In a world searching for workers, refugees offer talent and loyalty

By Hamdi Ulukaya
as published in OECD Forum on January 10, 2022

“Workers wanted!” seems to be the rallying cry for businesses around the world, as some of the world’s biggest economies struggle with labour shortages.

While an aging population will continue to chip away at the workforce of OECD economies, this decline has been made much worse by COVID-19. The pandemic quickly wiped away 20 million jobs across the OECD, yet many people who are out of a job are not looking for a new one: in fact, there are 14 million more “inactive workers” today than in 2019. Job searches have actually declined  baffling employers desperately looking for workers as the economy ramps up again.

To address these challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, governments are already looking to immigration as a way to grow the workforce. OECD countries are encouraging skilled immigrants to live and work in their countries through new policies  for example, Germany is fast-tracking work visas through a new immigration law, and Canada plans to offer residency to 1.2 million new immigrants by 2023.  However, instead of looking abroad to meet talent shortages, policymakers may be overlooking a talented and hard-working population who are already living in their countries and have the legal right to work: refugees.

There is a large pool of refugee talent that already exists and can be tapped into. In the past five years, OECD countries have granted asylum to more than three million refugees, with more than two million in European countries alone and the United States and Canada have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Could OECD economies be overlooking a potential solution to their workforce shortages by putting too much emphasis on the divisive politics around migration? With many OECD countries including the United States, Canada, and Germany, preparing to welcome a new wave of Afghans, we need to think afresh about how we can set up refugees for success by integrating them into our workforces and contributing to our economies.

In order for OECD economies to truly benefit from refugees’ contributions, businesses must step up to the challenge and do what they do best  integrate refugees into their day-to-day operations. This is not just a moral obligation for businesses  it makes good business sense, too. I know this from my personal experience hiring refugees at my company, Chobani. Refugees are some of the best employees I’ve ever had; they are loyal, have an amazing work ethic, and enrich our company with a diversity of cultures and perspectives. But don’t just take my word for it  through my non-profit, the Tent Partnership for Refugees, hundreds of businesses around the world have hired refugees and seen first-hand the amazing contribution that this talent pool can make.

Studies have shown refugees stay longer in their jobs. In the United States manufacturing sector, for example, research shows that refugees are almost three times more likely to stay in their job compared to non-refugees — a pattern repeated in the hospitality sector and many others. Lower turnover translates into savings for businesses in recruiting fees, onboarding, and training.

Research also shows that consumers prefer to buy from brands that support refugees. In the United States, France, Germany, and Italy we have seen that consumers, especially younger ones, are more likely to buy from companies that are helping refugees. This means that helping refugees will drive loyalty and trust, and can have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Refugees’ individual contributions to companies are dwarfed by the collective impact they will have on our economies. When refugees have a job, they become active participants in the economy — buying goods and services, creating jobs, and paying taxes. In the United States, for instance, refugees earned more than USD $77 billion in household income and paid almost USD$21 billion in taxes in 2015.

As our economies emerge from the pandemic and labor shortages continue to stifle our growth, businesses have an opportunity to lead the charge to integrate refugees, and harness their talents at the same time. Not only will they be giving refugees a chance to thrive in their new communities but their companies will thrive too. This is the most important step the business community can take.

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