<< view all Publications

The business case for migration

Engaging with the private sector to encourage proactive migration policies in the interest of economic growth and prosperity

Release Date:

November 2013

Download publication


Over the last two years, the Global Agenda Council on Migration of the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been engaging with the private sector to better understand the intersections between business and migration. We have found the private sector to be far more forthcoming about the merits – indeed, the imperatives – of migration, than most government stakeholders. One reason is that businesses are accountable to shareholders – not voters – and understand that migrants and migration generate profit. Another is that for global corporations in particular, intra-company transfers are a fundamental human resource strategy – human mobility is their life blood. Corporate social responsibility also extends to an interest in the rights of workers, many of whom are migrants.

While there are examples of government programmes to facilitate labour mobility, for example, in the European Union, the business sector is increasingly taking its own initiatives as well. Sometimes these initiatives are for direct commercial gain, but often they also make a wider community contribution. This article provides a variety of examples from around the world, drawing on a recent publication by the Global Agenda Council on Migration.[1] The article concludes by asking how more creative alliances can be forged between these business and government initiatives, in order to strike a more objective and positive public perspective on migration, and encourage more proactive migration policies in the interest of economic growth and prosperity.

Migrants and the global competition for talent

Despite lingering high levels of unemployment in many markets, organizations around the world report that they cannot find the talent they need, when they need it. Shortages exist at all skill levels, hindering efficiency and competitiveness. According to a 2012 World Economic Forum report, one of the main impediments to talent markets is private and public constraints on mobility. At the same time, it is often reported that migrants work in  jobs  that  are  not  commensurate  with  their  skills. This comprises a “brain waste”: destination countries require skills but are not taking advantage of the skills that are already present in their societies in the form of migrants. 

One example of an innovative response is a joint project between Manpower Group and the Viet Nam Government’s Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs to implement a strategy for integrating Viet Nam’s workforce into the global talent marketplace. Manpower Group specializes in providing people and services to raise the productivity of organizations’ workforces worldwide, including through recruitment and assessment, training and development, and career management. The joint project is based on an annual survey on the domestic supply of candidates available for overseas assignments, and matches this against existing demand among global employers; drawing on insights from other strategies for job placement and matching, for example, in Taiwan Province of China and the Republic of Korea. It includes a training component to upgrade workers’ skills before and during the overseas assignment. The project also has a strong emphasis on protecting the rights of migrants overseas, as well as on enhancing their return and reintegration for the benefit of the Vietnamese economy.

Migration and competitiveness: The case of Africa

Once derided as the “Hopeless Continent,” analysts now fete “Africa Rising.” The reality, however, is far more nuanced. Still, many companies have solid reasons for feeling bullish about the prospects for growth in African economies in the years ahead. Indeed, many of the early movers have already done extremely well. Companies that know Africa well say that talent pools are broad but shallow, and deepening them is a strategic priority for many companies with long-term plans to be in Africa. Doing so means moving African talent around the continent (and beyond) to provide them with a range of experiences in different markets. Yet many companies report that African governments place more restrictions on the mobility of Africans across the continent than they do non-Africans. Large companies also rely on thousands of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to supply inputs and distribute their products and services. These SMEs also struggle with skills shortages and lack the resources or clout of larger companies to solve the

While there are examples of innovative national and bilateral talent mobility programmes, these remain few. Indeed, many companies operating in Africa are addressing skills development challenges themselves, whether through bespoke educational initiatives or in cooperation with existing institutions. Some companies are going beyond investing in the skills development of their own talent, to launching broader skills development initiatives that target entire communities.

Nevertheless,there are three particular obstacles to businesses’ interests that risk sub-optimal results.

First, policymakers often lack awareness of the scale and impact of these companies’ skills development initiatives. This, in turn, leads to a second problem, which is that businesses are largely acting in isolation rather than in concert with other businesses with common interests. Third, businesses are, in effect, foregoing opportunities to secure political and financial gain from these all-important skills development investments. Instead, these investments that businesses make in local talent to fill future skills gaps should be earning business considerable credit, for example, in the form of concessions from governments for short-term easing of restrictions of talent mobility to fill immediate skills gaps.

