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The New Labor Migration

by Randy Persaud

Guyana Journal, June 2009

Much has been written about immigration in the press recently. A good deal of it is useful and constructive. Too many of the articles, however, veer away from objective analysis and collapse into politicized disquisitions, or sometimes even unreconstructed ethnification. It might be useful for us to engage in a real discussion of the general tendencies of what might be best described as the new immigration.

The appellation 'new immigration' is directly linked to the emergence of a new world economy. Simply put, the new economy has the following features: (1) a shift from industrial production to ideas based value; (2) a concomitant splitting of the labor market with an upper rung of knowledge based workers and a lower rung of unskilled, contingent workers; (3) new sets of juridical and legislative instruments that have simultaneously created a hyper-flexible workforce and diminution of the rights of workers; (4) fantastic internationalization of finance and the emergence of new instruments such as mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, i.e., what Susan Strange once called casino capitalism; (5) the deepening of the internationalization of production with large free trade zones that have substantively maquilarized production relations; (6) significant development in communication technologies that allow new forms of (just-in-time) production and distribution; (7) the rise of highly internationalized forms of state which in effect compromise the sovereignty of states with added stress on small/developing countries; and inter alia, (8) a general reconfiguration of state-society relations characterized by the privatization of services once delivered by the state.

The full gamut of issues cannot be dealt with here. Instead I focus on point two above, since it directly speaks to the issue of labor migration. In simple terms the first industrialized countries entered a period of deindustrialization and went more into services - financial products, R&D, IT, education, insurance, real estate, health, tourism, techno-driven agri-business, etc. The new economy had the impact of eroding the solid core of the middle class based on industrial production. The new labor market demanded highly specialized workers at the top, and low-end service workers at the bottom. In the case of the US, this took the form of new visa instruments such as the H1B, TN1, and the J's. Canada and West European countries did much the same. They went into massive recruitment of technical skills.

There were also developments at the bottom end. The first is that retail started to outstrip other sectors of the economy in term of employment. Wal Mart is now the largest employer in the U.S. Detroit is basically bankrupt. Secondly, there was a fantastic rise of a new class of well compensated knowledge and financial sector workers. They demanded personal service - daycare, lawn attendance, personal security for gated communities, etc. Thirdly, a new form of personal responsibility capitalism in the form of the Reagan Revolution began to emerge. This had specific consequences for labor. Reagan essentially carried out a massive attack against organized labor, and put in place legislative instruments that (1) facilitated sub-contracting, a mechanism that brought about work without employment (2) a persistent attack against organized labor. Fourthly, African American workers who had historically been not allowed into the primary labor market on account of race-based discrimination started to make strides as Civil Rights legislation began to be more systematically enforced. This generated greater demand for replacement workers in areas such as daycare and domestics.

The configuration of all of these elements saw the need for millions of 'Dunkin-donut jobs' at the bottom.

While there was a wild scramble for the knowledge workers at the top, there was great permissiveness for foreign workers at the bottom. Illegal workers were easily accommodated. The old California model of turning a blind eye to illegal Mexican workers during the planting and harvesting season became a national phenomenon. The only difference is that in the new economy, these 'illegal workers' started working in areas such as the poultry industry (think, for instance, of the Delmarva), lawn care, construction, security services, janitorial services, moving, retail, and as domestics.

Here is the key point. While the most important qualification of the upper rung workers is their technical qualification, the qualification for the lower end workers is actually their vulnerability. Vulnerability here, refers to the difficult position illegal workers find themselves in vis-a-vis employers. Simply put, they have very little legal protections.

The massive rise of labor migration went through two phases. The first phase began immediately after WWII, and was based on industrial expansion. This led to skilled labor intake and family-to-follow immigration. Deindustrialization ended that phase. In its place, the new economy demanded knowledge workers at the top and contingent/vulnerable family-not-to-follow migration. At this bottom end, illegality, labor flexibility and vulnerability are deeply imbricated.

When the economy is an expansionary phase there is greater toleration for foreign labor intake. When the economy enters a recessionary phase, the same foreign labor becomes a readily available target for politicians, right-wingers, and others who may be feeling the economic pain. It is at this time also that the identity of the immigrant worker is shifted from the 'hard-working soul' to the dangerous outsider.

Dr. Randy Persaud is Director, Comparative & Regional Studies, SIS, American University, Washington, D.C.