Dynamics of seasonal labor migration in South Spain

Article published in The MIT SDM Pulse on October 15, 2010.

In the last 20 years, Spain has been transformed from a region that emigrants left in search of employment to one in which immigrants make up 12 percent of the population. The driving forces behind this change have been low birth rates and fast economic growth in the agriculture and tourism industries, prompted by Spain’s 1986 entry into the European Union. In Andalusia, a region in southern Spain, growth in the agricultural sector prompted concerns about a labor shortfall. In accordance with a 1997 state law, local administrators implemented a successful guest worker program to supply farms with foreign workers by managing migratory flow.

Rafael Maranon Cartaya MIT Circular Migration

Rafael Maranon, MIT ’11, meets with Cartaya Mayor Juan A. Millan, leader of the European Union project in circular migration, after signing a collaboration agreement to model labor migration flows between Africa and Andalusia.

Circular migration Agriculture labor migration in Andalusia is mainly seasonal; guest workers travel to the region to work on farms, return to their home countries after the harvest, then come back the following year—the migration flow is circular. To address the labor shortfall, Andalusia fostered a guest worker program that allowed farmers to hire guest employees in their home countries, creating a legal route for migration, and stemming the illegal flow of workers from Africa to Europe.

However, this program now needs to be improved and consolidated. Since the start of the recent global financial crisis, Andalusia’s unemployment rate has reached 26.3 percent—and native-born workers are willing to return to agricultural work. This shift in the labor market has led the Spanish government to limit the number of temporary
visas it issues, and the local government is experimenting with severe adjustments in the size of the contingent of foreign workers.

Complicating the issue, native-born workers tend to consider farm work difficult and undesirable. They only take these jobs while looking for better paying work in the service sector. While farmers have been pressured to hire locals, many prefer the foreign workforce and do not wish to jeopardize it. Because of all these factors, circular migration continues to be an essential tool, allowing migration flows to be adjusted yearly according to labor market needs.

For my SDM thesis research, supervised by Dr. Ricardo Valerdi, a research associate in the Lean Advancement Initiative and a lecturer in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT, I plan to examine the history of circular migration in the city of Cartaya in Andalusia with the goal of developing a useful case study.

Cartaya, with more than 13 years of experience implementing labor supply management techniques, has become an exemplar in circular migration strategies under the European Union’s $3 million Aeneas project. This innovative program helps to develop and regulate legal migration, which annually benefits more than 300 farmers in Huelva (the province in which Cartaya is located), 33,000 foreign workers, and governments from different countries in Africa.

To date, I have been able to collect a considerable amount of data by working with governmental institutions in Andalusia, including local administrations, labor unions, farmer associations, the Foundation for Foreign Workers, and the University of Huelva. In order to analyze the implications of abrupt changes in the flow of this legal migration during periods of high unemployment, I am creating a model to help characterize the dynamics of managing the labor supply in Andulasia’s agricultural sector. Substituting stakeholders’ existing mental model for one based on systems dynamics, this research will provide specific recommendations on how to efficiently regulate migration flows under varying labor market conditions.

System dynamics modeling

In order to develop new conceptual instruments that will be incorporated into the current review of the circular migration program in a time of high unemployment, the question that this research will answer is:

How do we improve and consolidate the circular migration program to dynamically adapt to the flow of immigrants under varying economic conditions while maximizing value to all stakeholders?

To address the aforementioned question, further issues will be analyzed, including: why this tool that regulates labor migration flows was created; how it was successfully implemented in Cartaya; finally, how it is currently functioning during a period of high unemployment.

Covering one city (Cartaya) and a time period of the past 24 years, this research will formulate a single case study about circular migration. Among all the tools and methodologies we have been using in our SDM courses, I will approach my research using system dynamics to create the model of this multi-dimensional migration management system. Perspectives from economics, sociology, and public policy will all come into play, making this an ideal case for applying system dynamics. In order to formulate my dynamic hypothesis, I will consider in this model the social integration of guest workers as a key element to explain the benefits of implementing responsible labor supply management practices while having a just-in-time workforce.

In addition, some aspects and logistics of the international relations between Spain and African countries such as visa processing—aspects originally left out of the Cartaya process because of implementation difficulties—will be incorporated in the system dynamics model because the power of this modeling technique. Modeling the factors that made this circular migration program a success over the time, and using feedback loops and “stocks and flows” diagrams, will allow the stakeholders to better understand system constraints and design a robust and sustainable system of circular migration.

This research has been supported by an associate at LaborLawCC.com


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