Skip to main content
February 17, 2010

Introduction - 7.4

Millions of migrants today are working outside their home countries. Perhaps half of them have fled persecution; the remainder are economic migrants seeking either permanent or temporary employment. Yet annual emigration from the Third World to developed countries and oil producing countries represents, at most, only 2 to 3 percent of the annual population growth of the Third World. Most employment and labor migration in the Third World involves internal movement, not international ones. Because of the plural ethnic composition within most Third World countries, even migrations occurring nationally result in extensive inter-ethnic contact between groups, causing significant changes in both sending and receiving communities.

In this issue of CSQ we discuss employment and labor migration in both international and national labor markets. While this introduction and articles included in this issue devote space to the scope of labor movements and the conditions faced by laborers, the principal goal of this Quarterly is to examine the effects of labor migrations on sending cultures or communities.

Many features of international labor migration parallel domestic migration for employment. There are, however, significant differences between these two types of employment with regard to the problems and prospects faced by tribal migrants. Few researchers have examined the consequences of employment on ethnically distinct populations; fewer still have compared the effects of domestic employment with those of international labor migration on these distinct populations.

The articles in this issue do not offer conclusions concerning the problems employment poses to ethnic laborers or their cultures, but they do present data and hypotheses to guide future research which will inform both indigenous peoples and concerned states about policy issues.

International Migration

During this century, international and domestic labor migration have undergone many changes. In the past, most individuals or families emigrated with the idea of permanently resettling in a new country. Moreover, most people have held the view that immigrants came mostly from Europe. After all, Europeans and Canadians accounted for 80% of all American immigrants between 1930 and 1960.

Although less well documented, migrations of large numbers of people have occurred throughout history in Southeast Asia, Oceania, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and South Asia. In this issue, Gwendolyn Mikel and Elliott Skinner examine the interrelationship of migration, immigration and economic crisis on the African continent today.

Migrations from industrial countries have dwindled. Between 1977 and 1979 only 16% of US immigrants came from Europe or Canada, while Asia and Latin America each accounted for 40% of the total. In addition to these millions of immigrants who have been admitted legally to the US are an estimated 5-12 million illegal aliens, the largest portion of which are Mexicans.

Migrants are not just affecting the US: they represent an increasing percentage of the international labor force. In West Germany and France, foreign workers account for 9% of the work force; in Austria and Belgium, 7%. In Switzerland, foreign workers have represented as much as 24% of the work force. In western Europe there are more than five million foreign workers accompanied by an even greater number of dependents.

In the oil producing states of the Persian Gulf, foreign workers often constitute the majority of the work force. In the United Arab Emirates they represent 85% of the work force; in Qatar - 81%; Kuwait - 70%; Oman - 45%; and Bahrain - 39%. Fearing the presence of so many foreigners, most of these countries have restricted the movements of the workers and the immigration of their dependents.

Some countries or territories have become notorious suppliers of migrant laborers. More than one third of the population of Surinam and Puerto Rico have emigrated, while 19% of North Yemen's population (some 27% of its work force) have sought employment in other countries. The figures are comparable for a number of other nations: Jordan and Oman each have 28% of their work force abroad, Algeria - 19.5%, Morocco - 12.3%, Tunisia - 10.6%, Yugoslavia - 8.8%, Greece - 6.8%, Italy - 6%, Turkey - 5.2%, Syria - 3.8% and Egypt - 3.7%

The presence of foreign workers is conspicuous in communities throughout the world. Some neighborhoods in Belgium, Holland, Austria, France and West Germany are dominated by peoples born in Surinam, Timur, Algeria, Turkey, Yugoslavia and southern Italy. There are about two million foreigners living in and around Paris, France. In some neighborhoods most primary school children are foreigners. The sustained presence of foreign nationals has raised many policy questions concerning the rights of migrants.

In West Germany debates over whether the culture and language of migrants should be nurtured or whether migrants should be encouraged to assimilate are continuous - opposing sides in the controversy have different ideas about what the future relationship of migrants and the host country ought to be. Similarly, the citizenship rights of the children of migrants are also debated.

