Migrant worker

Migrant worker
Migrant workers in California, 1935
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The term migrant worker has different official meanings and connotations in different parts of the world . The United Nations' definition is broad, including any people working outside of their home country. The term can also be used to describe someone who migrates within a country, possibly their own, in order to pursue work such as seasonal work. Also, the term can be used as a technical term.


United Nations' definition

The "United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families"[1] defines migrant worker as follows:

The term "migrant worker" refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.

The Convention has been Asia, and China (amongst other nations that receive foreign labour).

Worldwide perspectives


In Canada, companies are beginning to recruit temporary foreign workers under Service Canada's recent[when?] expansion of an immigration program for migrant workers.


Migrant workers in China are mostly people from impoverished regions who go to more urban and prosperous coastal regions in search of work, hence they are the main force for urbanization in the People's Republic of China. According to Chinese government statistics, the current number of migrant workers in China is estimated at 120 million, approximately 9% of the population. China’s urban migrants sent home the equivalent of US$65.4 billion in 2005.[2] China is now experiencing the largest mass migration of people from the countryside to the city in history. An estimated 230 million Chinese (2010) —a number equivalent to two thirds the population of the United States —have left the countryside and migrated to the cities in recent years. About 13 million new people join the legions every year. The number is expected to reach 250 million by 2012 and surpass 300 million and maybe reach 400 million by 2025.

Many are farmers and farm workers made obsolete by modern farming practices and factory workers who have been laid off from inefficient state-run factories. They include men and women and couples with children. Men often get construction jobs while women work in cheap-labor factories. Most come from Sichuan, Hunan, Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi Provinces. A 60- year-old grandmother from Sichuan who was as laborer on a construction site in Shanghai told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re willing to work, you can get a job here even if you’re old.”

So many migrants leave their homes looking for work they overburden the rail system. In the Hunan province, 52 people were trampled to death in the late 1990s when 10,000 migrants were herded onto a freight train. To stem the flow of migrants, officials in Hunan and Sichuan have placed restrictions on the use of trains and buses by rural people.

Most migrant workers have traditionally gone to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and the coastal cities but more are heading to the interior where new opportunities are opening up and there is less competition. In some cities, the migrants almost outnumber the residents. The small industrial city of Yiwu, for example, in Zhejiang Province, is home to 640,000 official residents and a migrant population of several hundred thousand.

The booming cities are desperate for cheap labor while the countryside is experiencing labor surpluses. The cities provide so much work they are sometimes called “factories without chimneys.”

The migration is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the government has tried to restrict it. One young girl told National Geographic, “All the young people leave our village. I’m not going back. Many can’t even afford a bus ticket and hitchhike to Beijing."

Overall, the Chinese government has tacitly supported migration as means of providing labor for factories and construction sites and for the long term goals of transforming China from a rural-based economy to an urban-based one. Some inland cities have started providing migrants with social security, including pensions and other insurance.

European Union

The recent expansions of the European Union have provided opportunities for many people to migrate to other EU countries for work. For both the 2004 and 2007 enlargements, existing states were given the rights to impose various transitional arrangements to limit access to their labour markets. Migrant workers in Germany and Austria are known as Gastarbeiter.
1st of March Transnational Migrants’ Strike
The 1st of March has become a symbolic day for transnational migrants’ strike. This day unites all migrants to give them a common voice to speak up against racism, discrimination and exclusion on all levels of social life. The transnational protests on the 1st of March were originally initiatied in the USA in 2006 and have encouraged migrants in other countries to organise and take action on that day. In Austria the first transnational migrants’ strike (Transnationaler Migrant_innenstreik) took place in March 2011, in the form of common actions, e.g. a manifestation, but also in form of numerous decentralised actions.


The passport system in the Soviet Union severely restricted migrant workers but the dissolution of the Soviet Union allowed far more movement, both from the "near abroad" and within Russia.[3]

United States

Family of migrant workers in North Carolina, c. 1940s

The term foreign worker is generally used in the United States to refer to someone fitting the international (UN) definition of a migrant worker while the term migrant worker is considered someone who regularly works away from home, if they have a home at all.[4]

In the United States, migrant worker is commonly used to describe low-wage workers performing manual labor in the agriculture field; these are often illegal aliens who do not have valid work visas. The United States has enacted the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act to remove the restraints on commerce caused by activities detrimental to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, to require farm labor contractors to register, and to assure necessary protections for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, agricultural associations, and agricultural employers.

The term migrant worker sometimes may be used to describe any worker who moves from one seasonal job to another.[4] This use is generally confined to lower-wage fields, perhaps because the term has been indelibly linked with low-wage farmworkers and illegal aliens.[4] Examples of itinerant who could be called migrant workers, some of them quite lucrative, include: electricians in the construction industry; other construction workers who travel from one construction job to another, often in different cities; wildland firefighters in the western United States; temporary consulting work; and Interstate truck drivers.

