Migrant Labour

Discussion paper for the september workshop in London

21.Sep.04 - Please note that this is a rough translation from the Italian original!

Contemporary migration appears to be characterised by a relatively autonomous search by migrants for places where they are able to build, either temporarily or permanently, a better existence. Obviously, it can not be denied that they often have to carry out very precise tasks in the worst conditions. If, on the one hand the jobs of migrants indeed have specific characteristics, on the other, these characteristics are not however reducible to the tasks that they are obliged to do, since these also include those that derive from the way in which they themselves usually deal with the labour demand. Statistically there is no doubt that migrants carry out prevalently hard and tiring work, but it is equally true that they are willing, also after migrating, to work to a degree of mobility that allows, in some cases, to compensate for the rigidity of labour supply, thanks to their capacity (achieved through courage and sacrifice) to go in search of work.

The need and willingness to be mobile is idealised in the profile of an imaginary subject who by nature is nomadic or else is institutionalised in the economic conception of migrants as a lubricant in the job market. The rhetoric which describes migrants simply as a necessity for the most advanced economic systems, ends up corroborating the demands of the labour market, and thus completely subjecting migrants to its rules and disregarding the subjective decision to adapt to the needs of capital. In other words, the willingness to occupy low-level positions in the job market and to be more mobile becomes the way whereby migrants resolve the frictions between the demand and supply of labour; frictions that would otherwise prevent full flexibility. This point of view, which aims to recognise the economic necessity of migrants to contemporary social production, ultimately considers only the needs of those who offer employment and the means to satisfy these needs, despite the fact that the oppressive aspects that are inherent in this process may at times be criticised and stigmatised. When this point of view is adopted, we are only a short step away from norms such as those proposed today in Europe by EC laws which are all in agreement that migrants are a net additional resource for the economic system, to the extent of actually sanctioning that they be administratively tied to their labour, only to expel or imprison them when the needs of labour supply change.

The laws that are currently in force in Europe all start from the assumption - probably expressed most explicitly in the Italian law on immigration - that the labour market offers only one 'actor' with the realistic ability to assert its own demands: capital. The underlying conviction is that the labour 'market' is not a particular market because a particular good such as the labour force is exchanged there, but it is such because its existence is not negotiated. The labour market is not a market. All these laws in fact share the same underlying assumption that institutional actors present in the world of labour today prevent the realization of its nature as a market and that, on the contrary, it can only exist thanks to a political authorization which prohibits any demand of the labour force that is not expressed in terms of pay. The institutionalisation of this particular market takes place thanks to norms which deny legitimacy to any claim other than the basic contract in force where one's labour is exchanged for pay. On the other hand, implicit in this process, is the awareness that the level of pay can neither be really negotiated, because, as an expression of a political relationship of power and therefore not determined by mere individual negotiation, this tends to be imposed by whoever supplies labour. For migrants, this institutionally authorised 'labour' market therefore means the continual reproduction of the conditions surrounding their expulsion, and so the passing through administrative detention centres does not represent in any way an exceptional event tied to their means of arrival in Italy or an act against the law: it is ultimately tied to the position that the labour 'market' allows them to occupy. As proven by their proliferation across Europe demonstrates, detention centres cease being places of 'legal exceptions' or occasional terminals in the lives of some migrants to become, in every respect, social institutions, which are delegated a significant role in the regulation of the presence of migrants. This transformation is even more evident if one thinks that these centres are increasingly packed during regional or sectorial economic crises, and become the destination for migrants who dare raise questions over their jobs. As a result, why they are ignored as long as they work irregularly or illegally, accepting low pay or not receiving it for months, migrants pass directly from the factory, family or field where they work to the detention centre.

