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'Migration and injustice'

Feb 13, 2010

Inequality is the fundamental ‘unfreedom’ that causes the plight of migrants, writes Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, in the second part of her critique of the Human Development Report 2009. Addressing pre-migration woes and reforming structures that enable exploitation can help create fair and equal space for migrants, she adds.

The Human Development Report 2009 (hereafter 'the Report') entitled Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development focuses on the theme of migration.

Part I of my critique of the Report focused on international migration.


Let us now look at internal migration, which is much larger in scale.  The Report estimates that there are approximately 740 million internal migrants in the world today. The migrant populations of just China (136 million) and India (42 million) are almost equal to total stock of international migrants (200 million).

Given its scale and importance, the Report argues for the removal of all barriers to internal migration, particularly where livelihoods are at stake. Given the unevenness of development, high inequality, environmental threats and similar constraints, people often have no choice but to migrate.  Denying them the right to do so is a violation of their human freedom. Further, migrants produce economic value for the communities they migrate to, which should entitle them to fair treatment and basic rights.

Accordingly, the Report makes the following recommendations:

  • Ensuring basic rights for migrants;
  • Reducing transaction costs associated with migration;
  • Improving outcomes for migrants and destination communities;
  • Enabling benefits from internal mobility; and
  • Making mobility an integral part of national development strategies

In and of themselves, these policies are indeed crucial.  My concern is the broader ideological and political-economic contexts in which these policies are to be adopted.

Consider for example the recommendation for integrating migration into development strategies. It seems to me that migration is already integrated into national development strategies, directly and indirectly, in ways that do anything but benefit migrants. Public policy must first undo these  ‘development’ strategies and then redo them from a different set of foundational principles.

Three elements here are crucial: policy towards the agrarian sector, policies for urban development, and policies towards export industries.  In recent years, the primary driver behind these policies has been neoliberalism - a process that continues to create and exploit human vulnerabilities with unfazed ingenuity. India represents a critical example of this model, where the triad of policies towards agriculture, exports and urban development has produced a highly vulnerable and insecure labour force.

In their background paper for the Report, Deshingkar and Akter estimate this class of migrants to be some 100 million strong, contributing to 10 percent of India’s national income.  According to the authors, employers see them as the ‘ultimate flexible workforce’; labour laws, wherever they exist are ‘not adhered to’; ‘flouting them is the norm’. What would it take to reverse this situation? At least two things: reversing the devastation of agriculture and restructuring industries where migrants are employed.  More on this below.

China represents an even more complex relationship between migration and ‘development’.  Chinese migration policy has been managed much more successfully to move labour from agriculture to industry.  This success is due, to no small extent, to the relatively equal land distribution regimes prior to the transition.   However, this ‘success’ has a very significant dark side – it has created a tiered labour force where the bottom tier faces myriad forms of discrimination.  Unequal access to services is one aspect of this discrimination which the Report highlights. Better access is clearly necessary.  But deeper questions also must be asked: is this tiring of the labour force a deliberate policy for subsidising certain kinds of ‘national development’?

However we look at it, migration policy seeks to create a hierarchy of human beings.  Migrants, in order to gain access to the coveted livelihoods, must accept their status as ‘lesser’ human beings, workers, and citizens; an even that acceptance cannot guarantee them protection from discrimination or xenophobia.

Can such processes be reversed? Here are some thoughts on the question:

  • First, the Report rightly points to the need for developing a discourse which focuses on the economic value of migrants.  The reality is that migrants perform an indispensable array of labour-intensive tasks without which any of the contemporary economic ‘miracles’ of Bangalore or Beijing or their sister cities would not occur.  The discourse must shift from focusing on what such economic ‘miracles’ do for migrants to what migrants everywhere are doing for the ‘miracles’.  Given how indispensable migrant work continues to be for every society, ensuring their fair treatment is not only an issue of human right, but also one of entitlement and justice.  In fact, it is not nearly enough to guarantee only their human rights: we must also guarantee migrants a fair share of the economic wealth they create.  This must become a central question of national development policy.
  • As we know, migrants create wealth in many ways. Key sectors such as agribusiness, food processing, tourism, construction, and export industries generally profit massively from migrant labour. Many of these receive substantial state support.  Reorganizing these sectors can go a long way in benefitting migrants. Such reorganization would involve developing enterprise structures which are democratic and where producers and workers have more control over the distribution of value.  Such alternatives already exist in commodities such as coffee, tea, fruits, textile etc. in many developing countries. The fair trade movement is one such alternative.  While far from perfect, they represent efforts of small producers and workers to retain control on the conditions under which they work and the value they produce.  For India, recent studies on the impact of trade and globalization on gender recommends similar changes in export sectors (see UNCTAD India). These can be crucial to the integration of migration into national development strategies.
  • Skilling and education, as the Report recommends are indeed necessary components of a ‘migrant-friendly’ national development strategy. But there is a caveat.  ‘Skill’ or ‘merit’ are not ‘objects’ - their valuation is socially constructed and deeply conditioned by racism, casteism, gender bias or similar attitudes.  These processes and attitudes also provide the moral justification for tiering human beings, irrespective of their skills.  They cannot be countered simply by demonstrating the economic value of migrants.  It is rather their human value that must be emphasised - just as social justice movements everywhere are attempting to do.

To conclude, let me reiterate two points regarding the relationship between migration and human development.  First, migration cannot possibly lead to human development and freedom if it takes inequality as a given. Inequality is the fundamental ‘unfreedom’ that causes the plight of migrants. No amount of post-migration policy can work unless the pre-migration ‘unfreedoms’ are addressed (see background paper by Jayati Ghosh for the gender dimension of this question). 

Second, the Report concedes that migration cannot be an alternative to ‘development’.  But at issue is also an alternative development. Conventional development models, particularly the recent neoliberal forms are dependent on various types of exploitations, of which the exploitation of migrant labour is a key one. Reforming the structures that enable such exploitation is where we have to begin.

Easier said than done, of course.  But cannot be done, unless said, and said unequivocally.


Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is a professor of Political Science and Development Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada.

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