Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Follow LeftTurn:

Special Offer from PM Press

Now more than ever there is a vital need for radical ideas. In the four years since its founding - and on a mere shoestring - PM Press has risen to the formidable challenge of publishing and distributing knowledge and entertainment for the struggles ahead. With over 200 releases to date, they have published an impressive and stimulating array of literature, art, music, politics, and culture.

PM Press is offering readers of Left Turn a 10% discount on every purchase. In addition, they'll donate 10% of each purchase back to Left Turn to support the crucial voices of independent journalism. Simply enter the coupon code: Left Turn when shopping online or mention it when ordering by phone or email.

Click here for their online catalog.

Increasing Precarity: The Politics of Migrant Labor

Harsha Walia
Date Published: 
June 22, 2007

This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in Left Turn #25

According to the United Nations, nearly 400 million people are migrant workers inside their own countries or outside their countries of birth. Whether in search of refuge or a more prosperous future, people are increasingly migrating. Historically, during England’s Industrial Revolution, peasants who were displaced from their farmlands were forced to migrate to cities and worked for scanty wages in growing industries.

Today’s worldwide migration from the South to the North and from rural to urban areas is a continuation of this phenomenon as people are forced to migrate to the centers of capital in order to survive. Thus the existence of a hyper-exploitable migrant workforce in the U.S and Canada is part of a global phenomenon where transnational migration flows bring, for example, South Asian workers into the Middle East; North African labor into Europe; Central Americans into Mexico; and Thai and Korean workers into Japan and Australia.

The entrenchment of the common perception of migration as a ‘problem to be managed’ can be traced back to 1951 with the creation of three structures that preserved the value of the institution of citizenship by controlling—rather than facilitating—the free movement of migrants. In 1951, the inter-government International Organization for Migration (IOM) was founded. As the IOM describes, its mission is “to facilitate and control the number and composition of persons crossing international borders and the conditions under which entry is authorized or denied.”

In addition, the UN Refugee Convention was established in 1951 to constrain cross border movement by establishing the criteria of a refugee. Finally, the International Migration and Development Initiative (IMDI) emerged in 1951 from discussions between corporations, the World Bank, and Western governments. The IMDI puts an emphasis on the temporary migration of workers rather than migration with permanent residency rights.

The term "guest" suggests a person to whom hospitality is extended, but migrant labor guest worker programs offer no such hospitality. Fundamental features of such programs include being tied to the employer who “imports” them; facing deportation if they assert their rights; exploitative working conditions including low wages, long hours with no overtime pay, and dangerous working conditions; crowded and unhealthy accommodations; denial of access to basic social services; and being virtually held captive by employers or contractors who seize their identification and documentation. Their temporary legal status is what makes migrant workers extremely vulnerable to abuse.

Under the H-2 program in the US, 121,000 guest workers entered in 2005, approximately 32,000 for agricultural work and another 89,000 for jobs in forestry, seafood processing, landscaping, construction and other non-agricultural industries. In Canada, there are more people under Temporary Employment Authorizations (238,093 in 2004) than the number of permanent residents (235,708 in 2004). Both the US and Canada are planning on rapid expansion of guest worker programs in the next few years. The WTO’s existing General Agreement on Trade in Services sanctions this transient servitude; guidelines in Mode 4, not yet enacted, basically layout a global guest worker program.

Capital mobility

Capitalism's drive to expand its markets and maximize profit involves a constant search for cheap labor and the need to perfect the mechanisms for controlling workers. Today, capital has become truly transnational with its ever-expanding tentacles of subcontracting, outsourcing, and transnational financial systems. As soon as local resistance builds, factories leave from the Philippines to Bangladesh to China.

A central feature of the current phase of globalization is the increased mobility of capital aided by free trade agreements—such as NAFTA and APEC—as well as policies of neoliberal development including the establishment of non-unionized “export processing zones. Market-based reforms, as part of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment Programs, have also forced privatization and displacement.