Migration generates business opportunities

Migrant markets are proving to be important opportunities for industries as diverse as financial services, telecommunications, media and entertainment, travel and tourism, consumer goods, and the hotel/restaurant/catering (HORECA) sector. Migrant consumers shopping for specialized services, such as telephone cards, or goods such as familiar cooking spices, have found more and more businesses willing to meet their needs. There have been concerns that companies may have an outsized advantage over their migrant client base. In response, more and more companies targeting migrant markets are developing innovative relationships with their customers.

One example is Univision Communications, the leading media company serving Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) America. The Univision audience is large and growing fast: the 2010 US census showed that Hispanics surpassed 50 million. Interacting with Hispanics in the United States of America is central to Univision’s business, which believes in the principle that what is good for their clients is good for their business. As a result, it operates a number of social initiatives that target the key needs of the Hispanic community, focusing on providing information and outreach on education, voting and citizenship, health and financial empowerment.

Another example of business engagement to support a client base is the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT), whose primary markets include the link between overseas Filipino Workers and their families at home. Through the SMART Pinoy Store, products like appliances and electronic gadgets may be bought online for family members in the Philippines without being subject to freight charges that are usually charged on packages sent home. Migrants can also subsidize their families’ daily needs through the online payment of utility bills or direct purchases at family-owned sari- sari and neighbourhood thrift stores, which sell basic commodities like food, beverages and mobile phones and accessories.

Demographics, migration and business

The interplay between ageing and migration results in diverse implications for business. One company that has been impacted directly by this intersection is Home Instead Senior Care, which provides non-medical home care and elder companionship services to help seniors live independently at home.

Migration has impacted on Home Instead in six main ways:

First, global migration trends are creating new and specific care needs, where clients’ cultural backgrounds and language limitations drive the selection and assignment of caregivers.

Second, an increasing number of professional migrants are taking advantage of the Home Instead franchise model to develop their own businesses in countries where they have settled.

Third and combining the first two strands, the migration- driven need for a diverse network of caregivers is being satisfied by migration as more migrants become franchise-holders and employ migrant workers.

Fourth, skilled migrants have helped diversify the company’s global reach and develop global business opportunities.

Fifth, Home Instead increasingly sources its caregivers from around the world. Sometimes this takes the form of public–private partnerships. In Canada, for example, Home Instead franchises are taking advantage of a work programme developed by the Canadian Government in cooperation with the Governments of Ireland and Jamaica. These countries train caregivers, after which Canadian employers (including Home Instead) hire them for an agreed-upon number of work-hours over a specified period.

Finally, migration has also posed challenges to the Home Instead business model. An influx of Eastern European workers into Western Europe, for example, has created competition in the homecare business. Families may choose to pay for the services of the less expensive individual caregivers, who may be untrained and unsupervised, instead of caregivers supervised by a home care company.

Engaging diasporas in economic development

Connecting businesses to diaspora investors and markets is a new frontier for migration and development policy. The Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre (OIFC) provides a good model. Established in 2007, it seeks to facilitate the economic engagement of overseas Indians and persons of Indian origin with India. It is intended to be a focal point, particularly for professionals and SMEs, to expand their economic integration in India. Specifically, OIFC has been mandated to: (a) promote overseas Indian investments into India and facilitate business partnerships; (b) establish and maintain a Diaspora Knowledge Network; (c) function as a clearing house for all investment-related information; (d) assist Indian States to project investment opportunities to overseas Indians; and (e) provide advisory services to persons of Indian origin and non-resident Indians.

OIFC responds to the needs of overseas Indians in two main ways. One is to provide information. A significant component of OIFC services has been answering queries from overseas Indians in areas ranging from foreign investment consulting, regulatory approvals, market research, joint venture partner identification, project financing, accounting, taxation, legal enquiries and portfolio investments. OIFC fields these enquiries with the help of “knowledge partners” such as banks and private sector firms.

A second main service provided by OIFC is facilitation. For example, OIFC provides opportunities for face-to- face connection through its “Diaspora Engagement Meets.” OIFC organizes these “Meets” in regions with large numbers of overseas Indians, to apprise them of opportunities for investment and business engagement in India and provide a platform for business facilitation in India. OIFC has established contacts with over 6,000 overseas Indians through various roadshows and business forums conducted in the Caribbean, Europe, North America, the Middle East, South Africa and South- east Asia.

