Migration is a class issue

by Aug 11, 2022Amandla

POLITICIANS ACROSS THE WORLD make efforts to mobilise support from low-waged, precarious and otherwise marginalised workers. They do this by claiming that they will protect them from the depredations of “migrants”, foreigners who take resources from citizens. This mobilises an old fear – that there isn’t enough to go around. But this response assumes that what is bad for migrants is good for citizens. In practice, this is far from always the case.

Taking “our” jobs?
Take, for example, the claim that migrants take jobs from citizens and tough immigration controls are needed to protect national workers from unfair competition. This rests on the so-called “lump of labour fallacy”. This fallacy imagines there is a fixed number of jobs in a national economy. In this scenario, migrants (or women, or young people or whatever group is the object of concern) simply substitute for citizens (or men or older workers) and vice versa. Neither of these assumptions is correct. An economy is never a fixed size and workers, whatever their skill level, cannot simply be substituted for one another. Whether or not it is logical, many households would not see that a female live-in care worker could simply be substituted for a male live-in care worker.

Immigration controls create super-exploited workers
But there is a further issue to consider in the case of migrant workers. Immigration controls do not simply facilitate a flow of labour to particular countries and jobs. They are also highly productive – they create workers as “foreigners”. And in the process, they create particular kinds of workers and types of employment relations. This is sometimes acknowledged in the case of undocumented people; they are recognised as more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and poor labour conditions because of their fear of deportation. But less attention is given to the ways that legally working migrants are heavily constrained by immigration controls.

In most countries of the world people who work on migrant worker visas are subject to conditions. Many of these conditions would be considered a significant infringement of rights if they were imposed on citizens. Migrants may be tied to their employer. They may be prohibited from claiming social assistance or health care and forbidden from joining trade unions. They may be required to take health and pregnancy tests, to live on site etc.

Many find that they cannot access the limited rights they do have because of racism and xenophobia, language barriers, administrative complexity, or lack of knowledge. These restrictions, combined with sponsorship requirements, mean that low waged migrants typically depend on their employer for their (often highly temporary) right to stay in a state. This gives employers mechanisms of control over their legal as well as undocumented migrant workforce. Far from “protecting” the labour market for citizens, immigration restrictions can mean employers actively seek to employ migrants.

Those who are deemed “low-skilled” are particularly vulnerable to these restrictions. Skill is a key factor in labour migration regimes. Entry is facilitated for the high-skilled and restricted for the low-skilled. Migrants or not, those who can turn their hand to everything – construction workers who dig and plaster today and tomorrow lay foundations, bricks and tiles, and domestic workers who clean and cook at the same time as caring for an elderly person – these are all “unskilled”. They are typically the most marginalised workers – often women, migrants, minoritised people, disabled people.

National becomes “natural” While unskilled work is depicted as work that anybody can do, not anybody is regarded as suitable for any job. Working together, immigration and skills regimes internationalise class distinctions, and at the same time turn national divisions between workers into “natural” ones. This is evident in the claims about the natural abilities of particular nationalities that are a feature of employer demand for migrant workers across the world.

Employers are often open about wanting nationalities associated with certain physical and personal characteristics. Different nationalities are ranked against each other, designated as better or worse depending on what jobs are to be done where. At the same time, this means that people’s aptitudes can be characterised as natural rather than demonstrating skill. To designate such physical and behavioural characteristics as “racial” would be unacceptable, and rightly so. However, describing them as “national” can be presented as simple common sense.

Categories such as “migrant”, “citizen” and “skill” are represented as technical, but in practice are highly politicised. The Australian backpacker working in a bar in Thailand and the US financier living in Hamburg may be subject to immigration controls, but they are rarely regarded as “migrants”. In contrast, the racialised woman cleaning the banker’s flat may be regarded as a migrant even if she has never crossed an international border in her life.

The migrant and the citizen

Protest against the 2019 National Register of Citizens in India which removed citizenship from 1.9 million people in Assam.

Putting it crudely, the “migrant” is imagined as poor and often negatively racialised or otherwise associated with backwardness. This is how some people who have the legal status of citizens can nevertheless be described as “migrants”. Think of India’s 54 million internal migrants whose vulnerabilities were so starkly exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Or the descriptor “second/third generation migrant” or “person of migration background”, used as a synonym for Black and ethnic minority citizens in Europe.

The distinction between the migrant and citizen is in practice, not clear cut, and racism and xenophobia are key to the production of “us” and “them”. In many states, these framings have been profoundly shaped by colonial histories. Colonialism entrenched and codified differences between people across continents. This has continuing consequences for groups who may be born in a country but are nevertheless imagined as “out of place”.

Infamously, in 2013 the Dominican Republic’s constitutional court removed citizenship from anyone who could not prove that their parents were legal residents when they were born. As a result, 70,000-80,000 people were deported to Haiti over three years, and unknown numbers moved “voluntarily”. In India, the implementation of strict requirements for documenting citizenship, and the publication of the National Register of Citizens in 2019, removed citizenship from 1.9 million people in Assam. People lacking documents, or whose documents had “discrepancies”, were rendered stateless, removed from voting registers. They were liable to imprisonment as foreigners even if they had never moved from the village that they were born in.

In both countries, the vast majority of those affected were impoverished and marginalised. The mobilisation of ethnicity and ancestry to strip or otherwise undermine citizenship is, like migration, a class issue.

Ambiguity of the “national”

Taken together, immigration/skills regimes on the one hand, and citizenship stripping on the other, expose how the ambiguity of the term “‘national” is used politically. “National” can signify a legal relation with, or recognition by, the state – as in “national territory” or “national citizenship”. But “national” can also mean belonging to the nation, with the nation understood very loosely as referring to culture/cultures, languages and a people that stretches back in time. Membership in the nation is claimed through ancestry and often imagined as independent of and pre-dating the state.

The ambiguity of “national” means that it is possible to be a legal citizen, but nevertheless not considered as belonging to the nation. History teaches us that neither citizenship nor membership of the nation are stable statuses. This is not only because of ethnicity: those who are homeless, who are disabled, who have criminal records, who do not conform, who depend on social assistance, who are queer, can be rendered vulnerable to state violence and exclusion. Ideas of migration, belonging and the nation mobilise race, labour, migration, gender and citizenship to divide and hierarchise. Making connections, alliances and solidarities between marginalised citizens, people whose presence is only tolerated, and migrants is vital for social justice. In a world where increasing and grotesque inequalities are manifest within, between and across state borders, what is bad for migrants is not good for citizens. In fact, in the final analysis, it is bad for citizens too.

Bridget Anderson is the Director of the University of Bristol’s Specialist Research Institute, Migration Mobilities Bristol. 

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