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Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New Global Economy

Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New Global Economy

by Toby Shelley




From cleaning to construction, from agriculture to domestic work, every day migrant labourers are exploited and enslaved. Extra hours are squeezed out of Polish food packers, and trafficked African children are used for forced labour. Low wages are used to drive down prices from the oil industry to airport services.

In this book, Toby Shelley shows that current unprecedented flows of migrant workers are a direct result of economic liberalization. The appalling conditions and legal abuses which confront these workers are not a premodern aberration, but an integral part of the global economy. Shelley argues that even governments, keen to protect big business, are complicit in this exploitation; their 'law and order' approach on immigration being part of this complicity.

Based on interviews and investigations with workers, unionists and activists, Exploited is a powerful and shocking read.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842778524
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date: 08/01/2007
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.05(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.45(d)

About the Author

Toby Shelley is a jourbanalist with the Financial Times. Over the past twenty years he has reported from across Africa and the Middle East. His previous books include Nanotechnology (2006), Oil (2005) and Endgame in the Western Sahara (2004). He is a member of the Council of Management of the radical development charity War on Want.
Toby Shelley is a jourbanalist with the Financial Times. Over the past twenty years he has reported from across Africa and the Middle East. His previous books include Nanotechnology (2006), Oil (2005) and Endgame in the Western Sahara (2004). He is a member of the Council of Management of the radical development charity War on Want.

Read an Excerpt


Migrant Labour in the New Global Economy

By Toby Shelley

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Toby Shelley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-096-8


Migration in Context

Daybreak brought a massive new assault on the fence that separates Melilla from Morocco. On this occasion, some 700 immigrants had taken part in the attack, demolishing the fence, and some 300 had managed to enter Spanish territory, according to the Civil Guard sources, despite the military deployment that has supported the Civil Guard in manning the frontier since last week. The incident took place at five in the morning in the Chino neighbourhood zone, one of the points of the Melilla fence that has been raised from three to six metres ... Four Civil Guards and three soldiers were variously injured by rocks hurled by the attackers ... Among the immigrants also there were many wounded.

It is the fourth assault in six days: a thousand immigrants tried to get over the fence in two waves on the 27th of September; 630 at a single go tried it on Sunday ... yesterday [the government] announced the urgent construction of a new security structure. This new fence will be placed around the exterior iron fence and will consist of a series of metal bars embedded in the ground and linked with cables.

The imagery is clear. This is medieval siege warfare. Hordes of the great unwashed hurl themselves at the ramparts of Europe, using makeshift ladders to clamber over the defences of Spain's colonial enclaves in northern Morocco. Some 20,000 were waiting in Algeria, intending to make their way to Ceuta and Melilla with another 10,000 already in Morocco, according to the European Commission. They use military tactics in their desperate efforts, say Spanish officials. In the hinterland, in the hills and woods they mass their forces for the next assault, while Spain bolsters its defences and drafts in troops from the Spanish Legion. There are deaths. Five migrants died one morning attempting to get into Ceuta, at least three displaying bullet wounds that Spain blamed on Moroccan security forces. They were not the only deaths in a drama that played out over weeks until the fences were too high and the numbers of defenders too great and the numbers of migrants depleted as they were repatriated by Morocco to Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Ghana and Mali, bundled over the Algerian frontier or abandoned in the Western Sahara.

