Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism

Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism

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by Immanuel Ness

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Political scientist Immanuel Ness thoroughly investigates the use of guest workers in the United States, the largest recipient of migrant labor in the world. Ness argues that the use of migrant labor is increasing in importance and represents despotic practices calculated by key U.S. business leaders in the global economy to lower labor costs and expand profits

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Political scientist Immanuel Ness thoroughly investigates the use of guest workers in the United States, the largest recipient of migrant labor in the world. Ness argues that the use of migrant labor is increasing in importance and represents despotic practices calculated by key U.S. business leaders in the global economy to lower labor costs and expand profits under the guise of filling a shortage of labor for substandard or scarce skilled jobs.

Drawing on ethnographic field research, government data, and other sources, Ness shows how worker migration and guest worker programs weaken the power of labor in both sending and receiving countries. His in-depth case studies of the rapid expansion of technology and industrial workers from India and hospitality workers from Jamaica reveal how these programs expose guest workers to employers' abuses and class tensions in their home countries while decreasing jobs for American workers and undermining U.S. organized labor.

Where other studies of labor migration focus on undocumented immigrant labor and contend immigrants fill jobs that others do not want, this is the first to truly advance understanding of the role of migrant labor in the transformation of the working class in the early twenty-first century. Questioning why global capitalists must rely on migrant workers for economic sustenance, Ness rejects the notion that temporary workers enthusiastically go to the United States for low-paying jobs. Instead, he asserts the motivations for improving living standards in the United States are greatly exaggerated by the media and details the ways organized labor ought to be protecting the interests of American and guest workers in the United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The topics of guest worker programs, internal and international labor migration, and worker organizing are fundamental to understanding today's economy and labor market. Immanuel Ness's argument that business is actively involved in creating the notion of labor shortages while pushing programs to meet their interests is a crucial addition to the immigration policy debate."

—Stephanie Luce, author of Fighting for a Living Wage

"Relevant to anyone with an interest in the labour movement today."—Socialism and Democracy

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University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Working Class in American History Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism



Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03627-9

Chapter One

Migration and Class Struggle

For about twenty-five years, since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, more and more U.S. businesses have been relying on a system of migrant labor that involves guest workers. A guest worker is a foreign laborer temporarily authorized to work in a host country with the knowledge and acquiescence of that country. In the United States, employers recruit guest workers to perform both skilled and unskilled labor in newly restructured industries. These workers sign contracts with specific companies before migrating temporarily to the United States to perform highly structured jobs for a fixed duration of time. Because of the nature of their contracts, these migrants face a number of unique challenges, including confinement to one employer, onerous work arrangements, withholding of wages, and lack of access to federal employment regulations governing minimum wage and hour standards. Why do so many migrant workers participate in such an exploitive system? Simply put, as economic conditions worsen, foreign workers desperately seek jobs in the United States as a means to provide for their families and communities through remittances for basic needs such as food, housing, and education. As the program expands, these new migrant guest workers inevitably form part of the subaltern underside of their respective labor markets in the United States and the Global North as labor markets are transformed through expanding use of foreign temporary workers.

While wages and conditions of work contrast significantly, highly skilled and unskilled guest workers occupy essential spaces in the labor market without the prospect of establishing a foundation of power and support, because they have no permanency and are almost always sent home upon completion of their assignments. In a range of occupations, from Internet technology, business services, and nursing, to welding, construction, and hospitality, the U.S. government is permitting private businesses to fill positions once held by U.S.-born and immigrant workers with guest workers. They require only that the employer "prove" that either, a) there are no U.S. citizens willing to fill the position or, b) there are no American workers trained and qualified to do the particular job. This situation transforms the labor market because there are no labor laws to protect these workers, who are paid less and work under exploitive conditions. Conveniently for the employer, guest workers are also in a position that leaves them generally afraid to protest because employers can send them home at any time.

A repositioning of finance capital and international pressure for greater business profitability is intensifying the spread of guest work that frequently offers even lower wages and less job security than most undocumented migrants in the United States. Guest work is not only filling a shortage of labor for substandard jobs or scarce skilled jobs, but it also is part of a calculated effort by U.S. business leaders in key sectors of the global economy to lower labor costs and expand profits by increasing profitability through reducing wages, speeding up the pace of work, and introducing labor-saving technology technological advances across a range of occupations through deteriorating wages and reducing standards.

This book examines the significance of this growing shift toward guest worker labor migration in place of formal immigration and settlement programs traditionally favored by capital, and the resulting growing financial and social pressure on U.S. and transnational migrant workers. In so doing, the book considers the competing social and political forces in the evolution of U.S. and global guest worker programs.