In West Germany, for instance, when the government allowed the teaching of the language and culture of Kurdish migrant laborers from Turkey, the Turkish government registered a formal protest. Turkish officials requested that only Turkish be taught. West Germany, deciding to avoid this thorny political issue, discontinued their programs, but allowed Kurds to organize whatever classes they wanted on their own.

Like international labor migration, domestic labor migration also leads to interaction between different ethnic and cultural groups. As tribal societies and ethnic minorities enter into sustained contact with the national "culture" and neighboring ethnic groups, cross cultural employment has become more common. Working arrangements are rarely equitable, however, as the more isolated groups - who do not speak the national language, understand money or the value of their labor and are rarely protected by labor laws - soon become dominated through exploitative relationships.

What is begun as a limited exchange of labor for specific goods often results in mounting debts. In this vicious cycle, patrons exploit tribal people for decades, sometimes generations. Bill Vickers' article provides a general illustration of this problem by describing the numerous ways in which Indians are economically abused by outsiders in Ecuador's eastern Amazon region.

The Causes of Labor Migration

Employment and labor migration can be either voluntary or induced, whether across ethnic or national boundaries.

Governments often promote international labor migration to alleviate or mask socio-economic ills. The flow of laborers is seen as one way to relieve poverty without treating its causes. Migration is also used as a "solution" for problems stemming from ethnic conflict. In many cases populations are forced to move and relinquish their land and resources. In the same spirit, political dissidents are sometimes "allowed" to migrate.

There is worldwide fear that the violence and repression resulting from deteriorating economic conditions and increasing population pressure will lead to greater migrant flows in the near future. Some analysts believe that there may be as many refugees (i.e. those who have fled ethnic, tribal, religious or political persecution) in the world as people seeking employment abroad for purely economic reasons. Governments in Burma, Djibouti, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Vietnam have expelled refugees.

Many argue that economic migration is demand induced, i.e. that job opportunities in other countries cause people to migrate. However, many migrants' hopes for a better living are illusory. Made desperate by economic conditions at home, more people seek their fortune in areas or countries they know only through the glamorous images the advertisers and mass media bring.

Paul Doughty's article on Peru and Laura Hodge's article on Mexico both address this issue, giving a general survey of the conditions that lead to labor migration in the two countries and the effects of out migrations on the sending communities. Doughty argues that until rural areas can provide citizens with cash incomes equivalent to those of cities, migration in Peru will continue.

In her article on the Garifuna of Belize and Honduras Nancie Gonzalez points out that a number of countries have developed programs to offer rural residents employment when they are displaced by mechanized, commercial agriculture. With the exception of China's highly centralized government, all the examples cited are advanced capitalist states. Perhaps Third World countries should look to agriculture to employ rather than displace rural residents. The costs, both economic and political, of massive unemployment could more than offset the income generated by a few cash crops.

The International Labor Organization recently estimated that between 1980 and 2000, the total labor force in the Third World will increase by 600 million to 700 million people. To employ these would-bc workers, developing countries must create more jobs than now exist in the US, Western Europe, Japan, the USSR and all other industrialized nations combined. This labor force has already been born. Barring major epidemics, famines or wars it will reach working age.

For example, the Latin American population in the early 1950s was about 150 million people. By 2025 the population is expected to reach 845 million people. Prior to 2025, Latin American countries will have to create, on average, 4 million jobs each year. With an economy five times larger than all Latin American countries combined, however, the US only creates about 2 million new jobs per year.

The Work Environment of Migrant Laborers

Local hostility toward foreign workers increases in proportion to their numbers. Often, hostility explode into spontaneous violence resulting even in the death of migrants. Some recently publicized conflicts have occurred between Germans and Turks, French and North Africans, Nigerians and Ghanaians. Venezuelans and Colombians, Assamese and Bangladeshis, English and West Indians and South Asians, Saudis and Yemenites and of course Americans and Mexicans, Haitians and Vietnamese.

Other responses to immigrants include segregating or isolating foreign workers, as in West Germany and the Persian Gulf states. National labor protectionism is currently on the rise. Libya, Nigeria, Switzerland and Ghana have all expelled registered foreign workers, while all countries continue to deport illegal workers.

