ImmIgratIon reform: two ProPosals

By Jennifer gordon

A Proposal to Universalize the Rights of Transnational Labor
come has proven a much harder question.
For the better part of the last century, most unions advocated restrictionism, on the theory that wages would be higher with less competition for work. Troubling as it is from a global perspective, this might make sense from the point of view of native workers—if restrictionism predictably translated into a meaningful reduction in the number of new arrivals. Yet for the past twenty years at least, despite restrictive immigration policies and increasing funds for border control, hundreds of thousands of low-wage labor migrants have poured into the United States annually, most of them undocumented. In a globally interconnected and vastly unequal world, so long as there is low-wage work on offer in the United States, large numbers of people will continue to migrate

Citizens of the Global eConomy

Unions in the United States have made great strides toward viewing immigrants already in this country—documented or not—as part of the labor movement. But what labor’s position should be on immigrant workers yet to
to take those jobs. If an ongoing flow of new immigrants is unavoidable, the real question for labor advocates is how to restructure low-wage labor migration so that it supports—rather than undermines—the rights of all workers, and their ability to organize together to fight for better working conditions. This article sets out one proposal—Transnational Labor Citizenship—that would link migrants with unions, worker centers, and advocates before they even left their home countries, and tie the right to migrate for work to a commitment by migrants to report violations of baseline workplace standards in the U.S. It also explores other forms of “mobile labor citizenship” emerging from union experiments around the world today.

New Labor Forum 20(1): 57-64, Winter 2011 Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY ISSN: 1095-7960/11 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.201.0000009

in response. a commission is unlikely to have much impact. a large proportion of the lowest-wage jobs is carried out by undocumented immigrants. a critical starting point. sanctions—which make the employer responsible for checking that employees have the right to work in the U. deeply divided over the “future flow” issue. determine how many immigrants to admit. when the AFL-CIO rejected the idea of temporary immigration programs. labor market shortages can be established with precision. and the border is controlled to keep out unwanted arrivals.1 The accord would grant migrants full rights on paper. In the U. until recently. the stickiest issues remain to be addressed. Although many in the labor movement hoped that employer sanctions would protect the jobs and working conditions of U. Hoffman Plastic. And although the law grants the undocumented the right J. the federations negotiated a compromise. none of this seems readily achievable.S.. The accord rejects the idea of creating any new temporary worker programs or expanding existing ones. While the joint position is important in allowing labor to move forward with the appearance of a united front on this issue. while Change to Win unions—such as the Service Employees International Union—called for some form of short-term program as an alternative to ongoing undocumented migration. some 175. The conflict surfaced most publicly in the immigration debate in the years following labor’s 2005 split. is how to ensure that those who enter have an incentive to demand those rights. From today’s perspective. and as a bargaining chip to offer the business lobby in exchange for its support of legalization. calling for the government to create an independent commission to assess labor market shortages and. Still to determine. In its current formulation.T the labor movement’s Current Position on future flow he two major United States undocumented immigration has declined since the downturn hit. Gordon . In 2009. workers when unions threw their weight behind them in 1986. the United States’ current approach to filling its low-wage jobs through undocumented immigrants and a smattering of guest workers is a miserable failure. Sanctions were the rationale offered by the Supreme Court to justify its ruling in a 2002 case. labor federations were.S. and the support and protection they need to enforce them effectively. whose numbers have fallen little from their 2007 estimated high of nearly twelve million despite the global economic crisis. the commission’s calculations would not take into account the conditions in origin countries that lead people to leave in search of work. Yet continued migration from Mexico to the United States in the face of the worst recession in eighty years testifies to the power of these push factors and the limits of unilateral efforts at control. Far from preserving decent work.S. These workers have been terrorized by a policy of workplace raids and arrests.000 people each year still cross the border illegally from Mexico. though. Unless U. immigration law impedes the enforcement of labor law in low-wage workplaces. and few of those already here have left. so that labor migration does not undermine decent work.— have turned out to make the enforcement of workplace rights much harder. Although 58 • New Labor Forum I our Current low-waGe labor miGration system f decent work is the measuring stick.S. labor migration is effectively directed to respond to those shortages. with comprehensive immigration reform off the table in Congress for the time being. that undocumented workers who are fired or discriminated against for their union support have no right to back pay under the National Labor Relations Act.

