Immigrant Workers Test Europe’s Self Image

by Andrés T. Tapia; Research by Susan Welch and Leonardo Sforza, Hewitt Research in US and Europe –

A massive demographic tectonic shift is rattling Europe — its unsettling tremors reshaping the European Union’s human geography; the aftershocks splintering European notions of egalité, fairness, and nationality; the fear of a cataclysmic population earthquake polarizing the citizenry.

The first set of waves of a tsunami of change crashing against Europe’s shores looks like this:  while the European population, due to is rapidly aging workforce is declining, 80% of its population growth in the past decade has been due to immigration which slowed down but not stopped the population slide. The Telegraph reports that 0ver the past 30 years, Europe’s Muslim population has doubled; it is expected to double again by 2015.  By 2050, 20% of Europeans will be Muslim. Eastern Europeans have flooded Western Europe as the EU has reduced restrictions on the flow of labor within the Continent.

While Academic research suggests immigration’s net effect on the economies of EU countries has been positive, immigrants arriving in search of work are triggering a polarization of attitudes by the native born. They now often find themselves the targets of a new wave of resentment that threatens to derail the self image many Europeans have of being grounded in the soil of the Enlightenment.

As I prepared through research and interveiws for the keynote address I delivered at the World Diversity Leadership Summit-Europe in Vienna  earlier in March, it was clear that a perfect storm of rising immigration rates and declining economies brews throughout the European Union. Overall, unemployment in the EU has risen steadily, from 7.5% in 2008 to 9.5% in 2009. Latvia and Spain have been the hardest hit, with unemployment reaching 22% and 19% respectively.

The counterwave to the rising tide of outsiders is showing up in various forms. The BBC News reports that tensions between native-born workers and immigrants have steadily grown.

  • Statistics published by the Italian government blame immigrants for rising unemployment.
  • Spain recently launched a program to encourage unemployed immigrants to return home.
  • Polls show British citizens cite an influx of immigrants as a leading cause of unemployment.
  • In Germany, a new citizenship application has been denounced as a “Muslim test,” designed to keep that immigrant group from growing further.
  • In 2005 Paris experienced rioting by its Muslim-based immigrant population; today, France, 9% Muslim, is seeking to ban headscarves in various public venues.
  • Switzerland, currently 4% Muslim, has banned minarets on all new construction.
  • In the Netherlands, nearly 5.8% Muslim, the murder of a Dutch filmmaker by a Muslim in 2004 is still a rallying point for anti-Muslim feeling.
  • The EU has taken steps to help ease the situation, issuing both the Racial Equality Directive and the Employment Equality Directive, adopted in 2000. The directives require member countries to build support structures that allow legal support against discrimination. These regulations not only serve to offer protections but they also have become a rallying cry for the many, many Europeans who despite changes all around them, are committed to diversity and inclusion.

    Employers who do buck current scapegoating trends to pursue business savvy diversity and inclusion efforts find themselves in good company–successful European companies such as Danone, Sodexo and Accor have been leading the way in recent years.  In 2008 anticipating this time, Siemens CEO told the Financial Times that the management in his German-based company was “too German, white, and male.” They and other leading companies see that their futures lies in being able to embrace and practice a much fuller and complex diversity and inclusion approach.

    The World Diversity Leadership Summitconference, hosted by the Austrian Ministry of Finance and attended by 300 leaders from corporations, government, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and which at one point had 30,000 hits on its live video web stream, had the stated goal of “Leveraging Global and European Diversity in 2020.” 

    The tsunami of change is inevitable. Which are the companies and countries that do what it takes to ride it rather than be swept by it?


    Andrés Tapia is a Senior Partner at Korn/Ferry International, a premier global provider of talent management solutions. Previously he served as President of Diversity Best Practices, the preeminent diversity and inclusion thinktank and consultancy. Prior to Diversity Best Practices, he served as Hewitt’s Chief Diversity Officer and Emerging Workforce Solutions Leader. As a published writer and prominent speaker, Andrés offers thought-provoking views about diversity’s impact around the world. He is the author of The Inclusion Paradox – 2nd Edition: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity. Find his bio here.


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