Migrants: Money or multiculturalism, cash or culture, productivity or people?

I have been, and continue to be, troubled by how (im)migrants are portrayed by the media, and by extension, viewed by readers of media, and one could argue, on the basis of how society has made up its mind on the topic. To put it crudely, migrants are valued more for their economic contributions than the multiple cultures and histories they bring with them. All other nuances are lost in the need for quick conclusions in a busy and distracted world.

The economic migrant is a fairly recent construct, spurred by the bigger constructs of globalisation and international trade (see edited book by Trlin, Spoonley, and Bedford (2005) for articles on immigration policy in the 2000s). No doubt migrants and the receiving country are strongly attracted to each other on the potential and promise of financial reward. For migrants, however, the reward is not simply and purely economic. From my own experiences and insider observations, reward can be construed as short-term gains (better jobs, higher pay), longer-term returns (better opportunities for their children), and are often intermingled with other motivations ranging from lifestyle upgrades to escaping political uncertainty. (See Castelli (2008) for an insightful overview of different types of migrants.)

How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

For the receiving country, one could also argue that the reward is not simply and purely economic. Migrants contribute to the cultural diversity of the nation and enrich the social lives of locals and all residents in the country. The statement I’ve just made is unfortunately more rhetoric than real (something grandiose and admirable enough to be valid), a description, perhaps, of an ideal world that exists in policy and organisational statements signalling inclusion. How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

In the wake of post-covid rationalisation of immigration, the economic argument still holds strong, if not stronger than before. In a Newsroom article, Professor Steven Poelhekke re-hashes the classic argument for migrants in New Zealand – they do the jobs locals shun (while locals learn how to be more productive), and bring in innovation and patent worthy ideas. The article highlights two extreme values of immigration: low unskilled labour versus high-calibre talent – and appears to welcome them in equal measure.

Another article from the Financial Times reiterates the economic argument but favours one group over the other. It builds its case around Foriegn Minister Winston Peters’ claims that the pandemic has “exposed the problems of building an economy on consumption driven by immigration.” Peters is of the view that relying on high immigration rates to contribute to GDP is ‘unsustainable’ because of the pressure it places on infrastructure, health and education. Instead, New Zealand should focus on a select group of highly skilled immigrants essential to wealth creation.

Interestingly, the FT article contrasts Peters’ worldview with that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, supposedly “a great advocate of a multicultural New Zealand” by demonstrating hospitality towards migrants. However, apart from the one mention of ‘multicultural’, nothing else is said about multiculturalism. Thus nothing much is known about so-called advocacy for multicultural New Zealand, if indeed there is a specific rationalisation of immigration on the basis of creating a multicultural nation. (Or if my suspicions are right, it’s just too tricky to define and measure.)

… the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

So putting the two articles side by side, immigration or migration, whether you stick strictly to the definitions of immigration as permanent, and migration as temporary or more mobile, the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

The case for multiculturalism, while elusive, is suggested in Professor Paul Spoonly’s article for HR practitioners titled ‘Why ethnicity diversity is essential in a post-Covid world’. Spoonley argues that there is an ongoing need for a migrant workforce by providing both economic and cultural perspectives on immigration, but highlights that the cultural perspective is of greater significance.

The economic case for migrants can be summed up as: migration numbers will go down and there is an understandable shift to up/re-skill local workers, but there will still be a need for migrant workers as we can’t fill the gap quickly and efficiently enough.

The cultural perspective that comes after, however, is not strictly a case for ‘multicultural’ New Zealand through immigration, but rather, alludes to the fact that immigration in the past has contributed to a multicultural New Zealand and therefore “ethnic diversity is a major consideration in terms of the current and future economy and labour force of this country.”

Unfortunately, the way ethnic diversity is framed is nebulous – as a ‘consideration’ to promote the ‘viability’ of businesses. What conclusion is one to draw from these words? Reading Spoonley’s argument more closely and inferring the ‘unspoken’, I conclude that companies should hire on the basis of ethnic diversity as opposed to hiring based on the predominant Euro/Anglo culture, and going beyond the existing ethnic diversity policies regarding Māori and Pacific employees. ‘Asian’ is mentioned once as a characteristic of diversity and so if one were to pick that up, that’s one specific group of people you should consider hiring. And the reason for choosing ‘ethnic diversity’? It makes better business sense!

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’.

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’. Migrants are good for the economy, whether high or low value migrants, and if migrants have made us more diverse, then we want to make sure we serve our migrant populations and earn their money.