Months later the militarisation of another border was under way to stem the infiltration of Mexicans and other Latin Americans into the USA. In a prime time television speech to the nation President George W. Bush said he would send 6,000 National Guard soldiers to the frontier, bringing the total to 18,000. The speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, said: 'The decision to send troops is the shot in the arm we need to strengthen our borders and protect our families.' By mid-September 2006, the House of Representatives had passed the Secure Fence Act, calling for 700 miles of fencing along the Mexico–US border. If Ceuta and Melilla recalled earlier depictions of European history, the militarisation of the southern extremities of the USA draws on the myths of the Old West, the Alamo, the right to bear arms cherished by unhinged survivalists and vigilantes alike. So, the Friends of the Border Patrol was formed in California to spot illegal aliens and ride horseback along the frontier. Already in Arizona there was the Minutemen, an organisation that claims to be 1,000 strong, with accountants and publishers as well as ranchers in its membership. It claimed its patrols, some of them armed, had cut illegal migration by 98 per cent in one month. It had plans to form groups in another nine states. The increased militarisation of the frontier has pushed more and more would-be migrants to use the services of the 'coyotes' or people-smugglers, who have been able to raise their prices. Meanwhile, 500–1,000 people a year die trying to cross the border.

August 2006: back to Spain's African outposts but this time the Canaries, lying offshore of the Western Sahara. Day in, day out, the front pages of Spanish newspapers are dominated by accounts of the arrival of overcrowded boats bearing sub-Saharan Africans on to the tourist beaches of the archipelago, 17,000 in eight months according to El Periódico. Almost 1,000 people arrived in a single day in a flotilla of small, crammed cayucos, reported El País. To the knowledge of the Spanish authorities, hundreds die attempting the crossing in a year, and no one knows how many bodies and overturned boats are never recovered. The journey has got longer as well. The route into the Canaries used to be through the Western Sahara, where criminal gangs benefited from the blind eye turned by Moroccan occupation forces. After pressure from Spain that route was sealed, so the operation switched as far south as Senegal. Madrid moved to block that route as well, but the boats will continue to depart from somewhere, Mauritania, Gambia or back to the Western Sahara, with bigger inducements for corrupt officials and higher prices for passengers. The journey takes about a week and only around half the vessels make it, the rest being turned back or disappearing into the Atlantic. A place for the perilous journey costs between $800 and $1,250.

Another desperate sea route is undertaken from Tunisia and Libya to the Italian Mediterranean possession of Lampedusa, where over 10,000 would-be immigrants arrived between January and September 2006. Again, many never even arrive:

Yesterday, the rescue teams recovered the bodies of 10 people and found alive another 70 who were travelling in a boat that overturned to the south of the island. The number of victims can be multiplied by four as 40 of the 120 immigrants who were travelling in the accident-hit sailing have disappeared.

The drama of the storming of the fortifications at Ceuta and Melilla, and the pathos of the survivors of the boat crossings, well illustrate the lengths to which migrants from the global South will go to reach countries where they believe they can find work, opportunities for themselves and the means to support families at home. But they represent only a tiny fraction of the flow of migrant workers entering Spain without the required documentation. Catalonia was allocated 800 of those who arrived in the Canaries in the summer of 2006, just 0.3 per cent of the estimated total of immigrants without correct paperwork living in the region. By far the major route of entry is across the open border with France or through airports on tourist visas.

In Britain the inflow of migrants has generally lacked the drama and the pathos of Melilla or Tenerife. That is not to say it lacks its horrors. The fifty-eight corpses found in a lorry in 2000 shocked the country, but who remembers, for example, the two who died of dehydration when they were dumped from a truck in rural southeast England in June 2006? Migration has soared up the news agenda nonetheless. Until the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp in 2003, footage of refugees trying to board vehicles bound for the Channel Tunnel fuelled the panic over asylum seekers, many from Kosovo, entering Britain. But since the Blair government's crackdown on asylum seekers — boasting 'that removals of failed asylum seekers is at its highest rate ever, while asylum intake is at its lowest level since 1993' — the spotlight has come to rest on those coming to Britain primarily to seek work.

