Climate Change and Migrant Workers


It’s well-known that climate change is causing people to migrate – a trend that is only expected to increase over time. However, recent research by New York University (NYU) professor Natasha Iskander reveals a much lesser-known aspect of this trend: There are companies targeting regions experiencing climate stress when recruiting migrant workers.

At an MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER) seminar in November 2021, Iskander, who is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, presented research on this subject from one of the chapters of her new book, “Does Skill Make Us Human? Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond” (Princeton University Press, November 2021). Iskander is an alumna of MIT IWER’s

In her in-depth study of migrant workers in Qatar’s construction industry, Iskander found that some firms in that industry saw regions where climate change was negatively impacting traditional agriculture as attractive for recruiting workers to come to Qatar. “Several firms, recruitment agencies, and industry representatives I interviewed spoke about the opportunities that global warming created for labor recruitment,” Iskander wrote in her book. “They commented explicitly about the fact that climate change pressures turned relatively well-off people into the newly poor and made them available to migrate. They viewed these people as good recruits because they had benefited from long-term investments in education, nutrition, and health, but were now willing to accept lower wages than they would have before.”

In her book, Iskander analyzed this trend in the context of recruitment of workers for the Qatari construction sector in the Terai region of Nepal and nearby parts of India, but she noted that similar patterns are emerging in other areas experiencing climate-related stress. “Recruiting firms and recruitment agents are likely to play an increasingly important role in defining the shape that climate migration will ultimately take,” she wrote.

Iskander thinks we are likely to see climate change increasingly factor into international economic interactions in ways that have major implications for workers. “Work, production, migration, and regulation—all these are already being remolded by climate change pressures,” she wrote.  “Climate pressures are already reshaping implications for economic opportunity, economic marginalization, and the distribution of economic power.”