Thu, 10 Jul 2008 Feature Article

Highly Skilled Migrants, Tally Executives And A Dog

Highly Skilled Migrants, Tally Executives And A Dog

His name was Bulls-Eye, named after Bill Sykes' obedient beastly companion in the classical movie-Oliver. His owner is a wheelchair-bound septuagenarian, who depends on the beast for nearly everything. He has been trained to pick up the receiver when the telephone rings. He runs to hand it over to his owner and takes the handset back when he is done. He cannot cook but he can cater for the laundry. It is also Bulls-Eye's duty to disengage the lock on their door when they pop out for the routine morning walks. All these are quite normal with specially trained dogs. What fascinates everybody is how they manage to work the ATM to withdraw money. Bulls-Eye was a spectacle in a busy street in central London, where his owner had relaxed in his wheelchair as the beast attended to the ATM. He snatched the card from the old man with his teeth, slotted it into the machine and waited for the money. Then he reached for the card when it popped out, and with some dogged impatience, grabbed the cash and handed it over to the old man. The bit that shocked everybody was how the pin numbers were worked out. Was it a special card that did not require a pin or the dog typed them in? Well, the old bloke did.

It was one of those dogs that proposed love to a Highly Skilled immigrant in Britain. My housemate, a Czech national, is a professional dog walker. She had a master's degree in administration before she migrated to Britain when her country joined the expanded EU. Anytime she sees me writing, she is reminded of the skill she has abandoned. She is now so skilful with dogs that she is able to bath them, shave them and cut their nails in real pedicure style. She follows this routine six times in a week. One of her dogs is called Ben. Sometimes she confuses me with the dog when she is about to go work. She makes fun of it, but she doesn't seem happy with the job that feeds her and her son in Prague. She had to pay some huge money to train for months to qualify as a dog walker. She often asks herself: Is that all I could do? She had come to Britain hoping to work with her degrees. She has attended lessons to improve her English, so now she speaks fluent English. But she can speak it only to dogs, not in the white-collar job environment she dreamed of when she migrated.

Jobs abound abroad, and the more terrible ones often pay better. Most care-workers earn more than trainee lawyers. It has been proven that driving a taxi pays a lot better than working as an administrative officer or a customer service attendant at Vodafone. But the worst kind of job you can imagine should be better than being a funeral director, because you get a pay rise only when there is a mass burial. That means you often have to live like a witch, hoping that people collapse and foam at the mouth as they brush their teeth. Even that is more dignifying than being asked to marry a dog. That is what my Czech housemate was confronted with. The owner had asked: Do you love my dog? The courteous lady answered in the affirmative. Then he posed the big question: Do you want to marry him? She came home a broken woman, regretting the day she left her respectable job in the Czech capital of Prague, to settle in the UK. Everyday she toys with the idea of going back to her country, but the thought of going to start all over again after 5 years abroad, haunts her. Meanwhile, life in Britain remains unpromising, as the search for a decent job becomes never-ending and equally unpromising. She hasn't saved enough to buy a house back home. Not that she owns one here, so it should be easy to pack up and leave. But to where exactly? There are too many unfinished businesses either way. She bares her heart out: “I am scared to go back, because I don't have the experience I need to get a good job when I go back.” So, she lives the rather unfulfilling life of hoping and hoping against that very hope. In the end, the only hope she has is the fear that the freedom she is enjoying in London, the flexibility she has to change jobs and the feeling of adventure that she so such treasures, might leave her with a less fulfilling life. “I would be married by now if I was in Czech,” she pitifully submits.

Many western countries have programmes for the highly skilled migrant. Canada is presently wooing professionals from around the globe to immigrate to the country as permanent residents, on her special Highly Skilled Federal worker initiative. The campaign is so serious that the Canadian government has reduced the permanent residency fee from $975 to $550, to encourage people with brains and skills to apply. It is a laborious process that requires notarized certification of every achievement an applicant claims to have attained and could take as long as four years to complete. The UK also has the HSMP. Like the Canadian scheme, it is points-based and favours the young. Australia and Austria have similar facilities for the educated immigrant. The various schemes promise permanent stay, but not permanent jobs. Often, especially in the case of those who did not secure jobs prior to immigrating, getting a very good paying job is as difficult as the process you would go through to qualify for the Highly Skilled permit. Some people give up in the process, burry their certificates in their bedside drawers together with their dreams, and drive Lorries from Los Angeles to Ottawa, earning fat wages for the dream house in Africa. Others soldier on until they are good enough for the Senate or at a least a line manager in a good establishment in Washington DC. But they will always be quick to concede that it took a real struggle to cross the Mississippi.

