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'Migration and unfreedom'

Jan 30, 2010

The plight of migrant workers is not caused by absence of policy; it is the consequence of a highly exploitative structure, writes Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, professor of Political Science and Development Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. She critiques the Human Development Report 2009 for ignoring the very raison d’etre of existent policy frameworks governing migration, issues of inequality, and rights.

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


The first is that migration is (or should be) a basic human freedom – as opposed to slavery which symbolised the ultimate and unacceptable ‘unfreedom’. Second, given the level of inequalities in the world today, the poorest have the most to gain from migration. These gains can be appropriately realised by lowering the barriers to migration and improving the treatment of migrants.

This is, however, only half the story. The Report ignores, I would argue, the very raison d’etre of the existent policy frameworks governing migration. Where have the current policy regimes come from?  Unless we explore that, a new ‘menu’ of policies can hardly suffice.

Arguably, the plight of migrant workers is not caused by the absence of policy, as the Report suggests, but is the consequence of a rather coherent set of policies to ensure a steady supply of cheap labour. Corporations and private businesses, small and large, domestic and international, are the primary beneficiaries of this highly exploitative policy, as are some privileged social classes in the North and South.

Interestingly, the words ‘corporations’ or ‘agribusiness’ do not even appear in the Report. It does make several references, though, to ‘employers’ and their misbehaviour, but nothing that would remotely suggest how existing policy regimes contribute to the systematic exploitation of migrant labour.

In short, the predicament of migrants is the outcome of pro-business/ anti-people policy measures undertaken by governments worldwide. And there are serious on-going struggles against those who implement and design such policy.

At issue here is an extreme inequality of power, between governments and businesses on the one hand, and a huge pool of dispossessed labour on the other. This has two consequences. First, it gives rise to policy regimes which legitimise interests of the powerful. Second, it allows flagrant violation of migrants’ rights, where they exist, to go unpunished.

In what follows, I discuss the case of Canada, a model that the Report compliments and recommends. Is the Canadian model producing ‘human development’ and ‘freedom’ for its many migrants? No: and the reasons for that lie in the structures and power relations in which these policies are embedded.

I focus here on those who migrate out of necessity than out of choice (the Report analyses both).  This is not to minimise in any way the pervasive discrimination that skilled migrants face, including in Canada. By and large, however, whether migration constitutes ‘opportunity and freedom’ or a movement from one ‘unfreedom’ to another is determined by the social and economic class prior to migration.

The Canadian case

“Key elements when planning and implementing [migration] reforms include consultation with source country governments, union and employer involvement, basic wage guarantees, health and safety protection, and provision for repeat visits. These elements are the basis for schemes that have been successfully operating for decades in Canada...” (Human Development Report, 2009: 96).

The second is the Live-in Caregivers programme (LCP) which supplies cheap domestic labour (i.e., maids and nannies) to affluent Canadian households. The majority of LCP migrants are Filipino women. There are nearly 100,000 Filipino women in Canada, and are waging a long struggle against the labour export/ import regimes of Canada and the Philippines.

The Report begins with the story of Juan:

Consider Juan. Born into a poor family in rural Mexico, his family struggled to pay for his health care and education. At the age of 12, he dropped out of school to help support his family. Six years later, Juan followed his uncle to Canada in pursuit of higher wages and better opportunities. Life expectancy in Canada is five years higher than in Mexico and incomes are three times greater. Juan was selected to work temporarily in Canada, earned the right to stay and eventually became an entrepreneur whose business now employs native-born Canadians. This is just one case out of millions of people every year who find new opportunities and freedoms by migrating, benefiting themselves as well as their areas of origin and destination (HDR 2009: 2; emphasis mine).

The irony cannot be more profound. As recently as June 2008, a study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a leading progressive think tank, concluded that migrants under the SAWP are in ‘indentured servitude’. For years, unions and activists have documented how this program enriches Canada’s prosperous agribusiness community at the cost of workers who literally put food on Canada’s tables. Canadian policy also keeps a substantial part of migrants’ earnings in Canada – as taxes, contribution to the Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance (which they cannot benefit from).

In 2001, for example, they paid more than $9.5 million in taxes, $3.4 million in employment insurance, and spent more than $82 million in Canada.

