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Dual Labour Market Theory and World Systems Theory

This article summarises how dual labour market theory and world systems theory can be applied to explain international migration

Dual Labour Market Theory

According to dual labour market theory, migration is caused by pull factors in developed countries and not by push factors in sending countries. It is the economic structure of developed nations that requires a permanent supply of labour.

Here comes the explanation: there are always jobs that are difficult to fill because they are dirty, dangerous and demanding. Wages for these jobs are low and so is the prestige.

When faced with gaps at the lower end of the labour market, employers cannot just raise wages to attract workers. Raising wages cannot ignore the social hierarchy.

There are also intractable motivational problems: there are always bottom-level jobs that are viewed simply as a means to an end, at least for a while in the host society.

Advanced capitalist economies are characterised by economic dualism: their labour markets are divided into primary and secondary sectors. The primary labour market attracts natives. It is characterised by higher wages, security, and prospects for advancement. The secondary labour market is filled with migrant workers. It involves low-skill, low-pay and low-prestige jobs.

In short, international labour migration is largely demand-based in developed societies. This demand grows out of structural features of developed economies: international wage differentials are neither sufficient nor necessary for migration to occur. Low-level wages in immigrant receiving societies are not likely to increase if immigrant supply decreases because they are held down by social and institutional mechanisms (job hierarchies). Low-level wages may fall in response to an increase in labour supply.

Governments are unlikely to influence international migration as it is built into the structural mechanisms of post-industrial economies.

World Systems Theory

Migration is a natural outcome of the disruptions and dislocations that occur during the course of capitalist development and expansion

The expansion of capitalism into peripheral countries and former colonies destroys local systems of production. It destroys traditional systems of tenure and attachment to local agrarian communities and drives small farms out of production. The development of industrial centres leads to internal migration from the countryside to cities.

Capitalist expansion also has cultural aspects. In particular, there exists a sort of cultural ‘imperialism’ of core capitalist countries towards the developing world, which results in the diffusion of consumption habits and cultural models that are, in turn, emulated and become driving forces behind international migration.

In conclusion, international migration is a natural consequence of capitalist market formation in the developing world, and of the penetration of the global economy into peripheral regions.

Within this world system, the international flow of labour moves in the opposite direction to the international flow of goods. International migration grows especially in the context of colonial relations.

According to this theory, international migration can be managed through policies that regulate the globalising market economy (although this is resisted by multinationals). It can also be regulated through the protection of overseas investments, including the military and political intervention in the political life of developing countries (although this increases the risk of regime change and refugees).

© European University Institute
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