Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

The new untouchables:
the international migration of labour

(Spring 1980)

From International Socialism 2 : 8, Spring 1980, pp. 37–63.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The rise of imperialism is also the rise of the modern State. The manifestation of the power of the State is in the first instance its tight control of one patch of very clearly defined territory and the population trapped within its boundaries. The imposition of this pattern on humanity by the first group of modern States, those of Europe, produced a defensive reaction by the ruling classes of the rest of the world. They in turn were obliged to establish the same type of tight control over whatever territories could be appropriated. The pattern which emerged is reminiscent of the enclosure movement in Britain: the appropriation of common lands by private owners to the point where all territory within Britain was officially parcelled up among a category of “owners”. The process both within the territory of any given State and internationally eliminated all “free lands” and all free men and women: all who do not officially belong to one or other local ruling class (and can, in principle, acquire a valid passport to prove that they actually exist).

By now almost all inhabitable territory in the world has been demarcated, and humanity corralled within licensed national pens. Indeed, the division is so all-embracing, its sheer novelty is no longer apparent; most people cannot conceive of a world not divided into national patches, not dominated by baronial fiefs.

The development of the internal control of States over their respective territories and populations – the increased “nationalization” of the globe – is the other side of the coin to increased “internationalization”. For what is meant by internationalization is increased interaction between increasingly defined national patches. The growth of the one necessarily presupposes the increase in the other.

Now, each national patch is almost equally related in economic terms to every other one – a condition in sharp contrast to the imperatives of political or military interaction where geographical proximity is of primary significance. This interaction ensures increased synchronization of the world system, or rather, its increased subordination to the dominant centres of world power. Yet such subordination should not conceal the necessary parallel process of “internal colonization”, the attempt by particular States to subordinate all areas within their control to a single centre, usually the capital city.

Thus, the obverse of increased nationalization of the areas of the world is increased interdependence of the national patches. It is a contradictory process, for the interests of individual States are in collision with the imperatives of a world economy, with capital accumulation on a world scale.

The State’s primary interest is in retaining and extending its territorial control, not assisting the development of an international economic order outside its control. In slump, the contradiction emerges so sharply, the accumulation is sacrificed to the maintenance of the power of the State, of the local ruling class, over its inhabitants.

The “internationalisation” of labour is one element in these processes. Throughout the history of capitalism, workers have moved in search of work, or been driven to work, in areas other than those where they were raised. This common phenomenon however becomes remarkable only when national boundaries are laid down and become of sufficient importance to impede, block or shape the international movement of workers. That is, political controls are imposed in the attempt to break a movement impelled by the operation of a world labour market. To put it in another way, growth in the world system prompts the ruling classes of growing and dominant economies to despatch raiding parties to capture part of the labour force, belonging to a weaker ruling class. Then the passport and visa, with the whole complex of subsidiary controls, become an instrument for the control and direction of the marginal labour force. [1]

Whether the system is expanding or contracting determines the precise form of the contradiction between the interests of the State and those of the world economy. In expansion, the world labour market acts like acid upon territorial controls, other things being equal; either ruling classes are obliged to dismantle trade, finance and labour movement controls, or black markets in each area threaten the structures of control: “liberalization” is the product, rather than – as is frequently claimed – the cause of expansion. Nonetheless, although in the 1950s and 1960s many labour importing countries liberalized entry procedures, the essential formal controls were retained, and with the onset of contraction, strengthened. Protectionism in trade was matched by a protectionism in labour, and both exaggerate the severity of contraction.

The unprecedented expansion in the world economy after 1948 was a highly uneven process, producing disproportionate growth at certain key points in the advanced capitalist countries as well as in particular regions in the backward countries. This disproportionate growth was reflected in an increased concentration of the demand for labour. The two most important centres of the world system, the core zones of the American and European economies, attracted a sustained inflow of workers from abroad. But many other smaller centres, at various times, also attracted inflows – in the 1970s, the Middle Eastern oil producing States; South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Singapore etc. The legal movement was accompanied to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the restrictions in force and the powers of the local State to enforce them, by both a black market in labour, illegal migration, and the “unscheduled” movements of refugees – for example, the large scale movements in Africa, the flight of Cubans, Argentinians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Bengalis, and now Afghanis.

The concept of a crude undifferentiated “labour” is quite inadequate to understand the process of official worker movement. Those who move tend to be in the most active age groups, eighteen to thirty five years of age, and in terms of ability and skills, to be above the average for the sending area. The jobs they move to are restricted, although they range across the spectrum from temporary seasonal work to permanent highly skilled jobs (for example, doctors). Each stratum of occupations has a separate dynamic.

For relatively unskilled workers, the areas of recruitment have often been geographically close – Eire for Britain, the Mediterranean countries for Germany and France, Mexico and Central America for the United States. But it is also true that European labour demand stretches far into West Africa, to Turkey and Iran, British demand to India, Malaysia and the Philippines, and American to Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines on the opposite side of the Pacific. Territorially, each national labour market expands and contracts geographically with the rhythms of growth. There are also countries now which supply unskilled or semi skilled labour globally; for example, the Philippines. As the level of skill in demand rises, so the extent of the catchment area expands, until a world labour market operates, as for example with doctors.

Where labour exporting countries are geographically close to the place where labour demand is increasing rapidly and the controls on movement are weak, the emigration of workers can be proportionally very large. North Yemen, adjacent to Saudi Arabia, has some 44 per cent of its adult labour force working abroad. Lesotho supplies to South Africa some 21 per cent of its domestic labour force; Algeria and Tunisia at one time had between 11 and 12 per cent of their workers abroad. In the heyday of movement, emigration amounted to 70 per cent of the increase in Portugal’s labour force, and, before 1962, to over 100 per cent of Eire’s.

Since emigrants are not drawn uniformly from a country as a whole but from particular districts, these national figures conceal the much greater effect on particular sending districts. For example, Indian migration to Britain is drawn from one medium sized state State, Gujerat, and a small State, Punjab, and within Punjab, largely from one district, Jullundur; Indian migration to the Gulf is drawn mainly from another small State, Kerala, while the largest State in India, Uttar Pradesh (with a population of around 100 million) provides few emigrants.

The movement is not just one way. Most countries export and import labour at the same time. Greece, with over two million workers abroad, imports workers from Egypt and Pakistan. Jordan, a major supplier of Palestinian labour to the oil producing countries, uses labour also from Egypt and Pakistan. Sicilians move to North Italy and Germany, leaving their harvests to be collected by Senegalese. Mexicans move north for the harvest in the United States, while Guatemalans enter southern Mexico for the harvest there. The United States and Britain supply highly skilled labour to the Middle East. The movement of labour is thus an exchange of skills, a continual redistribution of a margin of each national labour force in response to changes in the geography of capital accumulation.

The price of labour power

The orthodox explanations of worker movement usually turn on the “overproduction” of labour in some countries (the backward) and a “scarcity” of labour in others. [2] But there is never a “scarcity” of labour, only a scarcity of workers willing to sell their labour at a given price. In so called “population surplus” countries, there is rarely a real surplus; for example, in both India and China, a good harvest produces full employment, a “labour scarcity” and rising agricultural day labourers’ wages. The problem is employing people at an adequate wage all the year round; but so far as the system is concerned, the existing labour force is only the “right size” for producing the existing output.

In the advanced capitalist countries, a number of factors have reduced the physical availability of labour power, the number of labour hours on offer per year, in the postwar period: a decline in the birth rate (reflected fifteen years later in the new entrants to the labour force); a decrease in the number of hours worked per week; an increase in the holidays per year; an increase in the number of years of full time education, or the conversion of apprenticeships to part time education; earlier retirement, and, perhaps, the continued process of the decasualization of the labour force. [3] On the, other hand, there are factors working in the opposite direction – the end of the National Service in Britain or the draft in the United States, the remarkable increase in the number of women entering paid employment, immigration and temporary workers entering work from abroad; at certain times, the considerable increase in part time work by the pensioned (offsetting the earlier retirement); the expansion in second and third jobs (“moonlighting”). How are we to explain these different changes, and the creation of specific “labour scarcities”?