The suggestion that ‘millions of people every year’ ‘find new opportunities and freedoms by migrating’ is far from reality. The right to residency is not available to any significant proportion of the thousands of migrant workers. Who, and under what conditions obtains this right is arbitrary and the process lacks transparency. It is ‘earned’ at huge costs. For example, the Live in Care Giver Programme (LCP, is one of the few programmes where the workers have won this right after years of struggle. Then why are the caregivers demanding that the programme be scrapped? As their petition states:

“The LCP is a racist and anti-woman immigration and labour programme. Currently, these jobs are concentrated among Filipino women who constitute over 96% of live-in caregivers who came under this programme. The LCP relegates women to cheap labor and long working hours. The women are generally paid much lower wages than citizens and are constrained to work beyond the mandated 8 to 10 hours a day because of their “live- in” and temporary workers status. For nearly two decades, Filipino women and the progressive Filipino community have been calling for the scrapping of the LCP ... For two decades, the LCP has relegated the Filipino community to the margins of Canadian society –continually trapped in low-income jobs and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – generation after generation”. The Kalyaan Center, Vancouver, Canada in its Petition to the Canadian government to scrap the LCP, which is one of the major migrant worker schemes in Canada

The institutionalisation of fear

Very similar perceptions exist regarding the Seasonal Workers Programme. One of the key features of both programmes is the institutionalised administration of fear. This is done either through the threat of deportation, or the denial of re-entry, not being able to ‘earn’ the right to stay, or worse still, through new programmes which pit one pool of dispossessed workers against another. An example is the recently created Temporary Foreign Workers Programme for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP), which offers even less protection to foreign workers.

As the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in Canada (UFCW), Canada’s largest private sector union, says, these policies “set a low and compelling standard for other Canadian industries (Report on The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada 2008-2009, UCFW).

A key element here is the denial of the rights to unionisation or any kind of collective bargaining.  This is why one of Canada’s largest unions, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is leading a Shameful Secret campaign against the Canadian government’s refusal to ratify three core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). These are the conventions on forced labour; the right to organise and collective bargaining; and minimum age.

Right now, a landmark case Fraser v. Attorney General of Ontario is being adjudicated by the Supreme Court of Canada. Led by the UCFW and supported by several others, it seeks to restore the rights of agricultural workers to unionise – a right that was stripped by the provincial government of Ontario in 1995 (Ontario and Alberta are the two Canadian provinces where most migrant workers come, and neither give them the right to unionise).

Why are there such arduous struggles over rights for migrants in a country with a relatively better framework of labour rights? The reason is simple: because migrant worker schemes enable employers to undercut hard-won labour rights – by exploiting the penury of another group of workers. If migrant workers ‘cost’ the same and impose the same obligations as ‘natives’ then the very reason for employing them disappears. So the choice for the poor is either to suffer in poverty at home or to accept injustice where they move to.

It is, of course, worse for women. The Report’s claim that migration may liberate women from traditional roles is hardly substantiated when one examines the conditions under which migrant women work. In an excellent study by Preibisch and Grez, we hear many voices of Mexican women migrants in Canada’s farms. Upon migration, they enter yet another world of discrimination, another set of patriarchal norms, aggravated by dislocation and the pain of separation. As the women appear painfully aware, their value lies precisely in their ‘choice’ – as it were – to devalue themselves: as women and as workers.

It is in this devaluation lies the employers’ motivation to employ them.
This, in my view, is the crux of the matter. The ability to stratify and exploit workers using class, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality or any such criteria drives the demand for migrant workers. ‘Better policy’ can emerge only if this premise is fundamentally challenged, as various movements are attempting to do.

Beyond that, it is necessary to ensure that migration is truly a matter of choice, and not of necessity. This will entail serious restructuring(s) of global capitalism and the various state-business alliances on which it rests. ‘Human development’ in this framework must also include a real choice not to migrate: the freedom not to be forced to become a ‘dollar parent’ in a faraway land.

Thousands of Filipino women in the migrant Mecca of Canada are struggling precisely for this ‘freedom’. Can their struggle succeed?

Only when we address the inequality and dispossession that forces migration. What the Report suggests are strategies that can help individuals cope with such inequality.

However, the kind of inequality we have today cannot be overcome one individual at a time; as the stories of migrants show, such individual ‘solutions’ might reinforce the processes that produce the inequality in the first place.


The author wishes to thank Evelyn Encalada Grez, co-founder of Justice for Migrant Workers, a grassroots labour rights organisation; Derek Fudge, National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), Canada; and Naveen Mehta, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in Canada (UFCW).

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