They could stay as long as they could find work. increase work hours. Once admitted on such a visa. What migrants would give in return is a promise to refuse jobs that violated workplace standards and to report any employer who undercut the law. Without immigration reform to legalize the undocumented. migrants could work here legally. they risk not only deportation but inclusion on an unofficial blacklist that effectively bars their return. immigrant and native-born alike. Over the past twenty years—in janitorial. as “guest workers.” wherever they are and whatever their immigration status. and then use employer sanctions as an excuse to fire them. the federal government has withdrawn resources from workplace inspections and enforcement. have rights on paper. The price for this state of affairs is paid not only by migrants. Although guest workers. The incentives our current labor migration program creates—to keep quiet about abuse. But the distorting effect of immigration law on workers’ rights still remains to be addressed. Approximately two hundred thousand additional migrant laborers enter annually on temporary visas. too. Imagine that the United States agreed to admit migrants on the condition that they join a network of workers’ organizations here and in their home countries—a sort of transnational union. W an alternative ProPosal: transnational labor CitizenshiP hat is the alternative? How might low-wage labor migration look if it were structured around the idea that all workers are “labor citizens. A guest worker is a captive employee who cannot leave a bad job for a better one. meat processing. and other lowwage industries—unscrupulous employers have been able to speed up production. and fight unionization because they can rely on vulnerable immigrants to take the degraded jobs that native workers are no longer willing to do. residential minimum wage and other basic workplace protections. the downward spiral in working conditions at the bottom of the ladder will continue. and would have the freedom to move between jobs and employers. and come and go as often as they liked. The incentives our current labor migration program creates are exactly the opposite of what they should be. the Department of Labor has taken heartening steps toward enforcing the minimum wage and other workplace standards. and an approach to the future flow of low-wage labor migrants that has workers’ rights at its core. Failure to adhere to these requirements would be grounds for removal New Labor Forum • 59 Citizens of the Global Economy . to keep working whatever the demands—are exactly the opposite of what they should be.” to do low-wage seasonal and agricultural jobs. and built on principles of solidarity and workers’ rights? Transnational Labor Citizenship is an effort to answer those questions in concrete terms. employers conveniently forget about the need to check working papers until undocumented workers report wage theft or unsafe working conditions. if they complain of abusive treatment. restaurant. Under the leadership of Hilda Solis. As the floor on labor standards collapsed into the basement. reduce pay. all low-wage workers suffer. These workers are tied to a single employer for the duration of their visa. time resident workers. but by native-born and long- Over the past three decades.

Transnational Labor Citizenship would break the link between a would-be migrant and a sponsoring employer.” The Building A reCent union exPeriments with mobile labor CitizenshiP lthough we are very far . in order to strengthen the hand of migrants themselves as they cross borders. Transnational Labor Citizenship asks that we recognize migration as an aspect of globalization that requires its own kind of transnational solidarity.from the membership in the transnational labor organization and withdrawal of the visa. more and more unions around the world are beginning to experiment with ways to organize migrants across borders. there are many places in which transnational organizing collaborations are not only imaginable. the U.S. often based in immigrant communities) would be an integral part of this strategy. as the section that follows illustrates. it would make the enforcement of workplace rights. so they can remain in a union wherever they are. Instead. and collective pressure. collaborating across borders to defend the rights of their members through a combination of government enforcement. and origin country-based transnational labor organizations would work intensively with migrants on the ground. In the United States. both unions and worker centers (the over 170 non-profit organizations around the country that combine workplace organizing. with the goal of building mobile workers’ capacity to defend their rights. Many unions have already come to understand the need to collaborate across borders to hold mobile capital accountable. but already underway. and the solidarity necessary for worker organizing. Transnational Labor Citizenship would extend the labor movement’s existing commitments to global labor solidarity. lawsuits. today. and services. To support migrants in keeping their promise. Potential allies abroad would vary by country and industry. They seek to make labor citizenship real by supporting migrants in their efforts to defend their rights in ways that remain accessible and relevant whether migrants are at home or abroad. a tie that facilitates so much of the exploitation that guest workers suffer. On one front is the recent interest among Global Union Federations (GUFs) in the concept of a “union passport. with unions in different countries working together to pressure transnational firms as they play off workers against each other. Finding independent and democratic workers’ organizations to partner with in some countries would not be easy. The groups would be linked to create a network with a presence both in origin countries and the United States. central to the very structure of labor migration. advocacy. (A few non-profit organizations—most notably the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante and Global Workers Justice Alliance—also facilitate transnational advocacy to make it easier for migrants to pursue legal claims against their employers. with a mission of raising the floor on wages and working conditions for all workers.S. Transnational Labor Citizenship would make the enforcement of workplace rights central to the very structure of labor migration. Gordon from Transnational Labor Citizenship in the U. But 60 • New Labor Forum J. This is the Transnational Labor Citizenship proposal.) These efforts see “labor citizenship” as something inherent in all workers.