The price of labour power is determined by what Marx calls the socially necessary cost of maintaining and reproducing labour power; by “reproduction”, we mean, not the biological creation of a baby, but the process of creating an adult worker from the age of 0 to, say, between 12 and 15 years of age. Marx’s statement is applicable collectively, not necessarily individually – that is, the return to the working class for its labour power is determined by the costs of maintaining the working class and reproducing it. What is determined here is the value of labour power; actual collective wages may, to a greater or lesser degree diverge from value, but will ultimately remain in some definite relationship to value.

What determines the “socially necessary costs”? There are obviously many factors, but one of the most important for modern capitalism, is the need to attain a given level of productivity by the labour force. Defining what is “necessary” is obviously difficult, for the productivity of labour is a function not simply of the more obvious training and educational inputs, the quality of diet ensuring consistent concentration and discipline, the quality of housing ensuring the worker does not spend much of his or her attention worrying or seeking a roof, the condition of the worker’s family, parents and children, so that he is or she is “free” to work fully, etc. There are factors relating to the possible exhausting or psychologically debilitating results of work – and an adequate level of recreation and leisure, and the facilities to pursue these etc. Which of these elements are necessary, which optional extras?

In some backward countries, levels of productivity in particular plants can be pushed up to roughly the same level as those pertaining in an advanced economy, even though the labour force in the plant does not receive wages remotely comparable to similar workers in an advanced country, nor does he or she have access to anything matching the services available there. Does this mean the wages received and services available in advanced capitalism are not necessary? It does not. For while particular plants may emulate the same level of productivity, the society as a whole cannot; it can utilize a particular range of technical innovations, but it cannot generalize them, nor itself innovate.

Average labour productivity in the advanced capitalist countries has increased enormously over the past century. There has been a substantial but much smaller increase in the absolute level of real wages required to sustain the worker at these rising levels of average productivity. If we took the return to labour as a whole which, today, is much more than simply the wage, we could divide it into two elements: (i) the cost of maintaining the workers at a given level of productivity; and (ii) the cost of reproducing the workers’ children so that, when they enter the labour force, they can attain a given level of productivity. While the first element has increased considerably over the past century, the increase is dwarfed by the growth in the second element. Leaving aside the family-borne cost of rearing, the growth in the public sector inputs – through the expansion in educational, housing, welfare and medical services – has been very considerable, particularly in the postwar period (in practice, of course, it is exceedingly difficult to separate “maintenance” and “reproduction” in looking at the public sector services, and to separate these elements from the costs of the control and supervision of the population).

To deal with the average for a class is misleading. For much of the history of capitalism, the bottom third of the workforce has not been paid enough to meet the costs of reproduction at the average level of productivity then prevailing. Some sections of the workforce have not been paid sufficient to meet the bare minimum costs of reproduction (the infant mortality rate, like the rate of deaths to women in childbirth, is a partial index of this). And at certain times, the wages of the lowest categories of labour has been insufficient even to maintain the worker, a factor producing increasing levels of malnutrition and, during epidemics, a very high death rate.

So far as the world labour force is concerned, this situation has not changed very much. For example, a recent study of Calcutta small firms shows that, if we assume the going day labourer’s wage rate is the minimum subsistence and reproduction price of labour power, then both small capitalists and the family labour employed in their firms receive returns which are some 41 per cent below what they should be – they are, as it were, “committing suicide” by working. [4]

Thus, the labour force is a highly differentiated object. If we could imagine a national capitalism as an unchanging entity – output and employment, both absolutely and relatively, remaining constant – then the hierarchy of skill grades would persist indefinitely. Reproduction would consist in replacing a set number of workers of given skill by exactly the same number with the same skills. If reproduction costs were entirely borne from the wage paid out to the worker through the family, then household incomes would form a hierarchy exactly corresponding to the hierarchy of skills and the hierarchy of productivities. Each skill stratum of workers would reproduce its successors in the stratum at the average costs of reproduction of labour at the level of productivity appropriate to the stratum. Of course, instability would arise at the base of the hierarchy if the price of labour power there was too low to ensure the reproduction of the numbers required. Nonetheless the main idea of a stable pyramid in which maintenance and reproduction expenditures are proportional to the size and productivity of each stratum is the important element. In practice, there are no stable strata; the essence of capitalism is change, the continuous transformation of relationships and productivities so that the literacy of today is the illiteracy of tomorrow.

The public sector

The only purpose of the abstract exercise at the end of the last section is to allow us to identify more clearly what happens when the State intervenes to meet a major part of reproduction costs directly. Then the link between the wage received by the worker, the productivity on which we assume the wage is based, and the outlays incurred by the worker’s family to meet reproduction costs is broken. Variations in productivity and wages are no longer directly reflected in variations in family expenditure on reproduction.

By necessity, the State must now set some average minimum standard for the provision of its services to ensure the proper reproduction of the labour force. Leaving aside social and political factors, it can only do so in relationship to some notional average level of productivity for the labour force as a whole. Even if it endeavoured to tailor its services to a more complex structure of productivities, since there is no guarantee that a given worker would work at the trade for which he or she had been raised – and in conditions of rapid change, the trade itself may have disappeared altogether by the time the child enters the labour force – setting an average minimum standard is the sole method available. Alternatively, the State could identify a special category of people for high productivity jobs and concentrate reproduction expenditure here. To a greater or lesser extent, in reality this does happen in particular services (for example, education), but there are political constraints on how far such a discriminatory system can be generalized.

The State assumes this role for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the speed of change and the nature of the skills required mean that the skills can only be transferred collectively, on a standarized basis; as capitalism develops, parents become increasingly poor instruments for transferring skills required in the future.

A powerful factor in determining what average the State chooses is competition. States compete with each other – indeed, the State is the single most important agency of competition in the world system. A factor identified as important in the State’s ability to compete is the quality of its labour force. Public welfare programmes in Britain begin with an official report on the quality of troops recruited for the Boer War – that is, the ability of the British State to compete in military terms with its nearest rivals was jeopardized by the poor physical quality of its young men. [5] In modern times, the output of graduates or toolmakers in the United States or the Soviet Union, as proportions of the labour force of those countries, become standards for all lesser powers. The argument was explicit in the British Labour Party’s propaganda for the 1964 general election, and provided the justification for the Wilson government’s programme to expand higher education rapidly. Thus, the level of labour productivity on the basis of which a programme for higher educational expansion was based was not the actual level of 1964, but an aspired level – the level thought to be necessary to keep up with or overtake the leading industrial powers of the world. Of course, the intention of the State is not the same thing as the actual performance; the British new universities may have been intended to produce engineering graduates, but in fact, produced many more sociologists! Nor does the fact that the State had the intention mean that what it proposed is correct; it can and does make major errors of judgement.

The potential for mistakes when the State endeavours to establish a minimum requirement for reproduction costs is enormous. Such errors are compounded by the conflicts and rivalries rife within the public sector itself, by the competition for funds. For example, educational standards are not simply the product of a cool appraisal of what is required to meet certain levels of productivity (that is difficult enough); they are weapons by which, for example, the Ministry of Education endeavours to capture a larger share of finance and defeat rival agencies. There are pressure groups pressing on all sides: building contractors for hospital construction, universities for expanding higher education, MPs seeking favour for the constituencies, for their brothers and mates. Bribes and threats bend decisions for paradoxical conclusions. And beyond the narrow circle of power, from time to time, the class struggle itself reshapes government priorities.

In periods of growth and relative optimism, the State gambles by setting standards at high levels, even though, on strict calculations, this is not justified relative to the needs of the system at that time. In fact, the decisions may be errors even though expansion continues. In a number of backward countries, decisions to expand higher education in order to expand economic growth have merely produced an excess of graduates and the problem of educated unemployment.

