A key theme in the ongoing debate on skills mobility within the 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies is the implementation of Earn, Learn, Return (ELR) framework. These are the three phases that international workers should go through so that their years of labor abroad are productive, allow them to lead a fulfilling life – and eventually return home.
ELR is about having a fulfilling life as a migrant, and can even be thought of as a code of conduct for living well. It was adopted in 2015 by the APEC Business Advisory Council to provide guidance for better management of the around 30 million international workers residing in APEC economies.
These workers are urgently needed by companies across APEC economies, where skill shortages are a priority concern for an estimated 85% of firms. As well as helping to manage such a vast number of migrant workers, ELR was also designed to end decades of abuse and corruption from previously implemented regional skills mobility initiatives that helped businesses meet their skills needs but at the expense of international workers’ wellbeing.
The principle underpinning ELR is that employment in a foreign country is temporary, and the nature of this employment is circular. This acknowledgement provides reassurance for destination countries and clarity for workers.
There are four main reasons why this framework can help APEC enhance skills mobility within its 21 economies.
First, ELR reduces migration tensions arising from the need to accommodate international workers by host countries. Guaranteed return to the home country removes the strings commonly attached to long-term migration, namely the right to permanent residence or citizenship after a few years under a working visa.
Second, the principles are so universal in nature that they can ensure buy-in from governments and other stakeholders such as the private sector, as well as workers and their families. ELR is “good branding” that makes it easier for the framework program to get the support it needs, and find champions for the cause.
Third, the framework gives skills mobility a new dimension by encompassing non-monetary aspects.
It’s not just about getting a good salary. The approach encourages learning and experiencing new things as part of career development, including exposure to international best practices that would improve the competency level of all workers. ELR is focused on developing careers and competencies through international best practice.
Fourth, ELR explicitly promotes the notion of continuous, life-long learning. International workers should continue to improve their competency level and skills long after graduation. The approach views international experience or years working abroad as an essential part of career development to raise the overall worker competency level.
The main purpose of adopting ELR is for APEC to improve the management of its international workers. Some arrangements, like the APEC Business Travel Card (ABTC) system, have already been implemented. But the 21 APEC economies need more skills mobility to realize the full potential of their international workers.
While ABCT is a good first step, fully embracing ELR would accomplish much more. Assuming that foreign workers remit only 20% of their income home, the total income generated by these workers in APEC economies can reach more than $670 billion, as some of it is still unreported.
The payoffs from better and more portable skills are clearly large, and in everyone’s interest. Workers will be more fulfilled, companies will find it easier to meet their skills needs, and migration tensions would ease in destination countries.