The implied meaning of the term “skilled” as it is used in migration is clear in that those who possess it are desired by destination countries because it guarantees that they will have jobs (read alternatively as “thus being productive members of society” or “not becoming charges of the state or perceived “burdens” to its social welfare system”). The “highly-skilled” are not only desired but actively pursued as the perspective of value, and thus the skill’s primary beneficiary, shifts from the possessor to its utilizer: while skill powers the migrant’s stability and financial future, “high-skill” ensures that the state stays relevant or globally-competitive or even the leader in key industries.
Almost intuitively, the “unskilled” worker is thought to be the opposite of the “skilled” worker, reducing the variable to a simple dichotomy. Others see skill as a continuum, thus going beyond the skilled-unskilled dyad and into a low-, mid- and high-skilled range of worker classifications.
Yet the multi-faceted problematic of the term “unskilled” begins when we see that beyond just possession or non-possession of a skill (dichotomy view) or possession of a skill to a certain degree (continuum view), we also wonder who assigns the classification or, more accurately, whose assignment of classification matters? In migration, the answer to this question is, of course, the State. The migrant’s view of himself as a skilled worker matters only insofar as the State concurs with him. Local certifications of skill presented by the migrant are accepted only if these local certifying bodies are, in turn, recognized or accredited by the State. Others recognize skill and thus assign to it corresponding value in one’s application for entry when only its designated third-party certifies the skill.
The problematic which began as a question of a presence or absence or amount of skill is now a question of whose valuation of it sticks. There may be other forces at work. Looking more closely at how Australia, Canada and the UK attract foreign workers may provide some clues.
While innovative terms such as distinguished/exceptional/fresh talent or high-value migrants unsuccessfully distract us from the central consideration being that of skill (even without direct use of the word), recently-implemented initiatives seem to introduce an additional (almost inevitable) variable to now act in confluence with the variable of Destination State-recognized skill. This is the market variable or, more specifically, the demand-supply variable.
Let’s take the supply side first. It has long been the practice that State-recognized migrant skills are fully consummated, as it were, only with the additional requirement of a sponsor. Simply put, skills actualize into benefit only with an offer of employment even before entry into the destination country. How sponsorship was secured was determined by various intermediaries between the skilled migrant and the employer. Now the skilled migrant can go directly to the market and get himself counted as part of the supply of willing labor, even without sponsorship. While a number of key benefits of this middle-man-free transaction undoubtedly accrue to the skilled migrant, full control remains in the hands of the State. Ultimately, this new, direct worker-to-employer system is not unlike the State-recognized skill system, further entrenching the employer’s market status quo that marks the migration industry.
Next on the demand side, what we are seeing are further enhancements that make employers less constrained by State policies that protect local labor from what would otherwise be a deluge of foreign workers in an unregulated migration industry. Employers typically must prove that foreign workers they wish to hire will fill jobs for which they can’t find locals to do. Now area-specific or industry-specific forces, possibly driven by demographic or business competition variables, enable two demand fine-tunings: 1) justify area-based pilot projects with less-stringent migrant-hiring rules and 2) rationalize an advanced listing of jobs with a lack of hirable local workers. These enhancements improve the demand side, ensuring that special conditions in each specific demand area are addressed thus maintaining the equitable use of State-controlled supply of State-recognized skills of migrant workers.
Let’s get back to the problematic of the “unskilled” worker and see how it now looks, thus far. After questioning the existence or amount of skill we challenged its valuation as its final legitimization rests with the State, not with the migrant. After hurdling skill validation by the sovereign, the unskilled migrant then competes in a market where supply units are defined and controlled by the employer and demand units are fine-tuned to industry- or area-specific exigencies.
This migration-nuanced problematic of the “unskilled” translates to at least two real, practical concerns for the unskilled wishing to find work overseas:
First, the “unskilled” migrant worker in a source country will have to go through another round of certification and testing to secure a quantification, validation, recognition and legitimization of his skill by the destination sovereign.
