Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Illegalised migrants and temporary foreign workers: the new international segmentation of labour

Labour markets are segmented, and the vulnerability at the bottom underpins the stability and benefit at the top. States use migration controls to maintain the docility of the bottom rung.

Harald Bauder
19 May 2015

A team of 30 in California harvests around 212,000 lb. of celery in an 8-hour day. William Sparkes/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

The collapse of an eight-story garment-factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 killed more than 1000 workers and injured 2,500 more, shocking the world and drawing global attention to the horrific working conditions and lack of safety standards that exist in the Global South. Two years earlier, the death of ten overworked temporary migrant workers in a car crash in Canada raised public awareness of the exploitative working conditions that these migrants endure. Although the settings for these two events could not have been more different—Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world and Canada is one of the wealthiest—they both reflect an international segmentation of labour that characterises a global economy feeding off the vulnerabilities of ‘third world’ labour.

Industrialised economies have long been dependent on the labour that international migrants provide. Migrant workers are attractive to many employers precisely because they are vulnerable: the denial of their rights, status and citizenship prospects leaves them open to various types of exploitation (e.g. lower wages). Governments are complicit in this strategy, and as an increasing number of people migrate to Europe, North America, and other wealthy countries to escape poverty and exploitation, governments are devising ways to maintain these migrants’ vulnerability.

Temporary foreign worker programmes deny migrants the opportunity to stay in the country and become citizens. In Canada, a country of 35 million, the number of temporary foreign workers has skyrocketed to about half a million, and now exceeds the number of permanent immigrants. These workers tend to be highly vulnerable, because many of them are only permitted to work for one particular employer and dismissal can result in deportation.

The most vulnerable and exploitable workers, however, are illegalised migrants who do not possess the government’s authorisation to be in the country and thus lack government protection from abuse. Using the term illegalised migrant—rather than undocumented, irregular, non-status, or ‘illegal’—draws attention to the laws and practices, established by governments, that deny these migrants legal rights. Researchers estimate that more than 10 million illegalised migrants live in the USA alone.

In wealthy economies, temporary foreign workers and illegalised migrants constitute a segment below the existing labour market. In this segment, employers get away with paying below-standard wages, neglecting labour safety regulations and abusing workers. Workers risk deportation whenever they resist their unfair treatment. Therefore they are left with little choice but to endure these conditions.  

Many people believe that labour markets treat all workers fairly based on their merit, capacities, and preferences, and that labour markets operate best when governments do not interfere. Actual practice, however, is very different. Research shows that labour markets are in fact organised into hierarchical segments, which not only offer very different pay and working conditions but also apply different rules of engagement and labour practices. In the top segment are high-paying and secure jobs with substantial career development opportunities. Individual workers in this segment possess considerable clout in negotiating their terms of employment. At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the most vulnerable and exploitable workers, who receive little pay, few benefits, experience a high level of employment insecurity, and are the ones fired first when employers are struggling. In short, they are disposable. They serve to absorb the shocks of business fluctuations, thereby enabling privileged workers in upper segments of the labour market to enjoy greater job stability.

Segmented labour markets are not an academic construct, but the harsh reality that millions of workers confront every day. In my book Labor Movement, I showed how various mechanisms interact to devalue migrant labour, disproportionately allocating them to the bottom segment of the labour market. Blatant racial discrimination is obvious, however more subtle but equally effective ways of disadvantaging migrants exist on the basis of their foreign credentials and work experience, their foreign accents and behaviours that seem alien to employers and customers.

Since publishing this book almost a decade ago, I noticed that governments are  intensifying their efforts to create a vulnerable and exploitable labour force by denying migrants their rights and the prospect of citizenship. In particular, temporary foreign workers programmes and the illegalisation of migrants are these governments’ preferred mechanisms of devaluing migrant labour.

Europe, the United States, and other wealthy regions are closing their external borders to migrants and tightening their refugee laws and policies. Migrants who cross the border without the government’s authorisation, or who remain in the country although their refugee claims were rejected, are thereby being increasingly illegalised, putting them in extremely vulnerable positions. Canada, which is sheltered geographically from ‘unauthorised’ migration, relies more heavily on its temporary foreign workers programmes to create a docile and exploitable labour force at the bottom of the labour market. Many of these foreign workers integrate into their local communities, make friends, and see the future of their children in Canada. Some of them decide to stay beyond the expiration of their visa or permit. They too become illegalised.

The use of temporary foreign workers and illegalised migrant labour changes the geographical structure of global inequality but does it not alleviate it. Global corporations may exploit the vulnerable situation of workers in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Mexico to cheaply produce garments, electronics, and other consumer goods. When these workers migrate to North America, Europe, or the Persian Gulf to escape the poverty, exploitation, and inhuman conditions in their countries of origin, they are systematically exploited in these countries as foreign workers or illegalised migrants. In this way, restrictive migration policies and practices only reproduce an international segmentation of labour within the industrialised economies.

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