Essential to the growth of guest work under advanced capitalism is a dialectical relationship between capital and labor. Capital almost always requests open migration to enlarge the reserve army of labor and increase competition with native-born workers as a means to lower wages and job standards. In opposition, organized and unorganized labor has historically opposed new immigrants entering labor markets to compete for jobs at lower wages. As largely unregulated migration to the United States since the late 1980s to the first decade of the early twentieth century has expanded the immigrant working class, some labor unions have sought to restrict migration to shield the native-born workers most vulnerable to labor migration.

U.S. immigration policy plays an important role in this story. The country's policy toward migrant labor is a politically sensitive issue for policy makers. Since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, the political debate in the United States has shifted from ensuring the rights of foreigners from formerly excluded regions of the Global South to training a U.S. workforce equipped for the neoliberal economy. Neoliberalism is set apart from preceding eras of capitalism, because it promotes free trade and deregulation as well as accentuates financialization and privatization at great cost to workers and the environment throughout the world (Duménil & Lévy 2004). As more workers have migrated to the United States from 1986 to 2010 to compete with native-born workers, immigration policy has become a significant arena of political struggle between supporters and opponents of restricting the flow of foreign laborers.

The passage of IRCA in 1986 and the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) were decisive in greatly expanding the unauthorized entry of migrant workers in the United States. These workers were compelled by large and small employers to work for significantly lower than prevailing wages. As a result, by the late 1990s, a growing number of capitalist labor markets that once provided decent employment and wages had been eviscerated through outsourcing and insourcing of documented and undocumented labor. Central to the 1986 act are provisions that use employer sanctions to ban businesses from hiring immigrants deemed illegal, a stipulation that was requested by organized labor in the United States. However, federal and state authorities did not generally enforce these provisions from the time of the law's passage until the draconian Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids began in 2005–2006. As a result, the pace of migration has accelerated even more rapidly in the ensuing two decades as undocumented workers have inundated old and new labor markets, creating an oversupply of low-wage labor in a growing number of manufacturing, service, and agricultural industries.

In 2000, responding to the dramatic growth of mostly undocumented workers in the United States in large labor markets, the AFL-CIO, spurred by service sector unions, initiated a dramatic policy shift. They began calling for repeal of the 1986 immigration law that uses "employer sanctions" to penalize employers who hire undocumented workers. This meant that the same labor unions that had supported the sanctions began requesting that the government not enforce the legislation. On balance, employers were rarely if ever penalized for hiring undocumented immigrants anyway, and employer sanctions had only served as a means for employers to evade unionization by threatening immigrant workers who sought to organize. Realizing this, unions reevaluated their stance and started undertaking efforts to facilitate the organization of immigrant workers. From 1995 to 2005, organizing campaigns contributed to increasing wages, and improved conditions in labor-market niches where immigrants were employed. In the late 1990s, more labor unions sought the reorganization of growing industries where membership nearly vanished, including building services, hotels and restaurants, food and retail trade, and security, along with the rapidly growing health care sector. Employers were not so enthusiastic. The unions were trying to find a way to circumvent corporate efforts to keep wages for undocumented workers in check through threats and coercion. Seeing their grip on immigrant workers loosening, employers responded by calling for expansion of guest worker programs.

Supporters of businesses engaged in contracting guest workers contend that a comprehensive program of legal migration is necessary to bolster the economy, filling a shortage of professional workers in modern industry and providing a pool of low-wage workers to fill menial jobs that U.S. workers do not want. Corporate advocates for formal guest work programs see new migrants as essential to expanding profitability through replacing higher-wage workers in the labor markets. Many of these occupations once provided decent wages to U.S. workers but were reorganized by business officials and transformed into low-wage migrant labor markets. Once migrant workers move into the jobs, they remain solidly working class—only as guest workers, their capacity to organize is severely compromised. When workers do engage in collective action, owners frequently dismiss and deport them. Although labor shortages have not directly compelled the U.S. government to allow more migrants, it is undeniable that a whole range of formerly "good" jobs in once solidly working-class industries that were organized by unions—such as hospitality, building services, retail services, food processing, and transportation—are now filled by guest workers and undocumented migrants at lower wages and drastically inferior working conditions. By organizing new immigrant workers who were part of the fabric of major communities throughout the United States, unions sought to improve wages and conditions in a range of labor markets. Organizing immigrant workers would reduce the incentive for employers to hire foreigners and, in so doing, raise standards for U.S.-born workers as well.

