Two views on migrant workers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 2 07:20:44 MDT 2003

 From LRB review of Hardt-Negri's "Empire" by Malcolm Bull:

Despite the fundamental role of migration in history, it barely features
within traditional political theory, where the basic element is almost
invariably a bounded social unit and the political actors within it  in
modern times, the nation-state and the citizen. But in the past decade,
migrants have become a potent symbol of the social dislocation created
by globalisation, and have been invested with some of the Left's more
romantic aspirations. There is probably an element of self-delusion in
this. Migrants are heroes of the Left only in the host country, not in
the nations from which they come; and if you call them settlers instead,
they immediately appear in a rather different light. Nevertheless,
migration remains significant for it is not only a striking
manifestation of the human aspiration for change, but a proven means of
effecting it. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is a rich source of
migratory imagery, from the Exodus onward, but the locus classicus is
probably Augustine's vision of the people of God as guest-workers in
Babylon and pilgrims to the New Jerusalem. Small wonder, therefore, that
the City of God seems to have become the Left's new paradigm of social
change. In Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire, Augustine provides
the model for a counter-empire in which the divine city is a universal
city of aliens, coming together, co-operating, communicating. And even
Slavoj Zizek, who complains that in today's critical and political
discourse, the term worker' has disappeared, supplanted and/or
obliterated by immigrants ends The Fragile Absolute with the vision of
the community of believers qua uncoupled' outcasts from the social order
clinging to the brief apparition of a future utopian Otherness.


Far from home, they toil to buy a fridge for Mama
New Statesman, June 9, 2003

by Jeremy Seabrook

Every year, about 200 million people move in search of employment -
about 3 per cent of the world's people. The majority are internal
migrants, many of whom return home. In China alone, it is estimated that
more than 100 million people have left the countryside to work in the
cities. Of the approximately 175 million people who live outside their
country of birth, about 120 million are migrants.

Legal migrants, who leave their homes in poor countries to provide
labour in other parts of the world, are generally regarded as
privileged. The money they earn supports whole families, even villages.
So great is the prize that people will pay agents and middlemen their
life savings to reach countries where their labour may be adequately
rewarded. Families sell land, take other children out of school and sell
wedding jewellery to ensure the passage to prosperity of one favoured

Maidservants from the Philippines and Indonesia in Hong Kong, Singapore
and Malaysia; construction workers and labourers from Bangladesh, India
and Indonesia in Taiwan and the Gulf; plantation workers in Malaysia;
restaurant staff all over the world; Thais and Filipinas who have gone
as sex-workers, escorts and lap-dancers to Japan, Europe and the US;
nurses from the Caribbean, West Africa and the Philippines in first
world countries; young men from villages all over southern Asia absorbed
by the have-a-nice-day culture of the fast-food industry.

These are just a few of the displaced in the global economy, which
scoops up labour as easily as potatoes or apples, and whisks it round
the world at the convenience of capital. In some parts of the world -
Gambia, for instance - migrants make up one-third of the population.
Remittances from the 25 per cent of the migrant population of Cote
d'Ivoire make up one-quarter of the GDP of Burkina Faso. These are only
the most conspicuous of the globally transplanted. In some countries,
whole villages are semi-deserted, or "communities of widows"; in others,
Korat in northern Thailand, or Fujian Province in China, only the
elderly and the very young remain.

Official figures suggest that Bangladesh depends upon migrants for $2bn
a year, the Philippines $3bn, Sri Lanka $1bn, Indonesia $1bn, Egypt
$3.7bn, and India more than $11bn. These sums are a significant
underestimate. The Central Bank of the Philippines registers more than
twice the amount of World Bank estimates.

Remittances constitute 24 per cent of the export of goods and services
from Egypt, 18 per cent from India, and 14 per cent from the
Philippines. Migrants from Latin America to the US send home $18bn a
year; remittances make up 14 per cent of the GDP of El Salvador. In
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Jamaica, Jordan, Nicaragua,
Yemen and Samoa, remittances account for more than 10 per cent of GDP.

Money sent home from the low-paid maidservants, sweepers and waiters
maintains the family and allows modest improvements to the home or
living conditions - a tin-set house and a tiled roof, a suite of chairs,
a TV, a debt to moneylenders paid off, the money for a dowry, an
education, even to buy a little more land.

