Migration regime and crisis - Notes for a workshop at the No Borders convergence, London, February 2012

Strike by Migrant Workers in Nardo, Italy

The workshop hopes to encourage a political debate about the relation between capitalist crisis and changes in migration; between the austerity measures of the state and the change in the state's migration regime; between the arising struggles against austerity and their relation to the struggle of migrant workers or the experience of proletarian migration.

Migration Regime and Crisis
- Notes for a Workshop at the No Borders Convergence, London, February 2012

The workshop hopes to encourage a political debate about the relation between capitalist crisis and changes in migration; between the austerity measures of the state and the change in the state's migration regime; between the arising struggles against austerity and their relation to the struggle of migrant workers or the experience of proletarian migration.

I start from the perspective that:

a) one of the main lines of re-structuring in response to crisis will be the global re-drawing of regional labour markets and wage zones/scales, which largely depends on imposition of new migration regime.
b) the 'inner-working class' competition will objectively increase, the distinction between 'local' and 'migrant' workers will be a decisive form this competition will take
c) migration has always been a way of generalisation of working class experience and aspirations; 'outcome' of current struggles will depend on the question whether the working class will be able to make use of this experience in order to re-organise its struggles on an international scale

I want to develop this in seven points:

1. The Historic Relation between Crisis and Changes in Migration AND Re-Structuring: from 1973 to 1990 to 2012

The most obvious correlation between economic crisis and changes in migration regime became visible after the oil-shock in 1973, which fundamentally changed the so-called 'guest-worker'-migration to and within Europe. Subsequent to the last major global crisis impact in 1990/91 we witnessed a major re-structuring of labour markets, both on a 'regional' and international level. The 1991 re-structuring drew a generational line of division within the work-force, between workers of core-companies and outsourced departments, permanents and temporary staff. Similarly the regime re-draw the hierarchical lines between labour markets (legal/practial changes in all core countries after 1992), turning Easter-European countries into a source of controlled cheap 'official' labour influx and the African periphery as a filter-zone for the 'illegalised' labour market. The current crisis will re-draw these lines, in particular the lines between the European core, the 'sandwiched' eastern and southern periphery (Spain, Italy, Greece) and the frontier states to the global south. Two generations of workers: post 1990 permanent workers and also post-1990 migrant workers (different status)

2. The neo-liberal boom: Real estate bubble, finance and IT related personal services based on cheap migrant labour

With the 'neoliberal' response to the 1991 crisis (real estate boom, personal services for middle-income strata of the IT bubble) the character of labour migration changed. Migrant workers rarely entered the bigger industries (apart from construction), but the low paid 'service jobs' (domestic services, retail/warehouses, tourism etc.) and agriculture. Particular those countries became destinations of migration in the last decade where the 'neoliberal credit boom' took off the most: Spain, Ireland etc. Particularly in Spain and Italy, the 'opening to the east' during the 1990s changed migration streams. Young men from Marocco, Tunesia, who worked in the Spanish harvest and construction sector were replaced by workers from Romania (or illegalised sub-Saharan workers). 'Foreign-born' population in Spain increased ten times between 1998 and 2008. The crisis in 2008 also hit hardest in these countries where recent migration had supplied the lower job market.

3. The Slump 2008 and the Particularity of the Commodity Labour Power

The sudden slump in 2008 also revealed that the 'commodity labour force' is a particular commodity which does not simply obey the rule of offer and demand. Despite major job losses migrant workers refused to leave the capitalist core countries. After autumn 2008 we saw a temporary inversion of remittance payments between the US and Mexico: workers families in Mexico sent money to their relatives in the US in order to allow them to stay there and adjust to the crisis. A similar situation emerged in Spain, where the Spanish state offered Romanian workers to pay them an incentive (around 2,000 Euro) if they would renounce any future benefit claims and return to Romania. Only few workers took the offer (likewise, only few Ukrainian workers - who had replaced Romanian workers during the boom - accepted a similar offer of the Romanian state). With the aggravation of the crisis, the state had to shift from incentive to legal force: in 2011 the Spanish state changed the legal regulations and re-introduced a permission to stay' for Romanian and other eastern European workers. Most other European countries changed their Migration and visa-regime between 2009 and 2011 (see UK: David Cameron pledged to bring down annual migration to the UK from hundreds to ‘tens of thousands’).

