The Pitfalls of Using Immigration as a Labor Supply System for Employers

The Pitfalls of Using Immigration as a Labor Supply System for Employers

A political alliance is developing between countries with a labor export policy and the corporations who use that labor in the Global North. Many countries sending migrants to the developed world depend on remittances to finance social services and keep the lid on social discontent over poverty and joblessness while continuing to make huge debt payments. Corporations using that displaced labor share a growing interest with those countries’ governments in regulating the system that supplies it.

Increasingly, the mechanisms for regulating that flow of people are contract labor programs – called “guest worker” or “temporary worker” programs in the US, or “managed migration” in the UK and much of the EU. With or without these programs, migration to the US and other industrial countries is a fact of life. But does that mean that US immigration policy should be used to increase corporate profits by supplying labor to industry at a price it wants to pay?

Despite often using rhetoric that demonizes immigrants, the US Congress is not debating the means for ending migration. Short of a radical reordering of the world’s economy, there is nothing that can end it – nor are waves of immigration raids and deportations intended to halt it. In an economy in which immigrant labor plays a critical part, the price of stopping migration would be economic crisis. The intent of immigration policy is to manage the flow of people and to determine their status here in the US – in the interest of those who put their labor to work.

San Jose Campostela, Mindanao, Philippines - Alan Algoso is 9 years old, in the third grade. He  works cutting the dead leaves from banana trees in the fields of the Soyapa Farms banana plantation, which  sells  bananas to Dole.

San Jose Campostela, Mindanao, Philippines – Alan Algoso is 9 years old, in the third grade. He works cutting the dead leaves from banana trees in the fields of the Soyapa Farms banana plantation, which sells bananas to Dole. (Photo: David Bacon)

Migrants are human beings first, however, and their desire for community is as strong as their need for work. Or, as the old shop floor saying goes, “We work to live; we don’t live to work.” The use of neoliberal reforms and economic treaties to displace communities and to produce a global army of available and vulnerable workers has a brutal impact on people. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the existing and proposed free trade agreements between the US and Central America, Peru, Colombia, Panama, South Korea and Jordan not only fail to stop the economic transformations which uproot families and throw them into the migrant stream – they push that whole process forward.

On a global scale, the migratory flow caused by displacement is still generally self-initiated. In other words, while people may be driven by forces beyond their control, they move at their own will and discretion, trying to find a means of survival and economic opportunity and, then, to reunite their families and create new communities in the countries they now call home.

San Jose Campostela, Mindanao, Philippines - Girley Pilones, 11, and Judith Sanchez, 17, flatten out plastic pieces used to separate banana bunches in the packing shed of Soyapa Farms, which sells bananas to Dole. They work before and after school, and on weekends, for about 50 pesos ($1) a day.

San Jose Campostela, Mindanao, Philippines – Girley Pilones, 11, and Judith Sanchez, 17, flatten out plastic pieces used to separate banana bunches in the packing shed of Soyapa Farms, which sells bananas to Dole. They work before and after school, and on weekends, for about 50 pesos ($1) a day. (Photo: David Bacon)

The idea of managing the flow of migration is growing. During the negotiations at the Hong Kong summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2005, a proposal was introduced for the first time to begin regulating the movement of people along with the movement of capital and goods. As the WTO further regulated the modes in which services are provided in the world economy, it began to propose, through a system called Mode 4, regulating the movement of people themselves as the “providers of services.” The Mode 4 program was originally proposed for skilled workers and executives and included salespeople, corporate managers and specialists, foreign employees of corporate subsidiaries and independent contractors like doctors and architects. Labor-exporting countries, however, have advocated expanding the range of jobs to include construction workers, domestic workers and other, less-skilled laborers.

As in all guest worker programs, the visas of workers whose movement would be regulated under Mode 4 would require them to remain employed, and they would be deported if they lost their jobs. Contractors would be allowed to recruit workers in one country and sell their labor in another. The visas of these workers would all be temporary, and they would not be able to become permanent residents. Countries contracting for these guest workers could regulate the number admitted and establish conditions under which they could be employed. The WTO opposes the regulation of any standards of employment and says they should be regulated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) instead. Over many decades, however, the ILO has been unable to establish any mandatory standards or wages – or any enforcement mechanism to punish any countries or corporations which violate its voluntary standards.

Strikers from the Diamond Farms banana plantation line the  road outside the farm, after having  been expelled by Dole Co. guards, despite the fact that, as a result of land  reform, the strikers supposedly own the plantation.

