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Obscured by rhetoric about free markets, new forms of bonded labour have proliferated in recent decades. The millions of precarious migrant workers toiling in homes, fields, hotels and construction sites are just the latest version of a centuries-long process that has seen tens of millions of dispossessed people transplanted to labour in mines, on plantations and railway projects, and in sweatshop industries. From the seizure and sale of 12 million Africans for transport to the Americas to the so-called ‘coolie system’ that, starting in the 1880s, saw at least 17 million Indians and other Asians pressed into bonded labour, poor people from outside the heartlands of capitalism have persistently fuelled modern industry and commerce. But the Second World War and the human rights regime that emerged during the 1940s and 1950s was supposed to have changed all that, explicitly banning forced labour in various international charters, and enshrining basic rights along with paths to citizenship in “host” countries of the Global North.
While these governments still rhetorically espouse such principles, the reality has changed dramatically. The current neoliberal system of migrant labour—firmly entrenched in liberal democracies and vital to capitalism’s on-going expansion—is a de facto regime of forced labour. It is simultaneously a direct product of the dispossession of millions in the Global South from the lands on which they have lived, and of demands for mass supplies of cheap labour in the Global North. Capital wants not just workers, but precarious, low-wage labour. Migration and border regimes effectively secure this, as people who cross borders or migrate internally to deregulated zones are routinely deprived of the rights to vote, to change employers, to join a union, or to access healthcare and education systems. The constant threat of deportation is then leveraged to ensure compliance under these conditions. In addition to facilitating the harsh exploitation of migrant workers, this system also disciplines the citizen workforce. It dampens their demands and expectations by reminding them that they can always be replaced by vulnerable migrants.
At the heart of this system is a transnational rescaling of migrant workers’ lives in ways that keep their costs of daily and generational reproduction extraordinarily low. Crucial to this rescaling is a radical separation of the site of capital accumulation (the workplace) from the site of labour renewal (primarily households in their countries of origin). Receiving countries in the Global North do not have to pay a cent for the migrant workers’ healthcare, training and education prior to their arrival, and they pay a bare minimum after. Meanwhile the remittances that migrant workers send back—conservatively valued at $530 billion worldwide in 2012 and upon which half a billion people on the planet depend—are vital to sustaining the survival of their family members. They are also vital to the economies of some sending countries: the export of labour power to the Global North is now an explicit ‘development’ policy in places like the Philippines and Mexico, which in turn suffer the loss of millions of trained and educated people. So, employers in the Global North, aided by policies designed to export people, not only get access to a workforce whose reproduction is effectively cost-free for them. The wages sent home once these low-cost workers have migrated also enable the cheap reproduction of the next generation of potential migrant labourers.
This spatially rescaled system of social reproduction develops within a racialised and gendered order that devalues and dehumanises migrant workers. The hierarchical organisation of global capitalism exploits the differences inherent in migrant workers' social and geographic origins, a process that is intensified by regulations blocking paths to citizenship in the receiving countries. The social abjection that results is expressed in a variety of ways, including regular moral panics that often deploy racist arguments about migrant workers ‘taking’ citizen population jobs. Furthermore, women migrants—whether they work in middle and upper class households as domestics, in maquiladoras, or in the sex trade—are routinely sexualised and subjected to gender-based forms of oppression (e.g. routine pregnancy tests, mundane work ‘suitable’ for women, and intimidation from male supervisors). While the threat of deportation robs them of basic biological reproductive rights and healthcare, the deregulated conditions of their workplaces—along with the disruption of conventional gender norms (as in the case of women working in the maquiladoras)—leave them especially vulnerable to sexual assault or abuse.
It bears emphasising that this social degradation is tied to the very conditions of the neoliberal regime of migrancy. Built upon dispossession and a denial of basic rights, this regime ensures that migrant workers live relatively desperate, anxious and insecure lives. As such, they are capitalism’s ideal subjects: precarious bearers of labour power available for the harsh exploitation meted out to racialised and feminised workers.
This is nothing new. Capitalism has always relied on social processes of abjection, and frequently they have been secured and perpetuated in and through systems of forced labour and migrancy. However much we tend to think of these periods of coerced labour as critical to capitalism’s historical establishment, the current era makes it clear that unfree labour is not a relic of the past. Indeed, capital is not only increasingly reliant on migration, but specifically on the transnational flow of people who are deprived of full citizenship, people who to varying degrees comprise an unfree global workforce. Yet, like enslaved Africans and “coolie” workers before them, they continue to find ways to organize, resist and reclaim their dignity in the face of intense oppression.