4. Re-adjustment of Reproduction under Pressure of Crisis: Going back

With a long-term recession it becomes increasingly difficult to survive (or to earn enough money to send back home). Remittance (wage payments) from migrant workers in Spain stood at around six billion euro in 2008, by 2010 this decreased to around 2 million. The official numbers of foreigners has shrunk by 20 per cent since 2009. After the 2001 crisis in Argentina 800,000 people left the country towards Europe, now we see a reversal of stream. Within two years the southern European periphery the flow of immigration to emigration changed drastically, the migration from Spain to Germany increased by 50 per cent in the first half of 2011. Partly because of this 'double migration' we still hardly witness a 'direct' competition between 'local' workers and migrant workers for jobs - many migrants are pushed into the informal economy and into lowest wage segments of the labour market which is still 'unacceptable' for unemployed 'local workers'. The recession will change these 'wage barriers' drastically.

5. Increasing Competition and Limitations of Austerity Struggles: Attacks

It is therefore not at all surprising that together with the harsh austerity attacks on the 'local' working class in Greece, Italy, Spain etc. we see an increase in 'incidents' of attacks on migrants (attack on Roma and Senegalese in Italy, South-Asians in Greece) and new revelations about the nexus of state forces and right-wing terrorism (recent 'scandal' in Germany, cooperation between fascists and state secret service) - similar to the increase of attacks on 'asylum seekers' during the 1990/91 pre-period of re-structuring. So far these attacks took place mainly in economic 'fringe-zones' (mafia-type of agriculture and small trading), but they have to be seen as an attack on the multi-national character of the working class. It is clear that the massive pressure of the crisis and the rigidity of 'workers', resisting to be pushed either downwards or pushed back home, the state will resort to 'extra-legal' measures to create fear and to legitimise repression - currently the general ideological vehicle being Islamophobia (see recent 'integration debates' in Germany and France).

6. The Limitations of 'Multiculturalist' Anti-Racism

Even less than in 1990/91 we can counteract these 'right-wing' attacks by appealing to a 'democratic' multi-culturalism or 'civil society' anti-racism. The 'democratic multiculturalist' discourse has entered into crisis from various ends: a) with the failing of the 'humanist interventions' abroad; b) with the erosion of the 'local economic base of multiculturalism' due to the crisis; c) and last but not least with the 'anti-government struggles' at home.
a) The 'democratic multi-culturalist discourse' of the European states, which 'grants political asylum' to 'refugees', cannot be separated from the increased military interventions since 1990, it was and still is part of their war-propaganda. The 'democratic gloss' on these 'new world order'-military interventions came off as soon as it became clear that 'the new world'-order was not able to sustain stable political and economical conditions in those 'intervened' countries. The main 'political refugees' now are those from the areas where the 'human interventions' of the 1990s and 2000s failed: Afghanisten, Somalia, Irak etc. In addition, with the crisis and the austerity measures and 'anti-government' struggles at home, it becomes increasingly difficult for the 'human interventionist states' to portray themselves as 'democratic world saviours'.
b) To a certain extend the crisis which contributes to the 'failing states' also erodes the economic base of 'multiculturalism'. 'Multiculturalism' as a state ideology to promote 'integration of communities' was a result of the end of 'industrial integration' of migrant workers into the local working class from the early 1980s onwards. Increasing unemployment amongst migrant workers plus emergence of a petit bourgeois / middle-class section amongst the 'migrant communities' as result of the neoliberal boom became the fundament of the 'cross-class' integration of migrant proletarians 'as community', encouraged and controlled by state funded 'community' programs. The crisis has undermined the economic bases of this 'multiculturalist' form of integration.
c) Finally, appealing to the state's democratic/human responsibilities towards migrants will back-fire increasingly: 'save democracy' or 'save the European project' will be the main black-mailing argument of the states when facing anti-austerity protests. From Greece to the UK people were supposed to accept the austerity measures of their 'elected' governments in order to save democracy - people who acted against this, e.g. by interrupting the political circus, are blamed to act anti-democratically. We can see how after the riots in London last summer the appeal to secure a 'peaceful coexistence' between different 'communities' became the background music for the massive police repression and wave of arrests.

7. Revealing the Class Character and Organising as Part of Working Class

While the migration regime of the 1990s pretended to enforced a clear line between 'economic' and 'political migration', the current crisis, the political-economical measures of austerity and the struggles against it question this distinction and reveal its class character. The class character revealed itself the most obviously during the uprisings of the 'Arab Spring' (sic!). The pressure of the uprisings in North Africa partly stemmed from the blocked 'release valves' of migration (after the Gulf states shifted their labour pooling from poorer 'Arab' states to South Asia and the European labour market was increasingly closed off). The uprising became 'political', targeting those 'neoliberal regimes' which had been political allies of the 'democratic' EU states, mainly Egypt. The uprisings shook the European migration regime and its financed 'frontier-states' (Libya, Tunisia), thousands took the chance to migrate, but neither as purely 'economic migrants' nor as 'political asylum seekers'. The EU states displayed the character of their 'democratic support' when their main concern was to re-secure this main border-line after the failing of their local regimes. They know that the austerity attack on the working class in the core countries depends on very clearly segmented wage zones and labour markets. They also know that the experiences of having toppled collectively and violently at least the top of a regime should not migrate and spread too freely.

We know that 'migrants' took part in both the recent struggles in Greece and the M15 movement in Spain, but we know little about whether a) they contribute with their specific experience or b) whether they are able to find solutions to their specific problems (e.g. threat of deprtation, 'illegal' employment etc.) within the movement.

In relation to the global character of the crisis and regarding the 'regional segmentation of labour markets' as one form of attack on the working class, we have to re-think 'proletarian internationalism'. In the current global dimension of struggles against austerity, workers migration again has to take the role of being the transmitter of international struggle experience [1]. If not propagated and organised as part of proletarian struggle against the existing conditions, under the objective conditions of worsening competition on the labour market, a 'no borders'- position will increasingly become a humanist middle-class attitude.

[1] See, for example: http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/wildcat/91/e_w91_nardo.html


Some Questions for the Work-Shop on 'Migration-Regime and Crisis'

It would be good to take advantage of the international character of the convergence to debate the changes in the migration regime in different European regions since 2008. Below you can find some preliminary questions for preparation of the exchange.

Crisis and Migration

* How did the crisis impact on the regional labour market in general and labour migration in particular?
* In which way did migration patterns and composition change? Differences between labour migration from EU countries and from outer-Europe? Shifts in sectors of 'migrant employment'?
* In which way does a 'competition' on the labour market increase (between different groups of migrant workers or migrant workers and 'local workers')? How is this competition mediated or 'exploited'?

Changes in State Policies

* In which way did the state change the legal framework of migration or changed the practice of its apparatus?
* In which way did the 'public discourse' about migration change 'under conditions of and in relation to' the public debate about economic crisis?

Migration and Anti-Austerity Struggle

* Has there been any major collective resistance of migrant workers against either corporate measures (redundancies) or state policies?
* Have there been major attacks on migrants', what was the background of these attacks and how were these attacks presented to the wider public?
* How do the current austerity measures effect migrant workers? What is the relation between 'anti-austerity' resistance (public sector strikes, student protests etc.) and 'migrant workers'?
* Has there been any relation between current mass struggles against austerity regimes (Tunesia, Egypt, Greece, Spain) and 'local migrant communities' (from these countries, e.g. 'Tunesian' migrants in France)?