Strikers from the Diamond Farms banana plantation line the road outside the farm, after having been expelled by Dole Co. guards, despite the fact that, as a result of land reform, the strikers supposedly own the plantation. (Photo: David Bacon)

The economic reforms that displace communities, such as privatization and the end of subsidies, are all mandated by the WTO and international trade agreements. Displacement, therefore, will continue under this scheme, while protection for workers and migrants will be voluntary and ineffective. Essentially, this dynamic will produce migrant labor on a huge scale and give corporations and compliant governments the freedom to exploit it without regulation or limits.

A number of US human rights and immigrant rights organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, Filipino Civil Rights Advocates, the Teamsters Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Public Services International and 55 others, issued a statement during the WTO negotiations opposing Mode 4. They criticized the impact of the export of skilled workers on developing countries and predicted that the scheme would violate the rights of migrants themselves.

Carmen, Mindanao, Philippines - Felix Bacalso is a striker at the Diamond Farms banana  plantation. Strikers were expelled by Dole Co. guards, despite the fact that, as a result of land reform, the  strikers supposedly own  the plantation. Bacalso has ten children, some of whom live with other families since  he  can't support them on what Dole pays for bananas.

Carmen, Mindanao, Philippines – Felix Bacalso is a striker at the Diamond Farms banana plantation. Strikers were expelled by Dole Co. guards, despite the fact that, as a result of land reform, the strikers supposedly own the plantation. Bacalso has ten children, some of whom live with other families since he can’t support them on what Dole pays for bananas. (Photo: David Bacon)

Migrant Rights International (MRI) also criticized the Mode 4 proposal. Genevieve Gencianos of MRI said global immigration policy should be based on protecting the rights of migrants, rather than on regulating their movement in the interest of employers.

“Trade and investment liberalization,” said Gencianos, “have eroded basic human rights. These include the right to quality public services [such as health and education], jobs at home, sustainable agriculture, indigenous knowledge, self-determination and human security for all. Gencianos said the losses of these rights are “violations” that “have directly and indirectly driven people out of their home countries to become migrant workers abroad.”

The stream of migrant labor is not all unskilled. Rajiv Dabhadkar, a former guest worker, engineer and founder of the National Organization for Software and Technology Professionals (NOSTOP), describes “a significant new group of nations where the average citizen is poor, but the nation as a whole is technologically advanced and economically powerful, like China, India, Brazil, Russia and Thailand. Technical education in these countries is both cheap and advanced, thanks to the Internet and the easy movement of ethnic technocrats between the developed world and their countries of origin.”

Carmen, Mindanao, Philippines - Eleuteria Chacon speaks at a meeting of farm workers on strike against Dole Farming Co. because the company pays a price so low workers' income has fallen drastically. The workers' cooperatives struck to force Dole to raise the price. Chacon is a strike leader.

Carmen, Mindanao, Philippines – Eleuteria Chacon speaks at a meeting of farm workers on strike against Dole Farming Co. because the company pays a price so low workers’ income has fallen drastically. The workers’ cooperatives struck to force Dole to raise the price. Chacon is a strike leader. (Photo: David Bacon)

While sub-Saharan Africa needs 620,000 nurses to cope with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, said Dabhadkar, 23,000 health professionals leave the region every year for jobs in developed countries. Contract labor programs, especially those employing women, have mushroomed in East Asia, and now include 242,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, 674,000 factory, construction and domestic workers in South Korea, and 120,000 care givers in Taiwan. “The migrant worker has been dehumanized and commodified,” Gencianos said. “The WTO is effectively stripping the worker of his or her basic human rights.” Because the impact is greatest on women, she predicted “irreversible negative social impacts to families left back home.”

Protecting migrants’ rights

While the current regime of migrant labor is a convenient arrangement for wealthy nations, it has severe disadvantages for poorer ones. The cost of maintaining and reproducing this international migrant labor force falls on countries least able to afford it. The remittances of migrant workers become the main source of income for the communities they come from. Large corporations and industries in wealthy countries get the benefit of this labor force, while workers themselves pay the cost of maintaining it.

Developing countries do, however, have an alternative framework for protecting the rights and status of this migrant population. Both Gencianos and the statement issued by the coalition of rights advocates urged that instead of regulating migration through the WTO, countries ratify and implement the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. “Rather than reduce migrants to a factor of production, or a commodity to be exported and imported, migration policy must acknowledge migrants as human beings and address their dignity and human rights,” the statement concluded.

