Labor in the New World System

Nigel Harris

WE LIVE IN exciting times—the collapse of one hideous distortion of national socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on one hand, and the inexorable progress of economic internationalism on the other. But the left has to run hard to catch up with events.

The new world economy is going to require increasing movement of workers. But states will seek to obstruct it at every turn—and the left must be on hand to demand the right of free movement for workers, a right that is now absolutely crucial.

Is it not strange that the free-market ideologues who have dominated opinion in the 1980s are so silent on the freedom of labor to move? They champion free trade, free capital movements, unrestricted financial flows, but not the free movement of workers.

Yet intellectually, their case collapses without that essential component—how else can world markets work? But there is no GATE no Uruguay Round or “Most Favored Nation” status, no trade wars to force open the labor markets of rival countries.

On the contrary, the champions of freedom—President Reagan or Mrs. Thatcher—are not merely silent on the issue of the free mobility of workers, they are explicitly opposed to it; or rather, they do not mind their own workers earning incomes abroad, but they oppose foreign workers earning incomes at home.

The same hypocrisy governs the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights: All should have the right to leave their country (it says), but there is no right to enter one. Fifty thousand Vietnamese may leave Vietnam, but the Hong Kong government is not obliged to accept them—indeed, even with a labor shortage of some 200,000, Hong Kong is moving toward the compulsory repatriation of the refugees to Vietnam.

Immigration Troubles the Left

If the right is strikingly inconsistent, the left is not much better No other issue has so divided socialists. In the United States, normally liberal people argue that the country is already too crowded (a case now allied to the fashionable Green argument that the “carrying capacity” of North America is near its limits), that unemployment will increase, that workers will be divided by ethnic and linguistic conflicts to the advantage of employers.

Furthermore, it is said, the poor and unskilled immigrant is obliged to work for less than the native worker and in worse conditions—so improving pay and conditions will be slowed by the availability of cheap foreign labor, and the most disadvantaged United States citizens (Blacks, Latinos, women), will be deprived of opportunities to work. If there were no cheap workers the employers would be obliged to upgrade the work and so poor U.S. citizens would benefit.

Finally there is, in some cases, the hint of the old demographic hysteria—millions of the benighted poor, breeding like rabbits, gaze in from their outer darkness on the American world, only waiting for North Americans to lower the guard so they can invade.

Leaving aside the last bit of nonsense (a revival of the vision of the embattled rich against the faceless masses), the case clearly has some important points that have persuaded many people to accept limits to immigration. Immigrants are often obliged to work for lower pay, longer hours and in worse conditions.

But rather than excluding one group of workers from the country, does that not require stronger unions to fight for equality of conditions for all workers? Poor U.S.-born workers would gain more through that route than through hoping employers will be obliged to improve pay and conditions if there are no immigrants.

Where unions fail to fight for all workers, then immigrants can threaten union organization—even though it is also well known that immigrants are frequently more willing than the native-born workers to join unions.

Labor Demand Leads Supply

Furthermore, as everyone knows, it is not labor supply that determines the basic conditions of employment, but labor demand. Immigration rises when unemployment declines—and vice versa. In the 1980s, when immigration to the United States increased, unemployment declined because the number of jobs increased even faster, indeed, without immigrants to do some of the jobs, fewer U.S. workers would have been employed.

Workers are attracted by jobs abroad, rather than driven out of their homes by poverty. You cannot have a growing economy, let alone full employment, without immigration.

Of course, while this is true in principle, reality is more complicated. The labor force is a complex bundle of changing skills (and lack of them), so that it is possible to have both unemployment and labor scarcities. Unemployed doctors will not work as road menders, nor win laid-off fifty-five-year-old West Virginia coal miners work as dishwashers.

On the other hand, if many jobs are not done, those with rarer skills cannot work. Each skilled worker requires many others, semi- and unskilled. Skills cannot be put to work unless houses are built for the skilled workers to live in when not at work, food gathered in the fields to feed them, streets cleaned, nurses on call to treat the sick, or any of the other thousands of jobs that go unnoticed.

When the Singapore government campaigned recently to arrest, publicly whip and expel illegal immigrants, a woman computer programmer told a reporter that now she could no longer afford to work because her child’s nurse had been declared illegal and expelled.

Many unskilled immigrants, as has been shown in numerous studies, do not compete with natives for jobs; they are doing jobs that otherwise would not be done. The lettuce picking employers would not just automate lettuce picking; they would go out of business, unable to compete with imports—and the number of jobs held by nonimmigrants would then shrink.

When the French government in the early 1980s tried to induce immigrants and their families to emigrate, a study showed that French workers would fill only a tiny proportion of the jobs vacated, and that this would not make up for the jobs lost by French workers because immigrants would no longer be working.

A study of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles showed that their work lifted the incomes and the number of jobs available to non-Mexicans, and helped make Los Angeles in the 1980s the country’s most prosperous metropolitan region.

Do They Want to Stay?

The argument is the same over imports. In industries threatened by imports, the employers say that imports cause them to lay off workers. But in industries that use the imports in their output, the employers argue that getting cheap imports means they can compete in their trades—and expand the total number of jobs. In general, it is the second argument that is correct.

