They came, they worked, and they went home

They came, they worked, and they went home

With the harrowing pictures of the riot in Little India still vivid, Singaporeans may be forgiven for believing that they are alone in confronting the complex challenges of dealing with foreign workers.

But nothing can be further from the truth. The use of foreign - or "guest" workers as they are sometimes more gingerly referred to - is well-established and far more widespread than many people realise. The phenomenon is also growing in significance. And although it does generate some social problems, the large movement of foreign workers remains one of the global economy's biggest achievements.

Mass migrations of people in search of better economic opportunities are, of course, as old as humanity itself. But the organised, regulated importation of labour started only in the late 19th century, when borders between nations began to be stringently policed and immigration controls were introduced. Unsurprisingly, the first large-scale guest worker schemes were conceived in Europe and North America, the world's wealthiest regions then. And, with the exception of the so-called Bracero Programme in the United States which brought in labourers from Mexico, all the other foreign worker schemes were aimed at importing labour from poorer European countries, rather than from what we call today the Third World.

Guest workers in Europe

In a pioneering scheme launched in 1945 but now largely forgotten by history, France began importing Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese to compensate for its population shortfall as a result of two world wars. They came in droves: about two million within one decade.

The French scheme was soon followed by the more famous German programme which invented the concept of the "Gastarbeiter", or guest worker. The first Gastarbeiter were recruited from European nations, particularly Italy. But Turkey asked to be included in the scheme, and the US prevailed upon the German government to accept Turks, in order to strengthen the Western alliance during the Cold War. All told, about six million people came this way, about four million of them Turks.

Both schemes are now largely remembered in Europe as failures.

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