Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New Global Economy

in the New Global Economy
London: Zed Books
A Review by Susan Froetschel

It’s not uncommon for citizens in the world’s wealthiest nations to work alongside illegal immigrants at restaurants and construction sites, hospitals and universities. While teaching a literary journalism class at a public university several years ago, I asked students to raise their hands if they knew an undocumented worker. To my surprise, most hands shot up, and the tales about perseverance and dashed dreams of dishwashers, landscapers and cleaning women poured out.

Governments of the wealthiest nations have created multiple troubling dilemmas for their countries, their workers, the migrants and democracy itself. My students immediately grasped the dilemmas, also understanding there are no easy fixes. Employers can blatantly abuse illegal workers, desperate even for paltry wages and unpleasant tasks. The legal citizen is torn - do I report the ruthless employer, ending a livelihood for some and yet perhaps temporarily ending the cycle, or do I remain complicit in an insidious phenomenon that rips social cohesion? Rest assured, there’s no easy answer, and so most of us remain silent.

Citizens in wealthy nations are divided between those who want to close the gates on immigration and those who welcome the newcomers, argues Toby Shelley in “Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New Global Economy.” Shelley, journalist with the Financial Times, provides superb reporting and horrific anecdotes to describe the unfolding tragedy. The ambitious poor in this unequal world are willing to risk their lives to improve their lot. Haphazard enforcement that includes fines or jail time, employer abuses and public resentment do little to dissuade jobseekers. Most voluntarily set out on long journeys, counting on jobs nonexistent in their homelands and anticipating tedious, revolting or dangerous work. A teacher from Peru cleans toilets; a doctor from Poland does heavy lifting in a warehouse, both examples of drastic underemployment that delays progress in their homelands.

All the while, such immigrants hope that their sacrifice is temporary, that luck is on their side in avoiding theft, bullying, rape or death. Terse and angry, Shelley reveals how time and time again, people jump through hoops of horror to live in lands that offer opportunity. Jobs mean survival in the modern world.

Yet the typical reader who picks up this book doesn’t need convincing about the exploitation, and the book will disappoint those who long for a specific plan of action. For now, ordinary citizens can only witness the rising inequality and degrading values that accompany a two-tier class society, one group with “rights” and the other without.

Governments continue to rely on walls and fences, factory raids and accusations of criminality, to delude troubled citizens into thinking immigration can be controlled. In a world with national borders, governments easily claim that the newcomers from other countries have “no rights,” so the migrants become a convenient foe in the politics of enforcement. According to Shelley, the resentment exacerbates exploitation, including confiscation of passport, denial of food or breaks, sexual harassment or threats. Employers, large and small, take advantage of undocumented workers willing to toil for low wages, yet the wealthy respond as though their communities are under attack by those fleeing poverty in their homelands.

That attitude - wealthy nation as victim - suggests that the labor is not forced, that the workers don’t mind a lack of standing in communities, reinforcing an illusion of fairness in what is essentially a class system. “Trade liberalization… has created a bigger pool of people desperate to improve their circumstances through migration, while simultaneously the pressures of competing with lower-cost rivals abroad may have made employers in some sectors more likely to take on cheaper, undocumented labour,” notes Shelley.

As consumers press for low prices, employers in the agriculture, construction, cleaning, child-care, food-processing and restaurant industries staunchly support immigrant labor, Shelley notes. The employers claim to value the migrants’ worth ethic, otherwise known as a willingness to accept low pay and horrendous conditions. Writes Shelley, “The ‘hunger’ for work, the ‘reliability’ and ‘flexibility’ of migrant labour are employers’ terms for long hours, lack of overtime pay, unpaid duties, zero hour contracts… and disposability of migrant labour.”

A government enforcement policy that focuses more on immigration status than workplace rights sets the stage for abuse of all workers, and Shelley concludes that “the government has chosen to promote a narrative in which migration is associated with law and order rather than rights.”

A strong point in Shelley’s book is its exposure of the blatant unfairness of point-based systems that create classes of workers with different sets of rights, institutionalizing inequality and encouraging criminality. “Experience shows that the more managed, restricted and hedged about with regulatory barbed wire a migrant labour is, the less control authorities have over it,” Shelley notes. Even the most egalitarian societies cannot escape class distinctions that naturally emerge from education, occupation, innovation or good luck. Yet policies that offer equal opportunity can inspire an entire community to set lofty goals, while those that establish a hierarchy instill manipulation, hopelessness and intolerance.

Shelley argues for decriminalization of immigration, focusing less on raids and more on workplace rights, and notes that open borders - eliminating the undocumented status - could do more than closed borders in reducing the extreme wage inequality between borders.

The book is too brief to provide specific policy guidance or address legitimate concerns of towns that fear an onslaught of poor jobseekers, adding to crowded homes and schools, homelessness or hunger. Another challenge in setting policy, as pointed out by Shelley, is that the cost of raising young workers is higher in wealthy nations than in developing countries, 10 times as much for skilled health workers. Developed countries that hire workers away from poor nations could pay the training costs, he suggests, but governments on either side of the divide cannot afford to stop there. Countries must negotiate global labor mobility; parents and schools everywhere must connect their children’s education with roles in a global economy, encouraging motivation and efficiency at a young age.

Most worrisome is how “keep-illegals-in-their-place,” “they-do-the-dirty-work,” “I’m-helping-this-nanny-by-paying-her-half-the-minimum-wage” attitudes weaken our moral compass. Communities can no longer throw up their hands, accepting tired excuses that industries depend on cheap immigrant labor and human rights have less priority, because the entrenched inequality - hardly temporary - brutalizes the controllers and controlled alike, as observed 125 years ago by US writer and one-time slave Frederick Douglass: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

Shelley and the rest of us must turn controlled anger to presenting the tough solutions: To end illegal immigration, consumers must accept higher costs and do without some luxuries. At the very least, citizens of the wealthiest nations have an obligation to examine numerous military, environmental, education, population and economic-growth policies - all of which set the conditions for inequality and displacement, creating a bleak world for so many.

Unprecedented flows of migrant workers, a result of economic liberalization, characterize the start of the 21st century.
© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization