Covid-19 and the Global Addiction to Cheap Migrant Labor

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Yves here. Mike Elk of the PayDay Report has done an extraordinary job of chronicling strikes, particularly Covid-19 related ones. By contrast, for the most part, the US press acknowledges the importance of “essential workers” and the disconnect between their lynchpin roles, their typically modest pay, and the inadequate adjustments of their environment and/or pay in light of their high Covid-19 infection and mortality rates. Early on, some workplaces did provide Covid-19 bonuses, but those are largely gone. One highly visible example is teachers, who work in poorly ventilated buildings, with no mask mandates for kids (admittedly difficult to enforce even if imposed) and no or little investment in other protections. Contrast that with the measures put in place in Chinese schools right after lockdowns ended; they’ve been relaxed somewhat as disease levels have remained low but mask wearing is a must.

The focus on “essential workers” in the US has obscured how Covid has affected low-wage laborers in other countries and the knock-on economic effects.

By Randall Hansen, director of the Global Migration Lab, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto. Originally published at openDemocracy

In November 2019, a federal government official visited the University of Toronto’s Munk School and asked its faculty to delineate coming global threats. We spoke of inequality, hunger, climate change, sanitation, and plastic pollution, among others. No one mentioned a microbe; a discussion of the threat of immunity to antibiotics was as close as we got.

Four months later, everyone in that room was under lockdown. COVID-19 hit the world as a freight train hits a car stalled at a railroad crossing. The virus has shredded the rhythm of our daily lives, and it will reconfigure our economies and politics.

How exactly it will do so remains unclear, but this much is certain: across the globe, middle class standards of living depend on the labor and – during a global pandemic – the deaths of an army of cheap migrant workers. The virus has shed light on this dependence, but there is nothing new about it; it has been a basic feature of national and global capitalism since at least the 1970s. And, for all the talk more of a new, more just world that will emerge from the ashes of COVID-19, the world’s addiction to cheap labor is going nowhere.

The virus highlighted the world’s structural dependence on cheap, exploitable labor.

As lockdowns spread around the globe in February (in much of Asia) and March (in much of Europe and North America), low-skilled migrants suffered some combination of four fates: unemployment, internment, expulsion, and infection.

In Turkey, the pandemic slashed domestic growth and foreign remittances, and the first who were sacked were many of the 3.7 million Syrians refugees working in the informal sector. In locked-down Singapore, 30,000 migrant workers were confined to crammed dormitories with as many as twenty bunk beds per rooms. In India, when Prime Minister Modi shut down a country of 1.3 billion people on 24 March, at least 600,000 internal migrants tried to return home – clogging roads and railways in scenes that evoked memories of the great flights and expulsions during partition. As Saudi Arabia entered lockdown, the Kingdom expelled over 2,800 Ethiopian migrants.

These lockdowns, sackings, and expulsions highlighted the degree to which both the global south and the global north are structurally dependent on cheap (e)migrants. At $554 billion globally in 2019, remittances provide more income than international aid; in Tajikistan, annual remittances from over one million guest workers in Russia are responsible for one-half of the country’s GDP. Due to the pandemic, global remittances may fall by as much as $108 billion dollars this year. But the global south also depends on cheap migrant labor – chiefly internal migrants in India and China, chiefly external migrants in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and the Gulf States – for construction, manufacturing, meat processing, caregiving, cleaning, and numerous other menial jobs.

In the global north, multiple sectors depend on low-skilled migrant labor, but two depend on it to a superlative degree: agriculture and meatpacking. In meatpacking and meat processing, laborers work cheek-by-jowl, hacking away at poultry, pork, and beef as it flies by at line speeds that have increased decade-on-decade. Migrant workers live in crammed, often squalid, quarters. Human trafficking – including contract deception, wage theft, and illegal document retention – is common. The sector was a perfect incubator for the coronavirus: in Germany, Ireland, France, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, and the United States, meat processing plants became COVID-19 hotspots, and the virus infected tens of thousands of workers. In the US alone, 16,200 meat and poultry plant workers tested positive as early as May (the latest date for which the CDC produced numbers), and 86 died; 87% of the dead were minorities.