In the Persian Gulf, states continue to admit foreign workers but have diversified their sources of supply. In the past, most laborers were Arabs from neighboring countries. Today, however, Asian contract workers are the most common. Such workers can be hired through a firm which handles every aspect of a construction project - from raw materials to labor. Such firms reduce contact between laborers and nationals by housing all migrants in segregated work camps. Governments provide a minimum of services to these camps and do not have any direct interaction with workers. Workers, whether from South Korea, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaya, Nepal, the Philippines, Taiwan or Thailand, see and understand little of the country where they may spend years.

When laborers are allowed to mix with the local population and are expected to provide food for themselves, the usual result is that they save less. David Griffith reports that stores in the plantation areas of south Florida receive 80-90% of their gross from Jamaican temporary migrants. Only after about four years do workers learn to save money; for this reason few workers are asked to return after their third year.

Laborers employed within their own country are often hired to undertake tasks which undermine their group's future. Rob Gordon's article discusses how it is that 70% of the Bushmen in Namibia work as agricultural laborers on white-owned farms now thriving on lands that were once used solely by the Bushmen. Simultaneously, one in four Bushmen in Namibia is affected by military recruitment into the South African Army. These Bushmen are fighting against the Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) and other liberation movements. If these movements are successful, they will undoubtedly be repressive to the Bushmen for their role in prolonging white dominance over the region.

For some groups, outside employment is not essential; it is a way to acquire new goods or experiences. Ted Macdonald writes that for the Quichua Indians of Ecuador, outside labor experiences mark a passage into adulthood for young men. The experiences gained through outside employment and travels in Ecuador will be shared for years to come.

The costs or benefits associated with wage-labor employment seem to be related to how far it is to the site of employment and how essential employment is for the survival of the workers or their families. A number of studies indicate that jobs which allow workers to stay at home each night or short-term working assignments cause the least disruption.

Mike Richards' article on Guatemalan Indians demonstrates that employment can become an integral subsistence strategy for many groups who do not have enough land of their own to produce the food they need. While they will not make money as plantation laborers, they will be able to eat, something they could not do if they stayed home. This means, however, that for a few months each year the families are uprooted and living amongst other Indians and ladinos.

In instances like these, employees are dependent upon employment for subsistence needs and employers are dependent on cheap labor to subsidize their inefficient systems of production. Neither party has another recourse. The Wovan in Papua New Guinea seem to have developed labor relationships such as these. According to James Flanagan's article, in this issue, plantations and mines are manned by tribal Papuans who need cash to purchase items now considered essential. Such relationships do not indicate a lack of exploitation, rather, the Wovan are willing to accept exploitation until they can come up with a better way to generate a cash income.

The Consequences of Employment and Labor Migration

In 1978 workers sent or returned with more than US$23 billion to Third World countries, a sum equivalent to more than one tenth of the export earnings of these countries. By 1982, remittances were estimated at $40 billion.

Remittances are important to governments. Remittances equal a third or more of export earnings in Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Portugal, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, India, Egypt and North Yemen. For a number of countries, remittances make up the total deficit in the balance of payments. It is probably for this reason alone that labor exporting countries have not sought to stem the flow of migrants.

But how is this money used in the Third World countries? Some studies show that as much as two thirds of repatriated savings are spent on housing. Land purchases, home appliances, clothing and debt repayment account for most of the rest.

Insignificant amounts go to the purchase of industrial or agricultural equipment, items that might increase local productivity. It is the lack of investment in productive activities that leads many observers to criticize temporary labor migration.

Most observers feel that remittances foster a consumer mentality, and many believe that such consumerism is inappropriate for most Third World countries. Such consumerism, critics argue, does not increase the productivity of the country, rather it increases imports and causes inflation in land prices, housing and consumer goods. In sum, the consumer orientation that accompanies the remittances often reduces the impact of remittances to counter overall balance of payments problems.

Critics of migration also insist that it is the most innovative who migrate. The country that has invested in these workers' educations gets nothing in return. The drain of skilled workers hurts local industries, making them less competitive with foreign firms while migration from rural areas undermines agricultural production.

Successful migrants do not often return with skills useful in their own countries: migrants who fail to find employment spend scarce, locally generated capital in their efforts.