Canada on temporary visas to work on unionized construction jobs in the oil sands petroleum industry. the International Union of Food and Allied Workers has breathed new life into its longstanding International Union Card. such passports are practically limited. The workers were paid at full union scale for their labor. whether they are at home or abroad. dues and the cost of services were shared by both unions. In this model. These New Labor Forum • 61 Citizens of the Global Economy . Even if that obstacle could be overcome. when two hundred members of Brazilian and Argentine welders’ unions traveled to The ILMA has piloted a protocol for hiring union construction workers from origin countries when there is a labor shortage among unionized construction workers in a destination country.and destinationcountry BWI affiliates in order to organize migrants together with local workers. Where migrants do remain in the same industry after they move. unionized employers. These passports reflect a new recognition on the part of GUFs—long committed to solidarity in the sense of holding transnational capital accountable—that the time has come to consider the needs of transnational workers as well. a migrant who is a union member in her origin country could be recognized as a member by a union in the same GUF in her destination country. The Project encourages the development of active partnerships between origin. in the United States. passport or not. Partnerships between specific origin and destination country unions around the world are delivering more concrete results. “mobile labor citizenship” is offered to relatively few workers. however. A few examples from the construction industry illustrate the range of experiments underway. the idea goes. The International Labor Management Alliance (ILMA)—a non-profit founded in 2006 with the support of construction unions. Canadian unions trained the workers to local standards. Its test run took place in 2008. The BWI’s Asia-Pacific Migration Project illustrates an approach with broader impact (although more diffuse benefits). and the professional and commercial service workers GUF—Union Network International (UNI)—has developed a UNI Passport. many unions do not belong to GUFs at all). As symbolically appealing as they are. much less a response to the nativism that would likely greet such a program if implemented on a large scale. With such a document. Alberta.and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) recently launched its Migrant Workers Rights Passport. and labor-management programs in both destination and origin countries2—has piloted a protocol for hiring union construction workers from origin countries when there is a labor shortage among unionized construction workers in a destination country. union structures often do not permit individuals to become members if the union does not represent their workplace. while GUFs are limited to one sector (and indeed. Migrants often work in different industries at home and abroad. but those who are included enjoy uninterrupted union membership with full benefits. GUFs have not yet worked out a mechanism for funding services and benefits to new migrant members in the destination country.

With his help. The General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) has been providing supporting to Nepalese migrants in Asian countries since 1993. Korean. India. Shortly after the agreement was finalized. It began by organizing committees of Nepalese migrants in Hong Kong. so even as they organize into destination-country unions they gain a formal affiliation with the Nepalese labor movement (although dues only go to the destination union). KCTU’s collaboration with GEFONT has been strong. given each group's commitment to migrant organizing. the Malaysian union trained a migrant worker from Nepal to work as an organizer in Malaysian timber plants. and from BWI. and elsewhere. BWI affiliates have also experimented with establishing a migrant local in a destination country. particularly in . Nepal is an example of an origin country with such a federation. the Malaysian union organized ten new companies the following year. In the context of U. not just to members or even potential members. unions in the fifteen pre-2004 EU countries have started to explore the possibilities for collaboration with their counterparts in ten new Eastern and Central European member states. In Korea.and destination-country union collaborations have been most thoroughly explored in countries where a national labor federation is strongly committed to cross-border solidarity and migrant organizing. which sought to address onerous requirements for the available visas and educated migrants about their rights. for example. and then sought trade union partners in those destination countries with which the migrants 62 • New Labor Forum J.collaborations are not solely—or sometimes even primarily—focused on unionization. The possibilities for origin. GEFONT gives membership cards to participating migrants. agricultural work. Some BWI affiliates have negotiated cooperation agreements between unions in origin and destination countries. as EU enlargement begins to require free movement of workers between those countries. Not surprisingly. In 2007. legal representation. a destination country. the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has systematically sought out relationships with unions in origin countries. Malaysia. The first agreement was signed in March 2007 by BWI affiliates in Nepal (an origin country) and Malaysia (a destination country). the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the United Farm Workers have both sought to build bases for organizing within Mexico. Transnational migrant organizing efforts are underway outside of the construction industry as well. Within the European Union (EU). KCTU and GEFONT have jointly pressured the Korean and Nepalese governments to incorporate migrant protections in the recently-signed Memorandum of Understanding on temporary labor migration between those countries. and Malaysian unions. GEFONT and its member unions now have active partnerships with Hong Kong. public protest. Korea. The two federations have worked together to encourage undocumented Nepalese migrant workers to join Korea’s pioneering Migrants’ Trade Union. with support from Nepalese and Hong Kong unions. Gordon could affiliate. Nepalese construction workers in Hong Kong founded the Nepalese Construction Workers Union. And the majority target their rights education efforts and offer their legal representation to all migrant workers in their industries. Most include worker education.S. national. a KCTU affiliate. Domestic work has been a particularly active field for such collaborations. and policy interventions at the local. GEFONT has also established a Migrant Desk in Nepal so it can provide services to migrants who return after having been injured at work or cheated by an employer or a recruiting agency abroad. and now counts fifteen hundred migrants among its ten thousand members (compared to a negligible number before the initiative went into effect). and international levels. affiliated with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

