In the broadest sense, the phrase “foreign worker” applies to any person who works or has a career in a country in which he is not a citizen. There are typically two types of foreign workers: skilled laborers and migrant workers. Skilled laborers are those who integrate into foreign society as professionals. They can be doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who have found success living and working abroad, but who maintain their citizenship of birth. Migrant workers or guest workers, on the other hand, are those who enter a country, either seasonally or for a short term, looking for work in the trades: farm labor, kitchen staff, and hospitality among them.
Different countries attach different connotations to the “foreign worker” designation. The United Nations’ “Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families” stipulates that “foreign worker” and “migrant worker” are synonymous, and deserving of the same rights and protections at law. Not all countries have ratified the convention, however. In most places, there is a distinction between foreign workers who are perceived to be entering the country to add intellectual value, and those who are perceived to be entering only in order to send money home.
Foreign workers who are looking to pursue careers abroad can often apply under governing immigration law to be classed as permanent residents. Permanent residents have many of the rights of citizens, and are usually deemed to be valuable contributors to society. Even non-permanent foreign workers carry rights in some circumstances. Companies with global offices will sometimes shuffle their staffs temporarily, for instance, assigning executives from one national office to oversee operations in another. In these kinds of situations, the visiting executive is typically granted an extended-stay work visa, the terms and conditions of which are set by national law.
Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has acceded to the UN’s migrant workers convention. In these and other countries, there is usually a distinction between a skilled foreign worker and a so-called “unskilled” migrant worker. Migrant workers, also sometimes called guest workers, are foreigners who typically enter a society at the bottom rungs. They are farm laborers, restaurant help, and hotel maids; they are looking for any work that is available, not just work within their sector of expertise.
Particularly for farm laborers, the work is often seasonal, and workers typically travel from place to place, following after jobs. While a foreign worker who enters for the sake of a career is likely to bring his family, own land, and participate in society, a foreign worker who is a laborer is often abroad in isolation, does not have a fixed income, and more often than not sends almost all of the money he earns back home. Migrant workers are not usually eligible for permanent residency, and sometimes are not legally allowed to be in a foreign country at all.
Nevertheless, the work of the migrant foreign worker is often seen as essential. In countries experiencing a labor shortage for many basic tasks, migrant workers perform services that are needed, but would otherwise be left undone. Countries like the United States and Canada carve out limited incentives to retain the services of temporary migrant foreign workers. In the European Union, freedom of movement between member countries permits human migration across borders for any sort of work, temporary or permanent.