But there are other problems which arise. First, State intervention in this field imposes a rigidity upon the system which renders it much more inflexible when expansion changes into contraction. Expenditure on reproduction could, when the family was the primary spender, be varied with fluctuations in economic activity – wage cuts were reflected in a decline in family nutrition, for example. But public expenditure is an issue of public debate and public employment, issues discussed in conditions for a competitive political party system where, for example, demands for more housing are weapons in the battle to win elections. Large changes in public expenditure to stabilize the profit rate under the pressures of slump cannot be secured speedily without economic disaster, nor without political challenge. There are other rigidities in particular sectors; for example, if workers hang on to their houses when local unemployment rises, even though jobs are available in other areas where housing is not.

Second, the State’s assumption of an average standard for the whole labour force is, from the viewpoint of the interests of the system, enormously wasteful. Advanced capitalist economies exhibit great unevenness of development. Parts of the economy operate at levels of labour productivity far below the average. It follows that the bottom strata of the workforce are “over educated” or physically “over maintained” for their role in the economy. This contradiction receives subjective expression in the unwillingness of workers, trained to work at an approximation to the average level of productivity, to work for wages well below the average. The price of labour power in the sectors where there are vacancies is below the rate of return which is appropriate to the costs of reproduction of the unemployed. For the unemployed to work at such a price would permanently jeopardize the chances of them ever working at the appropriate price. Thus, in the Greater London Council area in 1979, with the unemployment total standing at 130,000, there were severe labour shortages on London Transport, in the clothing, timber, metal goods, and electrical engineering trades, not to mention in the case of school canteen supervisors.

Third, the State institutes regulations to prevent the employment of minors, in part to protect the quality of the subsequently available adult labour force. This in turn reduces the contribution of child labour to household income, thus weakening the economic incentive to families to have children. The introduction of pensions for the aged removes another element in that incentive – that is, reduces the need to have a sufficient number of children to support the worker’s old age. The results of this, in conjunction with the introduction of birth control techniques, have been a decline in average family size – and, in due course, a decline in the number of new entrants to the labour force (this decline has been partly compensated by an increase in the survival rate of children, a decline in infant mortality). There is a further factor, however, in the decline in family size. The intervention of the State produces not only standardization of the publicly borne reproduction costs. The costs have been further increased by the transformation of household activity since the Second World War. The capital intensity of household activity has been advanced very rapidly, enormously boosting the productivity of household labour at the same time as considerably increasing the costs of the family unit. It appears that adult male wages have not increased commensurately with this process, so that today, the adult wage male wage cannot, as it was supposed to do in the nineteenth century, cover the costs of a wife and two children. Two adult wages now appear to be necessary to meet family based reproduction and maintenance costs. One result of this process has been the expulsion of housewives from the home to pursue paid – albeit, very low paid – employment. It should be noted in passing that the family can be no wiser than the State in assessing what is a socially necessary level of costs; parents perforce must, like the State, gamble. “Keeping up with the Jones” is thus not an eccentricity, but a primary mechanism of capitalist competition relative to the household.

In practice, the system heavily qualifies its commitment to an average standard for all. The labour supply to low paid worker sectors is identified by using special social criteria, by instituting a kind of “caste identified” labour supply – certain occupations are reserved as temporary, for “amateur workers” – the aged, school students (for example, newspaper delivery, Saturday morning shop assistants etc.), students on vacation or looking for work, housewives. As is well known, there are whole strata of “women’s jobs”. In the United States, a special category exists of “native immigrants”, that is, those who are by all ordinary legal criteria fully natives, but are treated as if they were not: blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos etc. However, the more sustained the process is to reproduce the whole population to a particular average level of competence, the more such groups resist the typecast employment, preferring to remain unemployed rather than jeopardize their long term job prospects. Nor is this preference simply a function of the availability of social security support for the unemployed. Educated unemployment in Calcutta illustrates that people will fight to the bitter end to prevent their occupational downgrading, preferring starvation to indignity.

Sectors of “labour scarcity”

What types of employment are affected by a general upgrading of the labour force? The factors at stake are not simply questions of the price of labour power if by that we mean the take home pay. It is rather the price of labour power relative to the intensity and conditions of work (which includes the danger, the physical hardship, the cleanliness, the noise, the tedium of work, the provision for paid holidays, the hours and shifts, the health and safety conditions, how good local facilities – housing, medical services, schools, creches etc. – are, and so on). Industries with old plants and poor conditions exist everywhere, and survive because the overall costs of upgrading (as opposed to simply investing in a new machine) are higher than the expected rate of profit. Parts of the textile industry and plants in the old areas of engineering exemplify some of these factors.

There are other activities where price competition is severe and the workers poorly organized because of the structural conditions at work. Take, for example, catering, hotels and restaurants. If we assume for the sake of argument that in 1979 Britain, the Supplementary Benefit rate of £55.90 per week for a couple with two children represented a benchmark for the “maintenance and reproduction” costs, a worker would have to earn £61.75 in gross earnings to reach this level. The lowest grade of non-service hotel workers received a weekly minimum rate of £40.40, rising to £42.80 (with, for London workers, an allowance of £2.40). Younger workers, employed on a seasonal basis, could expect £36 for a six day, 40 hour week in London (out of London young cleaners might expect £27.30). There are between half and three quarters of a million workers in this activity, 63 per cent of them full time, with average gross earnings in 1978 of £59.60 per week (or 8.5 per cent below the “socially necessary” level).

In construction and agriculture, seasonal work produces short term demands for labour which cannot be met if the workforce is being simultaneously upgraded. In construction, as in the coalmines in Belgium and West Germany, the key factor is less the price of labour power alone, and more its relationship to the danger and hardship of the work.

At its base, the labour market fades away into outworkers; people, usually housewives, working at home at rates where there is no pretence at all to meet even the lowest maintenance wages, let alone an element for family reproduction. There are estimated to be a quarter of a million home workers in Britain. In Nelson in Lancashire, some 6,000 mainly Asian women sew ribbons and bows for the textile trades at rates equivalent to l0p per hour. Garment workers on a rate of 9 to 35p per garment can expect weekly pay of £20 to £25. Nineteenth century conditions continue to flourish in modern capitalism.


When the system grew rapidly, masses of native workers were drawn into sectors where the price of labour power was relatively higher, sectors we have identified – somewhat oversimply – as those of higher productivity. Thus, agricultural workers in France, Germany, the United States and Japan, moved in the 1950s and 1960s into urban industrial and service jobs. In the sectors vacated, equipment was substituted for labour on a considerable scale but without this eliminating labour scarcities. It is here that labour demand was created for workers from abroad.

Immigrant labour has been reproduced at costs below the average for the destination country. It was therefore subjectively willing, at least initially, to work for wages well below the average, or work at average wages in conditions inferior to the average. The picture is more complicated than this because in many cases, the immigrant worker was drawn from that minority in the backward country which had been reproduced at costs well above the local average. The wages on offer to the worker in his or her home country were fixed relative to the local average level of productivity, but were below those appropriate for his or her costs of reproduction, as assessed by the open world market. Thus, the excesses of the rivalries between States – the underproduction of “low productivity labour” in the advanced, and the overproduction of “high productivity labour” in the backward – receive some partial equilibration by the international movement of workers.

