Sunday, August 25, 2013

Migrant Labour, Slavery and Servitude

Migration, a livelihood strategy

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of international migrants was estimated at 214 million in 2010 - more then the whole population of Brazil – and it is rising constantly. People migrate within their country (especially from rural to urban areas) or between countries, often without “legal permission” and putting their lives at risk. Migration is a complex phenomenon as it is the result of many different factors, such as wars, conflicts, natural disasters, new opportunities, family reunifications, etc. However the main reason for the rise in contemporary migration is economic. Women and men migrate mostly to escape hunger and poverty. In particular, the destruction of rural communities and peasant agriculture (including deforestation, soil exhaustion and unfair land distribution) is one of the main “push factors” for migrating. National and international policies and trade agreements endorsed by the current neoliberal capitalist system are behind this process.

A migrant labour-force

With the introduction of the globalised movement of capital in the neoliberal system transnational companies increasingly began to disconnect production from a fixed geography – using the global economy to source materials, production no longer became tied to a single place. Companies quickly realized that a limiting factor on profit was labour costs, and so began to organize the movement of their industries to countries or regions where labour costs were low, organizing tax havens for their businesses in exchange for providing low paid manufacturing jobs in the host country.

For agriculture the situation was more complex as existing soils, trees, vines, processing infrastructure and prevalent weather conditions meant that simple relocation to zones with cheaper labour costs was not as straightforward. As farmers in Europe and the U.S. were pushed to increase production in order to compensate for lower and lower prices being paid by retailers, they began to employ migrant labourers in increasing numbers. Decreasing availability of local seasonal workers and a huge increase in the availability of undocumented migrant workers quickly led labour intensive agricultural enterprises to increase their use of migrant labour, resulting in the current situation where an estimated between one and three million migrant farm workers (predominantly Mexican and undocumented workers with no legal status) work on farms in the United States alone. In some cases the agricultural enterprises have begun to move overseas in order to lower their production costs.

 Large organic and conventional farms being established in Northern Morocco in order to supply the E.U. market and taking advantage of more “competitive” labour costs there  are one such example. This transferral of production is often accompanied and facilitated by aggressively negotiated bi-lateral trade agreements. The same process can be seen at work as companies involved in landgrabbing internationally use land (often the best agricultural land) and local labour to produce food destined only for the export market.

States are complicit in this situation and worldwide agricultural and migration policies are progressively more correlated. Governments with large numbers of
incoming migrants have repeatedly failed to regulate for them, refusing to introduce rights for seasonal workers and allowing the situation to worsen. Especially in the E.U. and U.S., enormous sums of money and effort are expended in keeping people beyond increasingly militarized borders, while special seasonal permits and migration policies prevent migrant workers from settling in the destination country or gaining any rights. As migrant workers are pushed to enter the destination country illegally, they can be employed under the constant threat of deportation and face criminalisation and blackmail. For neoliberal enterprise it is an ideal situation: a cheap labour force throughout the year that can be discarded at any time or even deported back to their country of origin when they are no longer required.

Modern slavery

Working conditions can eventually reach a level of exploitation that they can be considered a modern form of “slavery”. Even if it is difficult to believe, twenty-seven million people are considered to be in slavery today. Almost all slavery practices, including trafficking in people and bonded labour, contain some element of forced labour. This means that there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history. Slavery has existed for thousands of years, but changes in the world’s economy and societies over the past fifty years have enabled a resurgence of slavery. “Modern slaves” are forced to work for little or no pay, under the threat of violence to themselves or their families, deportation or criminalization. Most of them are exploited in agriculture, fisheries, mining and construction, and - especially women and children - in prostitution. Generally illegal migration presents traffickers with opportunities to oblige or defraud undocumented migrants into involuntary servitude and exploitation, as their lack of legal status creates their invisibility.
Undocumented people – such as many farm workers - live the contradiction of being criminalized and chased on the one hand, and needed, desired and often exploited on the other.  
from here

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