Second, the “unskilled” migrant worker who can’t find employment locally and who thus desires to try his luck abroad faces tougher, more intense competition from a now better, directly-recruited, better-consolidated pool of willing and qualified workers from which employers may pick. Migration complexifies competition among the “unskilled.”
The unskilled then, even after moving heaven and earth just to gather enough money for plane fare and other documentary requirements of travelling overseas, are faced with two more seemingly insurmountable roadblocks: they have to prove their skills and they have to get hired even before they leave.
It is not difficult then to understand why a segment (undoubtedly a larger percentage) of the unskilled takes a different route to a destination country. Since the certification and sponsorship requirements pit the unskilled worker against global talent/competitors, the most realistic option for him, and probably the only advantage within his reach, is to gain entry into a destination country by whatever means and, once there, thus positioning himself better for jobs because he is able to respond quicker to more temporary, more seasonal, more informal jobs. By complying less he survives more. Indeed, the unskilled overstayer becomes more by confirming that he is less.
There seems to be then a sea of unskilled workers inhabiting regions beyond the scope of the recruiting policies ostensibly designed to recruit them. Whether this mis-targeting is done by design or by policy oversight is a question beyond the scope of this paper. But empirical evidence from my interviews with Filipino overstayers in Japan (to be discussed in more detail in later portions of this paper) lends credence to this possibility, pointing to an alternative definition of the unskilled, which I tentatively name “truly unskilled,” as those who:
First, are, in fact, skilled in trades (before their departure from the source country and after their entry into the destination country) but are, for various reasons, unable or unwilling to go through certification or sponsorship requirements;
Second, were unskilled (before their departure) but are now currently skilled, having learned everything on-the-job on the strength of, first, initial recommendations from their social networks to get themselves hired and then subsequently, second, by virtue of opportunities given to them by their Japanese employers on the strength of goodwill earned through hard work, 24x7 availability on short notice, unbeatable docility and discipline, and most importantly, unquestioning subservience and non-objection to low pay.
That being without skills is a step before becoming skilled rather than a final condition or outcome or consequence from which there is no redemption can be seen by the Japanese practice of mijukuren rodo, or skilled labor-to-be (Yamanaka 1993: 75), where large companies manage new recruits with the strategic objective of training them, of inculcating the specific skills for which the value of their employment will be fully realized (Inagami & Whittaker 2005: 25-26). However, the “truly unskilled” subsist in a domain that is several times removed from the practice of mijikuren rodo. Smaller companies cannot afford the administrative overhead (extra manpower) costs that mijikuren rodo produces, often resorting to on-demand or seasonal hiring practices that are the turbines of unskilled labor demand. While mijikuren rodo recognizes potential to learn, the trainee must demonstrate proof or guarantees of this potential such as formal education, technical training completed and solid recommendations – precisely what the “truly unskilled” do not have.
In summary, our understanding of the term “unskilled” worker must necessarily encompass the following components:
a. A range of classifications of skill;
b. Perceived negative impact on destination society (safety/security/way of life-
standard of living);
c. Skill is measured against standard of destination society;
d. Value is subjected to supply-demand forces both defined and thus controlled
by employers and the State; and,
e. Inevitable fall-out of mis-targeted workers going into easier entry routes
“Unskilled” refers as much to the persons on which a range of skills reside as it does to the perceptions (judgments or fears) of those who utilize them. “Unskilled” constitutes the actions taken by the State to preserve and protect the first rights of its locals to a specific group of jobs. “Unskilled” encompasses the impending gap between increasingly specific controls of a persistent and ever-expanding resource.
I thus propose a core definition of the term “unskilled” worker:
The unskilled are those located, at any given point in time, on a group of jobs specifically reserved by the State for a particular sector of workers.
Note that in my formulation unskilled jobs are “reserved” and are thus ready for the taking by the willing while high-skilled jobs are “offered” only to the qualified. Imputed into the reserved-offered distinction is the supply-demand dynamic in that the reserved jobs have a bigger group of takers and thus needs State regulation while the offered jobs have few takers and are thus largely left to private interests to manage. The number of takers is predicted by a combination of factors the major ones of which are skill required (and thus education or training level), prestige and work-time (whether part- or full-time).