Historical Perspectives

United States

Migrant workers in the United States have come from many different sources, and have been subject to different work experiences. Prior to restrictions against the slave trade, agriculture in the United States was largely dependent on slave labor; contrary to popular myth, slavery, while more prominent in the Southern plantation system, was used in both the North and South as a way of supplying labor to agriculture.[5] However, over the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, when the slave trade was banned and slaves emancipated, foreign workers began to be imported to fill the demand for cheap labor.[6]

There were many sources for cheap labor. Workers from China were the first group to be brought to the United States in large numbers; however, the federal government curtailed immigration from China with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.[7] At the turn of the Twentieth century, workers from Mexico and the Philippines began to enter the United States to work as cheap agricultural laborers. Other sources of cheap agricultural labor during this time were found in unskilled European immigrants, whom, unlike Chinese, Mexican or Filipino laborers, were not brought to the United States to work specifically as cheap laborers, but were hired to work in agriculture nonetheless.[8] Many European migrants who worked as agricultural laborers did so with the goal of eventually purchasing their own farm in the United States; however, due to the difficulty farm hands faced in accumulating capital, this goal was often not reached.[9]

The experiences of migrant laborers in agriculture during this period varied. Workers from England experienced little difficulty, as they shared a common language and Protestant religion with many Americans, and thus faced little prejudice and assimilated into American society easily; on the other hand, workers from catholic countries such as Ireland and Germany were subject to a number of prejudices.[10] Employers viewed Mexican workers, who continued to be brought into the United States on a temporary basis during the 20th century, desirably, as they generally did not strike or demand higher wages, and were thus seen by managers as being satisfied with the conditions they worked under. However, the use of Mexican migrant laborers declined during the Great Depression, when internal migrant workers from Dust Bowl states moved west to California, taking jobs normally filled by Mexican migrants.[11]

Migrant labor in the 30 years after the Second World War was characterized by the movement of laborers from the southern United States, Latin America and the Caribbean northwards for seasonal work.[12] While migrant workers within the United States did have the option of finding agricultural work through government agencies, such as the Farm Labor Agency, recruitment was often done informally, with crew leaders hiring workers with the allure of high wages and free trips north.[13] On the other hand, foreign workers were hired through government programs, under contracts negotiated by prospective employers; as a result, employers were given complete control over migrant workers, which meant that migrant workers who complained about their working conditions or the terms of their contracts could be threatened with deportation.[14] Ethnographic accounts of migrant laborers in the northeastern United States have revealed that migrant workers in the post-war period often lived and worked under very poor conditions; workers were entirely dependent on their crew leader to supply them with goods, which often compounded the debt they already owed the crew leader from the trip north.[15] Furthermore, housing conditions were often abysmal, with many people sharing cramped and poorly maintained facilities.[16]

During this period, a large number of foreign migrant workers entered the United States illegally. During the Second World War, Mexican migrant workers could legally work in agriculture in the United States under the Bracero guest worker program; however, the termination of this program marked the beginning of large-scale illegal immigration into the United States.[17] Illegal Mexican migrant workers have to come to be seen as an important source of cheap labor in the southwestern United States; attempts to increase enforcement against illegal migrants has been met with hostility from growers who depend on illegal immigrants as cheap laborers.[18] Furthermore, the United States government has granted amnesty to illegal Mexican migrants based on their work in agriculture: under the US Immigrant Reform and Control Act (1986), illegal immigrants that could demonstrate 60 days of employment in agriculture since 1985 were awarded permanent residence.[19]

Most migrant farmworkers earn annual incomes below the poverty level and few receive benefits such as Social Security or worker's compensation. The transient nature of their work often prevents them from establishing any local residency, excluding them from benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. The majority of migrant farmworkers are either U.S. citizens or legal residents of the United States. Some foreign workers enter the United States under guest-worker programs when there are not enough available workers to satisfy the demand.[citation needed]

Women and migrant labor

Economic conditions in developing countries have created the need for a new wave of migrant workers, predominantly young females. Turnover rate in many of these migrant jobs is very high due to harsh working conditions. This occurs on both a national and transnational basis. In Europe alone there are 3 million female migrant workers. The 1970s and 1980s have seen an increase in female migrant laborers in France and Belgium. Female migrants work in domestic occupations which are considered part of the informal sector and lack a degree of government regulation and protection. Minimum wages and work hour requirements are ignored and piece-rates are sometimes also implemented. Migrant labor allows large companies to keep up with the changes in the market and fashions but still keep production inexpensive at home. Women’s wages are kept lower than men because they are not regarded as the primary source of income in the family.[20]

Why women participate in migrant labor

Women become involved in migrant labor for a number of reasons. The most common reasons are economic: the husband’s wage is no longer enough to support the family. Other reasons include familial pressure, on a daughter, for instance, who is seen as a reliable source of income for the family only through remittances. Young girls and women are singled out in families to be migrant workers because they don’t have a viable alternative role to fulfill in the local village and if they go to work in the urban centers as domestics they can at least send home money. Additionally women who are widowed, divorced or single and have limited economic opportunities in their native country may be forced to leave out of economic necessity. Lastly, migration can also substitute for divorce in societies that don’t allow or do not condone divorce.[21]

