Why millions are on the move

Issue: 118

Phil Marfleet

Toby Shelley, Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New Global Economy (Zed, 2007), £14.99

Exploited should be a basic reference for all those concerned with economic, social and political aspects of migration today. This short book contains a mass of information on migrants and their role in the economies of Western Europe and North America. It demonstrates that migration is essential to contemporary capitalism and that, despite hostility towards immigrants, including official campaigns of exclusion, they are an increasingly important part of state strategy.

But this is also a frustrating book—one that hints at explanations for the major contradictions in migration policy but does not go on to examine them or tackle the biggest issue in immigration policy, that of border control.

Shelley is a journalist with the Financial Times and has used his access to its resources to great effect. He marshals up to date information on numbers, patterns of movement, employer interests, trade union interventions and, importantly, migrant experiences. He shows that, as the process of globalisation has accelerated, migrants, especially “illegal” or undocumented workers, have become crucial to certain industries in Europe and North America.

In the US, he notes, “illegals” account for 24 percent of all farm workers, 17 percent of cleaning workers, 14 percent of construction workers and 12 percent of those in food preparation. These figures demonstrate that irregular migration is part of the fabric of US capitalism. Shelley quotes a recent analysis to the effect that demand for “illegal” labour is structural in character; it is “deeply embedded” in the economy and in social relations.

So also in Europe. Here Shelley shows that exploitation of migrant workers can be as systematic and cynical as under the most repressive regimes of the Global South. Focusing on Britain, he demonstrates that the state encourages employment of workers under conditions in which they are denied elementary rights. At the same time, he observes, politicians and officials encourage a “victim-villain” discourse, targeting smugglers, traffickers and gangmasters as responsible for criminal practices in which migrants themselves are said to be complicit.

Shelley spells out what many researchers in the migration field have long failed to do: that the state itself is part of a system under which poor and vulnerable people are imported for the purpose of exploitation under conditions of illegality or semi-legality. Notwithstanding media campaigns in which politicians inveigh against “bogus” refugees and illegal entrants, it is governments that accommodate employer demands to restrict employment law.

In Britain, he points out, the much heralded Gangmaster Licensing Act excludes companies that service food retailers, wholesalers and caterers. These continue to pay paltry wages to workers who are vulnerable to the threat of instant dismissal or deportation. There is ample evidence that immigration officers and police collaborate with employers, so that those who challenge their conditions may be targets for dawn raids followed by imprisonment and deportation.

Shelley’s impressive data and sustained argument make this book an important resource—but one that also raises a series of unanswered questions. Who are the migrants moving in large numbers to North America, Western Europe and other destination regions? What leads them to travel long distances, undertaking dangerous journeys? What is the relationship between their circumstances in countries of origin and the strategies of those who dominate the global economy?

Large scale migration is often associated with the displacement of those involved. Sometimes this is the outcome of war, repression, civil conflict or environmental crisis. When it is systemic and continuous, however, we must look for other explanations. Industrial capitalism has always required mass movements of people, usually from the countryside, who can enter the waged workforce or become part of a reserve of labour. As Marx observed in the case of Europe, the early phases of capitalist development required active efforts to dispossess rural people who could provide “requisite supplies of masterless proletarians”.

Today large numbers of people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are being displaced by the impact of neoliberal globalisation. This is the outcome of 30 years of aggressive “marketisation”, during which corporate capital has been encouraged to operate freely in even the most vulnerable regions of the Global South. Many economic and social reforms associated with independence from colonialism have been reversed. Land reforms have been revoked, welfare slashed, subsidies reduced or abolished. As part of an ideological commitment to remove obstacles to free movement of capital, the state itself has been forced into retreat. Hundreds of millions of people have been driven closer to the margin of survival and, when affected by conflict or specific economic or environmental problems, many leave their homes in search for security and stability.

Mexico presents a striking example of the problem. Mexicans have been migrating to the US for over a century, but in recent years numbers have increased enormously. The change is associated with policies introduced though the North American Free Trade Agreement, under which the Mexican state has been obliged to end guaranteed prices for key agricultural products. Cheap American grain has flooded the Mexican market; at the same time the ejido system, under which for over 70 years peasants held collective rights in land, has been modified to allow for its mortgage, lease or sale—the beginning of a programme of rural privatisation.

Agribusiness has moved in, with corporations buying out debt-laden peasants, using the courts to facilitate mass evictions, and targeting vulnerable populations such as the indigenous people of the south. Millions have left for Mexican cities or for the border with the US, with the result that local arrangements for communal labour have collapsed and that those remaining on the land have been compelled to join the exodus.

One in every five rural households in Mexico is directly affected by emigration—in some regions one in two. They are the source of millions of “irregulars” who make up most of an unofficial workforce now integral to US capitalism.

Similar developments are under way across the Global South. Tens of millions of people are on the move. They are “survival migrants” compelled to undertake journeys in which they risk all in order to cross borders which are heavily policed but at which entry can be guaranteed by payments to smugglers and to immigration officials who are active agents within the system of irregular movement. Their numbers dwarf recent legal migrations to Western Europe from accession states of the European Union. The combined totals of workers from Poland and the Baltic states who have appeared in countries like Britain and Germany in recent years are a fraction of those travelling to the US from Central America, or from Africa and the Middle East to states of Southern Europe.

This is part of a global pattern that Shelley hints at but does not investigate. While recognising the importance of “push” factors in contemporary migration, and the hypocrisy of states eager to exploit those affected, he does not ask about the role of the latter in creating conditions that facilitate mass movements. He concludes with a series of proposals for reform of migrant labour policy: ending the criminalisation of “illegals” and regularising their status; developing labour movement activity which draws them into trade unions; and challenging discrimination and the racialisation of such groups.

Shelley fails directly to address one of the issues with which he opens the book—that of open borders. He writes tersely that proposals for abolition of border control “make perfect sense”, but this passing comment is not developed. In fact, as a series of recent publications make clear, arguments for free movement are being discussed more and more widely and with increasing urgency.

As more people undertake long and dangerous journeys in their struggle to find security, governments eager to exploit them place more obstacles in their way. More irregular migrants die in the Arizona Desert, or on leaky ships in the Mediterranean or the Java Sea. Those who make it to their destinations provide a vulnerable and often compliant workforce—and a convenient target for ideological offensives by politicians prepared to encourage populist campaigns that result in detention and deportation, and which poison the wider society by directing old prejudices towards new victims.

Migration policy is an area of the most extreme hypocrisy and injustice. As neoliberalism stimulates displacement on a wider scale (Kenya is just the latest example), more people will join millions already on the move. A radical strategy is required. Perhaps Shelley can follow his excellent Exploited by considering how we can advance the argument for open borders.