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If migrant workers are essential, why aren’t their rights too?

Recognising migrants only for the benefits they bring to Western economies is dehumanising.

Themrise Khan
7 July 2020, 11.43am
NHS staff outside King's College Hospital in Camberwell. One in seven healthcare workers in the UK are non-British.
PA Images

The pandemic has demonstrated, once again, that temporary migrant workers are indispensable. Across Europe and Canada, farmers have warned that food supply will be affected if borders are closed to migrant agricultural workers. And both the US and UK have woken up to the fact that a large part of their healthcare workforce are migrants

As a result, the term “essential workers” has suddenly become synonymous with those who are “foreign-born”, or of “migrant” origin, i.e. non-white and non-citizens. However, this sudden realisation that immigrants are essential to the survival of the West, and are now “heroes” (and heroines), has been nothing short of insulting, particularly to the migrant workers themselves. Those calling for a “renewed debate” on migration in light of COVID-19 overlook the migrants themselves, by touting only the benefits they provide to Northern economies.

This is also apparent in the temporary changes made to labour migration regimes in the North to account for the fallout of COVID-19. Measures put in place to provide labour migrants with greater access to rights and services for the course of the pandemic in Portugal and Italy for instance, are intended only to feed a current desperate need for labour shortage during the pandemic. And not necessarily for the sake of human rights, particularly given Europe’s consistent hardline anti-immigrant stance. The real test of the North’s commitment to migrant rights will come after the pandemic, not during.

This reveals two things; firstly, that essential public systems in the Global North have almost no domestic human capital to sustain them, leading to dependency on others. Secondly, that the perceived importance of migrant workers, including their rights and livelihoods, is important because the North needs them. Not necessarily to make Northern countries more equitable to migrants. 

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If this were so, then why has the discussion never been on developing internal human resources in the North? Why for instance, does Canada not produce enough doctors and nurses? Or why cannot Italy or the UK harvest its own agriculture? Somehow, this irony goes unnoticed.

Us vs Them divide

There is also a disconnect between the North and labour migration discussion globally. A fifth of global labour migrants work in Asia-Pacific countries, and the Arab States have the highest proportion of migrant workers to all workers, most of them from Southeast and South Asia. Many of these countries have poor human rights records. Yet, in this discussion on essential workers, they are largely ignored by Western policymakers and intellectuals, as they are not “essential” to Europe and North America specifically.

The discourse around labour migration in the Global North has also often been prey to another colonial concept – that of the “white savior” complex. Some have defended labour migration on the basis that it improves the livelihoods of those in the Global South, without which they would fall into even lower levels of poverty. Remittances sent home by migrants form the bulk of this argument. 

Although migrant labour does migrate because of economic need, this argument has been largely pushed by multilaterals. It overlooks that migrant remittances in many developing countries are usually offset by high (and often illegal) costs that the migrants themselves have to bear. And that remittances are private funds, not state revenue, so their economic utility is debatable. 

Migrants will always be the “them” unless they themselves are made part of the conversation.

This is further exacerbated by the “us” and “them” divide where migration researchers in the Global North insist that it is not about “them”, but about all of “us”. But that too is a view projected primarily by the Global North. Migrants will always be the “them” unless they themselves are made part of the conversation. Not as glorified success stories or sound bites that have become the hallmark of Northern research, but as those supported with the voice of their origin countries. 

It is the sending countries that must demand equality and fairness for their migrant workers overseas – on their terms, however problematic this may be, particularly in sending countries with weak and corrupt governance.

But as a Global South migrant myself, I feel it is imperative that migration narratives in the North be challenged by us in the South. We need to be in charge of how we see ourselves, both in the Global North, as well as in our origin countries. And there are many of us who want to do this, but have no space to do so because the discourse is so indelibly dominated by Northern receiving states. 

The representation of migrants has become a political battleground for governments and civil society in the North. In the process, we have eventually ceased to become real people. 

Granted, the meagre discussion on labour rights in migrant-sending countries is negligible, which allows labour to be exploited globally. But instead of focussing on how Northern economies can develop themselves through overseas labour, the discussion should be on how migrant labour should be managed and governed in both sending and receiving states.

And labour migration isn’t the only area where migrants don’t have much of a say. There are also discussions emerging surrounding the importance of international students to the post-COVID recovery of Northern economies like Canada. This is an equally reductionist perspective which looks at migration as a solution to the Global North’s workforce deficiencies, disguised as global competitiveness. 

The Global North is currently doing a disservice to the cause of labour migration by attempting to harness its “strengths” for the benefit of its own economies, while portraying that it is also for the benefit of migrants. If this were so, labour migrants in any sector, anywhere in the world would not have been subjected to unjust and racially exploitative labour systems. 

Our indispensability should not be at the mercy of our hosts.

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