Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Week 4: Migrant labour and the global economy

Migrant workers aren't inherently vulnerable – our immigration systems make them that way

Sam Okyere
1 June 2018, 12.01am
Adriano Giulio Giovanelli. All rights reserved

The popular divide between ‘exceptional’ and ‘everyday’ has far-reaching ramification when it comes to the exploitation of migrant workers in the global economy. Migrant workers play indispensable economic roles in all kinds of different economic sectors, especially in relation to construction and care, yet their precarious pay and conditions rarely generate much in the way of outrage or investment unless their experiences are determined to rise to the exceptional threshold of ‘slavery’. As we have seen in previous weeks, the abuse of migrant workers is not simply a question of individual actions, unscrupulous gangs, and private recruiters or intermediaries. It is instead a direct and intended outcome of laws and policies which leave migrant workers with few protections and few if any channels for raising grievances.

This is not simply a question of migrant workers who are undocumented or in violation of immigration laws being exploited in the informal economy. Millions of workers across the globe migrate legally, but do so based on visas, sponsorships and contracts which leave them with much fewer rights and returns than local workers, which make it very difficult for them to change employers, and which given their employers tremendous amounts of discretionary power over their working and living arrangements. Behind these systems of control is the further and final threat of deportation, which is frequently exercised to remove ‘troublesome’ workers.

These abuses are not specific to a small number of individual employers. They are instead features of entire systems. Everyday experiences include wage theft, forced confinement, lack of holidays or time off work, and verbal, physical and psychological abuse. All but the most extreme cases are treated as legitimate as long as applicable laws have not been seriously violated (and even then there is likely to be a reluctance amongst officials to take action). The law rarely provides much protection for migrant workers, but instead plays a central role in creating vulnerability. This is at least in part because slavery, exceptionalism and ‘illegality’ are set as the threshold against which exploitation gets measured. Severe restrictions on migrants and migrant worker rights can therefore be passed off as ‘legal’, unremarkable or desirable from a modern slavery perspective.

The classroom

Part 1. Introducing week four

Length: 1:14

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Hello everyone welcome back to week four of our course on forced and precarious labour. This week I am joined by my colleague Sam Okyere from the University of Nottingham who is going to be taking you through the second of our three case studies. This time we’re going to be looking specifically at forms of exploitation associated with migration and migrant workers.

Hi Joel, hi everybody. This week we are going to explore how historic efforts to control the movement of people and workers coupled with anti-immigration sentiments in more recent years have culminated in a range of policies and measures that render many migrants across the world susceptible to exploitation.

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Part 2. Migrant workers and the global demand for precarious labor

Length: 12:28

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Welcome to this week's session which is on migrant labour. We hope you enjoyed last week's topic on the global supply chains. The two are of course related. One of the features of globalisation, which is very simply defined as the increase in interrelatedness and integration of the world, is an increase in the movement of people internally but also across borders. This international or cross-border migration is often for work and other economic reasons.

In this session we're going to examine how migrant workers are structurally positioned for potential and actual exploitation through immigration policies and other mobility governance systems internally and internationally.

So first of all, who is a migrant worker? Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which was adopted in 1990, defines a migrant worker as a person who is to be engaged, disengaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national. Note that the convention focuses on international migration. As some of you may be aware, a lot of migration also occurs internally, and the condition of internal migrants engaged in forced labour are not too dissimilar to those of international labour migrants. But for this afternoon's session we are going to focus on international labour migration.

Over 150 million people today are classified as migrant workers. Of this number, 83 million are men and 66 million are women. Two regions of the world, North America and Europe, benefit the most from migrant workers. Indeed, almost half of the approximately 150 million migrant workers in the world are based in these two places according to an ILO report in 2015. However, the highest proportion of migrant workers are located in the Arab states, notably within the Gulf Cooperation Council.

For many migrant workers, access to decent jobs and good conditions of employment in the destination country provides socio-economic security or a means of safeguarding their livelihoods and their families. It is also an opportunity to experience the world, to integrate into new communities, learn new skills, and access diverse opportunities.