Much of the media commentary expressed shock, even outrage, at these developments. It is not obvious why, since the global economy depends squarely on a reservoir of cheap, expendable labor. According to International Labour Office statistics, 21% of global migrants are low-skilled, but this is likely an underestimation, for much nominally medium-skilled work is in fact low-skilled. The systematic application by companies of Taylorist methods since the 1970s has transformed previously skilled jobs – shop assistants, assemblers, supermarket tellers, and clerical support – into low-skilled labor. Firms have eliminated training, routinized functions, and used technology (the bar code being a prime example) to de-skill work. Low-skill means non-unionized, low-paid, and with few if any benefits. The existence of a substratum of badly paid workers in retail, hospitality, construction, agriculture, and meatpacking, means that clothes, houses, fast food, groceries, and all manner of retail products are cheaper than they otherwise would be. The conditions under which these goods and services are produced are so unappealing that local workers exit the sector, either for better paid jobs or for unemployment and substance abuse. When they do, migrant workers are brought in – legally or illegally – to fill the positions.

The process is global: low-skilled Filipinos migrate to Hong Kong to work as housekeepers; low-skilled Cambodians and Burmese migrate to Thailand to work in agriculture and manufacturing; low-skilled Mexicans migrate to the United States to work in meatpacking, agriculture, construction, and caregiving; low-skilled Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Central Asians migrate, respectively, to the Gulf States, Malaysia, and Russia to work in construction. In India and China, tens of millions of internal migrants play the same function. The virus and its aftermath will not change these dynamics one iota. Indeed, in a poorer world suffering major virus-inflicted structural damage, the demand for cheap labor – and cheap migrant labor – will only be stronger.

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  1. Daniel Raphael

    That “global addiction” is simply the routine function of globalized capitalism in its transmutation of human labor into zeros in accounts. It is both metaphor and literal, on-the-ground reality.

  2. David

    I’m not sure that “the world” has an “addiction” to or a “dependence” on cheap imported labour. There’s an economic system involved here which, if it didn’t entirely invent the thirst for the cheapest labour it could find, certainly massively increased it.
    It’s worth recalling that after WW2 there was an absolute shortage of labour in parts of many western countries, as a result of the policy of full employment. I was working in a factory as a student in, I think, 1970, and there were notices all around promising bonuses to people who helped the company recruit extra staff – they couldn’t even get enough manual labourers. Of course, that was unacceptable to the ruling class, so high unemployment forced down wages and worsened conditions so that locals couldn’t afford to take the jobs, after which a disposable workforce could be imported from abroad. (It was well said, I can’t remember who by, that after outsourcing everything else, capitalism was now outsourcing its domestic workforce).
    But not everywhere. Where I’m typing this, in a tiny French town very distant from the big cities, there is no immigrant underclass. The people who empty the rubbish bins at six in the morning, clean the municipal toilets and stack the supermarket shelves are all white, French and have full-time, properly paid jobs. Go to the big cities, though, and these jobs are done by successive waves of exploited immigrants, each one cast aside in favour of the next, who will work longer hours for even less. There’s nothing inevitable here.

    1. Senator-Elect

      Merci, as usual, David, for this insightful comment. You’re absolutely right that nothing is inevitable. Sadly, I think many of our leaders don’t understand economics well enough to realize that low-paid workers and high inequality is a choice. A much better world is possible.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        It was not our choice. It was the Overclass’s choice and their political servants’s choice. And in America it was partially blocked by DemParty refusal to ratify Republican Free Trade Agreements.
        Then the DLC/Hamilton Project/ Fromite-Gorite-Clintonites conquered the DemParty and made it a co-conspirator for Free Trade Agreements.

        Abolish Free Trade and restore Protectionism and you can begin to isolate your country ( our country) from exposure to the International Free Trade Conspiracy. But that might well require winning a Civil War against the Free Trade supporters and physically exterminating hundreds of thousands of them or even millions of them in order to reduce their power enough to be able to secede from their system.