There are also important socio-psychological factors at work. Workers who grow up in a particular social environment, tend to absorb the defensive ethics developed by preceding generations to protect themselves from the ravages of capital. There are jobs they will not do, paces or hours or conditions of work they will not accept, moves from one locality to another that they will not make for the sort of wages and terms on offer. A worker torn out of this environment is much more appropriate to the needs of capital, much more ruthlessly driven to earn at whatever the wages on offer are. Such a worker is less able to support himself or herself during unemployment by borrowing from local networks of relatives and friends, and less likely to have reserves on which to fall back in hard times, less likely to have possessions that can be sold or pawned. Such workers are likely to be much more responsive to differences in wages – regardless of conditions -and, lacking local social ties, much more geographically mobile in response to changes in the labour market. This – as well as overt discrimination – is a factor in the general picture of immigrants working longer hours, working more night shifts, doing more piece-work, with a higher rate of job changing and of geographical mobility than native workers. It is also a factor in explaining what seems to be a more extreme mismatch between the qualifications of immigrant workers and the jobs they actually do. If the natives refuse to be downgraded even if this means the misery of long-term unemployment, the immigrants start in grades well below what the natives, with the same qualifications, would accept (of course, it is also true that at least at first foreign workers are more uninformed about what is locally considered reasonable, what alternatives exist etc.; they may also be consoled by the fact that a poor job in an advanced country offers better returns and conditions often than a good job in a backward country). Some employers recognise this factor: migrants make the best workers; and they always try to recruit new immigrants since those who have lived for some time in the country are likely to have become “spoiled”, i.e. conform to local working class standards.

Moveable jobs

The import of labour is necessary where the price of labour power is too low to induce a sufficient number of workers to work in “immoveable” jobs: that is, jobs which cannot, at least in the short term, be relocated abroad. For example, local coal mines cannot be mined abroad, nor can local dustbins be emptied, local houses built, and local soils cultivated abroad, although in almost all cases, alternative supplies from abroad can be found., There is however no permanently fixed boundary between moveable and immoveable jobs; changes in comparative wage costs, in technology and so on can radically shift the boundaries.

Capital can gain access to labour power at prices well below those governing in its home territory where jobs are moveable. Parts of manufacturing (for example, in the recent past, labour intensive links in textiles, electronic components, television sets etc.), some agricultural tasks, tourism, conform to this. States, recognizing the dangers implicit in the dispersion of activity, sometimes impose regulations to prevent jobs moving; the US government, for example, does not permit US aircraft manufacture to move (but does permit imports). Export processing zones in South Korea, Malaysia, Brazil, the Caribbean etc. have attracted industrial activities from the advanced countries, at the same time as these countries have exported labour. On Mexico’s northern border In-Bond plants have been permitted, set up by United States companies to manufacture consumer goods with raw materials and equipment imported from the States and Mexican labour; all the output is exported back to the United States. The In-Bond plant areas have thus been expropriated by the US labour market. At the same time, US nationals have started horticultural farms in northern Mexico to produce foodstuffs for the United States market. Finally, Mexico is a major exporter of labour to the States for farmwork and employment in textiles and services.

There are other examples of this kind, although not on such a large scale. Thus, India exports labour to the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia finances vegetable farming in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh, the produce being flown to Riyadh.

Firms with equipment and productivity standards derived from the advanced capitalist countries are able to transplant activities as isolated colonies to backward countries, providing the political context is right. Capital in the backward countries can then emulate the activity. But while productivity in the plants can be sustained at high levels, the general social average remains low. The workers in such plants are, as it were, “home based emigrants”.

The theoretical significance

Access to foreign workers makes possible the continued growth of certain national capitals for three main reasons. Firstly it allows more workers to be utilized by a given capital stock: the small farmer in the Punjab produces much more surplus value when he is imported to work in a foundry in Wolverhampton, and in doing so he is benefiting the capitalist class as a whole.

Secondly, the costs of reproduction of such labour are, as we have seen, less than those of the average labour in the advanced countries. Utilizing it enables the capitalist to increase the proportion of the working day that goes in surplus to him rather than in the maintenance of the worker. Ideally then, from the point of view of profit maximization, the native workers would be expelled to permit the lower cost immigrants to take the jobs. The absurdity of this idea illustrates clearly why the State cannot, in slump, pursue directly the accumulation of capital; on the contrary, it must sacrifice accumulation to social stability. The State consists of people, linked by social bonds to the rest of the population. Attempts to expel the natives would involve the State in political self-destruction. On the contrary, the State must do the opposite, stressing the inviolable rights of the natives in order to direct blame at the foreigners.

Finally, apart from the effect of the import of labour on the long run decline in the profit rate, it constitutes a net subsidy from one national capital to another. The sending country bears the cost of reproduction of the worker from its domestic product; the destination country receives adult labour power without the costs that would be needed to raise and train the worker. The higher the skill level, the greater the subsidy involved in the transfer. The subsidy is between national capitals (it could also be called “theft”), between countries. It does not necessarily benefit any individual employer who may employ the immigrant worker at the same rates as native labour. How far the destination country in fact is able to realize the full value of the subsidy varies, in particular with the terms of entry. Immigrants who settle and establish families, who draw on local public “maintenance” services (including ultimately old age pensions) will, in time, reduce the net subsidy. The subsidy is maximized for single adult workers on temporary contracts without any right to participate in local reproduction and maintenance services.

Russia and Japan

The framework presented here does not have the same application to all movements of workers internationally. For example, in the oil producing States of the Middle East, some of the relationships are reversed. Backward Saudi Arabia imports labour from more advanced Egypt, as well as from Europe and the United States (but it also imports labour from more backward North Yemen). Reproduction costs for an important part of the Egyptian labour force were certainly much higher than those in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the migratory movement. The “raiding operation” is much more extreme – the loss to Egypt is the same as it would be in emigration to an advanced country, but the gain to Saudi Arabia is much greater.

The Soviet Union has a very highly educated labour force but poor levels of labour productivity. Does this refute the general argument presented here? First, a high level of reproduction costs is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for attaining high levels of productivity. There are many other factors at stake in productivity, including the volume and quality of equipment available to the workforce, the organization of the capitalists (in this case, the State bureaucracy) and so on. Second, as the earlier discussion noted, the components of the conditions required for sustaining high productivity are very varied and cannot simply be reduced to education; they include adequate and easily available housing conditions, recreational facilities, and perhaps a given measure of “social freedom”, all elements notoriously poor in the Soviet Union. High educational levels alone would not make up for the generalized poor quality of existence for the average Russian worker.

The case of Japan is an interesting one. First, its public services are much inferior to other advanced capitalist countries, but the levels of productivity attained in its leading industries are well in advance of its nearest rivals. Second, its rates of economic growth have been spectacularly high without this generating the sort of specific demands for labour which impel immigration. There is virtually no immigration to Japan, although there is a significant minority of Korean immigrants in the country (left over from the second World War and the partition of Korea, formerly a Japanese imperial possession).

Japan has reached the position of an advanced capitalist country very recently. Far from exhibiting labour scarcities, as recently as the early 1960s, the government was endeavouring to increase Japanese emigration by subsidizing migrants to leave. In the mid-1950s, some 15,000 emigrated each year under agreements between the Japanese government and those of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, as well as those who moved to the United States (much as the Netherlands Government encouraged emigration up to the mid-1950s in the belief that the country had too many workers). In the last half of the 1950s, 75,000 departed; in the first half of the sixties, 43,000; in the second half, 25,000 (there are said to be now 630,000 people “of Japanese origin” in the States, 760,000 in Brazil). Second, the reserves of agricultural labour in Japan have remained intact until relatively recently as can be seen in this comparative table:

Percentage of the Labour Force
in the Primary Sector









United States







West Germany






United Kingdom



(– = not available)

Thirdly, Japan is alone among the advanced capitalist countries in having a decrease in female participation rates as income has risen (from 50.1% in 1963 to 47.1% in 1973). This suggests that Japan has not exhausted its domestic labour reserves to the point where women’s employment begins to increase. The poor level of public services also tends to keep a higher proportion of women at home; home based reproduction services must, replace those of the State. Even today, in many companies women are still expected to retire at the age of 40, or, in some cases, on marriage, indicating that employers are not under pressure to keep women at work.

There are other indications of “relative labour abundance”. Most workers still retire at 55 (although pensions are not payable until the age of 60). There is still a low rate of turnover in the large scale sector – employers are not bidding against each other for scarce skills. To some extent, the decline in labour hours available has not matched the other advanced capitalist countries – between 1960 and 1974, West German hours worked per week in manufacturing declined by 20% (from 48.8 to 39.1), Japan’s by 5% (from 45.7 to 43.3 hours).

