One symptom of the ongoing global financial and economic crisis (GFC) that is recurring more and more frequently is the demand to address the problems associated with migrant workers who, whether legally or not, have for decades been leaving their home countries in seemingly ever larger numbers in search of improved economic opportunities abroad. This has become a particular focus of concern in those relatively wealthy countries – located mainly in North America, Western Europe and Australasia – which are the target destination for most such migrants. Here, as economic growth has faltered since the turn of the century and virtually dried up since the start of the crisis in 2007, unemployment levels have inevitably soared to the point where the capacity of these economies to absorb more migrant labour from overseas – or even to continue providing work for those already here – is increasingly being called into question, as is the capacity of public and social services to cope with the influx of foreigners, many of whom are substantially deprived, if not destitute, when they arrive.
As a consequence of these developments immigration has become a priority concern in the eyes of the public, such that political parties are forced to consider measures to try and cut – or even reverse – the inflow of migrants, particularly in the face of xenophobia fanned by increasingly popular far-right parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and the UK Independence Party in Britain.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, debate on the issue is seriously distorted by misinformation emanating from particular vested interests underpinned by a continuing mainstream political consensus that “globalisation” – involving largely free cross-border movement of trade, capital and labour – is a desirable if not inevitable feature of modern economic organisation. A notable instance of this has been the (not entirely successful) attempt by the further and higher education sector in Britain to minimise restrictions on the issue of visas to foreign students, on whose fees it has become increasingly dependent. Yet while arguing that this benefits the national balance of payments by increasing the volume of fees paid in foreign exchange, it ignores the well documented fact that a significant number of such students are either incapable or have no intention of paying the fees due, seeing their visa as a way of gaining entry to the UK in order to seek employment illegally.
At the same time it is often argued by business lobbyists – and even a number of economists – that net inward migration of labour does not tend to depress wages, by increasing the supply of labour relative to the demand for it, even though such a claim amounts to a negation of the most basic law of economics. Such self-serving delusions are seemingly given further credence by those – including many who would count themselves on the left – who evidently consider immigration as positive from a broader socio-economic perspective, e.g. in terms of promoting cultural diversity and international solidarity. In any event it is clear that many who are otherwise strongly opposed to the exploitation of labour are very reluctant to express any support for tightening restrictions on immigration – often, it would appear, out of fear of being branded racist.
Such “political correctness” is regrettable not only because it plays into the hands of those on the cynical right who quietly welcome the role of migrant workers in keeping wages depressed while at the same time gaining political mileage by pandering to mounting popular xenophobia if not actually “playing the race card” (as reflected in the British tabloid press). It is arguably even more damaging in that it prevents a more rational debate on the whole issue of transnational migration based on a realistic perception of its causes and the interests and needs of those affected.
Above all such attitudes typically rest on the very questionable assumption that migration by deprived people from poor countries is generally beneficial to migrants and their families – and indeed to their countries of origin – and is so perceived by themselves. Nobody is more guilty of promoting this rosy view than development agencies such as the World Bank, who never tire of pointing out that the remittances sent home by migrant workers to their families constitute a vital source of foreign exchange to many developing countries, with annual flows to the latter now as high as US$ 400 billion (far more than they receive in development aid). Remarkably, the Bank tries to claim that the process is also positive for the host countries’ economies, though they are unable to quantify this or relate it to the corresponding loss to their GDP resulting from the outflow of remittances. What they also fail to mention is the negative social impact of migration resulting from the prolonged splitting up of families. Equally they take no account of the subsidy given by poor countries to rich ones when their skilled workers, trained at their national expense, are lost to the domestic economy – e.g. Filipino nurses recruited for the British NHS rather than for local health care services that are in dire need of upgrading.
Such official exaggeration of the benefits resulting to those migrating to rich countries also plays to the popular belief, eagerly fostered by Western media, that many immigrants are actual or potential “freeloaders” seeking to take unfair advantage of supposedly generous welfare systems in the industrialised West. The grim reality for the vast majority of migrants is that
they only resort to leaving their home countries out of desperation in order to escape utter destitution for themselves or their families – or, in a rising number of cases, under threat of death, persecution or loss of human rights (all increasingly common in the now disintegrating world order);
the prospect of leaving the familiar surroundings of their community and of prolonged separation from their friends and relations for an environment where the culture and language are alien to them is a daunting one;
the risks of failure – of losing most of their remaining money or even their lives in the process – mean that emigration represents an enormous gamble.
Equally, there is a steadfast refusal by the mainstream media and political parties to recognise the economic inefficiency and distortions involved in allowing the importation of cheap migrant labour to do menial jobs – such as car washing or fruit picking which could easily be done by the plentiful supply of existing unemployed labour which otherwise remains stuck in benefit dependency at the taxpayer’s expense. As such the policy amounts to a subsidy to private employers of cheap labour. Still less is there any recognition of the extent to which the whole process of migration – trading on desperation and feeding exploitation – encourages the lucrative branch of organised crime that is human trafficking, encompassing international prostitution rings.
Hence any realistic attempt to address the problems linked to growing inward migration of workers in the developed countries must be based on the recognition that such migrants are as much victims of the process as are those in the receiving country – who inevitably tend to be more concentrated in relatively deprived areas – who suffer the consequences in terms of increased pressure on local public services as well as competition for ever more scarce job opportunities.
Furthermore, such a reappraisal would need to face the fact not only that unrestricted labour migration is socially undesirable and economically inefficient but that the entire globalisation project has proved to be based on a false prospectus and has been a major factor in bringing economic and social ruin to the whole world, developing and developed alike. Above all it has demonstrated that removing restrictions on cross-border trade, financial transfers and migration, so far from being a recipe for rapid economic expansion and wealth creation, has simply served to increase insecurity and instability – social as well as economic – and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Perhaps the most graphic symptom of its failure is the so-called Arab Spring which has erupted since 2010. For there can be little doubt that a crucial source of the discontent driving this movement has been the chronic mass unemployment and intensifying poverty and hopelessness in those Arab countries without significant oil wealth. The tipping point may well have been the onset of the GFC, particularly as it has affected Europe, which has long provided an outlet for surplus labour, particularly for Maghreb countries such as Tunisia, where the uprising began. For the sudden drying up of employment opportunities in the EU – notably in Spain, where unemployment has now mushroomed to 27 per cent – has inevitably had huge repercussions for Arab economies which had come to depend on them. At the same time local enterprises have been seriously weakened by the global downturn and intensifying competition from abroad.
The lesson to be drawn from this experience is that problems arising from cross-border labour migration can only be solved by a comprehensive restructuring of the world economic order such as to eliminate the enormous economic waste and social damage associated with it. This will entail renouncing the delusions of the “free market” in favour of an economic model based on the principle of guaranteeing minimum security for all within a framework of relative economic stability (recognising also that a revival of rapid global growth will not be sustainable). For this to work it will also mean giving national and local communities more control over their markets and resources – ensuring the retention of national value added by restricting capital flows – rather than sacrificing them to the destructive forces of international competition.
Sadly, of course, in the real world such ideas are very far from the political agenda, which remains dominated by the neo-liberal dogma of the 1980s. Seemingly it will need the Arab Spring – or worse – to come to Europe and the US before a meaningful shift in this ideological logjam can occur.
31 May 2013
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