The UN convention was adopted in 1990. It extends basic human rights to all migrant workers and their families, documented or undocumented. It supports family reunification, establishes the principle of equality of treatment with citizens of the host country in relation to employment and education, protects migrants against collective deportation and makes both sending and receiving countries responsible for protecting these rights. All countries retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territories and under what conditions people gain the right to work. The convention does not answer all questions posed by migration in a world economic system, but it takes two basic steps that still paralyze the US debate: it recognizes the new global scale of migration and its permanence, and it starts by protecting the rights of human beings, especially those with the least power – migrants themselves.

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In the US immigration debate, proponents of restrictions usually argue that constraints are only directed at undocumented immigrants. But maintaining this distinction between legal and illegal status has become a code for preserving inequality, a tiered system dividing people into those with rights and those without. Guest worker schemes set up similar tiers – in effect, another form of illegality or rightlessness. Once established, growing inequality eventually affects all immigrants, including legal or permanent residents. The 1996 debate over the Clinton immigration reform began by proposing increased enforcement against the undocumented, but it ended by denying even legal immigrants Social Security and other benefits and rights they’d previously enjoyed. The effects of inequality spread beyond immigrants to citizens as well, especially in a society which has historically defined unequal status by skin color and sex.

With 12 million undocumented people living in the US, gaining legal status is obviously a central problem for immigrant communities. At the heart of many proposals by US immigrant groups is relaxing restrictions on granting permanent residence visas. This step would allow migrants to live and participate in community life in the US and move to and from their countries of origin. The Coalition of Guatemalan Immigrants in the United States criticized Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform proposal, for instance, because it failed to include “a process through which immigrants can obtain permanent residence, and eventual citizenship.”

Political rights

Citizenship is a complex issue in a world where transnational migrant communities span borders and exist in more than one place simultaneously. Residents of transnational communities don’t see themselves simply as victims of an unfair system, but as actors capable of reproducing culture, of providing economic support to families in their towns of origin and of seeking social justice in the country to which they’ve migrated. A sensible immigration policy would recognize and value the communities of migrants and see their support as desirable. It would reinforce indigenous cultures and languages, rather than treating them as a threat. At the same time, it would seek to integrate immigrants into the broader community and give them a voice in it, rather than promoting social exclusion, isolation and segregation. It would protect the rights of immigrants as part of protecting the rights of all working people.

Transnational communities in Mexico are creating new ways of looking at citizenship and residence that correspond more closely to the reality of migration. In 2005, Jesus Martinez, a professor at California State University in Fresno, was elected by residents of the state of Michoacan in Mexico to their state legislature. His mandate was to represent the interests of the state’s citizens living in the US. “In Michoacan, we’re trying to carry out reforms that can do justice to the role migrants play in our lives,” Martinez said. In 2006, Pepe Jacques Medina, director of the Comite Pro Uno in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, was elected to the Federal Chamber of Deputies on the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) ticket with the same charge. Transnational migrants insist that they have important political and social rights, both in their communities of origin and in their communities abroad.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) control the Mexican national congress, and while it voted over a decade ago to enfranchise Mexicans in the US, it only set up a system to implement that decision in April 2005. The system imposed so many obstacles that, in the 2006 presidential elections, only 40,000 people were able to vote out of a potential electorate of millions.

“It was limited,” conceded Rufino Dominguez, the former binational coordinator for the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB), “but it was the fruit of many years of fighting by organizations here in the US. It’s not all we wanted, but it’s a beginning. And most important, now that they’ve passed the law and started to create a process, there’s no going back.”

US electoral politics can’t remain forever immune from these expectations of representation, and they shouldn’t. After all, the slogan of the Boston Tea Party was, “No taxation without representation.” People who make economic contributions have political rights. That principle requires recognition of the legitimate social status of everyone living in the United States. Legalization isn’t just important to migrants – it is a basic step in the preservation and extension of democratic rights for all people. With and without visas, 34 million migrants living in the US cannot vote to choose the political representatives who decide basic questions about wages and conditions at work, the education of their children, their healthcare or lack of it and even whether they can walk the streets without fear of arrest and deportation.

Their disenfranchisement affects US citizens, especially working people. If all the farm workers and their families in California’s San Joaquin Valley were able to vote, a wave of living wage ordinances would undoubtedly sweep the state. California’s legislature would pass a single-payer health plan to ensure that every resident receives free and adequate healthcare. If it failed to pass, San Joaquin Valley legislators, currently among the most conservative, would be swept from office.

