“Imagine, if you will, that, on the same day, all migrants and immigrants decide to return to their countries of origin. The Filipina nanny would pack her bags and leave the family in Singapore whose children she has been raising. The sub-urban couple in San Diego would be without their Mexican gardener who worked for less than five dollars an hour. Italian farmers would find the fruit rotting on their trees because their cheap migrant workers left the orchard. New York’s manufacturing sector would collapse because a large portion of the workforce is absent. Worse, Wall Street would be closed because cleaners, security guards, office staff, and taxi drivers are unavailable. Many sectors of the economy in industrialized countries would come to an immediate standstill. The rest of the economy would follow within days, if not hours. Although not your typical doomsday scenario, this hypothetical example illustrates that our economy depends on the labor of often “invisible” international migrants.” (Bauder 2006: 3)
18 December is the International Migrants’ Day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in remembrance of the adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families on 18 December 1990. Today, large-scale immigration is even more a reality than 20 years ago and the opening passage of Harald Bauder’s book Labor Movement above nicely illustrates the degree to which the Western economies have become dependent on the employment of migrant labor. Migrant workers surround us, do the jobs we are no longer willing to do ourselves and work hours and under conditions we would not tolerate. But what explains this demand in our purportedly advanced “knowledge economies” for low-skilled and low-paid labor done by immigrants? What vital function are they playing for our economy?
Here are 10 reasons why employers like hiring immigrant workers:
1. Migrants ideally satisfy the need to fill the bottom positions in the social hierarchy
Some jobs in our economies just do not offer much in terms of social status or prestige, think for example of cleaners, door-keepers or agricultural laborers. They are dead-end and offer no real opportunities for promotion. Yet, as studies show, people do not only care about earning money, but also about the immaterial benefits a job offers, in particular the position in the social hierarchy compared to others. It is hence difficult for employers to find motivated natives who are willing to do these jobs and they resort to migrants. Migrants, at least in the early stages of their stay, consider themselves less a part of the host society and the standards by which they judge their jobs are usually lower. Their primary goal is to earn as much money as possible in a short time and to improve their social status back home (e.g. building a house, sending the children to school).
2. Migrants are a flexible and disposable workforce
In an unstable economic environment characterized by continuous ups and downs, migrants can offer employers some extra flexibility. While native workers do often benefit from some form of employment protection, migrants mostly hold unstable jobs and can be easily laid-off when business conditions worsen. They form a disposable workforce, what Marx called a “reserve army of labor”, that employers can draw on to fill temporary needs when business is thriving. On the other hand, migrants will typically be the first ones to be fired when the economy worsens.
3. Migrants offer employers an opportunity to lower salaries and cut wage costs
Globalization – the outsourcing and offshoring of production abroad – and technological change have created new opportunities for high-skilled workers and multinational enterprises. However, small and medium sized companies, in particular those in the labor-intensive service-industries, do not have the option of relocating operations to low-cost countries: offices and hotel-rooms have to be cleaned and dinners served where the customers are. They hence react to the new pressures by cost-cutting measures, subcontracting and lowering wages. Migrants are more willing to accept lower-wages since they compare what they can earn here to the conditions back in their home country, which are often far worse. Working conditions in their home country may be so bad – or unemployment that high – that many migrants prefer working for very low wages here than working for almost nothing back in their home countries.
4. Rising inequality in income and wealth
Over the last decades, inequalities in income and wealth have been rising in almost all Western societies. The rising inequality has not only created poverty and deprivation in the lower strata of society, but also a wealthy upper-class that has a growing need for personal and domestic services. Hence low-income workers, often immigrants, serve in the restaurants where the wealthy dine, clean the offices where the wealthy work and care for their children or their elderly parents. The growing wealth has also led to an increase in the size of people’s homes over the last two decades, creating a need for cleaners, gardeners, etc. just to keep everything nice and pretty.
5. The growth of the informal economy
The informal or so-called “shadow” economy plays and increasingly important role especially in bigger cities. Companies that can no longer compete in the formal economy may prefer to go “underground”. Often these firms do not produce illegal products but affordable goods for the low-income communities. In particular for undocumented migrants, who do lack the permission to work in the formal economy, employment in the shadow economy is often the only possibility to find a job and earn a living at all. But also documented migrants may be hired in the informal economy since the lack of a formal contract gives employers additional flexibility and opportunities to further lower costs.
6. Migrants have a superior ‘work-ethic’
Studies that involve interviews with employers of migrants often highlight migrants’ perceived superior ‘attitude’ or ‘work ethic’ when compared to local workers. Migrant workers are described as more disciplined and hard working than natives. They are often more willing to work night shifts or over-hours and complain less about their tasks and working conditions. This should not surprise us. On the one hand, migrants are often just more in need of earning money in order to send it back to their families. The smaller size of family and social networks also makes them more likely to live on site or work long hours. On the other hand, migrants often don’t know their rights at the workplace, e.g. regulations concerning breaks and over-hours. Their informal or precarious employment status also makes them less likely to complain because of fear of loosing their job.
7. High-levels of seasonal fluctuation
Migrants often work in industries like agriculture, construction or the hotel sector that have a need for a high number of workers during peak season. This allows them to earn money over a short time and spend the rest of the year at home with their families. Yet, these jobs are also often those referred to as the “3-D” jobs: dirty, dangerous and degrading.
8. Racial and gendered stereotypes
In some cases, the choice of migrant workers is based on racial and gendered stereotypes regarding the appropriateness of certain kinds of work for certain kinds of people. This affects in particular women who clean and care in private households or work in the sex industry. Their employers might prefer women from developing countries because they consider them as inferior and appropriate for the kind unskilled work they have to perform.
9. Disciplining the local workforce
At least historically, migrants have also been used by employers as strike-busters in order to break the power of labor unions. When workers laid down their tools and went on strike against harsh working conditions or low wages, employers recruited immigrant workers to keep up the work. Immigrants are much less likely to be organized in unions and to join the ranks of the labor movement. This allowed employers to withstand the strike and to defeat unions’ claims. This tactic often drove a wedge between different parts of the workforce and undermined the power of the labor movement to the detriment of all workers.
A final reason why employers may want to hire immigrants is a matter of path-dependency. Once a substantial part of his workforce is made up of immigrants from one country speaking the same language, it may be just more practical for an employer to hire workers with the same background that can easily interact and communicate with their co-workers. Moreover, there is ample evidence that immigrants and their communities, once one or a few immigrant workers are hired in a given workplace, will tend to bring in other members as job openings arise. Finally, once specific types of jobs or sectors are associated with particular immigrant communities, this may further discourage native workers to take on these jobs in the long run.
Looking at the demand for migrant labor in our economy from this perspective, we see that migrants perform vital functions in our societies that allow us to sustain our own lifestyle, in particular concerning the consumption of cheap products and services. In reality, immigrants do not ‘steal our jobs’, as often claimed by anti-immigrant populism, but do the jobs natives are no longer willing to do themselves. On the other hand, the current model works by restricting the rights of migrant workers, producing a flexible and vulnerable workforce. This opens the gates for exploitative labor practices and abuse ranging from sub-standard working conditions, to the withholding of wages to slavery-like practices of forced labor and human trafficking.
Making migration more beneficial and equitable for both the host society and the migrants hence requires the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants as set out in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. What we need is a rights-based approach to international migration that not only furthers employers’ interests in flexibility and cost cutting, but also the interests of migrant workers in decent employment. No migrant-receiving State in Western Europe or North America has ratified the Convention yet! This is a shame. After all, we are as dependent on them as they are on us.
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