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In Karail, on a swampy lake on the edge of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a village-born boy plays while his parents build. (Munem Wasif for The Globe and Mail)
In Karail, on a swampy lake on the edge of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a village-born boy plays while his parents build. (Munem Wasif for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

How slums can save the world Add to ...

According to a 2009 study by the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, the U.S. will require 35 million more workers than its working-age population can provide by 2030, Japan 17 million by 2050, the European Union 80 million by 2050.

Canada, even if it continues to take in 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants a year, will be short a million workers by the end of this decade.

The economic downturn has barely affected this trend. In Canada, 14 per cent of businesses at the end of crisis-plagued 2009 were reporting “shortage of un/semi-skilled labour” as their main business constraint.

The second reason is political. Immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, become citizens, voters, politicians and leaders – and they will be united across partisan and ideological lines by the desire to have access to their former villages and families. Those bonds cannot be broken easily.

And this is just as well, because what our economy demands is not just X-ray technicians and geologists, but also huge numbers of hotel-desk clerks and cleaners.

In Canada in 2008, an extraordinary 60.1 per cent of immigrants with university degrees were working in occupations that required an apprenticeship or less – 1.5 times the overqualification rate of Canadian-born workers.

So it is just as well that our immigration system, despite its claims, is still bringing in large numbers of villagers.

Officially, 57 per cent of Canada's 250,000 annual immigrants are “economic class” – mainly highly skilled workers and business immigrants. But of the 133,746 immigrants in this category, only 55,179 are principal applicants – that is, those with the skills or money. The remaining 78,567 are their children, spouses, parents or other dependents.

An additional 62,246 immigrants every year – more than the total of professional and entrepreneurial entrants – are “family class” immigrants: parents, spouses and other relatives of settled immigrants. Anecdotally, a high percentage of these have rural backgrounds. An additional 39,832 immigrants are refugees or other humanitarian cases, themselves often rural.

And in the future, not only will Canada be forced to continue admitting large numbers of low-skilled immigrants, we may well have to start competing for them.

MAKING A HOME FOR THE WORKERS WE'LL NEED

Demographics are fast reducing the global supply of labour in all categories.

Eastern and central Europe have sub-replacement birth rates. India's rapid economic growth and fast-shrinking fertility mean that it will cease to be a reliable supplier of workers. China has already initiated programs to import workers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, putting it in competition with the Gulf states and the West.

Rather than trying to stem a flood, North American and European countries may well find themselves engaged in active recruitment.

Places such as Thorncliffe Park will become increasingly important. We ought to learn from this particular reinforced-concrete enclave, which has integrated waves of Greeks and Macedonians, then Ismaili East Africans, then Colombians and Chileans, then Indians and Pakistanis and, since Canada went to war, Afghans.

Jehad Aliweiwi is a Palestinian-born Canadian who runs the Thorncliffe neighbourhood office – a suite of integration and entrepreneur-

support services that sadly lacks for equivalents in most newer Canadian arrival cities.

“Historically,” he says, “Thorncliffe has been a spring-board or gateway community, where people settle for a couple years while they get a job, and then they move on. They go to another area where they can buy a house or a larger apartment.

“This is not a place where people feel stuck. It's a place where they feel very comfortable. You don't just pass through it – you go to it.”

The arrival city will remain a feature on our urban landscape. The question is whether it will be a place of anger, isolation, conservative cultural beliefs and desperation, or a place of social mobility and integration – a trap or a toehold.

It all depends on how we treat them. It is important that the passageways remain open.

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau, and the author of the new book Arrival City.

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