Toward an inclusive recovery: How has COVID affected the employment of immigrants and low-skilled adults?

Waiter wearing protective face mask while cleaning tables in restaurant

By Yanjun Guo

Research Assistant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Foreign-born adults are particularly sensitive to economic downturns and can face job vulnerability in times of crisis.
– A new OECD brief compares the impact of the COVID pandemic on native-and foreign-born adult employment outcomes.
– The analysis shows why public policies should consider the integration of migrants with all levels of education to ensure an inclusive recovery.

On average across OECD countries, foreign-born adults make up 17% of the adult population and they have lower employment rates than their native-born counterparts. Foreign-born workers are also more likely to be over-qualified and to have temporary or non-standard employment contracts. Further, they face linguistic and cultural barriers. All these factors combined makes them sensitive to economic downturns and vulnerable in times of crisis.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 immediately endangered the global economy. Many studies have already analysed the labour market impact of the pandemic on individuals with different socio-demographic backgrounds, but there is limited evidence comparing the impact on native- and foreign-born adults.

For the first time, trend data on educational attainment and labour force status of native- and foreign-born adults have become available in the OECD’s Education at a Glance Database. The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief uses this information to provide early evidence on the different effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their labour market outcomes.

The data show the varied impact of the pandemic on employment among native- and foreign-born adults with different levels of educational attainment. Among OECD countries with available trend data, only Canada and Costa Rica have seen employment rates decline across the board: for both native- and foreign-born adults at three aggregated attainment levels (below upper secondary, upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary and tertiary) between 2017 and 2020. In Canada, foreign-born adults experienced greater employment losses than the native-born population regardless of educational attainment, although those without an upper secondary education suffered less than those with higher educational qualifications. The opposite is observed in Costa Rica, where the decline in employment was greater among native-born adults than foreign-born adults for all attainment levels, and the pandemic has had a greater impact on the employment of adults with below upper secondary attainment.

In contrast, the employment prospects for foreign-born adults in Belgium have improved over the same period, especially among those without tertiary attainment. Here, inequality was reduced in the first year of the pandemic, as employment for native-born adults without tertiary attainment remained relatively stable, while rising for their foreign-born counterparts.

The absence of any clear pattern in changes in employment rates based on educational attainment is probably related to the difference in the scale and the design of countries’ job retention schemes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although inequalities in employment did not widen greatly during the first year of the crisis in most OECD countries, there were already considerable differences in pay between native- and foreign-born adults before the pandemic hit. In Norway and Slovenia, the pay gap in favour of native-born workers increased between 2016 and 2019 for full-time workers at all levels of educational attainment. In Luxembourg, it increased by 13 percentage points among those without upper secondary attainment over the same period.

COVID reminds us how vital foreign-born workers are for the smooth functioning of our society, whatever their level of attainment

In the 2008 global financial crisis, foreign-born adults were among the hardest hit by job losses during the economic downturn, and their recovery was slower than for native-born adults. The crisis affected in particular some sectors where foreign-born adults were concentrated, and most of these sectors only required low educational attainment. For instance, job losses during the 2008 crisis were highest in the construction and manufacturing industries, sectors where foreign-born workers are generally over-represented.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has a sectoral aspect, but its impact on employment seems more evenly distributed across levels of education than the 2008 global financial crisis. Foreign-born adults represent a large share of the workforce in domestic services and hospitality, two sectors where employment fell sharply in 2020. However, foreign-born adults also represent a large share of workers in fields such as food processing, agriculture and health care in many countries, occupations that were allowed and indeed encouraged to continue working to maintain essential services during lockdowns.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us how vital foreign-born workers are for the smooth functioning of our society, whatever their level of attainment. Although the impact of the pandemic on the employment of foreign- and native-born adults has been mixed, inequalities in earnings between the two groups were increasing in some countries before its onset. Public policies need to consider the integration of migrants with all levels of education to ensure an inclusive recovery.

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