Anyone looking for a job in the 21st century needs to read this article.
Transient Servitude and Work in the 21st Century
By Richard D. Vogel
Copyright © 2011 by Richard D. Vogel
Permission to copy granted
Synopsis: The ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 was a stab-in-the-back to the working people of North America. In his remarks on signing NAFTA, President Bill Clinton cited his primary reason for supporting the treaty: "First of all, because NAFTA means jobs. American jobs, and good-paying American jobs. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't support this agreement." Former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford were all present at the signing ceremony to support NAFTA as Ronald Reagan had done in an op-ed published a few days earlier.
Clinton was lying about jobs and all of the ex-presidents were playing their parts in the farce -- all of them knew that free trade would allow transnational corporations to pit the workers of the signatory countries against each other for the purpose of maximizing profits. The precipitous decline of labor in North America because of the massive offshoring of jobs to cheaper labor markets under NAFTA and other free trade agreements (FTAs) that has downgraded the lives of millions of American workers, their families, and their communities offers a painful lesson on the political mendacity of the US ruling class.
But the extensive outsourcing of work from the United States to developing countries was not enough. NAFTA and the nine other FTAs that have been ratified by the government did not end capitalism's relentless quest for cheap labor. The megatrend of offshoring was followed by a second bi-partisan attack on labor in 2005 that attempted to legalize the importation of migrant labor from the global South to establish and maintain a cheap reserve workforce in the US. President George W. Bush openly advocated for a temporary guest worker program and, under the umbrella of comprehensive immigration reform, five of the six reform bills introduced in the 109th US Congress (2005-06) contained provisions for the same (An in-depth analysis of that campaign is available at "Transient Servitude: The US Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers".) This second assault on workers failed due to the vigilance of organized labor and various citizens' groups that recognized the ruinous consequences of mass transient servitude for the working people of both labor-exporting and labor-importing countries. The Great Recession of 2007-09 knocked immigration reform off the table.
However, the labor struggle is ongoing. In the wake of the Great Recession two alternative strategies to maintain a massive reserve service and industrial workforce for US capitalism are emerging:
Plan A -- the implementation of a temporary migrant labor program through the adoption of a national managed migration policy that will allow employers legal access to temporary migrant labor through a permanent migration agency authorized by the US Congress, administered by the Office of the President of the United States, and backed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or
Plan B -- the resumption of the gatekeeper southern border policy that was in effect during the 1990s and early 2000s that allowed businesses virtually unlimited access to migrant labor from the global South
Either alternative will condemn tens of millions more migrant workers to transient servitude while seriously undercutting general wage levels and working conditions for all citizen-workers. As long as the US government continues to serve the special interests of the transnational corporations by pursuing neoliberal labor agendas, the prospects for all working people in North America will continue to decline in the 21st century.
Transient Servitude Today
Transient servitude, the condition of work where the location and duration of jobs, wages, and working conditions in both labor-sending and labor-receiving countries are dictated by employers, already exists. Following three decades of the extensive outsourcing of work to developing countries that has resulted in the establishment of over 3,000 free trade zones (FTZs) in at least 135 countries and the ratification of multiple FTAs that have transformed entire nations and geographical regions into FTZs, transient servitude -- in both its informal form, the unrestrained exploitation of undocumented migrants, and its legal form, managed migration -- is the latest development in transnational capital's ongoing campaign to establish and maintain cheap reserve workforces for location-bound industries in the developed world.
Map 1 tracks the three major labor migration streams that were well established by the beginning of the 21st century.