    1. M. Weekes

      I would suggest wages play a part but perhaps another aspect is social pressure. Many jobs in the trades pay significantly more than some office jobs (apprentice plumber: $60k v first year admin assistant $35-40k*). But because of the nature of the work and perception of the people who work in them, they aren’t seen as desirable employment.

      *NYC area estimates

      1. RMO

        Anecdotal evidence I know, but in my personal experience every single time I’ve heard a company or industry PR cry the blues about how they can’t find workers I’ve found no job openings available in the fields concerned.

        M. Weekes: Your example of an apprentice plumber is interesting as I’ve trained in one trade (aircraft maintenance which where I am required a two year, five day a week, eight hour a day formal education before seeking an apprenticeship) to find no job openings when I graduated and I subsequently looked into the plumbing and electrical trades – but before shelling out the time and money for the schooling again I made a pint if actually looking for apprenticeship positions. I found none. This was in Vancouver where we’re kinda doing a lot of construction too.

        1. cnchal

          > . . . I subsequently looked into the plumbing and electrical trades . . .

          That’s because your daddy or granddaddy wasn’t a plumber or electrician. Nepotism is the surest road into those trades. That goes for cops and firemen too.

          That aircraft maintenance career you were working towards, took wing and flew to China, but you already know that. The skilled labor desk jockeys that fly don’t know that the planes are flown to China for maintenance then flown back to be put into service, a gargantuan waste of jet fuel, but the cheap unskilled slave labor in China makes it all worth it to the criminals on top of the heap. Along with stealing money, they steal people’s lives.

  3. cnchal

    I bet no so called “skilled labor” would last an hour at a meat packing plant or have his body run into the ground by Amazon, never mind the trope of stupid people that make stuff, whether in a factory or in construction.

    The root problem is that cheap labor get’s shot for objecting and organizing for better conditions and pay.

    Skilled labor = desk jockeys that never get their hands dirty.

    It’s time for this unskilled laborer that makes stuff to go out to the garage and rip the suspension apart and fix the previous owner’s botched jawb. When I’m done with it, it’s going to be the best one thousand dollar winter beater ever. Is jQuery still a thing?

  4. Amfortas the hippie

    i’m payin my guys $12 per hour, lunch is paid(so i can see how hard they want to get backtyo work,lol)
    we feed them.
    pool and beer are available.
    there’s a promise that they’ll have someplace to go, when the shtf..

    1/.2 ton of cactus ,moved/
    quarter mile of complicated fence , built.
    2 days.

    by all accounts, i’m cool to work for.
    “best boss ever”

  5. The Rev Kev

    Not only cheap labour. A country like Australia is configured to bring in a steady stream of immigrants to help the economy grow. Actually they are not so much immigrants but ready-to-go workers. This helps with consumption demand, the demand for housing, etc. But with the present pandemic, how is bringing in masses of people to be done now? Logic dictates that you bring them into quarantine facilities for a fortnight until they have been checked to make sure they are not infected but governments rebel at this idea because reasons but whatever happens, perhaps countries like Australia should not make the success of their economies contingent to a steady stream of immigrants and foreign students.

    1. Bazza

      Yep, it’s not just unskilled labour here in Aus. I used to be an IT consultant in a former life. Got too old and expensive to be considered a viable option in comparison to the influx of cheap, young techies flooding into the country.

      These days there is a global marketplace of practically unlimited cheap labour, ready to meet any demand for any sort of tech work and customers here are taking full advantage. When bidding for new projects, corporate clients would demand rates so low that it was just not possible to compete and pay livable salaries to locals in high cost of living cities. We just kept getting undercut by the plethora of subcontinental body shops who would provide a few indentured visa holders for client facing stuff and offshore the rest of the work. I have watched entire teams and departments of locals displaced this way countless times over recent years. I fear for young people trying to enter the industry and establish careers.

