Historical Materialism 2014: Migration, the Labour Market and Social Reproduction

The second of three articles by UNITE union activist Ian Allinson, reporting from four very useful sessions[1] on learning the North American Labour movement at this year’s Historical Materialism conference.

Immigrant rights protest in Los Angeles, 2007
Immigrant rights protest in Los Angeles, 2007

We’re all busy fighting to stop “blame the migrants” arguments from politicians from UKIP to Labour and from the press getting a hold in our workplaces and communities. The need for clarity about the relationship between capitalism and migration is obvious. Sue Ferguson and David McNally’s paper on “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of the Working Class” was an important contribution to this.

David argued that the concept of “social reproduction” helps us understand us understand how classes are transformed. The reproduction of capital in the workplace does not reproduce the capitalist system as a whole. Labour power (in the form of workers fit to work) is reproduced outside the market – biologically, socially, economically and culturally. We need to understand the connection between the market and non-market aspects of capitalism. It is important that our understanding includes the global aspects of social reproduction such as migrant labour. Capitalism involves transnational movements of capital, labour and wages. The global labour movement is hierarchical, reflecting imperialism and racism.

David argued that Marx was wrong in Capital to assume a fixed birth rate, from which he concluded that the renewal of machinery would lead to a renewal of a reserve army of labour. In reality, working class women reduced their birth rates and did not renew the reserve army of labour. Capital needed migration to sustain the population in advanced countries. Population movements are often large and not marginal.

Migrant workers are often in “temporary servitude”, in bonded or semi-bonded labour, tied to a particular employer and lacking rights. For capital they form the ideal precarious workers.

A key point David made was about the role of deportation. Governments make a great show of brutally deporting people. But the aim of this is not to control the movement of people, but to create a condition of “deportability” amongst migrant workers, making them vulnerable – a form of “racialised precarity”. There are around 12 million undocumented workers in the USA. The individuals change as people arrive, become documented or leave, but there is a permanent labour force of the temporarily employed. Some governments have institutionalised this with time limits on people staying in a country, ensuring individuals are transient and obstructing them building links and winning rights. (Since HM, UKIP’s Mark Reckless advocated this approach, which would worsen any downward pressure on labour markets). The existence of this permanent pool of insecure migrant workers helps discipline all workers, exerting downward pressure on wages and conditions. States are both expanding migration and cracking down on migrants. This forms part of dividing the working class into deserving v undeserving, between included and dangerous.

Sue Ferguson talked about how neoliberalism has used mass dispossession to turn resources into assets – land into capital and labour into proletarians. The global working class has grown dramatically, to around 3 billion today, plus a large reserve army of labour.

Sue described how internal and international migration had led to spatial rescaling of households, with huge numbers relying on remittances from migrant workers. Remittances amount to over £500 billion a year, about three times global aid budgets. Women and temporary workers send most money home. David said that over half a billion people rely on cross-border remittances. Mexico receives 160% as much in remittances as it does from Foreign Direct Investment. Some “country of origin” states match funding from migrants to local infrastructure projects, to encourage more remittances.

In addition to providing a pool of cheap labour, Sue argued that remittances meant migrant workers in developed countries were funding social reproduction at lower cost in poorer countries. The sites of production and reproduction were being separated, cutting overall social reproduction costs for the system, promoting cuts to spending and degrading workers, making them more disposable. Charlie Post described how migration and remittances were turning some countries into “giant labour reserves”.

Sue explained how migrant labour force has been reproduced “free” to the receiving countries (“illegal” migrants costing even less than documented ones). The migrants and their families often do benefit financially from migration. Female migrants are often freed of some of the social expectations of their country of origin, but are then burdened with new ones.

Sue summarised the attitude of richer countries wanting foreign “labour” but not the people who carry out the labour. Bad conditions are imposed on the workers, who are often depicted as a threat to society.

David felt the migrants’ marches and strikes in May 2006, which Charlie Post explained had shut down some industries, had shown it was impossible to renew the left without addressing migrant politics. The left must oppose moves to defend “our” jobs by opposing migration and instead fight for full migrant rights. States use inclusion and exclusion dynamically with fluid racial boundaries. Some people may be allowed rights if they buy in to notions of “belonging” which exclude others. Susan thought the left wasn’t too bad on opposing immigration controls, but unions needed to do more to develop approaches and policies to unify workers. A speaker from the floor argued that the left should oppose higher fees for overseas students.

