Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Globalisation and the Commodification of Labour: Temporary Labour Migration

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Globalisation and the Commodification of Labour: Temporary Labour Migration

Article excerpt


There has been growing interest over the last decade in the import of international migration as an economic force that could provide renewed growth potential for the developing economies of the world. A migration-development discourse identifies the potential that has been engendered by the dramatic increase in the magnitude of officially recorded income which migrants are remitting to their home countries. Remittances afford the promise of enhancing economic wellbeing because, as has been widely argued, the increased significance of remittances provides a growing source of foreign exchange and source of capital that in many instances exceeds private international capital flows and the official development assistance to developing countries.

Underpinning this story has been the resurgence in international labour migration. Of particular significance has been the increase in the numbers of a class of migrant worker engaged in semi- and low-skilled, low-paid occupations and whose residence and work permit rights, let alone industrial and civil rights, are severely circumscribed. Denied permanent entry, temporary migrant workers are subject to limited periods of employment resulting from the requirement for regular renewal of contracts. The result has been a qualitative change in the character of international labour migration, and it is this category of workers who figure as the key actors in the migration-development discourse. However, while the migration-development discourse acknowledges the movement of people as the critical ingredient in spawning this new development potential, it is not the character of this new global labour force per se that has occupied the analytical and policy focus, but rather the movement of money. The forces that have drawn labour more systematically into the globalisation process are by and large regarded as incidental to the economic promise of this new source of capital. The institutional arrangements that frame the terms of these new global workers' engagement with globalisation and their place in contributing to the dynamics of international money transfers are generally an incidental consideration. Yet, the terms of people's physical incorporation into the global political economy as migrant workers are crucial to understanding the momentum of money flows, and this is the concern of this study.

The study will initially outline the preoccupations of the migration-development discourse, and how the new analytical interest in international migration, and the policies this interest informs, is predicated on arguments in support of 'circular migration' or, more accurately, temporary international labour migration and migrant workers' continuing association with their country of origin as distinct from emigration and resettlement. We then reflect on the constitution of this new global workforce, and the circumscribed character of migrant workers' new-found freedom and how this process of proletarianisation can be usefully characterised in Polanyian terms as the making of a fictitious commodity. The study then returns to interrogating the principal preoccupation of the migration-development discourse. The contention of the study is that the making of migrant wage labour, in so far as this is moved by the ambition to generate migrant worker remittances, is just as much about the valorisation of migrant labour and the generation of international capital flows and money capital in particular.

Resurgent International Migration and Migration-Development Discourse

The oil price hike of the 1970s marked a turning point in the history of international migration. The economic prosperity that this brought to the Middle East set off a construction boom whose labour requirements were mostly satisfied by the recruitment of migrant workers, the great majority of whom were drawn from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. …

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