  6. Maritimer

    “In November 2019, a federal government official visited the University of Toronto’s Munk School and asked its faculty to delineate coming global threats.”

    Apparently the distinguished and esteemed folk at the Munk School could not detect that the massive Wall Street Crime Wave might be more of a Canadian and Global concern. I hope the posting of this item is not more of “Canada what a great place!” Canada with a population of 35 million does not have the alternative/contrarian resources of the more populous 330 million US. Even in the US, one can see those resources are severely limited. There are no NCs and other institutions to reveal the depths of Canadian corruption. Indeed, the same Federal Government that commissioned this “study”, also issued a $600 million dollar “subsidy” to the Canadian media; some might call that a payoff or bribe. (NC might want to post about that.)

    As for Peter Munk the Munk School founder, he had a somewhat dicy and checkered business history:

    Personally, I am always skeptical of any material and motivation coming out of a University and even more so when it is from an endowed school named after a Business Titan. One might say that the “Foundation Apple does not fall far from the tree.”

    1. cnchal

      > Apparently the distinguished and esteemed folk at the Munk School could not detect that the massive Wall Street Crime Wave . . .

      The venal people at the Munk miseducation school would never bite the hands that might feed them.

      Imagine having an article critical of the criminality of Wall Street on your resume and expecting to be hired by any of the Wall Street mafia. Writing about that would be career suicide.

  7. Bob Hertz

    In a better world, the jobs which are dirty, dull, and dangerous would be paying $40 an hour to attract workers. Meanwhile, being a liberal arts professor would pay $10 an hour as the work is so attractive.

    But labor markets are hugely influenced by power. Desperate migrants will accept lower wages for dangerous work, as their only alternative to starving. They are engaged in what philosophers call a “desperate exchange.”

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      A naval-bulkhead quality watertight border to keep out every last desperate person might well force wages up in the sealed-off country against the wishes of the pro upper class Open Borders Lobby.

      What if a political party arose in America running on the concept of watertight-sealing the US border against entrants of any kind until every Black citizen had high-paid work if they wanted it? Do Black Jobs matter? Not to the Social Justice Warrior Leftard WokeNazis, they don’t. But do Black Jobs Matter to anyone else in this country?

  8. Rod

    From the article above:
    for construction, manufacturing, meat processing, caregiving, cleaning, and numerous other menial jobs.

    Websters first Definition

    me·​nial | \ ˈmē-nē-əl , -nyəl \
    Definition of menial (Entry 1 of 2)
    : a person doing menial work
    specifically : a domestic (see DOMESTIC entry 1 sense 4) servant or retainer (see RETAINER entry 1 sense 1a)

    Webster’s Entry 2 of 2 doesn’t match the Authors use also.

    I am tired of the inaccurate use of language, or Dog Whistles, by the PMC I believe this Author is a part of.
    The point is so correct–importing/exporting Labor for cost control and profit pump up is undermining cohesion and increasing inequality world wide, but is, imo, a By Product of the System of Consumer Capitalism.
    Calculating Roof Rafter Length and marking its Lay-Out(either mathematically/manual step off/or using the Tables) is not heart surgery, but does certainly exceed the textbook definition of Menial.
    But you would actually have to know a little something about what a Menial job is.

    1. Basil Pesto

      2b. is ‘lacking interest or dignity’

      Dignity’s a tough one. Manufacturing is not indignified in and of itself of course, but it can be an indignity depending upon the conditions in which you’re forced to work. Ditto logistics – I’m sure there are plenty of fine logistics jobs out there; compare and contrast those with working at an Amazon ‘Fulfilment Center’.

      But let’s set dignity aside because it’s a bit of a moral judgement. Interesting is subjective, I suppose, but I’m sure I would find, say, meat processing uninteresting, and I have found cleaning uninteresting in the past. I’d probably find a lot of construction and manufacturing uninteresting too, but I can see that many wouldn’t.

      Note that doesn’t mean these jobs are unimportant.

      I think the use of the word in the piece more or less fits in the Webster’s 2b. sense of the word, which I think is a pretty commonly understood usage

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