Or, perhaps, the problem really is that we are skilled for the jobs we dreamed of, but not highly skilled. The embassies that run these programmes are insistent on applicants providing genuine information, but they also choose their words carefully. If you are highly skilled in accounting, it means that you should be able to work the accounts of the Pentagon and the White House in a few minutes with great analytical aptitude. If you are only skilled in that line of business, then, perhaps you would be good at helping immigrants in Canada with their tax returns, because you can afford to do that from home. Even if you were highly skilled before immigrating, there is usually the need to do a course or two, and in some cases a complete academic programme, to fit into the new system. And that takes money, sometimes a lot of money. While waiting for the loan to be approved, you need to pass the survival test. There, you look for an occupation-something to occupy you and also give you an income- not a job. Bear in mind that, in all these, we haven't talked about a career yet. Of course, you can always satisfy yourself with the truism that many people never develop good careers, but they do better in their jobs. Career could be the last thing you think of, because in a way, it is a 'carrier.' You cannot carry the system, because you are carrying a lot of things on your head: the host who is beginning to frown, the driver's license that you haven't sorted out, the new variant of English that you are struggling to understand and the New Jerusalem that is so new to you. You know you are about conquering the system the day Lincoln and BMW marketing staff pop into your office to invite you for a test drive.

So, what are the kinds of jobs available to the highly skilled migrant? Recently, I met an old Vandal at a wedding in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where I got to learn the 'patoa' versions of our Holy-Sprit-forsaken profane songs. After exchanging pleasantries, the chap slotted a business card into my trembling fingers, without my asking. The title of his position was so intriguing, but I didn't want to sacrifice decorum by quizzing him on his responsibilities as a Tally Executive. Initially, it sounded quite important to me, because just beneath the title were his degrees and the professional bodies he belongs to. I didn't have a card to satisfy his curiosity, because my job is not that important to warrant my carrying a box of business cards in my jacket. As he bade me adieu, I asked myself: What exactly do Tally Executives do? To tally is to add up, so a Tally Executive will be adding things up. But what does my friend add up in his office? I would have had reason to respect his position if he was adding peoples' wages, in which case he could taken, or at least, mistaken for an accounting staff. A Tally Executive, I was disappointed to learn, calculates the hours people have worked and passes the results to the accounting and pay roll department to process their salaries. It is sometimes called Hourly Call Executive.

Not all skilled immigrants are caught in this web of disguised unemployment; most of them do get opportunities to pursue fantastic careers. Industrialized countries are so called because they are 'industrious,' so they have lots of industries to absorb labour. And if we would be sincere, sometimes life in the zero temperatures of Norway holds a better promise than the 'near hero' existence of the Tweapease rural bank manager. But Paul Awotwe, a high-flying executive director of a multinational firm, envies the comfortable and privileged life of the rural bank manager. Even as upper middle-class metropolitan elite in a prosperous country, he feels marginalized and so dispensable in capitalist America. At the same rate, he knows that his adopted country has made him a better person. So, when Dr Ekwow Spio-Garbrah recently criticized the American visa lottery as a form of brain drain that must be discouraged, one half of Paul took the news with a pinch of salt, while the other took the telecommunication supremo's view with a pinch of sugar. This ambivalence dogs many a highly skilled immigrant, who in the end, decide to live the life of a career student. That saves you the trouble of finding something to say whenever folks quiz you on what you do for a living.

Maybe Spio-Garbrah is right. Do rich countries need our skills that much? Will their industries struggle without skills from poor countries? What kind of skills do they really look for? The answer, again, would be expressed in ambivalent terms. And, perhaps, it is proper to ask: why are illegal immigrants who possess life-saving skills repatriated when they are caught? Recently, the story of Bangura, a highly skilled Sierra-Leonean national who plays for Watford Football Club, UK, made news when the British Home Office decided to deport him. His footie skills saved him, because the fans loved him. If he was an ACCA chartered accounting professional, with two master's degrees under his belt, would he have stayed? Nurses from Africa were hot cakes in some western countries, but now they are not needed. Even so, a nurse who abandons her skill to become a cleaner in London earns four times what her colleagues back home take. Why? It is wrong.

The author is a freelance journalist; he lives in London.

Email: [email protected], [email protected]
Benjamin Tawiah, London

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