By far, the largest stream of undocumented workers in history is the massive migration of laborers and their families primarily from Mexico, but also from Central America and the Caribbean, to the United States. Though US industry has historically relied on immigrants for cheap labor, the mass labor migration that began in the 1980s is significant because it consists overwhelmingly of undocumented migrants who are under constant threat of deportation and, consequently have to work for substandard wages and live second-rate lives. Estimates put the number of these migrants in the US at between 10 and 12 million by 2007. i
The second major labor migration stream is from the countries of North Africa, primarily Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia to the developed nations of Western Europe. According to best estimates there were over 2.2 million citizens from North Africa living and working in Europe at the turn of the century. France appears to be the second overall host nation to migrant workers worldwide, but accurate estimates are currently unavailable. At that same time, 2.7 million Egyptians were working overseas with 1.9 million employed in Persian Gulf countries.
The third main stream of labor migration presented in map 1 is the extensive network of temporary contract workers exported by the Philippine government to destinations around the globe, including worldwide maritime and cruise ship employment. The Philippine government reported 8 million Filipino citizens working abroad during the first years of the 21st century, making that nation second only to Mexico in exporting labor. How the Philippine state operates as a labor broker for world capitalism presents many important lessons for the working classes of the world. ii
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) monitored steady increases of labor migration at the beginning of the 21st century and reported that the developing world can easily supply as many workers as are needed in developed countries for the next four decades. The fact that the IOM, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are working jointly to promote managed migration in the same way that these international agencies work together to support the neoliberal policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO) should be of central concern to the workers of the world and anyone alarmed by the global megatrends of transient servitude and growing inequality.
The global commodification of and trade in human labor have grave consequences for the working classes of both labor-sending and labor-receiving countries. Generally speaking, massive labor migration renders labor-exporting countries nations without futures, while it undermines equality and democracy in labor-receiving countries. In 2010, the labor-exporting nations, without exception, were rated as either "borderline" or "in danger" failing states. The impact on labor-importing countries which is seldom considered but just as insidious is the subject of this essay.
Each of the three global labor migration streams in map 1 developed in specific historical, political, and economic contexts and demand individual analysis. The present article is focused on transient servitude and its impact in North America.
Following the transformation of work in the United States uncovers the roots of transient servitude.
The Roots of Transient Servitude in North America
Where did the jobs go? (a short economic history)
Since there can be no sustainable economic recovery without the creation of jobs, debunking the myth of the "jobless" economic recovery exposes the roots of transient servitude.
Chart 1 depicts the recovery periods that followed the major economic recessions in the United States during the last 40 years. The trend lines report the percent change in jobs during the 15 month period following the official end of each recession as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The most striking feature of the chart is the clear division of the seven recoveries into two distinct groups. The recoveries that followed the recessions of '69, '73, '80, and '81 (the orange trend lines) were traditional economic recoveries that included significant job growth in the formal US economy.
The second group of economic recoveries, the so-called "jobless" recoveries (the blue lines), followed the recessions of '90, '01, and the Great Recession of '07. In these three most recent events, the BLS reported continuing job loss despite the increase in gross domestic product (GDP), the official BLS indicator of economic recovery, making these recoveries appear to be unrelated to job growth, hence the jobless designation. What accounts for this apparent contradiction is not economic recovery without employment but the shifting of work from the formal to the informal economy, an ongoing trend that the BLS does not include in its official reports.
Since the creation of real wealth depends on labor, the question of who is doing the nation's work is critical to understanding economic recovery. It is obvious from chart 1 that in the traditional economic recoveries, US workers returning to traditional jobs were an essential part of economic revival. The jobless recoveries that emerged in the 1990s reflect a radical shift in the US workforce. While some workers were returning to their former or new jobs in the formal economy, chart 1 shows that the net sum of traditional jobs was negative. In addition to the continued offshoring of jobs, many wage earners were forced into the informal national economy where they found work as temporary employees, subcontractors, and short-term contract labor. The growth of GDP following the jobless recoveries was sustained by the intensified exploitation of labor through lower pay, longer hours, and reduction or elimination of benefits.
The resurgence of GDP that signaled economic revival after the jobless recoveries was augmented by the widespread employment of foreign born (both legal and undocumented) workers in the US economy during the 1990s and early 2000s. Chart 2 focuses on this trend as it continued in the wake of the Great Recession.