Japan’s economy is, in comparison to its rivals, a fractured one between a bloc of very high productivity modern industries of enormous scale, and a fluctuating mass of small enterprises, many of them subcontractors to the large firms, with relatively low productivity, low pay, little security of work and poor conditions. The high growth of the leading companies is purchased at the cost of the small enterprises.

In general, Japanese growth is achieved by a high concentration on certain key sectors, not by attempting to generalize performance on all fronts. The increase in reproduction costs required to support the advanced sector is not spread through society and there is much heavier reliance on the family (but not, of course, in education). The low level of public intervention in the provision of maintenance and reproduction services is thus much more characteristic of a backward economy than an advanced. There is no supplementary benefits system, unemployment pay is very low. Hospital and medical services are notoriously bad for the majority. There are few homes for the invalided or elderly. Housing is very poor and extraordinarily expensive; a 1978 survey showed that a quarter of households lived in tiny one room flats; a quarter of households had no bathroom; ten per cent no running water; and two thirds were not connected to the sewerage system. Parks are rare (London has 22.8 square metres of park per head of the population, Tokyo 2), as are libraries and museums.

In sum then, Japan is still arriving at the state where the State is obliged to seek to guarantee a minimum reproduction standard for the whole labour force. The obligation is also affected by the political context – the class struggle in Japan has never reached the point of forcing standardization as happened in, for example, Britain immediately after the Second World War. The State in Japan has also no doubt delayed embarking upon this transformation as it observes the gambles undertaken in other advanced capitalist countries and their effect on gross investment and thus the overall rate of economic growth. [6]

Low public expenditure in Japan becomes another factor of competition in conditions of slump. The other advanced capitalist countries on the one hand press Japan to raise its public spending; on the other, they are tempted to try to sacrifice reproduction expenditure and lower their own rates of spending to the Japanese level. Meanwhile, South Korea and Taiwan seek to emulate the Japanese trajectory of growth, to Tokyo’s alarm.

There is a final factor worth noting in connection with “moveable” jobs. Japan’s investment abroad – unlike other advanced capitalist countries – is mainly in backward countries. In particular, Japanese companies have invested heavily in certain sectors of production in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia etc. (in textiles, electronics etc.). To some extent it may have widened its low priced labour pool to a greater extent than its rivals.

There are an enormous number of unanswered questions in examining the relationship between reproduction costs, labour productivity and immigration. But at least on a superficial level, Japan does not seem to defeat the main argument.

The functions of immigration in primarily destination countries

When world capitalism expanded, migration to the core zones of the system made possible the performance of low productivity jobs important for the national economies concerned. Perhaps, without the remaining structures of protection, many of those jobs would have been “exported”, or, reshuffling of occupations would have made possible high growth without immigration. Be that as it may, the degree to which immigration was necessary depended upon the size of existing labour reserves (in agriculture, in home labour etc.) and the rate and pattern of growth of the particular national economy concerned.

Native labour moved upwards to jobs, the return to which more closely related to the appropriate return to average levels of productivity. Once immigrant workers had been drawn in, they were able to follow native labour, depending upon how freely they were permitted to change jobs and sectors – out of construction, agriculture, mining, to former native strongholds, metal manufacturing and assembly. This in turn created new vacancies where they had formerly worked, necessitating new immigration. By now, the foreign born are roughly 6 to 7 per cent of the population in most west European countries (the remarkably low figure for Britain – 3.3 per cent – is a mark of the poor growth rate here); and possibly 9 to 10 per cent of the local labour force (but 18.4 per cent of the Swiss population). Between a fifth and a third of the labour force in the metal trades in Switzerland, Holland and Germany are immigrant workers. [7]

The situation in the United States is more complicated since it has the largest minority of “native immigrants” (black people, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos etc.). In the case of black people, there has been a sustained movement over a long period out of southern agriculture to metal manufacturing and steel production in the old industrial centres of the north and north east. Later, the expanding new industries of the west coast, and now the south (aircraft, electronics, science based industries etc.) have attracted white skilled workers from the north and north east. Currently, the expansion of southern industry is for the first time since the Civil War attracting net black immigration. The possibility of immigrant labour moving up the hierarchy cannot be separated from the movement of “native immigrants”.

Seasonal migration by agricultural workers is important in parts of Europe – for example, the movement of casual labour from southern Spain to southern France. [8] It is also important in the United States. The only contract labour system for foreign workers still remaining there brings Caribbean workers to Florida’s apple orchards each year. Elsewhere, illegal seasonal workers from Mexico plug the gaps left by the upgrading of the American labour force. In this case, not only does the farmer not meet annual reproduction costs since the work is paid only in the season of employment, he does not pay annual maintenance costs. In the case of illegal migrants, the farmer can pay wages below the legal minimum by using the threat, if the worker does not accept this, of denouncing him or her to the police and immigration service. Real returns to the workers can scarcely be much above what he or she might expect to earn in Mexican agriculture – if jobs were available. It is hardly surprising that there are too few native Americans willing to work for such pay even when there are high rates of official unemployment in the district concerned. Texan farmers, in trying to strengthen their case to the Government against the imposition of fines on employers taking on illegal migrants, advertised 4,000 farm-hand jobs at the minimum legal hourly rate (then $2.20 per hour). They received only 300 applications from workers with legal status.

In Europe, it has often been argued that, in the absence of strict border controls, the flow of immigrants varies with the level of unemployment in the destination country – as unemployment rises, immigration falls. But this affects only legal movement. There are no useful figures on illegal movement. In the United States, it is argued that illegal migration has increased during the current phase of stagnation since 1974. This could represent a substitution of cheap labour for more expensive native workers. Or it could reflect changes in the structure of the labour market – a sharp contraction in the core metal using industries, without an equivalent decline in labour intensive agriculture, and possibly even an expansion in catering and restaurants (which could result from a big increase in tourism, for example). The same could be happening in Europe in the illegal sectors.

This illustrates that the demand for cheap labour power does not disappear in slump. On the contrary, it can increase. The British Government has pursued policies of deliberate discrimination against black people in the name of its immigration policies, in defiance of the needs of the British economy, but it has made consistent concessions to permit the entry of European workers on work permits. Some 120,000 permits were issued in 1978. Any increase in foreign tourism increases the pressure of the restaurants and catering trades on the Government to permit the import of labour. Nonetheless, last November the Government tightened the regulations to reduce work permits as part of its attempts to bludgeon native workers into accepting low paid jobs. [9]

The French Government has recently cut residence permits for foreign workers from ten to three years, and now to one, affecting between half and one million north and west African workers. This was supposedly done to increase the job opportunities for the native unemployed. Yet a recent official report calculates that for every 150,000 foreign workers sacked, only 13,000 jobs become available for native workers. Indeed, we could go further and infer that, since French workers will not accept the wages on offer for most of these 13,000 jobs, important tasks in the economy will not be performed and one possible result will be an increase in native unemployment in other sectors dependent upon the performance of these tasks. The Government’s policy has little at all to do with unemployment – it is designed to incite racialism on the one hand, and lower public expenditure by reducing the cost of maintaining the unemployed by expelling them from the country on the other.

Immigrants provide a target in slump, a measure of flexibility made necessary precisely because of the rigidity of structure of modern capitalism. The expulsion of immigrants is a substitute for increasing the level of unemployment more dramatically, even though it is deleterious to the economy. [10] Between 1974 and 1977, the number of foreign workers in West Germany fell by 19%, and in France by 16%. Or, take the example of the British merchant fleet between 1976 and 1979. Carrying capacity fell by 20%; the number of British officers fell by 5%, and of British ratings, hardly at all. The number of non-British ratings fell by 20%. Given the difference in wages between British and non-British ratings, this change must have raised labour costs per unit of freight carried – thus, the employers purchased the loyalty of British ratings at the cost of a decline in their capacity to compete internationally.

