Looking Beyond Economics to Explain Labor Migration

2 March 2017
ABOUT THIS Perspective

To what extent do culture and politics influence people's decision to migrate? Greg Randolph shares insights from his recent field visit to Nepal.

Our recent field visit to Kathmandu was part of an ongoing research project, in collaboration with the Solidarity Center, that seeks to develop job creation strategies for Nepal against the backdrop of ongoing post-earthquake reconstruction and high levels of out-migration. The objective was to understand the ground realities of Nepal’s employment challenge from the perspective of a diverse set of stakeholders.

But these in-depth interviews brought me back to a very different geography. I found myself remembering lessons learned while studying migration patterns on the island of Sumbawa in eastern Indonesia for another JJN study – Labor Migration and Inclusive Growth: Toward Creating Employment in Origin Communities.

There I had been mystified by a paradoxical migration story. The communities on the island that owned land and were relatively well-to-do witnessed high levels of out-migration to the Middle East, as compared to another ethnic group, composed of poorer, landless fisherman who largely chose to stay back home.

No economic rationale could explain the difference in labor migration habits. Members of one ethnic group chose to leave Sumbawa in greater numbers than the other, despite facing less economic hardship. The simple explanation that the costs of migration made it a choice accessible only to the wealthier group didn’t hold much weight either, since recruitment agents were actually paying migrants to sign up for work abroad.

So what was going on?

Eventually, the only explanation that made sense to me was one offered by the respondents themselves: The seafaring community was not interested in any form of migration that didn’t involve life by the water. They had no aspiration to work in the desert environments of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In other words, the decision to migrate (or not) was at least partially a product of culture.

We heard the same in Nepal. Sure, people said, many youth are motivated to migrate by the prospect of higher wages in more prosperous economies. But others – we heard repeatedly – pass up jobs paying NRs. 20,000 (US$ 200) per month for one abroad that pays them 15,000. Neighbors and friends inspire each other to migrate, in what one respondent called a “craze,” with youth following a job pathway abroad without first evaluating options at home. Migration almost takes on the quality of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

There are political dimensions, too. Amid the rising tension between the “hilly” populations that run most of Nepal’s government institutions and the people of its southern plains that share many ethnic and cultural characteristics with India, the latter group has started moving out of the country en masse – surrendering the idea that Nepal is fully interested in including them.  It is subtler than a story of persecution; these are labor migrants working in Malaysia and the Middle East, not refugees. But their decision to leave has roots in identity politics and the feeling of exclusion.

At JJN, many of our analytical tools are economic, and we believe that economics can help inform smart policymaking. But such field experiences are important reminders that the other tools of social science are not merely helpful, but quite often indispensable. Culture, history, politics, and identity play extremely important, even if sometimes unquantifiable, roles in an individual’s decision to migrate for work.  If our study is to propose recommendations for enhancing job prospects for Nepali youth closer to home, it must be informed by this rich diversity of factors.