Circular migration of labor: a global corporate trend

The defeat of the Senate’s flawed comprehensive immigration bill last spring and the Bush administration’s escalating of factory and neighborhood raids, deportations and militarization of the border are largely blamed on right-wing forces who see legalization and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers as unacceptable amnesty.

The mass media have promoted these right-wing policies to influence popular opinion. They rarely mention the role of transnational corporations in immigration policy nationally and globally.

With immigration looming as a critical issue in the 2008 elections, it is important to examine how corporate forces see immigration in light of global migration trends. Increasingly their focus is on what they call “circular migration.”



What is circular migration?

Academically, the term circular migration applies to migrants who return to their original homes rather than settle permanently abroad.

At first the term referred to informal migration patterns of migrants themselves, but it now refers to governmental temporary/guest worker programs. In recent years major international and national institutions have proposed broader use of such programs.

In 2005, the UN’s Global Commission on International Migration reported, “The old paradigm of permanent migrant settlement is progressively giving way to temporary and circular migration.” The same year, the European Commission suggested to the European Union that it “should focus on encouraging circular migration.” In 2006 the World Bank recommended that circular migration projects be initiated in Europe for workers from the former Soviet Union and other former socialist states in Eastern Europe.

After World War II, large temporary-worker programs were instituted in many countries: in the United States the Bracero program brought in Mexican workers for agribusiness; in Germany gastarbeiter (guest workers) from Turkey and South Europe labored in industry; and in South Africa’s then-apartheid system, Black Africans were brought into mines and industrial areas while their unemployed family members were kept in densely populated, rural “Bantustans.”

These programs became discredited because of their highly exploitative and racist features. The term “circular migration” was adopted to reintroduce the concept without negative associations to argue that new global conditions create the opportunity for “guest worker” programs that supposedly can benefit sending and receiving countries as well as the migrants themselves.



World trends

The UN Population Fund’s publication “State of the World Population 2007” stresses that in 2008 “more than half of [the world’s] population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas.” It points out that the earth’s urban population grew from 220 million in 1900 to 2.8 billion in 2000 and will reach 5 billion by 2030. Already there are more urban poor than rural.

Globalization is the driving force for this trend, says the report, as “people follow jobs, which follow investments and economic activity ... increasingly concentrated ... in dynamic urban areas.”

Trade and austerity policies initiated by developing countries and the International Monetary Fund impoverish millions like workers and farmers in West Africa, many of whom migrate to Europe through Spain, and grain workers in Mexico.

Most of this migration is internal versus international. In 2005, Priya Deshingkar of the Overseas Development Institute pointed out in an article titled “The Role of Circular Migration in Economic Growth” that in India, some 30-50 million people have moved from rural to urban settings in recent years. In China, that number was over 120 million. This nearly equals the some 200 million people now living outside their home countries.

International migrants to developed countries are generally better educated with more resources than most of their counterparts left behind, says the UN’s state of the world population 2006 report. International migration rose from 2.5 percent of the total global population in 1960 to 2.9 percent in 2000, rising 16.6 percent, adds the report. Most is to developed countries, where migrants made up 75 percent of the population increase in 2000-2005. One out of four migrants lives in the U.S., and one out of three in Europe.

The World Bank estimates that in 2005, migrants sent $232 billion to their home countries in remittances; this does not include “non-formal” transfers that could double the numbers, closer to $500 billion.

The 2006 UN population report says, “Many countries are increasingly reluctant to receive large numbers of permanent residents,” with the result that the number of undocumented immigrants had grown to an estimated 30-40 million international migrants.

The report adds, “Growing interdependence between countries, coupled with widening inequalities, will probably lead to the further intensification of international movements. In the ‘worldwide scramble for skills,’ advanced countries are increasingly tapping a larger pool of highly mobile labor.”



Informal systems

The growth of international migration is tied to the growing global urbanization and poverty with increased corporate globalization. The same technological advances in transportation, communication and information that facilitate global economic integration also facilitate labor migration and organization.

Steven Vertovec of Oxford University’s International Migration Institute, in an article titled “Circular Migration: The Way Forward in Global Policy?” describes how technological advances affect migration: “Migrants utilize, extend and establish social connections spanning places of origin and places abroad,” by which they learn “about where to go, how to get jobs, find places to live, they also maintain families, economic activities, political interests and cultural practices. ... Modern technological advances and reduced costs surrounding transportation and communication have allowed for the intensification of transnational connections, practices and mobility.”

Technology also increases how rapidly migrants integrate into the economy and society of their receiving country, as dramatically evidenced by the huge immigrant rights marches in the U.S. An August Pew Hispanic Center study shows that foreign-born Latinos, especially, were less likely to be low-wage earners in 2005 than in 1995. Between 1996 and 2003, the number of working immigrants with union representation increased from 1.6 million to 2 million.