Chart 2 shows the change in employment from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010. During that year-long period 1,198,000 native workers lost their jobs while 656,000 foreign born workers found employment in the US. Not surprisingly, the immigrant workers who did find employment accepted considerably lower wages than those that prevailed before the recession.
The significance of this ongoing transfer of work from one population of workers to another is the key to understanding work in the 21st century. It is a phenomenon that can only be understood in political perspective.
Looking south of the border for cheap labor (a short political history)
After the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964) which effectively deprived US capitalism the use of African American and women workers as a reserve service and industrial workforce, then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted that American business was going to have to look south of the border for cheap labor.
Chart 3 illustrates how Moynihan's forecast worked out towards the end of the century.
Overall, chart 3 is a graphic portrayal of the largest migration of workers and their families in the history of the world (see map 1). It also clearly reflects the era of the gatekeeper policy on the southern US border to accommodate the needs of US capitalism by allowing the extralegal migration of labor to supplement the reserve workforce in the US. This de facto open-border policy, which began as a trickle during the presidency of Ronald Reagan continued to expand throughout the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and through the first term of George W. Bush, during which almost half a million undocumented citizens a year migrated from Mexico alone. By 2005 there were almost 6 million undocumented citizens from Mexico along with another 2.5 million citizens of other Latin American countries, who had crossed the southern border and were living and working in the USA. Combined, Latin Americans accounted for 81 percent of the undocumented migrants in the country.
The divergent trend lines in chart 3 deserve close attention. During the 15 year period beginning in the mid-1980s, the flow of undocumented migrants entering the US from Mexico skyrocketed from 28 to 84 percent of the total, while the number of legal migrants dropped from 72 to 16 percent of the total. This shift underscores the driving force of transient servitude -- the demand for low-cost labor. While authorized migrants are entitled to social services, job benefits, and social security, undocumented workers get nothing but subsistence wages.
Significantly, the period of the gatekeeper border policy was also marked by lax enforcement of federal laws aimed at the employers of undocumented migrant workers.
In short, throughout the era of the gatekeeper border policy, US capitalism had virtually unlimited access to cheap migrant labor from the South. The widespread exploitation of this reserve workforce contributed significantly to capital accumulation reflected in the rebounding GDP that marked the jobless recoveries of 1990 and 2001. iii
It is no wonder that US capitalism made a concerted attempt to legalize transient servitude in the early 2000s.
The proposed guest worker programs
The precedent for the early 21st century campaign to legalize transient servitude as national policy was the US/Mexico Bracero program that was ratified in 1942 to supply agricultural workers to replace US citizens who were being drafted to serve in World War II. Due to the continuing demand for cheap labor after the war, the Bracero program was extended periodically and not terminated until 1964 when the abuses of the program became a political issue and the mechanization of US farming significantly reduced the demand for cheap labor. By the time the program was terminated, an estimated 4.5 million Mexican citizens had crossed the border to work under temporary contract in the US. iv
The 21st century campaign to manage labor migration from the South was launched during the jobless economic recovery that followed the 2001 recession. President George W. Bush ardently advocated a temporary guest worker program throughout his first term and, under the umbrella of comprehensive immigration reform, five of the six reform bills introduced in the 109th US Congress (2005-06) contained provisions for the same. (A detailed examination of that legislation is available in "Transient Servitude".)
The Great Recession of 2007, which provoked a virulent anti-immigrant backlash, effectively silenced the call for comprehensive immigration reform and temporary guest worker programs but did not end capitalism's insistent demand for cheap labor from the global South. Before reviewing the emerging strategies for exploiting the working people from the global South, the consequences of transient servitude for the working classes in both the labor-sending and labor-receiving countries of North America must be considered.
