Guest Workers in Singapore

Reason cover story next month is an excellent piece on guest worker programs by Kerry Howley. It has an emphasis on Singapore, which has a stunning 43 percent foreign-born workforce, most of them participating in the country’s guest worker program. Singapore’s guest worker program can only be described as draconian. Workers aren’t permitted to switch jobs, they’re required to leave the country within seven days if they lose their jobs, they can’t marry natives, and they face deportation or mandatory abortions if they get pregnant.

And yet Kerry makes a poignant case that this program is better than no guest worker program at all. Most immigrants see a massive boost in their earning power when they come to Singapore, and they’re able to remit significant sums back to their families, or to raise the capital necessary to start a business back home. Immigrants obviously aren’t thrilled with the restrictions placed on them, but they’re still grateful for the opportunity to improve their economic conditions.

However, it’s not clear how relevant Singapore’s experience is to the American immigration debate. The big difference is that Singapore is an authoritarian regime that isn’t too worried about equality or civil liberties, nor does it have to worry as much about short-term political expediency. A Singapore-style guest worker program simply wouldn’t fly here because our government doesn’t have the necessary ruthlessness (not that I’d want it to). We lack the political will to deport the millions of immigrants in the country now, and I suspect we’d be equally squeamish about some of the more draconian aspects of Singapore’s program.

Moreover, while I think a guest worker program for America would, on the margin, be a good thing for both Americans and immigrants, I think the real question is how much pro-immigration interests should be willing to give up to get a guest worker program. Last summer’s immigration bill, for example, included a dramatic expansion of the federal government’s authority over employment for citizens and immigrants alike, harsher penalties for employers who hired illegal immigrants, and a wall across our Southern border. The idea was that we would “trade” these things for a guest worker program (and “amnesty”). But although I think a guest worker program, by itself, would be worth supporting, I think we found out last session that it’s not “politically viable” unless it’s combined with a lot of anti-immigrant nonsense that makes the whole package a bad idea.

I think this is especially true because in the absence of new legislation, the long-run trends are working in favor of more liberal immigration policies. As Hispanic immigrants become more deeply embedded in the American economy (and as more of their children become voters), the climate for pro-immigration reforms will only improve. The same liberal tendencies that makes a Singapore-style guest worker program impractical also makes de facto amnesty all but inevitable in the absence of new legislation. We’re too generous and egalitarian a people to undertake the draconian measures that it would take to enforce our current immigration laws. So while I think a guest worker program would be a good idea, I don’t think it’s worth accepting new restrictions on immigration to get it.