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Guest Workers

Guest Workers

Imagine you hear about an exciting opportunity to work in another country for more money than you could ever make in your hometown. The prospect is exciting, and it's a decision many people worldwide decide to make for the promise of lucrative jobs. Many countries temporarily employ what's known as guest workers to help plug gaps in labor shortages. To learn more about guest workers, read on.

Guest Workers Definition

As implied in its name, guest workers are only temporary residents of a host country. Guest workers are voluntary migrants, meaning they left their home countries on their own accord, not against their will. Guest workers are also economic migrants because they seek better economic opportunities outside their home countries.

Guest Worker: A citizen of one country who temporarily resides in another country for work.

Guest workers receive a special visa or work permit from the host country. These visas specify a limited length of time people can work, and it's not intended for them to migrate permanently to that country. Additionally, some countries delineate what type of employment the guest worker can perform under a visa. Most of the time, guest workers occupy low-skilled and manual labor jobs that are difficult for employers in wealthier countries to find applicants. This type of economic migration is almost exclusively comprised of people from less-developed countries (LDCs) traveling to more-developed countries (MDCs).

Guest Workers Example

One country with a large number of guest workers is Japan. Migrants from South Korea, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere obtain limited-duration visas to work in jobs that are higher paying than back home. Like many guest workers, these migrants often work in blue-collar jobs like farm labor and construction, though some guest workers from the United States and elsewhere may be employed as foreign language instructors. Japan is facing an increased strain on its domestic workforce due to an aging population. Low birth rates mean there are fewer young people to work physically demanding jobs, and more are taken out of the workforce to care for elders.

Guest Workers Tea picking StudySmarterFig. 1 - People picking tea leaves in Kyoto prefecture, Japan

To complicate matters, while most politicians agree migration is necessary to sustain its economy into the future, there's a cultural aversion toward accepting and integrating other cultures into Japanese society. This resistance means Japan falls short of its actual need for guest workers. Some studies suggest Japan needs to increase its migrant workforce by millions in the next two decades to maintain economic strength.

Guest Workers in the United States

Guest workers have a controversial and complex history in the United States, tied into the debate on illegal immigration. Let's review the history of guest workers in the United States and the status quo.

Bracero Program

When the United States entered World War II, a sizable portion of the male workforce was drafted or volunteered to serve abroad. The loss of these workers led to a dire need to fill the gap and maintain agricultural production and other manual labor projects in the United States. In response, the US government developed the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexicans to work temporarily in the United States with the promise of good wages, housing, and healthcare.

Guest Workers Braceros StudySmarterFig. 2 - Braceros harvesting potatoes in Oregon

Most "Braceros" ended up working in the farms of the American West, where they faced harsh conditions and discrimination. Some employers refused to pay minimum wage. The program continued even after World War II, despite concerns that competition with the guest workers was unfair to US citizens. In 1964, the US government ended the Bracero program, but the experience of Braceros breathed life into labor movements to protect the rights of migrant workers.

H-2 Visa Program

Under current US immigration law, a few hundred thousand people are admitted as temporary workers under an H-2 visa. The visa is divided between H-2A for agricultural workers and H-2B for non-agricultural unskilled workers. The number of people admitted under the H-2 visa is far under the number of undocumented guest workers currently in the country. Due to bureaucratic complexities, regulations, and the short term of this visa, many workers end up coming to the United States illegally instead.

H-1B Visa Program

The H-1B visa is intended for foreigners in skilled professions to work in the United States temporarily. Jobs that typically require a four-year college degree fall under this program. The program intends to help ease skilled worker shortages when companies struggle to hire. On the other hand, the program receives criticism for enabling companies to outsource work to other countries when Americans could do them instead.

Say you're an American IT worker who helps troubleshoot and install computer systems at your company. Your company is looking to cut costs, so it goes through an outsourcing company that can hire someone from abroad to do your job, and that worker is willing to be paid far less. Because the foreign worker has an H-1B visa, they can legally work at an American company.

Guest Workers in Europe

Guest workers have a long history within Europe, and today many people move around the European Union seeking job opportunities.

German Gastarbeiter Program

Translated into English, Gastarbeiter means guest worker. The program began in West Germany in the 1950s as a way to supplement its workforce and accelerate rebuilding the infrastructure that was devastated during the Second World War. The Gastarbeiter came from around Europe, but especially from Turkey, where they constitute a sizeable ethnic group in Germany today. Many workers migrated to Germany hoping to send money back home and eventually move back, but changes in German nationality law meant some opted for permanent residency too.

The influx of Turkish migrants has significantly influenced German culture today. Even though it was intended to be a temporary program, many Turks who came to Germany under Gastarbeiter ended up bringing their families from Turkey and putting roots in Germany. Today Turkish is the second most spoken language in Germany.

