidarity, and social protection might significantly constrain an increase in the reliance on migrant workers on temporary contracts, to make the provision of a particular essential service more flexible and thus more resilient. Regime change will depend on the characteristics and rigidities in the prevailing institutions and norms. Again, this may vary across countries and thus play an important role in explaining the adoption of different resilience strategies.
Third, public attitudes to labour migration and concrete resilience strategies are likely to matter as well. An increase in the use of migrant labour in essential services may well lead to a rise in low-skilled immigration, as many essential jobs are in low-wage occupations. We know from existing research that public attitudes to labour migration critically depend on the skill and perceived contributions of the migrant, and in most countries they are much more positive to higher-skilled than to low-skilled migration (e.g. Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2014). An important question for research is whether and how Covid-19 has impacted on these attitudes, and specifically whether the recent apparent public appreciation of key workers in many countries has improved public attitudes towards lower-skilled migrant workers doing essential jobs (Dražanová, 2020). Comparative research could explore whether and why the impact of Covid-19 on public attitudes differs across countries, as this may have significant consequences for the resilience strategies considered most acceptable by policymakers.