The function of immigrant labour depends on an accepted level of social discrimination; the exclusion of immigrants from the same rights as the natives is accepted by the natives without protest. It is this which makes possible the harassment of foreign workers by the State. Whether it is the obscene persecution at Heathrow airport, the manhunts in Texas or the border States, or the French police checking everyone with dark skins on the Metro, the aim is the same – to keep open the division between native and foreigner.

In the Middle East, these mechanisms are often more advanced. In Saudi Arabia, the regulations governing the mass of immigrant workers include a ban on strikes; employers are, in theory at least, fined for employing illegal immigrants; immigrants have no right to change their jobs without a passport check (drivers on intercity buses are supposed to check passenger passports). To add terror to the regulations, there are periodic mass expulsions – for example, 30,000 people called by the Government “Pakistanis” were expelled from the country en masse in March 1978. In the United Arab Emirates, under the July 1977 regulations, the government assumed the right to deport any foreign worker who disobeyed the orders of his or her employer, tried to organize a work stoppage, damaged production, assaulted an employer or representative, or committed any other serious misdemeanour.

The aim of such regulations appears to be to force the solidarity of the native population by the continual demonstration of the “disprivilege” of the foreigner. Such demonstrations are particularly required when economic contraction is continually reminding the poorest natives of their own misfortunes. Thus the panoply of intimidatory controls has nothing to do with the specific characteristics of the foreign worker concerned, but rather is related to the need to secure the loyalty of the natives. The argument that immigrants are the cause of the native response is of the same logic as blaming the poor for their poverty, the unemployed for being jobless, and soon.

Controls can work in a slump provided there is sufficient police power. But they do so with paradoxical results. First, they have negative effects for native employment (tending to raise native unempoyment rates, and force natives into poorer paid work) and for the economy as a whole, leaving aside the waste involved in employing a bureaucracy and police force to implement the regulations. But secondly, regulations drastically reduce just that flexibility which is one of the main advantages of immigrant labour to capitalism. For example, in West Germany in the 1960s, sixty per cent of Italian workers stayed for under two years, returning to Italy after that time. If tight border controls are introduced, foreign workers will not return to Italy for fear of not regaining re-entry to Germany – they are forced into permanent settlement, exile. And it then becomes politically difficult to expel them. Similarly, if the United States succeeded in controlling the Rio Grande border with Mexico, it would no doubt curb seasonal migration but increase the numbers permanently resident in the United States.

Singapore, being a very small territory with a powerful State, has apparently succeeded in operating tight controls. The city is an industrialized economy, based upon a mass of cheap labour (but the State maintains possibly the most advanced system of publicly provided reproduction and maintenance services in Asia, restricted to natives). Every expansion in the economy produces a shortage of labour in certain sectors – construction, ship repair (for men), textiles and electronics (for women). Immigrant labour fills the gaps, but under tight control – employers are permitted to recruit abroad, but remain responsible for their labour force. The State, with the close collaboration of the trade unions, ensures control to hold immigrant wages down, to prevent the labour market operating. Immigrants are used as the lever to keep down wages in general in the city for the mass of workers. Foreign workers are permitted to enter in the first instance for six months in construction; others, many of them young women, may not change jobs for three years, hold trade union office, marry or have children; they have no right to public housing, medical services or schools; those that ultimately secure permission to marry do so only on condition of signing a bond to accept sterilization after the birth of their second child. The penalty for disobeying the rules is expulsion.

These regulations apply to those entering the city on work vouchers (granted to those earning below 750 Singapore dollars per month). They do not apply to the highly skilled, professional or business classes who are granted employment vouchers (for those earning 750 Singapore dollars or more). In 1979, the government announced a new policy to reduce or eliminate the island’s dependence on immigrant labour, by trying to force an increase in the capital-intensity of production (that is, substituting equipment for labour by changing the industrial mix of the city’s output). Companies utilizing a great deal of labour are expected to leave the island, locating in the countries from which immigrants are drawn (the Singapore Government is also trying to locate labour intensive industry on the Indonesian island of Batam). To achieve this aim, the Government has proposed increasing wages for three years by 7 per cent, plus 32 Singapore dollars. In fact this is a very small increase to achieve such a change; the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association estimates the wage bill for its members at between 8 and 15 per cent of total costs, so the increase will add only between 1.6 and 3 per cent to costs. Of course, consistent with its record, even this small increase is not to be paid to the workers (lest “they get used to high wages”) but paid into the government Provident Fund. The payments can be stopped if the Singapore leadership decides the policy is in fact jeopardizing the city economy.

In other countries which are expanding, the controls are much weaker. In the Middle East, governments have moved from accepting general immigration to, at least officially, tolerating only temporary project-related entries (and the employer in the project is required to remove the labour force from the country at the end of the project). But the labour market continues to operate. Workers escape from the project or take second jobs. In mid-1978, 5,000 Indians working for Engineering Projects of India went on strike when the company, under government pressure, tried to prevent moonlighting. EPI asked the Ministry of the Interior to deport 250 of its workers, and made a small pay increase to the rest.

In summary then, foreign workers are necessary when the system grows to compensate for the deficiencies of national planning (whether the planning is declared or not), to straddle the contradiction between the development of the State and the growth of capital. In slump, they are also necessary, but this economic function is subsidiary to their social role: they are the anvil upon which the loyalty of the natives to the existing State can be forged.

The effects of emigration on primarily sending countries

If a State exports workers, labour power, on a significant scale in competition with other States, then the world labour market would begin to exercise an influence over the domestic production of labour, as the world market guides the domestic production of any other commodity. The more developed the export of labour, the more an exporting State would seek to control the lease or sale of labour power (to become a labour contractor or supervisory agent for labour contractors), to standardize its quality and tailor it to the specific vacancies abroad. To maximize its profits, it would need to minimize the costs of reproduction, ultimately to convert the economy to a manufacturing plant for breeding and raising workers. This might be done directly, or through the medium of the family, with State incentives and services being directed to induce the family to produce and train the numbers required (the family would then become, as it were, a private firm under the supervision of the State). It follows that such a State would have relinquished any ambition to create a diversified national economy in favour of filling one specialized niche in the world system.

At the moment, States “pillage” their domestic labour forces – or permit them to be pillaged by other States – without paying attention to sustaining future supplies, much as capitalism ransacked pre-capitalist sectors in the early phases of its growth. But exporting States do seek to control emigration, to ensure certain levels of pay and remittances, and to supervise their nationals abroad to prevent conflicts which might jeopardize their competitive position. In particular, in east and south Asia, prices are partly set in relationship to competing States in the provision of labour to multinational employers for construction work in the Middle East or merchant seamen’s jobs.

What are some of the immediate crude effects of large scale emigration for work? Some of them can be listed as follows: firstly emigration is drawn from particular districts, so that an important first effect is localised depopulation – as in parts of Eire, northern Portugal, Algeria, Lesotho, North Yemen, etc. Those leaving are workers in the most active age groups, so the effect of departures is magnified in the age group 15 to 35, and often, among the most skilled. Thus, the domestic labour force is stripped of its most decisive elements. Sometimes, emigration draws heavily on one sex, producing a sex imbalance, which has maximum effects on those in the reproductive age groups, reflected in a decline in the marriage and birth rates. Thus, not only is the present generation stripped, the next generation is jeopardized.

Secondly, the resulting shortage of skills can produce considerable labour scarcities in particular trades, and wage inflation. It is reported, for example, that the daily wage rate for masons in Pakistan used to be 15 rupees, but by 1979, under the impact of emigration of building craftsmen to the Middle East as well as a local house building boom financed from the remittances of workers abroad, the daily rate was 40 rupees. In North Yemen, large scale emigration has generated such wage inflation that now child labour can work as drivers at high wages. While this is good for low paid workers, it is catastrophic for local ruling classes with any ambition to speed capital accumulation. More generally it indicates a tendency for emigration to draw wages in the sending country up towards the level in the destination country, to create a single price in an international labour market.