Stereotypes, myths and obsessions

The considerable flow of workers from the European Union's 2004 accession states prompted media attention that produced a crop of headlines over the summer of 2006 from a chauvinistic press: 'Giving British jobs to foreigners is a recipe for national suicide' opined the Daily Express; 'Jobless up 92,000 as Poles flood in', it had headlined the day before; and two days later it ran with 'Halt the tide of EU migrants ... HIV children bringing timebomb to Britain'; the Sun managed 'Migrants get Brits' pay slashed by 50%'; while the broadsheet Daily Telegraph said 'Unchecked immigration is putting Britons out of work', and reported the next week that since the Labour Party took power Britain had seen 'by far the highest level of inward migration in the country's history'.

While the national press has largely concentrated on the impact of inward migration on the economy, not far below the surface lie other debates and neuroses. Former Labour minister Frank Field questioned whether current levels of immigration were acceptable. 'This is the most massive transformation of our population. Do we just merely accept this as another form of globalisation? That it doesn't matter where you are, or that you belong to a country and have roots? That we are all just following the jobs?' he said to the BBC news website. Only the ineptitude of the far-right British National Party had prevented it from exploiting the situation, he added.

An obsession with a mythical national identity under constant threat from multitudes of incomers has been a feature of British political life since the end of the Second World War. Its expressions have ranged from the open racism of the 'No blacks, no Irish' notices in boarding-house windows and National Front 'martyr' Robert Relf, who advertised his house for sale to a white family only, through local opposition to the settlement of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, to the vilification of asylum seekers in the late 1990s. The inward migration of white central Europeans from the historically Christian accession states has not, by definition, fostered a racism based on skin colour or prejudice about 'alien' cultures, even if confrontation between migrants and members of the host community is reported in local newspapers. The received caricature of the Poles — by far the largest accession state community in Britain — is of hard drinkers and hard workers who fought with the British in the Second World War and suffered under Stalinism. But the stereotype built up of Bulgarians and Romanians as their countries' accession approached is more sinister — corruption, organised crime, HIV infection. This is something akin to stereotyping of Chinese migrants as either victims or members of snakehead gangs, Colombians as suspect drug smugglers, or Nigerians as fraudsters. It facilitated the decision to refuse Bulgarians and Romanians the same entry rights as citizens of Poland and the other 2004 accession states. Then there is the subtly encouraged demonising of the Muslim communities in Britain, which is an internalisation of the specious generalisations of the 'War on Terror'. Indeed, one suspects that with the waning grip of the 'War on Terror' and its attendant overseas adventurism and policy blunders on the popular imagination, the migration issue is being elevated to the status of next national crisis. The control of migration is a new governmental narrative, building on popular concerns, emphasising them, linking them to other anxieties like crime and security and then presenting 'solutions' to bind the electorate to the government. Margaret Thatcher, when she was prime minister, created the 'enemy within' from the trade union movement. The Blair government used 'Muslim extremists' and then undocumented migrants in a subplot. Linking the two are the demonised 'asylum seekers'.

It bears repeating that inward migration, far from imperilling Britain's identity (or set of identities), has actually defined it. What would Liverpool be without its close association with Ireland? And what of Bedford without the 10 per cent of the population that is first-, second- or third-generation Italian? A Birmingham without balti houses or hip-hop blasting from cars in Winson Green would be stranger to even a middle-aged white resident than being transported to Bucharest. To take another urban area, a study commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council focusing on the Thames Gateway (and also rural Norfolk) remarked,

The very concept of 'migrant' poses difficulties in some parts of the Thames Gateway (especially in the East End). The whole area of the East End is traditionally a 'migrant community', and has been attracting migrants for many years: both past and present, it is a 'migrant community'.

In media and political discourse there is a shifting hierarchy of incomers. Asylum seekers are divided between the ever smaller category deemed to be genuine political refugees the government has no option but to let through the door and the closet 'economic migrant' judged to be claiming persecution at best in order to find a job but most likely, according to tabloid innuendo, to feast on the bones of the UK welfare system. Other categories of economic migrant include those who have been smuggled into the country — either criminals or victims. Then there are the upfront migrant workers who come in from all over the world and are welcomed and valued until unemployment numbers rise or the number of incomers strains inadequate public services.

