Lessons from Europe

The heartbreaking image of the lifeless Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach has got many people looking at immigrants in a new light.

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In Europe, where the attitude towards immigrants has long been ambivalent, the plight of the Syrian refugees has galvanised many ordinary peole and politicans into taking action. But there is another, more pragmatic reason to open the gates to these people: they offer a host of economic advantages to their host countries.

For two decades, Turkey’s €15 million (R230 million) rose oil export industry was under threat of collapse due to the unavailability of workers willing to do the backbreaking job of picking roses. Enter Syrian refugees, desperate for any source of income.

Today, Turkey harbours nearly two million Syrians who have escaped the violence that erupted in that country in 2011, and are increasingly working in low-paying agricultural jobs. Europe’s birth rate is declining and with it, its labour force. Workers willing to do manual, low-paying jobs are in huge demand – as are professionals. In fact, in order to meet the demand for skilled workers, many European countries are heavily subsidising higher and tertiary education.

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In Sweden, for instance, students receive free education from the age of 17. College and university students receive an allowance of about US$106 (about R1 400)a week. They also have access to low-rate study loans to cover any additional costs. South Africa has its own share of immigrants. According to the last census, 4,2% of the population – 2,2 million people – are immigrants.

Most South Africans do not welcome them, believing them to be robbing locals of job opportunities. Of course, the SA picture differs vastly from that of Turkey and Sweden; for starters, we do not have a shrinking population. But it is the Europeans’ attitude towards unemployment and skills development that deserves to be emulated. Based on numbers alone, our human capital should provide us with the means of growing our economy. Instead, a huge portion of the population is a burden on the country and is supported by the state.

Perhaps it’s time we approached unemployment from a new angle. We should ask why so many South Africans lack the skills needed to get a job or start a business. What are the factors keeping people from becoming entrepreneurs or employing more people?

As you read this, commercial farmers are trying to convince government that another above-inflation wage hike in the sector will stifle any prospects of job growth. Simply increasing minimum wages will not grow the economy; it hasn’t done so in the past and it will not do so now.

There are lessons to be learnt from the situation in Europe – that is, if we are open to new ways of thinking about our human capital.