This increased mobility of capital is driven by and in turn supports a drive towards increased labor flexibility within and across territorial boundaries. In this new phase of neoliberalism, there are increasing categories of devalued labor—a phenomenon that has been termed the “Walmartization” of labor—such as contract, part time, and temporary labor.

While the US and Canadian governments have pursued strategies to attack citizen-workers—by attacking labor laws and employing contract and part-time labor—it has most heavily relied on immigrant labor. William Robinson has written “the transnational circulation of capital and the disruption and deprivation it causes, in turn, generates the transnational circulation of labor. In other words, global capitalism creates immigrant workers…. In a sense, this must be seen as a coerced or forced migration, since global capitalism exerts a structural violence over whole populations and makes it impossible for them to survive in their homeland.”

In this way, off-shoring and importation of migrant labor are two sides of the same coin; a perfect example of which is the fact that one year after the abolition of the Bracero Program in the US, the Border Industrialization Program established the maquiladora system in Mexico, thus continuing to ensure US business access to cheap Mexican labor. As manufacturing industries transfer work to regions of the global South where they are ensured cheap labor; construction, service, and site-bound manufacturing industries bring those very conditions of sweatshop and wage-slave labor to the global North through guest worker programs. This differentiation of labor and fragmentation of sites of production are made possible through the political and economic construction of the nation-state.

Maintaining borders

The maintenance of the border of the nation-state is justified at several levels: to protect citizens against ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’; to perpetuate a socially constructed national identity; and to control the flow of immigrants who will ‘steal jobs’ and ‘destroy the national welfare’.

Most fundamentally, however, borders are essential for the expansion of capitalism. Although some leftist discourses question the strength of the nation-state and national sovereignty in the face of a globalized economy, the reality is that although the nature of the nation-state may change, its importance to the culture of capitalist expansions is pivotal. Indeed, the rise of the nation-state as a tightly regulated sphere of identity and territory is directly related to capitalist regulations of production. For example the enclosure movement in England, which resulted in the division of communal lands, was grounded in capitalist notions of private ownership.

Whereas in the origins of capitalism borders were essential to unify the national markets, today they are used to create differential zones of labor and surplus capital. The process of primitive accumulation that has returned with great force can operate only by sealing off and distributing the commons as property. With the end of more direct forms of colonialism, borders increase competition as governments of nation-states try to offer cheap workforces to attract capital investments. Border policies also create hierarchies amongst immigrants themselves: those with the appropriate education, desired skills, and perfect language capabilities versus those without. Therefore, despite its confusing rhetoric, capital does not aim to eliminate the need for national borders.

The dictates of the globalized economy require the free flow of transnational capital across borders; while at the same time nation-states require themselves to be the only legitimate authority to arbitrate who constitutes the nation. Migrant workers are central to resolving this seeming contradiction and constitute a distinct category of workers in relation to capital and the nation-state.

Firstly, they allow for capital interests to have access to cheap labor that exists under precarious conditions, the most severe of which is the condition of being deportable. The condition of being deportable assures the ability to super-exploit and to dispose of migrant workforce without consequences. Secondly, they ensure that the state is able to exercise repressive social control through denial of basic rights and access to social services afforded to citizens. Thirdly, they maintain the sanctity of racialized cultural identities and the purity of national identity by legalizing the ‘foreign-ness’ of migrant workers, which then feeds into the racist cycle required to dehumanize them and declare them ‘illegal’ or ‘undesirable’ in order to justify their deplorable conditions.

Super exploitation

Therefore, migrant workers represent the perfect workforce in this era of evolving global capital-labor and class relations: commodified and exploitable; flexible and expendable. In the US, for example, with the Great Depression, more than 500,000 immigrants and Mexican-born US citizens were forcibly deported, but when World War II created another labor shortage, Mexican workers were brought in en-mass.

During the 1950s, growers brought in braceros when US workers either went on strike or merely threatened to do so. At its peak, it is estimated that the bracero program brought in over 400,000 workers a year and a total of about 4.5 million jobs had been filled by the time the bracero program was abolished in 1964. One current high profile example in Canada is the fact that Canadian Natural Resources Limited, developer of the largest oilsands project in Canada, has contracted out a significant piece of the construction work to a construction firm that intends to have almost all workers brought in under the Foreign Temporary Worker program.