I hope this provokes us into thinking more about (im)migration and (im)igrants; what the big nebulous words of ‘globalisation’, ‘ethnic diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ (to name a few) actually mean to us in our daily lives; and be challenged to think ‘multiculturally’ when it’s easier not to.

Don’t call me Migrant or Asian but who do you say I am?

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Despite what feels like a ‘long’ time, I’m really still a newcomer to Aotearoa New Zealand. And considering more than 4 of the 5 plus years were spent in Hamilton, and having recently relocated to Wellington, the Aotearoa I know is just an emerging picture. 

It is a picture coloured by intense periods of questioning my various identities and ‘trying’ and ‘doing’ social integration. It is also not a stable picture, with emotional highs and lows heightened in periods of uncertainty and angst, in the overall quest for ‘settledness’ and normalcy.

With my heart on my sleeve, and a restless mind seeking anchors, I invite you to pause and examine this picture that usually hangs unnoticed on your wall.

Rooting for my team

Image by Natalia Ovcharenko from Pixabay

In the current climate of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in workplaces, these trendy terms fail the reality test of working in a largely Anglo/Euro-centric culture. I recall the jaw-dropping audience of old-timer administrators when I related my ‘confinement’ experience after childbirth. As I sat at the lunch table with a story that grew scandalous with each cultural revelation, I felt humiliated for trying to strike up interesting conversation. But at the same time it thickened my skin and forced my sensibilities to learn from this faux pas.

When I share such experiences with others, it is often fellow migrants, often Asian, who nod along in agreement and commiserate with sighs of resignation. We learn quickly from our mistakes and embarrassment, but we nonetheless feel indignant over unequal opportunities in accessing jobs and opportunities. Often we hold a special gratitude for our first boss who let our foot in the door. 

These ‘migrant’ or ‘ethnic’ conversations can feel familiar and safe. There seemed to be a natural urge to express solidarity, whether outright or implied, of asserting our shared experience and struggle in a hostile environment, whether real or imagined. There was tacit solidarity over the necessary ‘struggle’ before achieving success for ourselves and our family. 

In recent times, I’ve become more ambivalent about my role and identity in the community script. I’ve moved cities, work environments, professional sectors, and social circles. My affiliations have multiplied, and so have my social identities. But to suggest I play a different role can seem unnatural, unusual, or worse yet, an act of betrayal against my own kind.

At a recent forum on Asian leadership, there was a pervasive presumption that Asians were overlooked and undervalued. I could identify with feelings of indignation and injustice, but also wanted to share my positive experiences of being treated with respect and included in a Pākehā dominant work environment. My story, however, simply jarred with the plot of the day.

Finding safe houses

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have also shared my journey with another group who are not necessarily migrant or Asian. This is a group I call my ‘safe house’ because with them I felt free and safe to be who I was and who I was trying to be. You could characterise them as empathetic multicultural-minded friends. Some of them were from mixed cultural families, others worked in pastoral care for international students, or had professional or volunteer jobs that served the needs of migrant communities and new citizens. I found them in churches, university services, associations, communities, government agencies, and in families of my children’s schoolmates.

Of course, just being involved in cross-cultural contexts does not automatically make one empathetic to others experiencing or experimenting with new cultures. I’ve met those who claim to be migrant champions or international education professionals but couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend them to others. By all accounts, they did their job. But to me they lacked a personal desire to affirm your value for who you were, whether they found you familiar or strange. 

A more recent discovery of a safe house is the kapa haka group at work. The welcoming nature of the group and encouragement by instructor-colleagues to sing boldly and accurately exemplified to me manaakitanga (hospitality) and kotahitanga (togetherness). What a gift and privilege to learn about, and express through performance, Māori culture – as an outsider looking in, as one welcomed to learn and belong in all my shades of difference.

Who am I again?

Image by BUMIPUTRA from Pixabay

I come back to my picture which has emerged as a self-portrait. It hangs on the invisible walls of my dwelling which intersects with the dwelling places of migrants, Asians, colleagues and friends. The question of who I am will inevitably be answered differently by the various co-dwellers.

To answer that question today in the season of the Lunar New Year, can be simply expressed as ‘I am Chinese’. At work, together with a few Chinese colleagues, we will put together a shared morning tea celebration for all staff. (And I would ask you to think of ‘Chinese’ as diasporic rather than singular!)

Non-Chinese colleagues will look to Chinese colleagues for cultural expressions of the season and explanations of its significance. In doing so, I also hope they will find the opportunity to build safe houses for multicultural-minded conversations flourish in.