European Union Migration Laws

All EU members are still sovereign countries, but any citizen of an EU member state is allowed to live and work in other EU countries. Because of spatial variations in economic opportunities, residents of poorer EU states sometimes look to wealthier ones for employment. However, migrants also need to consider the increased cost of living in some places compared to salaries. While payment might be higher, the cost of everything else can eat into take-home pay.

During the debate surrounding Brexit, much attention was given to the UK's public health system, the NHS. Supporters of Brexit claimed that an increase in migrants from the EU put a strain on the system's finances. Opponents pointed out how the NHS relies on a considerable amount of guest workers from other parts of the EU, and leaving could end up harming the NHS more.

Guest Worker Problems

Guest workers face challenges other migrants and residents of their host country do not experience. Additionally, guest work creates challenges for both the host country and the country the worker temporarily leaves.

Rights Abuses

Unfortunately, the rights granted to guest workers are not the same worldwide. In some countries, guest workers are guaranteed the same universal rights and security given to their citizens, like minimum wages and safety regulations. Other times, guest workers are treated as second-class citizens and afforded considerably fewer rights and privileges.

One place that receives considerable criticism for its treatment of guest workers is the United Arab Emirates. To facilitate the country's rapid growth, the UAE turned to migrant workers from other countries, mainly in South Asia. Today, most of the population is not Emirati but from elsewhere.

Guest Workers Construction workers Dubai StudySmarterFig. 3 - Construction workers in Dubai, UAE

There are reports of guest workers forced to sign contracts they sometimes can't read, agreeing to lower payment, and even employers withholding their passports so they cannot leave the country. The living conditions of guest workers are sometimes poor there, with many people required to share a room together.

Temporary Employment

By its nature, guest work is temporary. But when faced with few other options, migrants might opt for these visas even if they really desire to stay longer and work more. Because of this, some migrants choose to overstay their visas and continue working, even if it means losing whatever legal protections they have as guest workers. Detractors of guest work visas cite this as a reason to oppose expanding guest work opportunities.

Competition With Local Workers

The argument that migrants compete with local residents for work is levied against most types of migration, including guest work. Such was the case with the Bracero Program, where some returning US soldiers found they had to compete with migrants in agricultural jobs. However, there's no clear evidence that immigration ends up actually reducing the overall opportunities for local citizens, or impacting their wages.

Guest Workers - Key takeaways

  • Guest workers are voluntary migrants who temporarily migrate to another country seeking job opportunities.
  • Guest workers typically migrate from less-developed countries to more-developed countries and work manual labor positions.
  • Several notable guest worker programs took place in the 20th century like the Bracero Program in the United States and Gastarbeiter program in Germany.
  • Unlike residents and other types of permanent migrants, guest workers have faced more rights abuses and challenges in many host countries.


  1. Fig. 1 - tea picking (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tea_picking_01.jpg) by vera46 (https://www.flickr.com/people/39873055@N00) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 3 - Dubai construction workers (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dubai_workers_angsana_burj.jpg) by Piotr Zarobkiewicz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Piotr_Zarobkiewicz) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Guest Workers

An example of guest workers is the former Bracero Program in the United States. The US had a temporary visa program for workers from Mexico to travel to the US and work in unskilled jobs like farm labor.

The point is to provide temporary employment for foreign workers and relieve labor shortages in certain fields.

Germany needed guest workers to help rebuild its country after the devastation of World War Two. After a massive loss in population, it turned to other European countries, particularly Turkey, to help fill its labor shortage.

The country with the most guest workers is the United States, although a majority are not on a sanctioned visa program like H-2 but instead are undocumented.

Final Guest Workers Quiz


Which of the following describes a guest worker?

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Someone who moves to a different country to work permanently.

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What type of migrants are guest workers?

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Forced migrant.

Show question


Why is Japan turning to guest workers to fill certain jobs?

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Japan's aging population is putting strain on its economy and needs foreign labor to sustain itself.

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What was the Bracero Program?

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A guest worker program started in the US during WWII which granted Mexicans temporary residence and employment in manual-labor jobs. It was discontinued in 1964.

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Which of the following is true of the Bracero Program?

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It was a massive success that still continues to this day.

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The Gastarbeiter program brought many guest workers to which country?

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Show question


What is a common argument made against expanding the number of guest workers?

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Guest workers will compete with local citizens for jobs.

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What nation has faced criticism for the treatment of its guest workers?

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United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Show question


True or false: Legal rights are often the same for guest workers as regular citizens or other migrants.

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False, guest workers often face difficulties that other migrants or citizens do not face.

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Although essential to ensure future growth, why has the Japanese government been hesitant to accept more guest workers?

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It'll cost too much money to teach them Japanese and integrate them into society.

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