Migrants’ Rights Network: Why do migrants suffer exploitation? – Some thoughts on vulnerability and globalised labour markets

by , under Don Flynn

Don Flynn*





Migrants are bad news because they worsen wages and working conditions for the rest of us we are so often told. A new book says we have to pay far more attention to the conditions we impose on those who arrive looking for jobs if we really want to tackle the scourge of modern slavery.

Critics of immigration strive to make the case that low pay and exploitation are increasingly rife because newcomers apparently degrade the wages and work conditions secured by home-grown workers.

But their case stumbles over the fact that the point at which wages as a proportion of gross national income began to sharply decline was way back in the mid-1970s. Net migration was at a historically low point back then.

According to the TUC figures, the high point in terms of the share of income that went to wage earners was 1975, when over 64% of the nation’s annual wealth went into the pay packets of workers. By 1996 this had declined to 52%.

Since then the wage share went up to 56% in the months just before the credit crunch plunged the country into deep recession in 2007-08.  No one should miss the irony that this brief period of improvement coincided with the return of years of substantial net migration.

Gross exploitation

But there is something else working away at the heart of our labour markets which for the last forty years has been depressing wage growth and, as we are now finding out, ramping up the appalling phenomenon of gross exploitation and the reduction of labour to a state of un-freedom. Getting to the bottom of this, and explaining how it relates to the issue of migration, is the central theme of a recently published book, Vulnerability, Exploitation and Migrants – Insecure Work in a Globalised Economy.

The essay which really sets the scene in this collection is John Smith’s account of the role that outsourcing has had on reducing the bargaining power of wage earners.

Rise of the global working class

Smith’s argument is that the real story of the years after the mid-70s has not so much been about migration per se as the exponential growth of a new working class in the developing countries.  In 1951 the total number of wage workers outside the highly developed regions was less than 50 million.  By 2010 this number has soared to over 500 million.  The fragment of the proletariat in the nations of the global north had throughout this period, flatlined at the 150 million mark.

The challenge for the global north was how to incorporate this vast reservoir of value-creating labour into its own production chains.  The thing we call globalisation was essentially a set of policies and actions which allowed the developed capitalist world to do precisely that.

The outsourcing of whole segments of production processes to workforces based in the developing regions was one of the earliest ways of doing this.  And once workers in countries like China, India, Indonesia, and other nations mainly across South East Asia and Latin America came into the equation, a new baseline was set for the wages that bosses were prepared to pay.

Outsourcing didn’t do the whole of the work of bringing the workers of the developing world into global value chains. Foreign direct investment was another tactic available to investors looking for the highest rates of return.  But migration opened up a third way to get access to the resources available in the global labour markets, and one which was most suited to types of businesses which needed shorter supply chains, to the point that the developing world worker was bodily lifted from their normal place of abode and placed in a workplace in the metropolitan world.

This helps us to understand why migration has developed as just one of several ways in which the owners of capital gain access to the global workforces they need to create value for their businesses.  But is there any special reason why this has also involved the degradation of working conditions to the point where it has become meaningful – even for conservatives – to talk of the growth of ‘modern slavery’?

Other chapters in this book point us in the direction of what was also going on during the years of growing migration which increased the exploitation of this new labour force.  We have to look much more closely at the role played by institutions established to manage the flow of people and bring about their insertion into the labour market. We should see this as the source of growing wretchedness, rather any supposed innate characteristics of these workers themselves.

In some instances, as in the case of migrant domestic workers, the institutional setting was the private household, far removed from the gaze of any public authority that might have concerned itself with violence and abuse because it is behind closed doors.  The case of the asylum seeker, who is buffeted new globalised labour markets is increasingly taken advantage. The vulnerability of these newcomers in the workforce eases their incorporation into regimes which works relentlessly to bear down on labour costs whilst greatly accelerating the rate of exploitation.

Tolerance for exploitation?

Do migrant workers exude some special qualities which predestines them for exploitation?  This is a question that gets bounced around by some commentators. They point to what is presumably seen as an advantage these newcomers are believed to enjoy over home-grown workers because they are supposedly habituated to a far greater extent to an insecure and cash-strapped existence which leads them to ask for less when it comes to decent employment standards.  The long-standing precariousness of their lives has encouraged them to find ways to support their families at a distance; with the nurturing parent and the children maintained in a low cost-of-living region whilst the wage earner migrates to a place where wages, whilst still poor, are at least better than those at home.

It would be reasonable to suppose that strategies of this sort would have to be pursued with a pretty cynical outlook on the part of the migrant. It would require consciousness of the fact that they are underbidding others’ wages and studied indifference to making things worse for others.

The studies in this book give no real sense that this is a common frame of mind amongst migrants.  Rather something else is shown up in accounts that consider the lives of Bangladeshi fruit vendors in Paris, sweatshop workers in Buenos Aires, and Chinese workers eking out an existence in take-aways and restaurants in the UK.  That something else is nothing other than an intense awareness of the disadvantages that have been heaped on them and the social injustice that is the outcome.  What we see time and time again in these pages is a nascent class consciousness amongst migrant workers that informs them that the hardships they endure arise not from the natural order of things, but because powerful interests have contrived to narrow the spaces in which they are expected to live, all for the purpose of increasing the rate of profit that can be extracted from their labour.

A glimpse of the future

This book gives us a glimpse into the future of a working class which we will have to think of as being a globalised entity rather than a product of the national histories of distinct nation states.  Not all of the members of this mobile proletariat will suffer the fate of the turbo-charged exploitation we read about in these studies. But when that happens we will have to see it as a product of the contexts and structures which set the terms of entry into globalised labour for that group of workers, and not an expression of some perverse willingness to accept a harsh and often brutal type of life which the rest of us actively reject.

If the current interest in ‘modern slavery’ which stretches across the political spectrum, from the heirs of Thatcher through to the stalwarts of what is left of organised labour, has the effect of encouraging the sort of deeper reflection on exploitation and the fate of those who live their lives at points that straddle the continuum of ‘unfree labour’ then the period immediately ahead at least promises to be interesting.  The challenge for all of us who are concerned with these matters will be to facilitate the awareness of exploitation that exists amongst migrants into concrete forms of action that will bring it to an end.  The idea that the workers of the world should unite could well acquire the resonance that it last had back in the heroic era at the dawn of the modern labour movement.

Read original posting here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.

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