Effect of migrant labor on gender role

In terms of migrant labor, many women move from a more oppressive home country to a less oppressive environment where they have actual access to waged work. As such, leaving the home and obtaining increased economic independence and freedom challenges traditional gender roles. This can be seen to strengthen women’s position in the family by improving their relative bargaining position. They have more leverage in controlling the household because they have control over a degree of economic assets. However, this can lead to hostility between wives and husbands who feel inadequate or ashamed at their inability to fulfill their traditional role as breadwinner. The hostility and resentment from the husband can also be a source of domestic violence.[22] Studies have also been done which point to changes in family structures as a result of migrant labor. These changes include increased divorce rates and decrease in household stability. Additionally, female migrant labor has been indicated as a source for more egalitarian relationships within the family, decline of extended family patterns, and more nuclear families.[23]There is also a risk for infidelity abroad, which also erodes the family structure.[24]

Migrant labor and children

Migrant labor of women also raises special concerns about children. Female migrant workers perform care work abroad while leaving home. These children learn to regard their relatives at home as their own parents. Frequently, children of migrant workers become migrant workers themselves. There is concern that this may have negative psychological effects on the children left behind. Although this has not been proven to be entirely true or false, studies have been done which show that many children of migrant workers manage reasonably well. One theory for why this is states that remittances to some degree make up for the lack of care by providing more resources for food and clothing. Additionally, some migrant mothers take great care in attempting to maintain familial relationships while abroad.[25]

National vs. transnational migration

Like transnational migration, national (internal) migration plays an important role in poverty reduction and economic development. For some countries, internal migrants outnumber those who migrate internationally. For example, 120 million people were estimated to migrate internally in China compared to 458,000 people who migrated internationally for work.[26] Situations of surplus labor in rural areas because of scarcity of arable land is a common “push factor” in the move of individuals to urban-based industries and service jobs. Environmental factors including drought, waterlogging, and river-bank erosion also contribute to internal migration.[27]

There are four spatial patterns of internal migration:[28]

  1. Rural-rural migration: in many poor countries like Senegal, rural-rural migration occurs when laborers from poorer regions travel to agriculturally-rich and irrigated areas which have more work.
  2. Rural-urban migration: seen in the urbanizing economies of Asia, migration of poor agricultural workers move to larger cities and manufacturing centers.
  3. Urban-rural migration: migration that occurs when individuals retire back to their villages. Oftentimes, migrants who return bring back skill sets that benefit their home areas tremendously.
  4. Urban-urban migration: as the predominant form of internal migration, this movement takes place from the center of cities to the outer areas of the city.

See also


  1. ^ "United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families". United Nations. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/45/a45r158.htm. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  2. ^ Zhenghua, Wang (2005-09-21). "Convicted migrant worker killer waits for final verdict". China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-09/21/content_479492.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-21. 
  3. ^ New York Times, 2009 January 14 Economic decline affects migrant workers in Russia
  4. ^ a b c Newport City Refugees and Asylum Seekers
  5. ^ Wright, Gavin. "Slavery and American Agriculture History" in Agricultural History vol 77 no 4 (Autumn, 2003) pp, 527-552
  6. ^ "Nijeholt, G. Thomas-Lycklama, "On the Road for Work: Migratory Workers on the East Coast of the United States" (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishing, 1980),p. 22.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 22.
  8. ^ Ibid., p. 23.
  9. ^ Schob, David E. "Hired Hands and Plowboys: Farm Labor in the Midwest," 1815-60 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1975),p. 270-271.
  10. ^ Ibid., p.253
  11. ^ Nijeholt 1980, p. 24
  12. ^ Ibid., p.30
  13. ^ Friedland, William H. and Dorothy Nelkin, "Migrant Agricultural Workers in America’s Northeast" (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971),p. 19.
  14. ^ ibid., pp. 29-35
  15. ^ Friedland and Nelkin 1971, p. 52
  16. ^ Ibid., p. 35.
  17. ^ Espenshade, Thomas J. “Unauthorized Immigration to the United States,” in Annual Review of Sociology vol. 21 (1995),p. 198
  18. ^ Gordon H. Hanson, “Illegal Migration from Mexico to the United States,” in Journal of Economic Literature vol 44, no 4 (Dec, 2006),p. 917
  19. ^ ibid.,p. 878
  20. ^ Morokvasic, M. (1984). Birds of passage are also women. International Migration Review 18, 886-907.
  21. ^ Morokvasic, M. (1984). Birds of passage are also women. International Migration Review 18, 886-907.
  22. ^ Menjivar, C. (1999). "The Intersection of Work and Gender: Central American Immigrant Women and Employment in California." American Behavioral Scientist, 42: 601-627.
  23. ^ Morokvasic, M. (1984). Birds of passage are also women. International Migration Review 18, 886-907.
  24. ^ Jason de Parle, “A Good Provider is One Who Leaves” New York Times, April 22, 2007.
  25. ^ Jason de Parle, “A Good Provider is One Who Leaves” New York Times, April 22, 2007.
  26. ^ http://www.prb.org/Source/mrs_19_2005.pdf
  27. ^ http://www.prb.org/Source/mrs_19_2005.pdf
  28. ^ http://www.prb.org/Source/mrs_19_2005.pdf

External links

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