When not dominated by racism and security issues, the debate on the movement of migrants becomes a debate over the migrant question, in other words over one of the questions which, in reality, as is well known, will never be resolved. The response to the migrant question is above all integration, a response dictated by the conviction that it is indispensable to recognise equal rights to all individuals present on a given territory. Central to such a position is the necessity of recognising migrants as citizens, albeit a particular kind, who should enjoy the rights assigned to every citizen as well as others which would guarantee the continuity of their history and their "culture". Only in this way would their integration be possible. We do not want to deny here that integration makes the life of migrants more tolerable. Indeed, it supports and valorizes the subsistence networks provided by the various communities as well as acknowledging them ways of accessing rights. What we want to underline is, first of all, that any communitarian integration is the administrative assignment of individuals to assumed communities, with the conviction - truly bizarre (to use a euphemism) - that who is not European necessarily belongs - and in the strongest sense of the term - to a community, to a culture, to an ethnicity. And this forced identity has many material effects on the search for accommodation or, more generally, in the possibility of accessing particular services. Moreover, the integration of separate communities legitimises and sustains the very situation it intends to remedy. On the one hand, in fact, it confirms the presence of women and men as foreign bodies, collected in communities, which are ultimately placed in competition with each other. On the other hand, it legitimises in a tacit, but no less incisive, way the mechanisms of precarizzazione ('precarious-ization') and clandestinizzazione ('illegalisation') that today characterises the social governing of immigration. In other terms, what is daily segregated in the sphere of actual labour relations, should be integrated, or rather reintegrated through the communitarian relationships and the rights of citizenship which, to a certain extent, are recognised in that they are progressively emptied of every effective significance. This is demonstrated both by the increasingly strong appeal to rights (by now a generic catchword) and by the focus of political and trade union battles on their defence. The contradiction is striking: not only should rights reintegrate what is materially denied in labour, i.e. other rights, but the very instrument chosen to obtain this compensation - rights - are attacked and increasingly eroded by the capitalist offensive and the reordering of internal relationships within the workplace.

As a result we are witnessing a paradoxical reversal not only in debates and discourses about immigration but, more generally, in the majority of contemporary political discourses. The acknowledgement that labour is not (and can no longer be) the terrain that establishes the criteria of legitimacy for the claiming and the assertion of the threshold of citizenship, i.e. the access to concrete provisions of social services and the possibility of having a political voice despite one's position within the social hierarchy, is at the same time compounded by an indifference to the limits posed by the labour situation itself. Thus, the dissolution of the specific levels of social citizenship that work had previously guaranteed, also affects those generally included in civil and political citizenship. We therefore need to analyse and start from the concrete situation in which migrants live today, the conditions and strategies of their mobility and labour and to avoid conceiving them either as abstractions that are to be endowed with rights or as weak subjects incapable of autonomously taking action. "Migrant labour" is a political category. It describes a condition that one could call objective, and at the same time indicates within contemporary labour as a whole. We do not believe that migrants, as in the case of precarious workers in general, are a priori subjects connoted by a particular political persuasion and by nature destined to subvert the order of labour. Rather, migrants are a specific presence in the constellation of contemporary labour. And it is from this last point that we must begin if we want to capture the contradictions and possibilities. Migrant labour means assuming the contradictoriness of the juxtaposition of the two terms, starting from considerations that question some of the central issues of contemporary political debate. It means acknowledging that however shackled to labour, migrants anticipate a number of general conditions that regard contemporary labour as a whole. Migrants are not nomadic subjects which satisfy the image of someone who is more or less permanently present in western societies. As they cross borders, they pay the price for the devaluation of their labour capacity, but at the same time this is set in motion and transformed through the different conditions that they confront. They cross borders not to assert some abstract right of movement, but in doing so connect labour conditions and forms of existence which exist in spite of borders and barriers.

Migrant labour is therefore directly implicated in contemporary social production, not only for the objective conditions through which it is distributed, but also and above all, for the quality of elements of transformation that it continuously brings into action. It highlights the radical transformation of both the subject and the industrial mode of production. It can represent the possibility of overturning the usual way of thinking about and conducting political work with migrants, at the same time as allowing us to peruse the general forms which social production is assuming. We do not need to begin from the assumption that migrants are a "weak" subject. It is not necessary to think that their position is totally determined by the repressive apparatus and containment provided by national and EC legislation. Considering migrants only on the basis of the condition of daily social and work privation, risks a double misunderstanding. First of all,one risks neglecting the claim for freedom which is central to the decision to migrate and which also persists, in spite of all the adverse conditions, on arrival.