The Impact of Transient Servitude in North America
Mexico - a failing state
All of the labor-sending countries in the global labor migration streams depicted on map 1 are classified either as "borderline" or "in-danger" failing states. In the case of Mexico, state failure is witnessed by a host of indicators: skyrocketing economic inequality; extreme social hardships imposed by economic austerity programs; increasing corruption in the government including the acceptance of bribes from domestic businesses and transnational corporations; failure to provide common citizens with adequate levels of social services while dedicating substantial state resources to transnational corporations and government and business elites; growth of the informal economy such as smuggling and the drug trade; and perhaps most egregious of all, the inability of the state to protect its citizens from terrorism and violence as witnessed by the staggering death toll, many of the casualties innocent bystanders, of the ongoing drug wars.
The migration of millions of working age men and women to the North under conditions of transient servitude provides some relief in the form of economic remittances sent to family members who remain in Mexico, but in the long run emigration contributes to the problems that keep Mexico on the trajectory of a failed state. The effect of the brain- and brazov-drain on Mexico and other nations of the global South is both a present and future threat - it weakens immediate demands to redress social and economic ills and undermines the formation of political institutions necessary to insure a sustainable future.
The USA - runaway inequality and the decline of democracy
The impact of transient servitude on citizen-workers in North America is exacerbating the trends of runaway inequality and the decline of democracy that were triggered by the massive outsourcing of blue- and white-collar and professional jobs to cheaper labor markets. The presence of a reserve service and industrial workforce that can be employed during economic booms and summarily discharged during downturns without serious political backlash, which at all times works for substandard wages under onerous conditions, undercuts general wage levels and the ability of citizen-workers to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment. This fundamental economic relationship exists whether the reserve workforce consists of women workers, child laborers, disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or undocumented migrant workers. It is because of this fundamental economic relationship between the active workforce and the reserve workforce that the presence of a large population of undocumented workers and the decline of citizen-workers are inextricably linked.
Runaway inequality, driven by massive offshoring and widespread transient servitude, is an undeniable fact of modern life in the USA.
Chart 4 reflects the national trend.
Chart 4 tracks the share of the national income, including capital gains, received by the richest 10 percent of the US population from 1970 through 2008. The rise has been nothing less than phenomenal, escalating from a stable average that hovered just above 33 percent throughout the 1970s to almost 50 percent in 2008. Income distribution has both winners and losers -- this summary statistic which measures the ongoing enrichment of the rich, at the same time reflects the declining fortunes of working people.
The establishment and maintenance of a reserve service and industrial workforce also undermines the political foundation of a democratic society. This is especially evident when sectors of the national reserve workforce can no longer be exploited profitably and become a relative surplus population under capitalism. The solution to this problem in the US took the form of unprecedented mass incarceration and related forms of direct social control.
Chart 5 which is based on US Department of Justice (USDOJ) statistics offers an overview of this social policy in practice.
Chart 5 shows why the United States has gained the reputation of being the world's Prisonhouse of Nations. vi The size of the US population under correctional control has increased from 1.8 million in 1980 to 7.4 million in 2008. The current breakdown of the correctional population is significant: while 31 percent of the total is incarcerated in jail or prison, the vast majority (69 percent) of the correctional population is under the direct social control of the state through probation or parole. Though all of these state actions are included under the umbrella term of "corrections", any rehabilitative function of the US criminal justice system has all but disappeared under the burden of warehousing a relative surplus population.
The consequences of this social policy of mass incarceration and direct social control are sobering:
- One in 100 adults in the US was behind bars in 2008.
- One in 31 adults in the US was under correctional supervision in 2008.
- The future of incarceration in the nation offers a bleak scenario. According to the USDOJ, if the rates of incarceration that prevailed at the beginning of the century continue, a black male in the United States will have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime, while a Hispanic male will have a 1 in 6 chance, and a white male will have a 1 in 17 chance.
The growth of mass incarceration and direct social control through probation and parole, the product of shrinking economic and educational opportunities, is just one indicator of declining democracy in the USA. The trends of runaway inequality and declining democracy will be exacerbated by the emerging strategies for the wholesale exploitation of labor from the global South.
