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Interview

'A great war for talent' awaits post-COVID world: Parag Khanna

International relations expert believes migrant workers drive growth for hosts

Some green zone countries with reliable health care "already have investor residency programs, so they are looking to take advantage of the situation by attracting people who are frustrated from living in red zones," said Parag Khanna. (Photo courtesy of Khanna)

TOKYO -- As recent breakthroughs on COVID-19 vaccines bring hopes for the resumption of international travel, global migration may also accelerate after many migrant workers were forced to return to their homeland or became stranded abroad without a job or social protection.

Some countries are already taking steps to lure global talent, capitalizing on their eased working environment and on their success in containing the virus.

Parag Khanna, an international relations expert and founder and managing partner of the strategic advisory consultancy FutureMap, expects that the world will soon face "a great war for talent" despite the nativist stances seen earlier this year in multiple places around the world.

"What is coming next is what I call a great war for talent -- an opposite of what we are experiencing right now," Khanna told Nikkei Asia in an interview. As countries, especially in the Northern Hemisphere -- North America, Western Europe and Northeast Asia -- "realize they have unsustainable debts, aging and retiring workforce, and labor shortage, they are actually competing for that talent."

Their "high quality of infrastructure as well as environment and political stability" could be elements to attract talent from the rest of the world, where "we don't have access to these but have labor surplus," said Khanna, author of "The Future is Asian." 

A public-private Canadian tech hub has been attempting to attract high-skilled but troubled foreign workers in the U.S. with a provocative campaign since August. "What if my visa gets cancelled?" "What if I lose my job?" These phrases -- and a large maple leaf -- started to appear on billboards along a highway near Silicon Valley in August and then on digital signs in New York City's Times Square in September.

The public-private hub Communitech is encouraging skilled tech migrant workers in the U.S. to move to Canada. (Photo courtesy of the company)

"World-leading companies need world-leading talent," Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, publisher of the campaign placing workers to Canadian tech companies, said in a statement. "That's why we're inviting the world's best tech workers to consider Canada." The campaign aims to draw those who are affected by the U.S. government's restrictions on its H-1B visa program, which allows U.S. companies to employ foreign technical workers.

In October, the Trump administration tightened the rules for the visa by imposing higher salary requirements. The definition of specialty occupation has also been altered to limit its eligibility and boost jobs for American workers.

"There has been tension over the H-1B visa and the number of Latinos in the U.S. for a long time," Khanna commented. "This is a constant issue in society because it is cultural, political and economic, so it is very different from a rational conversation about size, economic need, supply and demand. ... But the U.S. will eventually recognize a dilemma that they are in, and they will open up to more legal migration."

Migrant workers, estimated at 164 million by the International Labour Organization in 2018, have fueled the development of the global economy as well as the capitalist system.

They filled the need for workers for heavy industry in Europe and the U.S. in the post-World War II era, while the money they sent to families back home allowed people in their home countries to afford better education and health care.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, third from right, poses for a photo after a town hall meeting at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi in 2018. Many graduates of India's prestigious tech institutes dream of working in the U.S.   © Reuters

In 2019, the World Bank said that the flow of remittances to low- and middle-income countries, excluding China, was now larger than foreign direct investment and development assistance.

To win the global war for talent, countries' efforts to ease their labor regulations will be vital, Khanna argued. Japan now lets some foreign professionals bring their families, while the European Union grants a work permit for highly qualified workers through its Blue Card system.

However, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns, the notion of green zones where reliable health care is offered has been added on top of existing factors for this competition, he said.

"Places will be considered green zones if they are providing free or low-cost health care and vaccinations. ... Some of these green zone countries already have investor residency programs, so they are looking to take advantage of the situation by attracting people who are frustrated from living in red zones," Khanna said.

If there is another wave of the pandemic -- or another pandemic entirely -- and you have to stay somewhere abroad, then "you probably want to make it a comfortable place," he added.

One notable example is Thailand. Known for containing the virus, the country is considering providing work permits to foreigners who invest at least $1 million in Thai property or businesses.

The Center for Economic Situation Administration, a government-backed body to handle Thailand's economic rehabilitation, in November approved a proposal to grant work permits to those who qualify for the top tier of the nine categories in the Thailand Elite residency visa program.

The proposal, which is to be discussed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and related ministries before being submitted to the cabinet, aims to attract investors from around the world by allowing them to work in the kingdom.

Thailand Privilege Card, a company under the authority, achieved a record-high of 25% increase in Elite program memberships during fiscal 2020, ended in September, as people sought to stay in the coronavirus-free country, which has only recorded slightly above 4,000 cases, while neighboring Singapore has had 58,000 and Indonesia 581,000.

The "investment migration program is expected to bring in lots of investment and [is a] good opportunity to the country," Thailand Privilege Card President Somchai Soongswang told Nikkei Asia, arguing that the country's being a haven from COVID-19 has contributed to boosting the membership. "If we manage well, it will be beneficial to [our] country while maintaining [a] good healthy country condition."

The International Monetary Fund said in April that an increase of 1 percentage point in the number of immigrants relative to total employment in advanced economies increases output by almost 1% by the fifth year, highlighting the economic benefits of migrant workers brought to destination countries.

Khanna emphasized that there is "no zero-sum competition" between migrant labor and domestic labor. Not only do they have "different skill sets to complement each other, [but also] a greater number of people itself is a driver of a growth for a country because higher population creates higher demand."

"So what every country should want is people willing to pack their suitcases and bring their life savings to bet on that country," Khanna added.

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