By excluding from the electorate those who most need social change and economic justice, the range of possible reform is restricted, not only on issues of immigration, but on most economic issues that affect working people. Immigration policy and political and social rights for immigrants are integral parts of a broad agenda for change that includes better wages and housing, a national healthcare system, a national jobs program and the right to organize without fear of being fired. Without expanding the electorate, it will be politically difficult to achieve any of these reforms. By the same token, it’s not possible to win major changes in immigration policy apart from a struggle for these other goals. To end job competition, workers need the four million jobs promised by the Obama administration. To gain organizing rights for immigrants, all workers need Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. But jobs programs that exclude immigrants, especially those that exclude undocumented immigrants, not only reinforce inequality, but undermine the very purpose of putting people to work and using their buying power to revitalize the economy. And if laws that make it illegal for undocumented immigrants to hold a job or prevent employers from hiring them aren’t eliminated, the reforms of the Employee Free Choice Act will not apply to 12 million immigrant workers with a long record of trying to organize to improve their wages and conditions.

Anti-immigrant hysteria has always preached that the interests of immigrants and the native-born are in conflict, that one group can only gain at the expense of the other. In fact, the opposite is true. To raise wages generally, the low price of immigrant labor has to rise, which means that immigrant workers have to be able to organize effectively. Given half a chance, they will fight for better jobs, wages, schools and healthcare, just like anyone else. When immigrants gain political power, the working class communities around them benefit, too. Since it’s easier for immigrants to organize if they have permanent legal status, a real legalization program would benefit a broad range of working people far beyond immigrants themselves. On the other hand, when the government and employers use employer sanctions, enforcement and raids to stop the push for better conditions – making organizing much more difficult – unions, and workers in general, suffer the consequences.

That vulnerability is only increased by the social exclusion and second-class status imposed by guest worker programs. De-linking immigration status and employment is a necessary step to achieving equal rights for migrant workers, who will never have significant power if they have to leave the country when they lose their jobs. Healthy immigrant communities need employed workers, but they also need students, old and young people, caregivers, artists, the disabled and those who don’t have traditional jobs.

Security and solidarity

The global economy has turned insecurity into a virtue, praising it as necessary to increased flexibility and competitiveness. But working communities need a system that produces security, not insecurity. In evaluating proposals for immigration reform, human rights activists should use security, equality, organization and community as their watchwords. Proposals to deny people rights or benefits because of immigration status move away from equality. Yet most people living in the US believe in equal rights and status, even if there is often a gap between rhetoric and the concrete measures and laws necessary to achieve them.

Ultimately, most migration in today’s global economy is forced migration, a result of dislocation. Yet, even in a more just world, migration will continue. Today the huge global movement of people has connected families and communities over thousands of miles and many borders, creating links between people that will inevitably grow. Immigration policy should make that movement possible, instead of seeing everywhere the threat of terrorism. Freedom of movement is a human right, but selling workers to employers should not be the price for gaining it.

The Salvadoran American National Network points out that any long-term solution has to include “development and implementation of new economic and social policies in our home countries … thereby reducing migration flows to the United States.” Changing corporate trade policy and stopping neoliberal reforms is as central to immigration reform as gaining legal status for undocumented immigrants. Minor modifications to trade agreements like NAFTA and the United States-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will not alter their basic effect. Instead, working people need a common front to scrap those agreements and to change the economic and political priorities they enforce.

Doing no harm is not enough, however. The US, Europe and Japan are wealthy societies with the capacity and responsibility for repairing globalization’s social damage. A fund to provide rural credit (without strings to big corporations) could allow Mixtec farmers to raise their productivity and stay on the land. It’s not so far-fetched. The fair trade movement in wealthy countries already helps many rural producers form cooperatives to gain access to the markets of developed countries at a fair price.

Beyond equality is solidarity. US workers have been forced into a global labor market. They have a direct interest in helping workers in other countries to organize and raise living standards, and in stopping US military intervention in support of the free-trade system. Today, working people of all countries are asked to accept continuing globalization in which capital is free to go wherever it wants. By that token, migrants must have rights and status equal to those of anyone else. People in Mexico, Guatemala, China, the US and every other country need the same things: secure jobs at a living wage; rights in their workplaces and communities; the freedom to travel and seek a future for their families. The borders between countries should be common ground where they can come together, not lines to pull them apart.