U.S. Policy and the international labor Migration Movement

Over the past two decades, the insignificant penalties IRCA imposed on business did not deter them from hiring undocumented immigrants—primarily from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Corporate interests contend that the United States has a shortage of skilled workers while simultaneously arguing that new U.S.-born entrants into the labor force do not want to work in less-skilled jobs. Congress, taking as fact the corporate line of reasoning that the United States needs both skilled and unskilled labor—in high technology, nursing, education, services, hospitality, and even trucking—to fill a labor shortage, immediately responded to business interests by passing legislation raising the ceiling on visas for foreign skilled workers in locations where, purportedly, a deficit of American workers existed.

Beginning in the late 1980s, for the purpose of further expanding neoliberal trade in foreign workers, the U.S. government sharply increased approval of foreign immigrant guest worker and student visas in a range of high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, from housekeeping to medical professions to computer programming. Employers create labor shortages as a means of reducing labor standards and pushing wages down. By introducing guest workers in these occupations, business wants to create a surplus of workers, thereby turning well-paying jobs with benefits into low-paying dead-end jobs with no perks.

Through historical and ethnographic analysis, this book explores the erosion of labor conditions in both professional and working-class jobs that form the basis for the shortage and disinterest of U.S. workers in both the information technology and hospitality and tourism sectors. It argues that the shortage of high technology and hospitality workers is a condition created by business to allow them to contract foreign guest workers at a fraction of the prevailing wages paid in these industries, and thus lower labor costs.


A new configuration of industry has transformed the traditional institutional forms of labor organization that took shape through the industrial unions established from the 1920s through the 1950s. The institutional form of labor-management relations, based on recognition and collective bargaining—is inadequate for today's workers because it frequently does not facilitate new forms of labor activism leading to improved conditions. At the same time, corporate propaganda creates a great deal of anxiety and distress among U.S. workers by making them believe that they will lose even their poor jobs if they protest.

Further complicating this already bleak situation, over the past two decades the extraordinary growth of documented and undocumented migrant labor has transformed state and national labor regulatory systems, thereby creating new challenges for workers and their weakened unions in maintaining wages and labor standards. In some cases, migrant laborers have replaced unionized throughout entire labor markets. The demand to expand and institutionalize migrant labor systems will further erode the capacity of unions to organize workers typically employed for foreign contractors in professional and less-skilled labor markets. Simultaneously, efforts to enlarge the migrant labor programs leave immigrants themselves defenseless against corporate despotism. In the new global labor commodity chain, migrants in a growing number of service industries are considered factors of production to be dispensed with when no longer necessary (Gereffi & Korzeniewicz 1993).

The research of this book provides a historical and comparative analysis of U.S. migration policy in the skilled (mainly IT) and less skilled (chiefly hospitality) industries and the reconstitution of class relations in these two sectors from the 1980s to 2010. Ethnographic interviews with workers, employers, activists, union leaders, and government officials in the United States, South Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean have helped to shape this investigation of migration, labor policy, and the constraints and limitations to building labor power in the neoliberal economy that the United States imposes on other nation-states. Focusing on the connections between employer political power, labor movements, and mostly submissive union organizations, the book reveals the structural constraints to developing power left by the residue of old labor, deep-rooted union traditions, and evolving migration law in the United States and throughout the global economy.

The United States had been hastily expanding low-wage and flexible labor migration even before completing negotiations aimed at ratifying an international agreement on migration by the World Trade Organization framework that regulates global trade. Prospects for a massive nonimmigrant labor force in the United States through the guest worker visa will surely further erode the power of organized labor as corporate America asserts its inability to find workers at home for more and more jobs—or maintains that U.S. workers are disinterested in working them. Such a policy will hurt traditional U.S.-born workers, undercut migrant workers, and intensify poverty in emerging capitalist countries in the less-developed world (henceforth designated the Global South).


The prevailing assertion on work shortages in labor policy and human resources literature is contradictory. On the one hand, advocates of expanding migrant labor say U.S. workers are at a competitive disadvantage as a greater number of students are graduating from higher-skilled professions in the Global South. For instance, India and the Philippines train significantly higher levels of Internet technology workers and nurses than the United States. In the Philippines, government provides training in skills specifically for those planning to work abroad, rather than those seeking to stay (Rodriguez 2010, 32–39). Conversely, other writers argue that the United States has a labor shortage of unskilled service and even manufacturing workers in a range of industries. Owing to the shortage in skilled and unskilled labor, the United States must reluctantly recruit skilled workers from abroad to meet the demands of high technology and business services on the one hand and hospitality workers on the other (Friedman 2005; Levy and Murnane 2004; National Research Council 2001; Papademetriou and Yale-Loehr 1996; Saxenian 2006). In some instances, advocates of expanded migration concurrently assert both opposing perspectives (Jacoby 2006). Since the world financial meltdown, academic discourse on labor shortages has declined dramatically, even if corporate business lobbies continue to argue that there is a pressing need for foreign labor, and contractors continue to press businesses to replace existing workers with foreign labor, especially in the hospitality and tourism industry (Chase 2009).

