Compensation for what? Editorial
Stabroek News
May 17, 2002

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When U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson was attending the conference on HIV/AIDS he urged young people to take up careers in the health sector.

Two days later, an American recruiting firm Compass International set up shop in the very same room at Le Meridien Pegasus inviting nurses to apply for jobs in the United States. And only a week before a similar firm had been in Guyana looking for teachers.

This is in the context of all international donor agencies urging Guyana to concentrate on education and health care as platforms for long term development.

With this apparent paradox, there are now calls by some that developed countries should compensate developing countries for the loss of their skilled workers.

How would one go about quantifying the loss to a nation of a teacher or nurse?

Or more practically how much would a developed country be willing to pay? An economist might look at how much less a migrant worker would receive in salary as compared to a resident worker doing a similar job. But there are a number of factors which make such a concept very tenuous. Migrant teachers and nurses have to be trained and accommodated at considerable expense and although a nurse may have ten years experience in the Guyanese hospital system that does not mean her skills are comparable with a U.S health sector employee with similar tenure who would have knowledge of the latest technology and practices.

And if at some point an amount was arrived at, to whom might this money be paid? Surely not the government which may have borne expenses to train the employee but has also received the benefits of their labour over a number of years. The government does not `own' the employee and cannot then `sell' them to some other country. We all know what that is called.

In fact a contrary argument could be made that Guyana should be paying developed countries to take its workers since the remittances that they would send home would be far higher than the salaries they receive here and thus contribute to greater economic activity. In addition, with workers leaving, there are opportunities for persons to be promoted and for new persons to enter the sector thus reducing unemployment.

Compensation just does not stand up as an economic argument and could well encourage the authorities to continue to pay workers low wages.

The market place should eventually correct the present situation. Demand from developed countries for nurses and teachers is expected to grow in the next decade due to population patterns and trends in career choices. As more and more leave, the government, if truly committed to health and education, will feel impelled to increase wages and improve working conditions to keep them here. This would in turn attract more entrants and guarantee future supplies.

Such wage increases would not need to be as large as one might think given that jobs abroad are generally much more demanding and migrating comes with many social costs. The National Teachers Union in the United Kingdom reported at its last conference that a number of migrant teachers had gone home after only a few weeks as they were unaccustomed to the unruly behaviour and rudeness of British students. Not everyone can be Sidney Poitier. There have also been a number of letters in this newspaper relating the problems Guyanese teachers face in Botswana.

Ultimately this is not about developed countries and their contribution to the brain drain. It is about Guyana and the failure of successive governments to create an environment where its own citizens are willing to stay and work.

Emigrants are not `pulled' by recruiting agencies they are `pushed' to leave by their day to day reality. A 39 year old midwife attached to the Georgetown Public Hospital said at the recruitment drive the opportunity to leave was a blessing from God. "When everything had seemed hopeless, with the small salary and no father for the children, sometimes I wonder what to do next."

Emigration is a symptom of a country's economic malaise, and before a government goes begging for compensation it should consider how much it compensates teachers and nurses for their services to the nation.