International Best Standards for Guest Worker Programs

A large number of countries around the world have active guest worker programs for low- skilled workers. These programs—also known as temporary worker programs—include initiatives that bring seasonal farm workers to the United States from Mexico, laborers from Turkey to Germany, and construction workers from India to the United Arab Emirates.

The reason guest worker programs have emerged around the world is that they have a number of features that have made them appealing to both the host countries and the low skilled workers. Host countries have used these programs to meet demands for low-wage workers without having to make long-term commitments to the immigrants. Low-skilled workers have used guest worker programs as a way to make a higher salary than what would have otherwise been available in their home country. Additionally, guest worker programs have been praised for their ability to reduce global income inequality because they facilitate wealth transfers from wealthy states to people living in the poorest states.

Many guest worker programs, however, have received substantial criticism. First, programs have been criticized for exploiting vulnerable workers from the developing world. Second, guest worker programs have been criticized for undermining the wages and opportunities available for the poorest citizens in the host countries. Third, guest worker programs have been criticized for creating permanent populations of second-tier citizens that are not integrated into national political life.

This initiative aims to draft international best standards for the design, and reform, of guest worker programs for low-skilled workers. It will proceed in three parts:

  1. An academic conference that will bring together law professors, economists, historians, sociologists, and political scientists to discuss how guest worker programs are, and should be, designed.
  2. The publication of the papers presented for the conference in an edited volume.
  3. The production of a statement of principles on how we believe that guest worker programs should be designed, to be distributed to the media, national governments, and international organizations.

This initiative is supported by the Kanter Family Foundation and is led by Professors Adam Chilton, Tom Ginsburg, and Eric Posner.