Employment possibilities for migrants to industrialized countries are best when the economies are expanding. During recessions, the host countries often send foreign workers home. It is during times of global recession, however, that the sending countries are least likely to be able to provide employment for returning migrants.

Migration for employment can lead to the denigration of culture through the adoption of new languages or customs, the accumulation of material wealth which is not shared in the traditional ways and the lack of respect for traditional beliefs and leaders. For the individual, however, migration offers a chance to achieve longed-for economic status, at least in the short-term.

In Thailand, for instance, Singhanetra-Renard found that migrants see money as a key to independence. Where it often takes a couple 15 to 20 years to purchase a home by working locally, after only two years of work in the Middle East, enough money has been saved to buy a house.

Migration can also augment individual or family status by providing cash for purchasing land or education for one's self or one's children. Earnings facilitate marrying someone of higher status. As Dick Smith's article in this issue points out, this can have severe consequences for tribal societies. In one Amuesha village in Peru, 70% of the women of reproductive age have married white men. After working as domestics in Lima these women refuse to marry men from their village or return to a traditional way of life.

Women workers have found that cash reduces their dependence on men and allows them a more equal status with their husbands. Women who control independent incomes are more likely to learn to read and write.

Sometimes male migration significantly affects the status of women. Dennis Tully identifies an unexpected result of the periodic migration of males from western Sudan as the gradual takeover of land by the women. In Masalit society, land is claimed through use. With men absent as laborers, women come to acquire more and more of the land. Increasingly women pass the land to their daughters who are more likely to cultivate it and thus retain claims to it.

A number of studies indicate that money earned as wages allows young people to resist the authority of parents and kin or at least to gain increased respect or autonomy.

Likewise, studies have shown that the migration of entire families tends to erode traditional authority within the extended family, while migration of individual marital partners tends to increase it. Emily McIntire found that the families of males from southern Iran who went to work in Kuwait became dependent on their parents and in-laws, thus reinforcing traditional values.

Yet, psychological strains from long separations often affect migrants and their families. In some societies, sex ratio imbalances created by labor migrations are never corrected. In many instances the migration of individuals results in increased divorce rates.

The absence of young males or females disrupts other aspects of society as well. Migrants interrupt their education in the beliefs, customs, and religion of their culture. They do not form close bonds with the traditional leaders and elders who must pass on the cultural heritage of the group. Often they are not in residence to acquire, under supervision, the political skills that one day might be crucial in the defense of their group's land, language or culture. Finally, they are not there to take care of the old, the sick and those who have nourished them in the past.

Yet, while labor migration and employment often cause changes in local cultures, not all these changes can be considered bad. Toby Volkman's piece on the Toraja of Sulawesi indicates that earnings from employment in the lumber industry are used by poor migrants to sponsor elaborate rituals upon their return and raise their local status. While long-term Toraja labor migrations might undermine agricultural production, in the short-term, the use of savings for rituals generates demand for water buffalo and rice.

James Pierson examines the effect of Aboriginal migration to Adelaide, Australia on the development of "Aboriginal" culture. He asserts that through migration individuals and groups met and discussed common histories and resentments. The revitalization which took place first in the city, quickly spread to rural areas as individuals travelled throughout the country.

Few groups have used wage-labor to promote the interests of an entire group as well as the Kuna Indians of Panama. With the opening of the Panama Canal, much wage-labor was available in the Kuna area of Panama. Until the 1930s, the group's leaders were opposed to Kuna working as laborers. From the 1930s onward, however, Kuna leaders began to approve the employment of Kuna in the Canal Zone. With official sponsorship, the Kuna gradually formed a union for their workers in the zone. They were able to negotiate a wage equivalent to the US minimum wage for all union members.

Recently, the Kuna union has used its political organization and resources to promote the establishment of a large reserve of forested land. With assistance from the Inter-American Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and other environmental organizations, the Kuna have established a park that will generate income for the Kuna through limited tourism, the sale of collection rights to research institutions and the extraction of a limited number of items from the forest itself. What began as individuals going to work on the canal has become an economic project which will provide for the future generations of Kuna. While the Kuna are definitely the exception rather than the rule, they prove that groups need not succumb to the many negative consequences often associated with employment.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.