Cities, migrants and integration

Studies demonstrate that well-integrated migrants are comparatively more successful in their host societies. Speaking the language, understanding local administration, and developing contacts and support networks are vital skills for migrants seeking employment or starting businesses. This is where local governments and the private sector can play an essential role to shore up integration policy. Research indicates that the employment environment is a site of critical learning, networking and knowledge transfer for migrants, not just about a particular trade or business, but also about the host society.

In the United States, while the Federal Government can facilitate the integration of new arrivals, it is city leaders – in both public and private sectors – who are on the frontline of crafting policies that best understand their particular immigrant populations. Local leaders can uniquely create policies to ensure that their communities maximize the potential contributions of an increasingly diverse and innovative labour force. Mayors, whose charge is to put in place policies to create local jobs, are also at the forefront of recognizing the role of the nation’s over 40 million immigrants in their future economic competitiveness.

One example comes from Minneapolis, a historically important gateway for northern Europeans, where the composition of the immigrant population has changed dramatically in the last two decades, with proportionally more Asians and Africans now immigrating to the state of Minnesota. A particular challenge that has arisen is how to facilitate opportunities for the many new Muslim immigrant entrepreneurs who operate their businesses under sharia law, which provides restrictions on loans that collect interest. Beginning in 2006, the city of Minneapolis, in partnership with the African Development Centre, began giving out loans at a fixed rate, rather than a variable interest rate, so that the loan mechanism would be compliant with Islamic law. The length of the loan and the interest over the borrowing period is determined prior to issuing the loan, with that amount then added to the original total loan cost. This makes the loan sharia-compliant while giving small business owners the necessary funding to expand and create more American jobs.


Around the world, governments are finding it increasingly hard to make the case for migration, for a range of reasons. There is often a correlation between recession and anti-immigration sentiment, generated by public concerns about competition from migrants for scarce jobs. In many countries, minor political parties have successfully adopted a xenophobic platform in order to elevate their political standing. Media coverage of immigration has become overwhelmingly critical. Political leaders find it hard to swim against this rising tide, especially given the relatively short timespan of electoral cycles. 

Yet most governments also acknowledge that well- managed migration can be beneficial. The evidence is clear that migration contributes to economic growth and development, helps address demographic decline, and generates social and cultural diversity. Some governments either have or are planning to introduce labour mobility schemes, but these are often hindered by political obstacles. Greater impetus is required to scale-up these schemes and realize their full potential.

The case studies in this article indicate the potential for a creative alliance between the private sector and government. The private sector can articulate a powerful business case for migration, which may provide a lever for governments to reassert control over the migration discourse. Already public– private partnerships around migration are benefiting local and national economies, business interests, and migrants and their families, and there clearly is potential to scale these up and expand their global coverage. Equally the private sector requires support from governments, particularly in the form of more flexible immigration procedures to facilitate the movement of highly skilled workers between countries and business venues.
The WEF Global Agenda Council on Migration continues to work on developing constructive engagement between governments and the private sector, in order to realize the mutual benefits discussed in this article, among others. Over the next year it will focus on four strategic goals. The first is to complement ongoing multilateral processes, for example, the Global Forum on Migration and Development; following a successful round table event at this year’s High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development, a second round table between business and government is planned for early 2014, co-hosted by the Government of Sweden and WEF. Second, synergies are being developed with other WEF Global Agenda Councils, including, for example, the Global Agenda Council on Africa, and cross-council meetings will take place at the WEF Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi in November to initiate a series of joint projects. Third, the Council is planning a series of regional initiatives, including a joint meeting with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and a round table event at the 2014 WEF regional meeting in the Philippines. Finally, the Council is supporting innovation, for example a new project focusing on the role of corporations in protecting migrants in crisis situations.

[1] World Economic Forum, The Business Case for Migration (Geneva, 2009).Khalid  Koser is Deputy Director and Academic Dean, Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and Chair of the World  Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Migration.