But those who are well paid and now live in rich countries invest the
money m conspicuous consumption. The airports of Trivandrum, Manila and
Dhaka are always full of waiting relatives peering through the lines of
fridges, microwaves and TV sets in search of their loved ones now
wearing unfamiliar clothing befitting successful returnees. Many invest
in ostentatious homes, marble, stone and ceramic villas with swimming
pools and ornamental railings, mansions wafted as if by magic from the
Bishop's Avenue or South Carolina like extraterrestrial craft set down
in the countryside of Sylhet, Kerala and Sumatra, with chiming
doorbells, winking lights, artificial trees and security personnel in a
sentry box at the compound gate.

This distorts the local society: the successful serve as emissaries of
the better life, disturbing the usual patterns of livelihood,
demonstrating the priority of luxury over the necessities of life.

Much of the money goes on imported goods: the china toilet bowl and
electrical appliances that sometimes arrive before the electricity to
run them. This does not create permanent work, and the money is not used
for social improvement: it stands as a monument to the social standing
of individuals, the Londonis and others back from the lands of plenty,
with their superior manners, their familiarity with the world, their

There is good reason for their showiness. For all migrant workers have
paid a high price for having been summoned by wealth to cross the globe.
Any boastfulness is but a small recovery of the losses they have incurred.

The status of the migrant in the places where they laboured was low:
they were despised. Working as they did, in jobs that local people
consider inferior, they have been exploited and overworked, not
infrequently beaten and abused, sexually used and semi-enslaved. They
have lived in barracks and dormitories on sites in Jeddah and Kuala
Lumpur; in attics in Paris and Frankfurt; in the gilded cells of massage
parlours in Yokohama and New York; in cold damp rooms stuffed with paper
to keep out the draughts of north London. They have shared beds with
strangers on 12-hour shifts, slept on floors and in corridors of
restaurants all over the world.

They have learnt how to survive while spending no money on themselves,
walking to work, making one cigarette last all day, in canvas shoes and
plastic coats, wearing frayed trousers and darning their socks beneath a
dim light bulb in an unheated room. The money sent home has been won at
the cost of isolation and self-denial, of which those for whose sake it
has been suffered in silence know nothing.

The only consolation for the returnees is the pride of survival and the
stories of the wonders they have seen: little will be told of the
privations endured in hot kitchens and cold garrets, a life shared with
rats and roaches. The superiority of the travelled will be on display,
the widened horizons and the wisdom which set them apart from the
wondering people who remain on the land, feet in water, back sunburnt.

There is another cost borne by the beneficiaries of the global demand
for labour. This is the immeasurable pain of separation: the children
growing up without a father or deprived of a mother, who receive
pictures of an immaculate capital city of skyscrapers and palm trees,
and the money that can never compensate for their absence. What of the
spouses grown tired of waiting for those grown older in the service of
money; the women who abandon their children, the men who take a second
or third wife into the empty village home?

What do they feel, the children of the dancer in the Tokyo club, the
daughter of the driver in Bahrain, the child of the factory worker from
Fuzhou? What are the long-term effects of an economic necessity that
corrodes relationships and eats into belonging? Can the softness of
flesh be mitigated by the hardness of currency? How are the missing
tenderness and unfelt touch of loving hands to be made up for, other
than by the Barbie doll and the PlayStation, the Walkman and the
electronic game? What social and psychological consequences await a
generation passed between indifferent aunties and enfeebled
grandmothers, waiting endlessly for the return that is postponed by
another year, and then another, just long enough to save up for the good
life, which nevertheless remains always just out of reach?

There are an estimated ten million migrant workers in the Middle East
alone; more than three million Indians in the oil-exporting countries of
the Gulf. No doubt the war m Iraq will disrupt the labour of some of
them; but imagine the opportunities when the contracts for construction
are placed, the reshaped skyline of Baghdad, the fast-food outlets and
hotels for the occupying power. The services indispensable to their
comfort will summon forth tens of thousands more from the desolate
villages and the cheated countryside of rural poverty.

All this will show up solely as gain in the economic calculus; while the
forfeits and penalties paid by the uprooted workers' whole world will go
uncounted in the cooked books of global capital.


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