Two Strategies of Transient Servitude:
Managed Migration v. Resumption of the Gatekeeper Border Policy
Plan A: managed migration
Managed migration is the dominant theme of current comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the developed nations of the world. The stated goal of managed migration is to make these national economies "competitive in the global marketplace". The primary means of becoming competitive under capitalism is by lowering labor costs across the board. There is no better way of ensuring cheap domestic labor costs than to have a massive reserve service and industrial workforce at the disposal of capital. Managed migration is designed to supply this demand through temporary labor programs which offer employment but deny the prospect of citizenship to migrant workers.
National managed migration policies are already being developed in several of the labor-receiving nations of Western Europe identified in map 1:
- The Netherlands has an advisory committee that provides immigration recommendations, including temporary work visa quotas, which are debated and decided in parliament.
- In 2001, Spainestablished a High Council on Immigration Policy to coordinate national immigration policymaking.
- The Migration Advisory Committee in the United Kingdom, established in 2006, has much wider power, advising the government on all aspects of immigration. One of its mandates is to investigate the restructuring of the nation's visa system with an eye on relaxing the restrictions on temporary migrant workers.
Proposed managed migration for the USA includes the implementation of a temporary migrant labor program through the adoption of a national managed migration policy that will give employers legal access to temporary migrant labor through a permanent migration agency authorized by the US Congress, administered by the Office of the President of the United States, and backed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), one of the largest and most technologically advanced police forces in the modern world. This was the model behind Title V of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity (CIR ASAP) Act proposed in 2009.
A policy of managed migration that includes massive temporary migration programs is supported by the powerful US Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation representing over 3 million US companies, and the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of key city mayors and major corporate CEOs from across the nation.
The infrastructure to enforce a national policy of managed migration is already in place.
Map 2 marks the locations of the 63 Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) facilities operated by ICE in the US as of November of 2010. A survey of the names of the various DRO facilities across the country reveals the extent to which city and county authorities and local law enforcement personnel have been incorporated into the ICE system. It must be kept in mind that these are not temporary arrangements but constitute the foundation for a permanent migration enforcement network. Under a national managed migration program these same jails, prisons, and dedicated facilities will be used to detain and remove migrant workers who do not possess an authenticated work visa or who have violated the terms and conditions of their work contract. In addition to the DRO infrastructure identified on map 2, ICE has over 400 offices in the US and 46 foreign countries. The agency has over 20,000 employees, including 6,700 special agents and utilizes the latest law enforcement equipment and technology.
In short, the infrastructure, personnel, and technology needed to strictly enforce a managed migration program in the US are in place and functioning.
Plan A has met serious resistance, but there is a viable Plan B already in action.
Plan B: resumption of the gatekeeper border policy
Plan B, the gatekeeper border policy that was in effect in the 1990s and early 2000s (see chart 3) has been quietly resumed after the carefully-staged and well-publicized sideshow of the immigration crackdown staged in response to the 2007-09 recession.
Chart 6 summarizes the net effect of that immigration crackdown in the US.
The estimates of the size of the unauthorized immigrant population recorded in chart 6, based on Current Population Surveys conducted by the US Census Bureau, contradicts the inflated claims of the effectiveness of the immigration crackdown in the first decade of the 21st century. Despite the Department of Homeland Security's celebration of operation Endgame vii and its successor, the Secure Communities strategy, the trend line in chart 6 shows the steady growth of the undocumented migrant community which decreased only in the wake of the Great Recession but is currently recovering. The overall trend in chart 6, along with the employment change information documented in chart 2, indicates that the gatekeeper border policy of the 1990s and early 2000s has been surreptitiously resumed in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The growth of transient servitude in conjunction with the continued outsourcing of jobs to FTZs in developing nations severely limits the prospects of all workers in the 21st century.