Michael Goldfield felt that US unions’ failure to consistently deliver solidarity over race was an important factor in their decline since the 1930s. He argued that unions which fail to fight for immigrants end up being unable to achieve the industrial solidarity all workers need. Michael touched on some interesting exceptions, such as unions organising sit-ins and winning desegregation years before the civil rights movement. In the 1930s Birmingham Alabama miners organised strongly and then unionised other industries in the nearby counties. But there were also horrific examples such as the USW in Alabama allying with the Klu Klux Klan against black trade unionists.

Workplaces are amongst the most diverse places in US society. Though US unions had improved, Kim Moody thought that they still didn’t “get” this.

Kim argued for unions to target logistics hubs for organising . Three giant warehousing centres in Los Angeles, Chicago and New Jersey employ hundreds of thousands of workers and are strategically important. Kim agreed that ignoring the question of race would be a disaster, and that this was also a key question for organising manufacturing, much of which has moved to the US south. In the warehousing/logistics sector, 90% of the workforce in the mid-west is African American.

In Los Angeles and New Jersey there is a high proportion of Latino workers. There are 40 million migrants in the USA, 25 million of whom have jobs. Kim describes these migrants are more pro-union and more militant. A third of US union members are non-white and half are women. White males are a minority.

Sue pointed out that the fight for migrant rights and their right to have children is a class struggle over social reproduction. She made the point that when workers struggle in the workplace they are fighting to improve the quality of their social reproduction. I suppose this idea finds its echo in the old slogan “we work to live, we don’t live to work”.

When UKIP and others are lobbying for greater state racism and their arguments are being amplified by the media and mainstream politicians, it is vital that socialists have clear responses. Arguing that migrants benefit “the economy” carries little weight with people who rightly feel that the economy doesn’t benefit them. Sue and David showed clearly how capitalists have no intention of using border controls to control migration, which they need. Border controls and repression against migrants aren’t there to protect non-migrant workers from downward pressure on the labour market, but to ensure migrants feel vulnerable and so create downward pressure on labour markets. Workers opposing migrants help create the very insecurity they are afraid of. Fighting for all workers to have full rights is the only effective way to improve our lives.

[1]The four HM conference sessions covered in this series of reports were:
“Explaining the Decline of Organized Labour in the US: Is Globalization to Blame”: Charles Post “What’s Globalisation Got To Do With It? The Decline of Industrial Unionism in the US Tire Industry 1966-2008”; Kim Moody “Is Globalisation to Blame? An Examination of the Data for the US”; Comments by Michael Goldfield
“The Crisis of Labour in the United States”: Jeff Goodwin “The Crisis in Numbers”; Jame McAlevey “The Crisis of New Labor”; Sam Gindin “Crisis of Labor; Crisis of the Left”
“Left Strategy and the US Working Classes”: Jane McAlevey “Wall to Wall Organizing: Health and Education Workers”; Kim Moody & Charles Post “The Politics of US Labour: Paralysis and Possibilities”; Sam Gindin
“Transforming Classes”: Hugo Radice “Class Theory and Class Politics Today”; Susan Ferguson & David McNally “Precarious Migrants: Gender, Race and the Social Reproduction of the Working Class”


  1. Whether or not this carries “little weight” is debatable because when having this debate it’s important to point out that there is plenty of public money for tax cuts for the rich, Trident and sundry other public subsidies that do not benefit workers, including migrants. In my experience, when discussing these issues with those who blame migrants and pointing out that there is no evidence of migrants causing low pay and unemployment and then contrasting this with the evidence of the rising gap between rich and poor since the recession then this invariably undermines the lies about migrants and focusses anger on social inequality where it belongs.

    Falling into the trap of allowing empathy for the plight of those on low pay and the unemployed to pander to arguments that scapegoat migrants by downplaying their contribution to the NHS and many other public services is not going to challenge racist attitudes that UKIP and the Tories want to cultivate. If the Left concedes to or downplays ANY of the racist myths being peddled by UKIP then this will be a disaster for building opposition to austerity especially now that the SNP have taken an anti-austerity and pro-migrant position (even if this is little more than rhetoric in practice) and won a decisive victory in Scotland in contrast to Labour who produced those disgusting anti-immigration mugs and saw their vote flat-line across the UK. We don’t want to appear to the right of the SNP over immigration!

  2. “Arguing that migrants benefit “the economy” carries little weight with people who rightly feel that the economy doesn’t benefit them.” This is such an important point, that the organizations campaigning for migrant rights so often seem to miss, at least in the UK. Even the recent and quite visible Migrants Contribute campaign seems to fall into this to an extent.


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