A sequence of events in South Korea also illustrates this. In March 1977, Korean workers were involved in a three day riot at a Hyundai project in Saudi Arabia. President Park of South Korea intervened to raise the minimum pay level to (US)$240 per month. This in turn almost certainly encouraged more workers, particularly drivers, to opt for work in the Middle East. In May 1978, Park was obliged to raise the pay of Pusan bus drivers by 70% to discourage emigration, but without success since shortly afterwards he imposed a temporary ban on the recruitment of drivers for work abroad.

Thirdly, for some exporting countries, remittances from their nationals working abroad have become very important as sources of foreign earnings. Take three countries importing labour to Europe:

Remittances as a Percentage of Export Earnings

















These cases are not as extreme as North Yemen which is said to be able to import one hundred times more than it exports.

Having workers abroad firmly yokes the growth of local incomes to growth in the centres of world production abroad. Contraction in the world system similarly has reverse effects. For example, the virtual end of European recruitment of Turkish workers – as well as a flourishing black market in remittance payments to Turkey – was a powerful element in the severity of the crisis in Turkey. Official remittances peaked at (US)$1.42 billion in 1974, and fell to $0.98 billion in 1978 (unofficial payments, 1973 to 1978, are put at just over $2 billion). The pressure of the Turkish government to be admitted to the Common Market and the EEC provisions for the free movement of labour are a measure of the despair of the Turkish ruling class – only by leasing its labour for exploitation by foreign capital can it retain its hold on Turkey.

Fourthly, while in theory remittances make possible industrial imports to accelerate domestic growth; in practice States have to offer incentives to persuade their nationals to return part of their earnings through the official markets. That means that the exchange rate must either give special advantages to those wishing to return remittances or permit the currency to float so that any advantage in operating on the black market is removed. Such measures make it extremely difficult to control national finance in the interests of capital accumulation. Furthermore, since workers abroad can buy foreign consumer goods, they will do so abroad unless they can buy such goods at home at the same price – thus, incentives to repatriate earnings include the ‘liberalization’ of the import of consumer goods. This further reduces the chances of building national industry on an import substitution basis.

Finally, in general, emigrants regard home as merely home, not somewhere where they can use their foreign earnings to set themselves up as small capitalists (an illusory aim, given the relatively small earnings they individually make). Thus, remittances converted into local currency are used to buy land for housebuilding, to build houses and buy consumer goods. One result is, as noted earlier, inflation in the construction industries. In sum, the districts of emigration become dormitory suburbs or country cottages of workplaces abroad, places where foreign earnings are consumed not where productive activities are improved.

These elements indicate some of the pressures on world labour demand that restructure labour exporting countries, making even more difficult any independent strategy for national economic development. In practice, States react empirically, adjusting policy step by step without being conscious of the overall drift until it is too late to reverse the process. Their preoccupations are more directed at supervising the return of remittances.

The power of the State over nationals outside its frontiers is limited. At most, it can withhold the renewal of passports, seize property left behind or punish relatives. But abroad, no international policy yet exists to trace recalcitrants in the way, at least in principle, stolen goods can be traced. Usually, documentation is its sole power, which explains in part efforts made to enforce the necessity to travel with documents, to eliminate the possibility of undocumented movement.

Other measures are taken to strengthen control. Where local companies employ local labour on contracts abroad – as happens with Korean, Turkish or Greek construction companies in the Middle East, or Mexican construction companies in Venezuela – controls can be tight. The State can penalize the company. In turn the company handles the transport (and keeps the return ticket until the worker is instructed to return), housing, feeding and supervision of the worker. The South Koreans stiffen this control by appointing, in charge of each gang of workers, a volunteer craftsman demobilized from the army for the purpose of supervision.

Such controls require local capital to be developed enough to act as employer. For the Philippines, this is not usually the case. The government has therefore moved towards leasing labour in groups to foreign employers. Hirers of labour are required to sign a contract with the government guaranteeing certain conditions and accepting an obligation to return a certain proportion of foreign earnings to the Manila agent directly (that is, not through the worker).

Regulations on remittances vary widely, as does the power to enforce them. South Korea demands remission of 80% of foreign earnings. India requires, in theory, 10%. Filipino workers abroad are required to return 40% of earnings, and 70% if they are seamen. Pakistan demands that 20% of the earnings of professional and technical staff be paid to the State as tax, but it has little or no power to enforce this.

The People’s Republic of China has recently entered the market by permitting provincial governments to offer Chinese labour to foreign employers for work abroad. Guangdong province has recently published details of its proposals in Hong Kong. It offers “unlimited numbers” of workers, aged 18 to 35, to work a 48 hour week, with three days holiday per year. The government promises that its workers will be “diligent and obedient to the employers’ reasonable instructions and work assignments”. Workers will receive free board and travel; they will be given 10% of their total earnings (which should be between £69 and £104 weekly) as pocket money while abroad, and 10% on the termination of the contract, the rest presumably accruing to the Guangdong or Chinese Governments.

Perhaps the Chinese are copying the Philippines Government which has developed a marketing strategy for what is known as “the export of warm bodies”. The Overseas Development Board of the Ministry of Labour circulates glossy brochures to multinational companies proclaiming the superior character (and very low cost) of this “prized living export”, “the best bargain in the world labour market”. The government lays out its terms and promises, on signature of the contract, to “package and deliver workers to various worksites round the world”.

In conclusion, then, the national organisation of the sale of labour power is, at the government level, already well organised. Private labour contractors tout their wares round the globe and have done so for much of the history of capitalism, but State organisation – with a close eye on the balance of payments – is relatively new. If the process were to persist, sooner or later States would have to intervene in the reproduction process to ensure continued supplies and proper maintenance.


International migrants are a particular stratum of the world working class, embodying the contradiction between a world economy and its national political and social organisation. Relative to the national ideologies which dominate the world, they should not exist at all. Endeavouring to eliminate them, regardless of the damage thereby inflicted upon the world economic system, is part of the self-destructive drive of capitalism in crisis: the growth of world production is sacrificed to the maintenance of class rule.

The legal migrant is still a person. Although frequently oppressed, immigrants are still in an infinitely superior position to those who dare to move without a licence: the illegal migrant and the mass of refugees. Since these people belong to no ruling class, any barbarity may be inflicted upon them. They can be treated as cruelly as those lost peoples encompassed by the expanding modern national State: the Red Indians, the aborigines, the nomads. [11]

The ruling classes of the destination countries seek to stabilise their national power at the cost of the world system, at the same time as borrowing or stealing the labour forces of more backward ruling classes. There is a strikingly vivid model for a different method of achieving similar results. South Africa reclassified the majority of its natives as foreigners, nationals of a set of hastily run up independent States, the Bantustans. To do this, the distinction between “labourer” and “labour power” was vital, as the Minister of Mining explained in 1965: “They (black workers) are only supplying a commodity, the commodity of labour ... it is labour we are importing and not labourers”. [12] Apartheid, insofar as its aims in the field of labour were actually achieved, secured the purpose of offloading the costs of the reproduction of black labour to the Bantustans while retaining access to the labour power of adult workers. It also prevented black workers seeking to emulate the reproduction costs of white South Africa. Its viability depended upon being able to maintain a divided economy, between a majority low productivity sector and a minority high productivity sector. It has analogies with Japan. Insofar as this structural condition is superceded, apartheid comes to act as a powerful constraint on the growth of South African capitalism.