and future flow programs. Even without wholesale reform.1070. worker centers and/or unions. legalization. Full adoption of the Transnational Labor Citizenship proposal in the United States may not be likely in the near future.S. existing policies could be retooled: Congress could roll back the Hoffman Plastic ruling.B. And few disagree that any labor migrants we admit in the future must have equal rights with U. The question is how to make paper rights into real ones. and it is not clear when or if Congress will resume debate on a full package of enforcement. If the idea of a labor commission gains political momentum. Congressional inaction has created a dangerous vacuum that is fast being filled by xenophobic initiatives like Arizona’s S. While none of these efforts restructure the legal rules of labor migration. The time has come to think about labor migration from a global labor Citizens of the Global Economy New Labor Forum • 63 . there is much that could be done to shape the policies the commission implements to ensure that migrants enter the country as labor citizens. But the proposal’s core principle—that until workers' rights are central to how we structure labor migration. The Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL)—a Philippine labor federation committed to social movement unionism—has placed two of its organizers in Hong Kong to build a Philippine domestic workers union into a political base for migrants in Hong Kong and for the APL and Akbayan (the political party with which the APL is associated in the Philippines). Hong Kong has been home to a unique experiment in mobile labor citizenship. which have recently been made available for some workplace violations.Asia. in as associate members of U. Perhaps the only upside of the lull is that it gives the labor movement and its allies the chance to flesh out alternatives. Such legal reforms would represent an important step forward for immigrants already here. with the ability to uphold the rights granted to them on paper. migrants admitted through a commission could come C GoinG forward reform is stalled. both individually and collectively. workers. It omprehensive immigration Workers must have the right to change jobs or they will remain little more than bonded servants. decent work will continue to be undermined—urgently demands our attention. will be essential to make sure that any temporary labor migration program avoids the perils of the past. New policies could create a concrete role for workers’ organizations in supporting temporary migrants. Workplace rights do not enforce themselves—they must be claimed by workers who have the support they need to come forward. and it could expand the number of “U” visas for immigrants who report crimes. In addition to organizing women in Hong Kong. with the support of a transnational advocacy network to defend their rights.S. Most importantly. For example. all share the goal of making sure that migrants travel across borders as labor citizens—which is also the central goal of Transnational Labor Citizenship. For example. the APL continues working with them when they travel back home. migrant visas cannot be tied to the whims of an employer: workers must have the right to change jobs or they will remain little more than bonded servants. since 2005.

UCBerkeley. org/pubs/mPI-BBCreport-sept09.papers. Notes 64 • New Labor Forum J.pdf (estimating 11.cfm?abstract_ id=1348064.8 million undocumented residents in 2007. nancy rytina. Jeanne Batalova. January 2010). “towards transnational labor Citizenship: restructuring labor migration to reinforce workers rights” (policy paper. Papademetriou. ssrn.dhs. D.8 million in 2009). can be found there.pdf. 10. Gordon . september 2009). see michael Hoefer.C. and michelle mittelstadt. 1.migrationpolicy. D. serena Yi-Ying lin. aaron terrazas.solidarity perspective. they will be able to act as the labor citizens they are. and Bryan C.C. 2009).com/sol3/papers. Demetrios g. available at www. Migration and the Global Recession ( xlibrary/assets/statistics/publications/ ois_ill_pe_2009.: Department of Homeland security. all citations to my interviews with organizers and union leaders involved in these efforts.: migration Policy Institute. Once low-wage migrants are admitted through an immigration system that does not punish those who speak up and supported by a transnational approach to organizing. available at www. 2. the warren Institute. as well as fuller descriptions and additional sources. available at www. regarding resident populations. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2009 (washington. Baker. regarding inflows. these descriptions are drawn from Jennifer gordon. see michael fix.

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