A large and growing concern among these academics and policy makers is that the American labor force may not be prepared to compete with equally skilled foreign workers willing to work at lower wages for longer hours. This book challenges the predominant view that an expanding global skilled labor market represents a threat to American dominance in new technological development but suggests, rather, that capital's search for profit directs government efforts to expand guest worker programs that will diminish wages in new labor markets.

This book asserts that finance capital and business have historically engaged in an open strategy to downgrade worker standards in a range of occupational labor markets. Large multinational corporations with no demonstrated interest in educating U.S. workers told Congress that America was facing a critical crisis of engineers, medical workers, and highly skilled professional workers. If the United States has too few high-technology workers, though, the primary cause is the nation's failure to promote education and training in new and emerging sectors. While professional training institutions have declined in the United States since the 1990s, over the past two decades, native-born skilled workers have been replaced by migrant workers to fill skilled positions at lower cost. As Grace Chang contends:" ... immigration from the Third World into the United States doesn't just happen in response to a set of factors but is carefully orchestrated—that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed, and periodically stopped—by the direct actions of U.S. interests, including the government as state and as employer, private employers, and corporations" (Chang 2000, 3–4). What has happened, then, is that the federal government has almost always allowed businesses to create artificial labor shortages to justify expanding guest worker programs in both skilled and less-skilled occupations (Gonzalez 2006; Mandel 1991; Vogel 2006).


Excerpted from Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism by IMMANUEL NESS Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Important contribution to the literature on globalization with an important critique of the World Trade Organization and it's GATS policy that we will see if the corporate models of migration are adopted. Will only create a reserve army of labor.
HenleyCorner More than 1 year ago
I am intrigued by the case studies on India and Jamaica. Guest Workers uses a marxist perspective to advance the argument that guest workers leave because of exploitation back home and are suffer even worse consequences in their destinations. The press publicizes some of these events, for instance the Hershey chocolate workers who thought they were going to learn business management but ended up working at the factory and having to pay for the privilege!!! Paying to work rather than working to get paid? The author gives several examples, including workers in the oil services industry who paid thousands just to get to the US and then lived in the factory before going on a sit-down strike. The Jamaica example is rooted in the historic guest work program for West Indian workers developed in the World War II era, as Mexicans were recruited to work in the western United States in farms and other businesses. Today we find a systematic program in Jamaica for workers who are impoverished. Many end up working in the tourist industry as cleaners, cooks, and some even are used as student-workers, like in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The book supplies many examples of guest workers throughout the United States, and it is my understanding that these programs are on the rise. What can we do about this problem? Well first we need to recognize that businesses in the United States create an artificial labor shortage to convince Congress to create and expand these programs that are for workers with a range of skills. At the same time we need to recognize that guest workers are not really guests but members of the American working class but subjected to atrocious conditions. This book revealed so much to me about capitalism and how the United States tries to create a form of neo-imperialism through using workers and then sending them back whenever the job is done. Wage slavery? No. I would call it Un-waged slavery
LaborResearcher More than 1 year ago
A comprehensive examination of global corporate and multinational policies toward temporary labor that all trade unions and labor activists must reckon with. Guest Workers and Resistance to US Corporate Despotism shifted my opinion about comprhensive immigration reform in the United States. This book demonstrates that corporate-led politicians will sign a bill that reduces rather than advances the rights of immigrants and migrant workers.
Engels1980 More than 1 year ago
I was surprised to learn of the complicity of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the process of human exploitation. This is one of the most direct accounts of how politicians are supporting the decline and erosion of jobs by shaping a migration policy that lines the pockets of business.
PlanBfromouterspace More than 1 year ago
Critical assessment of global migration and its consequences for transnational working classes
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Highly informative with uncompromising critique against neoliberal capitalism.
Doug_Munroe More than 1 year ago
More than any book I've read on labor migration, Guest Workers and US Corporate Despotism convinces me that the capitalist class seeks to divide us from the most vulnerable workers. The book is a revelation to me and a must read if you care about the future of the working class.
Michael_Enton More than 1 year ago
I found this work to have the most comprehensive and critical analysis of migration policy, providing an uncompromising critique of the multilateral and imperialiist plan to divide workers while advancing profits for workers. Still, I found the examples of resistance an important intervention that provides hope for the working classe on a global basis. - mle