As written by Nandita Sharma, “the social organization of those categorized as non-immigrants works to legitimize the differentiation of rights and entitlements citizen lines by legalizing the indentureship of people classified as migrant workers…Their vulnerability lies at the heart of the flexible accumulation process.” Given the staggering statistics, global divisions across the lines of citizen/non-citizen and migrant worker/non-migrant worker constitute a growing form of social, political, and economic apartheid. This apartheid system of migration is further stratified across racialized and gendered lines. Most migrant women of color become inserted into work characterized by low wages, dangerous working conditions, irregular hours, lack of unionization, and instability such as garment work, domestic work, home support work, cooking, dishwashing, sex work, and janitorial work.

Traditional labor

Historically, the freeing of slaves in the US through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln was a political and military strategy to destroy the economic power of the Confederacy that was generated through slave labor. Lincoln did not believe in the fundamental equality of blacks, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Support for the Proclamation within the Republican Party in the North was based primarily not on moral arguments for the abolition of slavery, rather they were premised on support for ‘free labor ideology’ that opposed the expansion of slavery into northern states as it would lead to competition with free white laborers.

In Canada, the most well-known historical example of the condition of migrant workers is the experience of Chinese railway workers in British Columbia. The estimated 17,000 Chinese workers who came to Canada from 1881-1884 were met with dangerous working conditions and racism. Chinese coal miners earned $1 a day compared to the $2.50 earned by white workers, and it is estimated that anywhere from 800-3500 Chinese migrants died during the construction of the railway. In the late 1880s, the Knights of Labor organized local assemblies to argue against the employment of Chinese workers. In 1907, the Asiatic Exclusion League—which included trade unionists—called for immediate restrictions on Asian immigration in order to maintain a “white Canada”, and in September 1907 major riots destroyed Chinatown and Japantown in Vancouver.

In the 1950’s, trade unionists in the US collaborated with US imperialism and corporate exploitation in the global South as part of the so-called “capital-labor accord”. Corporations would ensure higher wages and benefits for union members (largely white and male) and in return, labor leaders would refrain from opposing government policies. “Business unionism” became an ideology in which privileged workers fully identified with the expansion of the capitalist and imperialist system in order to sustain the demand of full employment, higher productivity, and better wages. The AFL-CIO, for example, supported the wars in Vietnam and Central America and favored employer sanctions against undocumented immigrants.

These are not simply trends of the past. For example, currently a common thread amongst US and Canadian unions who oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas includes a fear of an onslaught of migrant labor. While unions avoid the overtly racist rhetoric historically employed against immigrant and migrant workers, they take a more covert form today through the desire to “protect local jobs” and the unwavering belief that “Canadian/American workers be the first choice for employers”, thus continuing to view the whole concept of labor migration as an extension of Third World problems and secondary to traditional (meaning white North American) labor struggles.

Freedom of movement

In the words of the Noborder Network “the political power of exodus and refusal is subverting the sovereignty of both the nation-states as well as the new regimes of capitalist hyper-exploitation on a global level.” We need to realize that global capital has created a global workforce, yet the use of nationalism as an ideology of racist exclusion has become a powerful tool to destroy solidarity between global labor rights struggles. As written by Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello in Global Village or Global Pillage, “The new class subject of global capitalism is female, of color, and of the Third World”, thus forcing a reconceptualization of the traditional terrain of class struggle and its relatively privileged subjects. Instead of a labor movement that relies on exclusion as a means to ‘control the supply’ of the labor market, we must learn to advance our collective interests; we must further the analysis that capital has created migrant workers through the devastation of rural economies across the globe and through divisions of the global labor force; and we must demand the total freedom of movement across borders in order to eliminate the vulnerability of migrant workers and eradicate racism against those who are believed to belong only to the ‘Third World’.

About The Author

Harsha Walia is a South Asian organizer in various social movements based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories.