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
Although many in the labor movement hoped that employer sanctions would protect the jobs and working conditions of U. Unless U. so that labor migration does not undermine decent work. From today’s perspective. labor migration is effectively directed to respond to those shortages.S. in response. The accord rejects the idea of creating any new temporary worker programs or expanding existing ones. and the border is controlled to keep out unwanted arrivals. and the support and protection they need to enforce them effectively. In 2009. 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. the stickiest issues remain to be addressed.T
the labor movement’s Current Position on future flow he two major United States
undocumented immigration has declined since the downturn hit. whose numbers have fallen little from their 2007 estimated high of nearly twelve million despite the global economic crisis. And although the law grants the undocumented the right
J. some 175. Hoffman Plastic. determine how many immigrants to admit. until recently. Still to determine.
labor federations were. In the U.S. 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.— have turned out to make the enforcement of workplace rights much harder. a commission is unlikely to have much impact. a critical starting point. is how to ensure that those who enter have an incentive to demand those rights. labor market shortages can be established with precision. the United States’ current approach to filling its low-wage jobs through undocumented immigrants and a smattering of guest workers is a miserable failure. calling for the government to create an independent commission to assess labor market shortages and.. While the joint position is important in allowing labor to move forward with the appearance of a united front on this issue.S. 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.S. The conflict surfaced most publicly in the immigration debate in the years following labor’s 2005 split. the commission’s calculations would not take into account the conditions in origin countries that lead people to leave in search of work.1 The accord would grant migrants full rights on paper. and few of those already here have left. with comprehensive immigration reform off the table in Congress for the time being. Although
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our Current low-waGe labor miGration system f decent work is the measuring
stick. a large proportion of the lowest-wage jobs is carried out by undocumented immigrants. Far from preserving decent work. Gordon
. the federations negotiated a compromise. deeply divided over the “future flow” issue. sanctions—which make the employer responsible for checking that employees have the right to work in the U. Sanctions were the rationale offered by the Supreme Court to justify its ruling in a 2002 case. when the AFL-CIO rejected the idea of temporary immigration programs. and as a bargaining chip to offer the business lobby in exchange for its support of legalization. immigration law impedes the enforcement of labor law in low-wage workplaces. In its current formulation. These workers have been terrorized by a policy of workplace raids and arrests. none of this seems readily achievable. workers when unions threw their weight behind them in 1986.000 people each year still cross the border illegally from Mexico. though.
and fight unionization because they can rely on vulnerable immigrants to take the degraded jobs that native workers are no longer willing to do. reduce pay. but by native-born and long-
Over the past three decades. too. These workers are tied to a single employer for the duration of their visa. all low-wage workers suffer. immigrant and native-born alike. have rights on paper. they risk not only deportation but inclusion on an unofficial blacklist that effectively bars their return. Although guest workers.to minimum wage and other basic workplace protections. employers conveniently forget about the need to check working papers until undocumented workers report wage theft or unsafe working conditions. Without immigration reform to legalize the undocumented. The price for this state of affairs is paid not only by migrants. and built on principles of solidarity and workers’ rights? Transnational Labor Citizenship is an effort to answer those questions in concrete terms. migrants could work here legally.
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.
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. Approximately two hundred thousand additional migrant laborers enter annually on temporary visas. Failure to adhere to these requirements would be grounds for removal
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. residential construction. as “guest workers.
time resident workers.” to do low-wage seasonal and agricultural jobs. the federal government has withdrawn resources from workplace inspections and enforcement. the downward spiral in working conditions at the bottom of the ladder will continue. As the floor on labor standards collapsed into the basement. and would have the freedom to move between jobs and employers. restaurant. meat processing. increase work hours. and other lowwage industries—unscrupulous employers have been able to speed up production. A guest worker is a captive employee who cannot leave a bad job for a better one.
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. They could stay as long as they could find work. and then use employer sanctions as an excuse to fire them. The incentives our current labor migration program creates—to keep quiet about abuse. and an approach to the future flow of low-wage labor migrants that has workers’ rights at its core. Once admitted on such a visa. and come and go as often as they liked. Under the leadership of Hilda Solis. to keep working whatever the demands—are exactly the opposite of what they should be.” wherever they are and whatever their immigration status. if they complain of abusive treatment. 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. But the distorting effect of immigration law on workers’ rights still remains to be addressed. Over the past twenty years—in janitorial.
S. with the goal of building mobile workers’ capacity to defend their rights. On one front is the recent interest among Global Union Federations (GUFs) in the concept of a “union passport. This is the Transnational Labor Citizenship proposal. and origin country-based transnational labor organizations would work intensively with migrants on the ground. central to the very structure of labor migration. with a mission of raising the floor on wages and working conditions for all workers. the U. in order to strengthen the hand of migrants themselves as they cross borders.from the membership in the transnational labor organization and withdrawal of the visa. and collective pressure. today. Transnational Labor Citizenship would break the link between a would-be migrant and a sponsoring employer. so they can remain in a union wherever they are. and services.
as the section that follows illustrates.
To support migrants in keeping their promise. Potential allies abroad would vary by country and industry. collaborating across borders to defend the rights of their members through a combination of government enforcement. 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. but already underway. Instead.” The Building
reCent union exPeriments with mobile labor CitizenshiP lthough we are very far
. both unions and worker centers (the over 170 non-profit organizations around the country that combine workplace organizing. often based in immigrant communities) would be an integral part of this strategy. lawsuits. with unions in different countries working together to pressure transnational firms as they play off workers against each other.S.
Transnational Labor Citizenship would make the enforcement of workplace rights central to the very structure of labor migration. In the United States. Finding independent and democratic workers’ organizations to partner with in some countries would not be easy. there are many places in which transnational organizing collaborations are not only imaginable. and the solidarity necessary for worker organizing. Many unions have already come to understand the need to collaborate across borders to hold mobile capital accountable. it would make the enforcement of workplace rights. Transnational Labor Citizenship would extend the labor movement’s existing commitments to global labor solidarity. more and more unions around the world are beginning to experiment with ways to organize migrants across borders. Gordon
from Transnational Labor Citizenship in the U. But
60 • New Labor Forum J. The groups would be linked to create a network with a presence both in origin countries and the United States. a tie that facilitates so much of the exploitation that guest workers suffer. advocacy.) These efforts see “labor citizenship” as something inherent in all workers. Transnational Labor Citizenship asks that we recognize migration as an aspect of globalization that requires its own kind of transnational solidarity. (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.
Even if that obstacle could be overcome. in the United States. In this model. GUFs have not yet worked out a mechanism for funding services and benefits to new migrant members in the destination country. These
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. while GUFs are limited to one sector (and indeed. Canadian unions trained the workers to local standards. 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 International Labor Management Alliance (ILMA)—a non-profit founded in 2006 with the support of construction unions. As symbolically appealing as they are. Partnerships between specific origin and destination country unions around the world are delivering more concrete results. 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.
Alberta. Migrants often work in different industries at home and abroad. the International Union of Food and Allied Workers has breathed new life into its longstanding International Union Card. 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. The workers were paid at full union scale for their labor. the idea goes. many unions do not belong to GUFs at all). passport or not. dues and the cost of services were shared by both unions. The Project encourages the development of active partnerships between origin. unionized employers. A few examples from the construction industry illustrate the range of experiments underway. and the professional and commercial service workers GUF—Union Network International (UNI)—has developed a UNI Passport. Canada on temporary visas to work on unionized construction jobs in the oil sands petroleum industry. The BWI’s Asia-Pacific Migration Project illustrates an approach with broader impact (although more diffuse benefits). much less a response to the nativism that would likely greet such a program if implemented on a large scale. 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. With such a document. but those who are included enjoy uninterrupted union membership with full benefits. however.and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) recently launched its Migrant Workers Rights Passport. such passports are practically limited. Where migrants do remain in the same industry after they move. whether they are at home or abroad. union structures often do not permit individuals to become members if the union does not represent their workplace. “mobile labor citizenship” is offered to relatively few workers.and destinationcountry BWI affiliates in order to organize migrants together with local workers. Its test run took place in 2008.
and from BWI. 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). GEFONT gives membership cards to participating migrants. It began by organizing committees of Nepalese migrants in Hong Kong. Transnational migrant organizing efforts are underway outside of the construction industry as well. 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 policy interventions at the local. a KCTU affiliate. GEFONT and its member unions now have active partnerships with Hong Kong. for example.S. The first agreement was signed in March 2007 by BWI affiliates in Nepal (an origin country) and Malaysia (a destination country). BWI affiliates have also experimented with establishing a migrant local in a destination country. public protest.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. agricultural work. Not surprisingly. as EU enlargement begins to require free movement of workers between those countries. legal representation. and elsewhere.collaborations are not solely—or sometimes even primarily—focused on unionization. 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. Gordon
could affiliate. In 2007. Nepal is an example of an origin country with such a federation. In Korea. Korean. and then sought trade union partners in those destination countries with which the migrants
62 • New Labor Forum J. India. the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the United Farm Workers have both sought to build bases for organizing within Mexico. In the context of U. the Malaysian union trained a migrant worker from Nepal to work as an organizer in Malaysian timber plants. given each group's commitment to migrant organizing. which sought to address onerous requirements for the available visas and educated migrants about their rights. Within the European Union (EU). And the majority target their rights education efforts and offer their legal representation to all migrant workers in their industries. a destination country. 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. the Malaysian union organized ten new companies the following year. and Malaysian unions. With his help. Domestic work has been a particularly active field for such collaborations. Korea. Some BWI affiliates have negotiated cooperation agreements between unions in origin and destination countries. with support from Nepalese and Hong Kong unions. and now counts fifteen hundred migrants among its ten thousand members (compared to a negligible number before the initiative went into effect). The General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT) has been providing supporting to Nepalese migrants in Asian countries since 1993. The possibilities for origin. KCTU’s collaboration with GEFONT has been strong. the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has systematically sought out relationships with unions in origin countries. affiliated with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. and international levels. Malaysia. Nepalese construction workers in Hong Kong founded the Nepalese Construction Workers Union. particularly in
. Shortly after the agreement was finalized. The two federations have worked together to encourage undocumented Nepalese migrant workers to join Korea’s pioneering Migrants’ Trade Union. not just to members or even potential members. national. Most include worker education.
decent work will continue to be undermined—urgently demands our attention. Even without wholesale reform.Asia. which have recently been made available for some workplace violations. The question is how to make paper rights into real ones. But the proposal’s core principle—that until workers' rights are central to how we structure labor migration. with the ability to uphold the rights granted to them on paper. 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. worker centers and/or unions. If the idea of a labor commission gains political momentum. 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). Most importantly. with the support of a transnational advocacy network to defend their rights.
in as associate members of U. New policies could create a concrete role for workers’ organizations in supporting temporary migrants. migrants admitted through a commission could come
reform is stalled. And few disagree that any labor migrants we admit in the future must have equal rights with U. Full adoption of the Transnational Labor Citizenship proposal in the United States may not be likely in the near future. Congressional inaction has created a dangerous vacuum that is fast being filled by xenophobic initiatives like Arizona’s S. In addition to organizing women in Hong Kong. both individually and collectively. 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. there is much that could be done to shape the policies the commission implements to ensure that migrants enter the country as labor citizens.1070. existing policies could be retooled: Congress could roll back the Hoffman Plastic ruling. 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. and it is not clear when or if Congress will resume debate on a full package of enforcement.
will be essential to make sure that any temporary labor migration program avoids the perils of the past.S. For example. workers. The time has come to think about labor migration from a global labor
Citizens of the Global Economy
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. Hong Kong has been home to a unique experiment in mobile labor citizenship.S. 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. legalization. and future flow programs. the APL continues working with them when they travel back home. While none of these efforts restructure the legal rules of labor migration. since 2005. It
Workers must have the right to change jobs or they will remain little more than bonded servants. For example.B.
the warren Institute. nancy rytina. and Bryan C.
1. regarding inflows. as well as fuller descriptions and additional sources.C. aaron terrazas. org/pubs/mPI-BBCreport-sept09. D.: migration Policy Institute. UCBerkeley. serena Yi-Ying lin.8 million undocumented residents in 2007. september 2009). all citations to my interviews with organizers and union leaders involved in these efforts.com/sol3/papers. “towards transnational labor Citizenship: restructuring labor migration to reinforce workers rights” (policy paper. they will be able to act as the labor citizens they are. Papademetriou.C. these descriptions are drawn from Jennifer gordon. see michael Hoefer.: Department of Homeland security.solidarity perspective. D.
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J. 10. January 2010). 2. see michael fix. regarding resident populations.gov/
xlibrary/assets/statistics/publications/ ois_ill_pe_2009. available at www.pdf. Baker.cfm?abstract_ id=1348064. can be found there. Demetrios g. Jeanne Batalova. and michelle mittelstadt. available at www.dhs. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2009 (washington.8 million in 2009). Migration and the Global Recession (washington. 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.papers.migrationpolicy. ssrn. 2009). Gordon
.pdf (estimating 11.