No issue today so sharply differentiates revolutionary internationalists and national reformists as that of the international migration of workers. The issue at stake is a challenge to the very existence of the national State and its prerogatives in the control of a territory and the inhabitants. Much of the politics of the Left is concerned with gaining control of the State and accelerating the growth of its power over its inhabitants, not with abolishing the State. Deploring the ill treatment of immigrants is seen, not as an attack on the powers of the State, but as an argument for ending all immigration. Demands for a “humane immigration policy” rival the fantasies of “send capital to the countries from which the immigrants come, not immigrants to the countries where capital exists”. If the Left had power to direct capital to new locations, it has the power to abolish capital. In the United States, it is part of the Left which stresses that illegal immigrants menace only the oppressed but native groups – blacks, Puerto Ricans, women – and that, to protect these groups, illegals should be expelled. Yet to permit the expulsion of illegal immigrants is to take one step nearer to the expulsion of immigrants, which in turn is a step closer to the expulsion of selected sections of natives. That way madness lies. Accepting the right of the State to control immigration is accepting its right to exist, the right of the ruling class to exist as a ruling class, the right to exploit, the “right” to a world of barbarism.

In South Africa, the white trade unions allied with the State for immediate gains to a minority of workers at the expense of the majority. It is the AFL-CIO which campaigns more consistently for the rounding up and expulsion of illegal Mexican workers; they “permit” US business to locate across the southern border to use cheap Mexican labour, but refuse to follow them to recruit Mexican workers and establish parity of wages on both sides of the frontier (a demand which would of course bring them into direct collision with the interests not only of US business but also the Mexican ruling class, also dependent upon cheap labour). It is the British TUC which continually presses for an end to the issue of work permits, an aim which, if achieved, would rob the TUC leadership of the opportunity of banquets in expensive London hotels. While it is the labour movement which leads the attack on foreign workers, employers may sleep quietly in their beds: whatever the secondary quarrels, the unions accept “the national interest”, the employers’ interest, that this is the best of all possible worlds.


1. Compare the contemporary tolerance of the passport as a means of labour control to Marx’s comment on internal labour passports:

“The excess of despotism reached in France will be apparent by the following regulations as to working men.

“Every working man is supplied with a book by the police – the first page of which contains his name, age, birthplace, trade or calling, and a description of his person. He is therein obliged to enter the name of the master for whom he works, and the reasons why he leaves him. But this is not all: the book is placed in the master’s hands and deposited by him in the bureau of the police with the character of the man by the master. When a workman leaves his employment, he must go and fetch this book from the police office; and is not allowed to obtain another situation without producing it. Thus the workman’s bread is utterly dependent on the police. But this again is not all: this book serves the purpose of a passport. If he is obnoxious, the police write ‘bon pour retourner chez lui’ (‘Valid for return home’ – NH) in it, and the workman is obliged to return to his parish!

“... No serfdom of the feudal ages – no pariahdom of India has its parallel” (Karl Marx/Frederick Engels, Collected Works, London, 1978, Vol. 10, p.578.)

2. This phenomenon is usually related to apparently accidental changes in the birth rate, reflected later in changes in the size of labour force. In fact, there is often no correlation with birth rates – for example, Greece .Spain, Portugal and Yugoslavia have the same sort of birthrates as those countries to which their nationals have migrated.

“Surplus workers” is the obverse of “lack of the means to employ” (or “capital deficit”), just as “scarcity of labour” means “excess of the means to employ” (implying an excess demand for goods or services, “capital surplus”). But differences of this kind have existed for a very long time, so they can hardly account for particular movements of workers at particular times. There are many areas, in any case, with a “capital deficit” but hardly any emigration.

Furthermore, the argument implies that it is the “surplus” workers, the unemployed, who move, when frequently it is not. “Scarcity” implies a general spread of unfilled vacancies in labour importing countries, when such a situation never exists, only particular scarcities in particular trades. The argument also assumes that the existing labour force in destination countries is “fully utilized” when it never is nor could be outside the realm of theory. There are always sections of the population which could be employed if the wage and conditions offered were good enough – women working at home, people under the age of 15, the sick, invalided and retired. If the price of labour, the wage, were to rise high enough, it would induce a movement of workers out of low into higher paid jobs (as happened in Germany, France and the United States with agricultural workers in the 1950s and 1960s). Alternatively, jobs can be exported or subcontracted abroad, as today when the Lancashire millowners are trying to subcontract garment making to the Mediterranean countries (the “outward processing” system).

Thus, the occurrence of “scarcity” or “surplus” does not explain the movement of workers; on the contrary, it is the movement which alone gives rise to the invention of these terms.

3. In Britain, the numbers in higher education have roughly doubled every twenty five years in this century. Between 1955 and 1970, numbers were doubling every eight years. On comparative expenditure and enrolments, see:

Increases in Higher Education
(Annual Average Growth Rates)



1. Expenditure

2. Enrolments





W. Germany












UK (England
& Wales








(OECD Observer, No. 50, Feb. 1971, p. 15.)

Decasualisation reduces the labour hours available if we assume that casual workers formerly took several jobs, and after being decasualized, remained in one job without working the same number of hours as they previously worked in more than one job.

4. The 1971 survey of 47,000 industrial units, employing between one and four workers, and covering 116,000 workers in all, showed:

1. Value added

Rs. 104 million

2. Hired labour costs

Rs.   66 million
(at Rs. 1,375 per year)

3. Imputed wage for employers and family labour

Rs.   93 million

4. Profits

Rs.   55 million

5. Actual return to employers and family labour

Rs.   38 million
(or Rs. 559 per person)

A.N. Bose, Calcutta and Rural Bengal, Minerva, Calcutta 1978.

5. The Report of the Inspector General of Recruiting, following the Boer War, noted “the gradual deterioration of the physique of the working classes from whom the bulk of recruits must always be drawn” (cited R.M. Titmuss, Essays on the Welfare State, London, 1958.)



Distribution of Gross Domestic Product, 1976


per capita,























W. Germany












7. One estimate of the net subsidy from immigrant homelands to West Germany puts the figure for workers who have moved between 1957 and 1966, and 1968 and 1973 (there was a net outflow of foreign workers in 1967) at US$33 bn. (1962 prices). Remittances returned to the homelands in the same period were US$8.8 bn. There are no estimates of the immigrant net contribution to West Germany’s gross domestic product. Another estimate, solely for highly skilled and professional immigrants to Britain, Canada and the United States, 1961 to 1972, puts the subsidy at US$46 billion.

8. This migration increases shortages for casual labour during the harvesting in parts of Spain which encourages the larger farmers to buy labour saving equipment, which in turn increases emigration: “to their paternalist relationship with the big landlords, has been added a further dependence on the European trade cycle” (Bernard Kayser, Manpower Movements and Labour Markets (Report), OECD, 1971, p. 196)

9. In a study of Cologne in Germany, a writer notes:

“the throng of foreign workers does not form a simple quantitative supplement, elastic by definition: on the contrary, it is for the most part an essential force in the economy because of the sectors of which it is in possession. For the main feature of immigrant manpower on the labour market is its practically irreversible specialization: it seems out of the question that, even in a period of crisis, nationals should demand again for themselves jobs which have become considered inferior and abandoned to the foreigners.” (Kayser, op. cit., p. 175)

10. It is for this reason that Bohning describes immigrant labour as a “conjunctural shock absorber” (W.R. Bohning and D. Maillat, The effects of the employment of foreign workers, OECD, Paris 1974, p. 18)

11. Compare Victor Serge’s observation on the exiled:

“I have witnessed the birth of the enormous category of ‘stateless persons’, that is, of those men to whom tyrants refuse even a nationality. As far as the right to live is concerned, the plight of these men without a country ... can be compared only to that of the ‘unacknowledged man’ of the Middle Ages who, since he had no lord or sovereign, had no rights and no protection either, and whose very name became a kind of insult.” (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901–1941, translated by Peter Sedgwick [to whom much thanks for pointing out the passage], Oxford 1963, p. 373)

12. And once their labour power was exhausted, they must carry their bodies off, out of the territory of the State. General Circular No. 25 of 1967 stipulated that:

“as soon as they become, for some reason or another, no longer fit to work or superfluous in the labour market, they are expected to return to their country of origin or the territory of their national unit where they fit in ethnically (even) if they were not born and bred in the ‘Homeland’.” (cited in Crossroads: A consequence of ideology or urbanization, by M.J. Andrews, unpublished dissertation, May 1979)

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 19.8.2013