The distinction between political and economic migration is frequently specious. At the crudest level, how do you categorise someone seeking a better life than the increasingly grinding poverty induced by the persecutory political programme of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe? If an asylum seeker, once in Britain, seeks to work to provide for herself and remit money to family at home, does that render her an illicit economic migrant who should be deported or a potentially valuable member of society? A Chinese community activist asserts that there was a shift in the presentation of incomers from eastern Europe and China after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the incomers were presented as defectors from repressive regimes. They were part of the ideological armoury of the contest. With the end of the Cold War and the establishment of strong economic ties with China, they no longer serve a political function and are characterised as economic migrants. This leads to the absurd situation where the long-term indigenous unemployed are condemned as scroungers but asylum seekers who seek out employment, personify the work ethic, are damned as frauds. Apparently, it is a test of political persecution at home that one submits to inactivity and impoverishment in exile.

Push and pull — why people migrate

There are push-and-pull forces at work in the decision to migrate. Jonathan Moses, in a book arguing for the abolition of border controls, points out that push factors must be powerful to drive people from their home:

Most people, given the opportunity, will not choose to move from their family, friends and home. Indeed most immigrants yearn to return home and many eventually do. It is only under the most hopeless conditions that potential emigrants consider the exit option, and only a fraction of these have the character, contacts and resources to carry it off.

Of course, the hopeless conditions to which Moses refers do exist in much of the world. Indeed the International Organisation for Migration calculates that 192 million people, 3 per cent of the world's population, live outside of their own country, a number that is growing at 2.9 per cent a year.

People move from country to country for a variety, and often a combination, of reasons. Work is enormously important, but of official entrants into OECD countries in 2004, only in Switzerland, Denmark and Portugal did it account for over 40 per cent of approved entries. For Britain it was over 30 per cent. Families accompanying workers might be added to the category, boosting it somewhat. Family reunification is generally the largest category. Refugees account for less than 10 per cent of incomers to the OECD and the numbers have been driven down systematically since the early 1990s.

A paper by the UN's International Labour Organisation directly linked the rising secular trend in global migration for work to changes in the world economy: the disappearance of livelihoods through the loss of public-sector jobs, decline of traditional industries, loss of agricultural competitiveness, and the elimination of job protection because of World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes. 'The evidence so far available on the impact of globalisation points to a likely worsening of migration pressures in many parts of the world.'

For Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Congolese, Angolans, just as for Kosovars and Chechens, Kurds or Colombians, in recent years the arguments for leaving home have been piled as high as the corpses. In parts of China, grinding rural poverty or the destruction of the artisanal fishing industry, plus the one-child policy, provide incentive enough for many breadwinners to take on huge debts with punitive penalties for non-repayment in order to travel to Europe or North America in the hope of bringing the family later. And the scale of the investment in sending a family member abroad is colossal. Sources interviewed for this book said people smugglers ask £20,000 to £30,000 for the trip from Fujian province in China to London, with 10–20 per cent paid upfront and often borrowed from a moneylender connected to the smugglers. The payback period is typically between two and four years and the penalties for non-payment extreme. A Chinese Catholic priest who provided information for this book tells of burying a man in East London who had been beaten to death for non-payment. Members of a Turkish smuggling operation bringing people into Britain by boat, lorry or small aircraft were said at their trial to be charging £14,000 a head. The going rate for taking a Mexican worker into the US was $2,000 to $3,000 in 2006. The price of clandestine entry increases as the barricades are piled higher, so the sum just cited for a crossing into the USA includes a dramatic increase after the Bush crackdown, while the price for being smuggled into France doubled after the Jospin government toughened up entry requirements.


Excerpted from Exploited by Toby Shelley. Copyright © 2007 Toby Shelley. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Migration in Context
Chapter 2 - Migrant Labour
Chapter 3 - Impacts
Chapter 4 - Government Responses and Responsibilities

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