Prospects for Work in the 21st Century
Neoliberal globalization has been a windfall for the stockholders, agents, and officers of the transnational corporations and their client governments. The manipulation of global labor markets, aided and abetted by political institutions at all levels and promoted by international agencies, has facilitated the extraction of unimaginable super-profits from the working classes of the world. At the same time the prospects for working people, be they citizen-workers in the developed countries, laborers in the global FTZs, or migrants forced to work under conditions of transient servitude, are diminishing rapidly.
Transient servitude and FTZ labor
The future faced by increasing numbers of workers in the developing world is employment in a FTZ, transient servitude, or no work at all.
Work in free trade zones is provisional and unprotected. In these "workshops within nations" the duration of jobs, wages, and working conditions are controlled by transnational corporations through local contractors, FTZ administrators, private security forces, and charro unions viii -- the existence of democratic labor unions is all but impossible. Consequently, prevailing wages in FTZs are held at subsistence levels and work is often dirty, dangerous, and demeaning.
For working people in developing countries, transient servitude, in both legal and extralegal forms, offers a poor, but often the only, alternative to work in FTZs. Generally, legal work contracts and visas are short term (3 year contracts are the norm), without benefits, and renewable only at the request of employers. Although work contracts formally recognize workers' rights and employers' responsibilities, enforcement of those rights and responsibilities is problematic. In the case of labor disputes the labor-sending countries which should be the guarantors of their citizens' rights usually side with employers and officials in the labor-receiving countries. This contradiction plagued the Bracero Program and prevails in most modern temporary labor programs.
At best, transient servitude offers minimum short-term relief for workers and, at worst, provides a political safety valve for governments that are willing to act as labor brokers for transnational capitalism.
The neoliberal agenda that dictates government and international policy severely limits the political actions available to the working classes of developing nations. The key challenge to neoliberal globalization will come from within the developed nations where employment opportunities are plummeting and the social conditions of working class communities are continuing on a downward spiral.
Work in the developed world
Today, the future faced by increasing numbers of workers in the developed world is low-paying service jobs, casual employment in the informal economy, military service protecting the assets and investments of the transnational corporations, or lifetime unemployment without a social safety net. The United States, which 30 years ago was the workshop of the world, has been reduced to the level of a failing state that does not offer a future to an increasing proportion of its youth nor care for the welfare of its citizens at large. The USA, once a dynamic democracy, has been subverted by a government dominated by neoconservative politicians and hordes of corporate lobbyists.
Civic Revolution: "to alter or to abolish"
The Founding Fathers of the United States established a clear course of action for any nation that finds itself dominated by a government that serves the privileged few. It is the heart of The Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Power from the Consent of the Governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In these times when people in the developing world are struggling for democracy, the working people of the USA, in their own best interest, are going to have to join the fight.
i The best estimates of both documented and undocumented immigrants in the USA are published by the Pew Hispanic Center.
ii See Robyn Magalit Rodriquez, Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World, http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/R/rodriguez_migrants.html.
iv A summary history of the Bracero Program in historical context is included in Transient Servitude: The U.S. Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers linked in the text.
v "brazo" literally means "arm" in Spanish. It is sometimes used to refer to a laborer as "hand" is used in English. "Bracero", from the same root word, is the Spanish term for a laborer, hence the name of the US/Mexico Bracero Program,
vi The characterization of the USA as the world's Prisonhouse of Nations can be found in Mumia Abu-Jamal's excellent Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. International comparisons justify the label. In 2008, the US incarceration rate (inmates per 100,000 residents) was 750 compared to 628 for the Russian Federation, the second highest rate in the developed world. The average rate for the other Eastern European countries was 259. For further comparison, the rate for England and Wales was 148 and the average rate was 102 for the other Western European countries. A complete international breakdown is available from the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London.
vii Endgame was the operation launched by ICE in 2003 "to remove all removable aliens from the US by 2012 [the original target year for the establishment of a national guest worker program]". The original supporting document for Endgame was removed from the DHS website but is still available as a PDF. The deportation campaign is now referred to as the Secure Communities strategy.