In my last post, I discussed skilled immigration as one part of a broad policy-response to the increasing dependency ratio we are witnessing in developed democracies today. I was interested, in particular, in whether skilled immigration raises moral concerns in the case in which it has positive effects on the states from which the skilled immigrants originate. Initially, one might think that it doesn’t: if skilled immigration is a “win-win” policy for sending and receiving states, what is the problem with it? But I said that skilled immigration may turn out to be an instance of exploitation – or, more precisely, of what Alan Wertheimer calls “mutually advantageous exploitation” (see his excellent book, Exploitation). If so, skilled immigration may be deeply problematic from a moral point of view, even if it is a “win-win” policy.
In this post, I want to explore that possibility further. The place to begin is with a general account of the conditions that need to be fulfilled in order for a relationship between two parties to count as exploitative. I won't be able to discuss that in much detail here, but if we take the example of exploitative sweatshop labour as paradigmatic, then two conditions naturally suggest themselves (both of these conditions are discussed at length in Wertheimer’s book). First, an exploitative relationship is one in which one party gains at another’s expense. Now, by “at another’s expense” I don’t mean "gains in a way that makes another worse off than he would have been." That condition may not be met in the sweatshop example, because the workers may well be better off than they would have been as a result of working in the sweatshop. What I mean is “in a way that makes another worse off relative to a standard of fair division of benefits.” This fits better with the sweatshop example: the benefits that the sweatshop worker helps produce are not fairly divided between the employer and the worker. The worker gets far too small a share of those benefits.
Secondly, the gain for one at the other’s expense must arise from an illegitimate process. We can imagine people working in organizations for free – i.e. as volunteers – for example, in charitable organisations. We would not necessarily say that they are being exploited even if they are forgoing a standard hourly wage. That is because they volunteered. Now, of course, if they volunteered in a problematic way, for example, if they were brainwashed into believing that they would attain eternal salvation as a result of working for the organization, then maybe the process by which they have come to produce benefits for others becomes illegitimate. But fully informed volunteers who are in full possession of their mental faculties are not exploited when they work for free. The “illegitimate process” condition also fits well with the sweatshop example because it is usually the case that sweatshop workers consent to work in the sweatshop against a background of unjust economic circumstances – circumstances that effectively force them into a contract with their employers. So it is plausible to construe their coming to produce benefits for others as an outcome that has resulted from an illegitimate process.
In sum, an exploitative relationship is one in which (a) one party gains a greater than fair share of benefits to which others have contributed, and, in which (b) this unfair division has arisen as a result of an illegitimate process.
The next part of the analysis involves determining whether these two conditions actually apply in the skilled immigration scenario. A first question we face is that of identifying who exactly is the exploiting and exploited party in that scenario. One way to do that is to say that the exploiting and the exploited party are, respectively, (a) the employer and (b) the skilled immigrant, respectively. This makes the skilled immigration scenario fit the sweatshop example quite closely. And, indeed, there may be many examples of employers paying skilled immigrants too low a wage, which the latter are forced by their economic circumstances to accept.
However, I think that we should consider the less obvious possibility that the skilled immigration scenario also involves exploitation between two other parties, namely, (c) the citizens of the receiving state and (d) the citizens of the sending state. In the next few weeks, I'll be trying to figure out whether it is conceivable that © could be exploiting (d).