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April 07, 2017

Immigration and native workers' health

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The public debate on immigration tends to focus on its effects on wages and employment. It typically fails to consider the effects of immigration on working conditions that are known to affect employees’ health. There is growing evidence that, for various reasons, immigrants are more likely than natives to work in risky jobs. For example, immigrants may perceive job risks differently from native workers, because they arrive from countries where they typically faced worse working conditions. Several studies have suggested that individuals who are less averse to risk may be more likely to migrate, and this selection may imply that immigrants are less risk-averse than natives. As the exit rates from physically demanding jobs are higher, there may be more opportunities and lower search costs for recent immigrants in these types of jobs. Finally, newly arrived immigrants may face language barriers and therefore may have a comparative advantage in working in more manual-intensive jobs rather than in occupations requiring communication and social interaction skills. Recent studies show that as immigration rises, the fact that workers labor together to produce goods and services can account for both the lack of detrimental effects on employment and wages and the reallocation of natives to jobs involving better working conditions. These labor market adjustments have important impacts on the health of native workers. 

A 1% increase in immigration share reduces the probability of reporting a doctor-assessed disability by roughly 10% on average. The impact of immigration on native workers’ health is concentrated among low-skilled and blue-collar workers. Native blue-collar workers experience a significant reduction in their average physical burden and are more likely to switch to less physically demanding jobs. This result is consistent with the idea that low-skilled natives and low-skilled immigrants are imperfect substitutes and that the increase in the number of low-skilled immigrants may push natives toward less physically demanding tasks. At the same time, while upon arrival immigrant men in Germany have a much lower incidence of doctor-assessed disability than native-born workers, their health converges to natives’ health in approximately 15 years. Similar findings exist for the UK. 

Overall, the evidence suggests that policymakers should not neglect the effects of immigration on non-monetary working conditions. Immigration appears to benefit native workers’ health. On the other end of the spectrum, new and healthy immigrants may fail to understand the risks associated with particular working conditions and take excessive risks. Providing information and access to care to those immigrants at higher risk could reduce the negative effects on their own health and the associated costs for the health care system.

Related article:
Do immigrants improve the health of native workers?, by Osea Giuntella

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We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.