Give us your sheep shearers and ballet dancers

November 11, 2008

N.B. It’s been getting a bit heavy around here these days: between my serious excitement about the new President Elect and my late-night reflections on ideas, my purpose to poke fun at globalisation has been put aside recently.  So here to restore my light-hearted intent is a post about whether globalisation is actually pulling the wool over our eyes.

Remember when the spirit of immigration was captured by these stanzas: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breath free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore / Send these the tempest-tossed homeless to me…”?  Immigration these days would be better described by inserting a negation at the beginning of each line of the above.   In the UK, which enjoys one of Europe’s most liberalised immigration policies (which isn’t saying much), an elaborate system has been put in place to “score” potential immigrants and determine whether they should get a visa.  “Highly skilled” workers get top priority (tired, poor, huddled masses need not apply).  But there are also specific places opened up for less highly skilled workers: so called “tier two” applicants.

Today, the UK has released a list of the professions it is making special places for in this year’s tier two intake.  They include: sheep shearers, ballet dancers, math teachers, and horse trainers, along with a number of workers in hard sciences such as chemical engineering, physics and biology.

It is one of the great ironies of globalisation that a nation which spends so little time thinking about the content and origin of, say, its capital, takes so much time to micro-manage the content and origin of its labour force.   Sheep shearers and ballet dancers are not professions that immediately pop into ones mind when trying to identify labour needs, so I imagine that the Home Office spent a great deal of time and money to come up with this (very) specific list.  Indeed,  I imagine that they spent a lot more time and money compiling this list than is dedicated to identifying the most profitable and stable asset classes composing inflows of Foreign Direct Investment, even after the recent financial crisis.

Also ironic that we must turn to global flows of labour to solve a labour shortage in what is probably the world’s oldest, least globalised industry: sheep.  Before there was even agriculture, there was pastoralism.   Friedrich List, great mercantilist thinker of the 1800s, categorised pastoralism as the first of three stages of development for countries in “temperate” climates.  His writing was about the openness or closure of trade policies in these various stages of development, but he didn’t even bother to hypothesise about the pastoral phase.  It was too primitive.  And yet the British have managed to globalise their economy, open their borders to trade and capital, while imposing a quota to service the unmet demand for British sheep shearers through international migration.  It’s enough to make the globalised feel a bit sheepish (I couldn’t resist).

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