Brazil’s government is exploring ways to ease immigration rules in order to try and attract up to 10 times more foreign professionals and help spur economic growth, a senior official has said.
A lack of skilled workers is one of many bottlenecks that have lately brought the world’s sixth-largest economy to a near standstill.
“This country has become very isolated from the rest of the world in terms of its labor markets and that is affecting our competitiveness,” said Ricardo Paes de Barros, who heads a team on strategic initiatives at the president’s office.
“We want to turn that around so Brazil will be better connected with the rest of the world in terms of transfer of knowledge,” he said in a telephone interview.
A former Portuguese colony, Brazil has a long history of welcoming immigrants from all over the world, similar to the US.
However, economic woes in the second half of the previous century reduced the arrivals to a trickle. Today foreigners represent just 0.3 percent of Brazil’s workforce, down from 7 percent at the beginning of the 20th century. In Australia, a similarly sized country that has long attracted immigrants, foreigners account for about 20 percent of the workforce.
The debate over a more flexible immigration framework reflects Brazil’s new status as an emerging global economic power. Near full employment has boosted the popularity of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, herself the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant.
“We need to reach a level of 2 to 3 percent of our workforce made up of foreigners. That means multiplying the current levels by 10,” said Paes de Barros, a Yale-educated economist. “If we do that we should be fine.”
Brazil’s economy is expected to grow less than 2 percent this year, but gain speed again in 2013 as a flurry of government stimulus measures take effect. The jobless rate, however, remains near an all-time low of around 5.8 percent.
Brazil granted 70,524 work permits to foreign professionals last year, 25.9 percent more than in 2010, according to the Labor Ministry. That is almost three times more than the 25,400 permits issued in 2006.
Yet by some estimates the country still needs an additional 20,000 engineers a year to keep up with ambitious plans to modernize its obsolete infrastructure and tap massive offshore oil reserves.
Critics blame decades of underinvestment in Brazil’s public education system, which leaves many Brazilians at a disadvantage in the job market.
Rousseff launched a bold effort last year to address the educational deficit holding back Brazil’s technological and engineering development, the Science without Borders initiative, which will send 100,000 Brazilians to study abroad for a year at the best universities across in the world.