It’s the final argument that gives the game away: “Look at the millions in the Third World just waiting to get into the United States.” They are not. The tiny minority of them who can make the move usually do not want to stay after they have earned some money. One of the main reasons why some do not return home is the existence of immigration controls, making it impossible for them to make another trip to the United States.

Even in the golden age of immigration to the United States before World War I, between one-third and half of European immigrants returned to Europe. Surveys show that Mexican illegal immigrants ideally want to stay six months, on average, and then go home with what they’ve earned.

However, the most important element in labor migration is that it is a response to job vacancies (and often, a direct approach by an employer). And if there is work, the worker produces and earns her or his keep. Because immigrants are demographically “unbalanced—concentrated in the most active age groups, more healthy than average (since the crazy, the sick, the disabled cannot migrate)—they pay their taxes but draw much less on public services.

So immigrants are a gift to the majority in more ways than one. The only way to stop immigration is to kill labor demand in the United States: Organize high unemployment, then the INS will not be needed.

The Politics of Social Control

If the economic argument is so cleat as the Wall Street Journal occasionally acknowledges, then why are governments so ruthless in trying to prevent immigration? How is it possible, if U.S. employers need the labor, for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to exercise such a reign of terror along the border to arrest a million Latin Americans a year?

The answer takes us to the heart of the contradiction—between the economics of a global system and the politics of maintaining state power In the United States, hypocrisy covers the gap—supposedly tight immigration controls, but underfunding the INS so it can never stop the flow.

Congress and successive presidents huff and puff, but meanwhile, every night thousands of young men and women dodge the pale green INS vans, the choppers with searchlights and the cruising police motorcycles, in order to go to work and help make the U.S. GNP.

The basis of the state’s power is complete control of its segment of the world’s population. Its criterion of success is that that population is loyal to it and willing in principle to die for it, whether in Vietnam, the Gulf or anywhere else the state decides its interests are threatened. The people must be induced to feel how singularly wonderful it is to be a U.S. citizen, to be grateful for the privilege compared to poor benighted foreigners.

The line must be continually drawn and redrawn, lest anyone slide into the subversive doctrine that people are much the same everywhere. Immigration control is not about employment; it is about loyalty to the state.

However, this happy state of affairs is coming under increasing pressure in North America, Europe and Japan. Accumulation has gone off-shore, moving from a national to a global basis and the integration of the world’s labor force will inevitably follow where commodities, capital and finance have led the way. For the first time in the history of capitalism, world labor is moving into the center of the stage: not the minority of workers in the advanced countries but the great bulk of the world’s working class, in the Third World.

Of course, the leaders of the workers in North America, Europe and Japan will fight against the trend, arguing that the emergence of a world working class threatens their patch—or rather, their state. That is why the argument for immigration control is so reactionary, for it shores up the defenses of the old order against the powerful new global forces at work.

A Looming Labor Shortage

There is a more mundane and immediate threat For the Japanese, Europeans and North Americans are growing old while the rest of the world is growing younger Population projections for the period 19852030 suggest that in the advanced countries the population will increase by 14%, the active age groups (15-65) by 6%; but the young workforce (20-40 years of age) will decline by over 10%. Meanwhile, in the Third World the total population will increase by 103%, the active by 130% and the young by 108%.

In the advanced countries, the longer young people continue in education or join the armed forces (or travel abroad), the worse the shortage will get Even before this change started taking place, one study estimated that, if U.S. output increased three and a half percent per year up to the year 2000, and there were one million immigrants per year, the United States would still face a shortage of five million workers at the end of the century, the majority unskilled.

Furthermore, an aging population needs increasingly labor-intensive services—U.S. pensioners will have to emigrate in retirement or let in more immigrants.

Consider the U.S. relationship to Mexico. In 1985, 82% of the Mexican population was below the age of forty (compared to 63% in the United States), and 41% were below the age of fifteen (22% in the United States). By 2030, 37% of the combined U.S.-Mexico’s young workforce will be Mexican (compared to 22% during the 1980s). The U.S.-born labor force will not be able to run the U.S. economy in forty years’ time, especially the mass of unskilled jobs in public services, health and agriculture (especially if liberalization in agriculture leads to stronger import competition for U.S. farmers).

Who will supply the bulk of the U.S. armed forces, the hammer of state power? Indeed, maybe the process is already underway, which is why nearly a third of the increase in the U.S. population between 1980 and 1987 was due to legal immigration, leaving aside the illegals.

Third World governments have hardly woken up to the change taking place in world comparative advantage. However, at the Uruguay round of GAIT talks, when the U.S. government was attacking Brazil and India for resisting opening up their service sectors to U.S. companies, the Indian Minister of Commerce did say that the price of letting in U.S. companies to India would have to include letting in Indian “labor services” to the United States.

Indeed, we live in exciting times—and increased movement provides the greatest opportunity ever offered to pry us loose from the age-old prejudices of nationality, the bigotry and hatreds of provincialism and war. It offers the chance to rot the foundations of the biggest single obstacle to freedom, a world of competing states and corporations.

July-August 1991, ATC 33