There is “widespread interest in the role national, bi- or multinational and international policies can play in fostering and managing various dimensions of migrant transnationalism,” notes Vertovec.



A management tool

The proponents of circular migration vary widely on the extent, means and in reality the ends for which such policies are promoted. Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, sees circular migration as a limited part of global migration policy, pointing out in a June 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Countries that welcome immigrants and succeed in integrating them into their societies are the most dynamic — economically, socially and culturally — in the world.”

The World Bank has a different slant, stated quite bluntly by Bryce Quillan, the co-editor of its 2006 report, “Migrants and Remittances: Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.” At a Jan. 18 conference on the report, the World Bank economist said “circular migration can be at the same time a solution for the paradox that migrant receiving countries need labor forces, but do not want to take care of them.”

A key focus of circular migration policy is to “lessen the pressures to bring their family to, and settle in, the destination” says Graeme Hugo of Australia’s University of Adelaide in a June 1, 2003, paper for the Migration Policy Institute titled “Circular Migration: Keeping Development Rolling.” Hugo, who is credited with coining the term, adds that with circular migration, migrants “can obtain the best of both worlds in that they can earn high income in high-cost destinations and spend in low-income, low-cost origins.”

In examining proposals for temporary-worker programs, it is clear that economic and physical coercion of the migrants are key to circular migration proposals.

The Migration Policy Institute presented a listing of “carrots and sticks” for circular migration in its 2006 publication “From a Zero-Sum To A Win-Win Scenario? Literature Review on Circular Migration,” including:

• Longer temporary work visas,

• Payment of pension benefits in home country,

• Quotas allocated to sending countries based on number of migrants who return,

• Security bonds paid by worker or employer that are confiscated by receiving governments upon overstaying of visa,

• Mandatory saving schemes, paying of board and lodging costs to workers with the rest of salary paid into home country bank account,

• Use of private companies who put up a bond they can collect from workers if they overstay a visa, and

• Strict enforcement of the law against recruitment agents, employers and migrant workers who circumvent the program.

Special formal and informal binational and multinational agreements between sending and receiving countries are necessary that are subject to economic, political and military realities.

Among the more cold-blooded proposals for U.S.-style circular migration was made by economist Gordon H. Hanson in an April 2007 article for the Council on Foreign Relations titled “The Economic Logic of Illegal Immigration.” Discussing the problem of setting quotas for guest workers, he proposed “one way to make the number of visas granted sensitive to market signals would be to auction the right to hire a guest worker to U.S. employers. … Increases in the auction price would signal the need to expand the number of visas.”



Circular migration and class struggle USA

From the above it should be clear that corporate circular migration policies are being developed to direct transnational migrant patterns away from integration into the receiving countries towards greater transnational control by governments and corporations.

The goal is to keep the migrants wage expectations and demands closer to the level of their home country (or province in internal migration). Developed countries, led by the United States, with bigger guest worker programs, will be able to pass more of the cost of reproducing labor power onto the developing countries.

This allows for, under new conditions, the continuation of historical capitalist practices using immigration as a means of rapidly providing labor that increases profits by maximizing economic growth and minimizing labor costs and social benefits.

Today that means providing just-in-time workers for just-in-time production. As the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank’s publication Southwest Economy put it in its 2003 November/December edition, “By providing workers when and where they are needed, immigration raises the speed limit of the economy by keeping wage and price pressures at bay.”

This article, which recommended a new guest worker program and expansion of existing temporary worker programs, influenced President Bush’s proposal for a guest worker program made a few weeks later in January 2004. In the same way, the World Bank’s prioritizing of “circular migration” in 2006 presaged the Bush/Republican Senate legislation strategy of de-emphasizing family reunification and prioritizing economic factors and increased enforcement.

The push of right-wing governments like those of Bush and the Sarkozy administration in France for guest worker/circular migration programs and harsher enforcement indicates that circular migration programs are an important part of corporate transnational labor policy in the 21st century. What develops globally affects national policy and vice versa.

From this perspective, the vicious anti-immigrant forces credited with stopping the flawed Senate comprehensive immigration bill are in many ways laying the basis for circular migration programs that minimizes the costs of migrant labor for the corporate and financial giants.

The transition from an immigration system based on permanent settlement to massive use of guest workers will require multiform but tighter and faster systems of control including greater border, internal and international enforcement. The current callous disregard for citizen and immigrant children separated from parents by deportations is in this respect just the point.

In the 2008 elections transnational corporate interests have a strong interest in making immigration an issue to divide democratic forces, rally the ultra-right, and lay the basis for increased immigrant exploitation.

Thus issues like family reunification, defense of parents of citizen children, a path to citizenship, and calls for a moratorium on factory and neighborhood raids are vital to the class and democratic interests of workers at home and abroad.



Rosalio Muñoz (rosalio_munoz @sbcglobal.net) is the district organizer for the Communist Party USA in Southern California.