As we said there is, however, also a second risk. Viewing migrants as subjects deprived of rights and citizenship means to still think that there is a condition of full enjoyment of those rights that they must obtain. Besides the obvious observation that this condition is an increasingly empty simulacrum for anyone who lives in Western countries, the problem is that either two conditions of absolute weakness are added together or one insists on the legal regulation of civil, political and social relations as the arena that migrants should also be able to aspire to. Given that this route of integration carries the indelible mark of the national construction of systems of rights, it also involves the demand to be integrated into the national framework of the recognition of labour. Secondly, it takes for certain that this recognition exists and that it provides a space where labour can politically count. It is obviously a different matter when rights and citizenship act as the arena of political communication between individuals who, in a common search for freedom, place into question, first of all, their differences without ever letting themselves be homologated and enclosed within legal and national boundaries.

By referring to migrant labour we therefore want to break with every residue of a national conception of the labour force, as well as with the subsequent temptation to revert attention to the smaller spaces of ethnic communities. Referring to migrant labour means starting, as we have said, from the obscure and hidden elements in the process of integration. Talking about migrant labour means first of all commencing from the concrete conditions of the distribution of the migrant labour force, from factories of varying sizes to families who employ domestic workers and home helpers, to the "green factories" of Italy and Spain, to forms of self-employment. It is clear that different conditions of pay and control correspond to these various forms of work. What unites them is the fact that the migrant worker is forced to endure a condition of social and job insecurity that is neither occasional nor temporary. We believe that migrant labour today is a condition that anticipates and shares the general conditions under which contemporary labour as a whole is distributed. In this sense it can be said that all of contemporary labour is becoming migrant. The anticipatory character of migrant work which needs to be recognised is not however simply relative to its objective situation. It is certainly true that the jobs of migrants are generally carried out under conditions of precariousness, flexibility and under the continual threat of blackmail and that this is on the way to becoming, and for most parts already is, the hallmarks of all contemporary labour. This very condition has demonstrated how sterile it is to distinguish between work that is theoretically guaranteed and work that is not guaranteed. It has shown that by now the limit is not only weak if one considers legal guarantees, but ultimately it does not exist if one considers the elements of social and employment precariousness which are intrinsic to both permanent contracts in both the private and public sector. There are certainly specificities which should not be forgotten. The jobs of migrants run the risk of being branded as "black skinned work" and, even when skin colour makes no difference, as a job through which they may be discriminated, imprisoned and expelled only on the grounds of being foreign.

As we have argued, however, there is something more. The very fact that migrant labour, by anticipating the general condition of contemporary labour, expresses the central nucleus of social production means that it also demonstrates the specific tendencies of crisis of this regulation of social production. For the moment it is only possible to give partial indications. A clearly visible tendency is the tension that migrant labour imposes on trade union regulations of conflicts. We are witnessing a strong demand for unionization on the part of migrants. However, although they represent the highest percentage of new members of unions, they never manage to find an adequate political space for their specific disputes. Migrants in the world of employment are not a component with specific demands, but are considered "workers like all the others" whose particular problems should be resolved at a different level. Although a large part of European laws on migrants establish the forms of control and command over the labour market, the limits that these laws impose on the movement of migrants are never treated as "limits" on their labour activity, but as seriously damaging their general rights. The sense of solitude of migrants, however, is not the occasional datum of a section of neglected labour force. It reflects and highlights the tension between the increasing individuality of contemporary labour and the difficulty of finding general avenues of political communication between struggles. In other terms, what migrant labour underlines, like workers on short-term contracts or the case of female labour, is the impossibility of organising workers' struggles on the premise of a unitary subject which is no other than a citizen at work.

Some practical ideas (catchwords for the discussion in the second part of the workshop):

on a practical level we should refer to a few first ideas of transnational initiatives and cooperations:

- an initiative around the agricultural sector in andalusia, where more organised maroccans and subsaharians are more and more replaced by polish and romanian workers (often women), and where a transnational campaign is necessary to break the ethnical splits and the attempt of the peasants to play one group aginst each other. moreover the proposal includes the idea to make actions against the endprofiteurs of this chain of exploitation: the big supermarkets all over europe...
- new campaign against accor (chain of hotels) in the context of the struggle (and long and successful strike 2002/2003) of some migrants women in the cleaning sector in france, after one of the most active woman was fired from her job last weeks ...
- 1st of mai 2005 and the idea to extend coordinated demonstrations about precarious work (and migration) in the concept of euromayday, with reference to the experiences 2004, mainly in milano with a huge demonstration of 80.000 people, but also in barcelona with 15.000 participants and where a bloc of 800 sans papieres have been in the front of the demo ...