Migrant labour also plays numerous important socio-economic and other functions in the countries of origin and destination. Migrant workers are crucial to many economic sectors in receiving countries or in receiving areas, including agriculture, technology, domestic work, construction catering, and hospitality, healthcare, and education. Many sectors in many parts of the world have come to rely strongly on migrant labour. Indeed, in countries with aging populations or labour and skills shortages, migrant workers – who tend to be relatively young and motivated – are the workforce meeting these shortages. Their remittances to their home or origin countries boost national economies, just as the positive skills values and knowledge they pick up abroad could also be brought to bear on the development and betterment of their own countries or local communities.

So migrant workers, we can all agree, provide very strong benefits to the global economy and to their home as well as to destination countries. Paradoxically, migrant labourers, whether they are internal or international, are not particularly valued or protected in the beneficiary communities. Historically various societies have had fears about outsiders, and a variety of measures have been employed to control their mobility and their labour. If we look at England as an example, the Poor Laws of 1601, the Law of Settlement in 1662, and the 1824 Vagrancy Act were all deployed to depict outsiders, the homeless, the poor, and other categories of people as threats to society who needed to be controlled or, even worse, punished. These same measures are still applied in diverse parts of the world to both internal and international migrant workers.

This historical anxiety is also presented today in government policy and public concerns about immigration, and rise in anti-immigrant sentiments in different parts of the world. Policy as well as public and popular discourses in different parts of the world today are laced with fears about immigrants who are supposedly stealing jobs from locals, who are supposedly undeservedly benefiting from state welfare payments, and who are undeservedly taking advantage of other opportunities. As a result, just as the poor laws and vagrancy laws were used to control transient workers, we have laws in different parts of the world to stop people from moving internally. Governments and state parties have also established diverse policies and governance systems to control the mobility and labour of migrants internationally.

These regimes together work to generate a large supply of cheap and vulnerable labour – people whose freedoms and right as workers are usually more restricted than other national workers. A common example of these measures is sponsorship or tied-visa systems. The ability to move from one employer to another is generally considered to be a basic feature of free-wage labour, yet these systems effectively ensure that this fundamental freedom is denied to many migrant workers. This isn’t always explicit. In the USA, for example, the H-1B temporary visa does not technically deny migrant workers the right to change employers. If a worker did so, however, they would have to restart their applications for a green card or a secure stay. This high cost ensures that workers only rarely leave their employers, even if they are being exploited or paid or treated worse than their colleagues.

The situation of migrant domestic workers deserves special mention in this discussion. It's an area of migrant labour where exploitation and abuse is most prevalent as an outcome of the sponsorship visa systems. Ample evidence from the UK, in Lebanon, in Qatar and elsewhere shows that domestic workers, who are typically women, routinely experience non-payment of wages, forced confinement, lack of holidays or time off, and verbal physical and psychological abuse. But because they often live in the same household as their employers, they are frequently afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.

By far the biggest obstacle for migrant domestic workers and different categories of migrant labourers is that they are unable to make use of the protections that exist within immigration and labour regulations. With tied visas there's always a risk of retaliation when the migrant labourer complains of exploitation or abuse, and doing so could open them up to deportation or immigration proceedings. There's also the risk that their stay in the country becomes illegal, which would jeopardise their presence in the country where they work, their ability to cater for themselves, and their ability to send remittances to their families. All of this is premised on staying with that same employer, or where possible on finding another employer. That’s not easy to do, and so many end up in exploitative and abusive working conditions from which they cannot easily withdraw.

Immigration governance systems in general position undocumented migrants for conditions of labour exploitation and forced labour. Without the right documentation, these workers often operate in the informal or hidden economies where there maybe abuses of various sorts. Undocumented migrants are even less likely to report abuses for fear of being treated as criminals or as people who have broken immigration laws instead of as people who have been exploited.

States create and enforce, or indeed do not enforce, the laws, structures and conditions under which workers of all sorts live and labour. Fears of outsiders internally and internationally, and an interest in creating a cheap and disposal pool of labour, have created a situation in which many countries today prioritise immigration controls over migrant workers’ rights.

Next week Joel Quirk is going to explore some of the responses or solutions to these issues. I hope you've enjoyed the talk and I wish you all the best for the rest of the course.

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Deepen your learning by completing an exercise which asks you to evaluate potential solutions to forced and precarious labour.

Essential readings

Further information

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The course was originally released on the platform in 2018, where it has now been archived. As of 2021 it is available on openDemocracy.

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