Come Like the Dust, Go With the Wind


DURING THE BOOM decades since World War II, millions of temporary workers have streamed into the industrial centers of western Europe to provide them with unskilled labor. The immigrants come from all the underdeveloped countries of the Mediterranean, hoping to earn enough in a few years up north to build a house or open a small business in their villages--or often enough, simply to survive where unemployment ranges from 20 to 50 per cent. Known in West Germany as gastarbeiter (guestworkers), and in France as hommes deracines (rootless men), these workers are concentrated in the worst paid, most arduous and most hazardous jobs. As of 1972, migrant workers made up 10 per cent of the work force in industrial western Europe, and much larger proportions in specific industries. It is migrants who man the assembly lines at Renault and Volvo, who dig the tunnels underneath Geneva, who make asbestos in the Ruhr--jobs which native workers avoid as much as possible.

The migrants are allowed to enter the 'host' countries only insofar as they are needed in the labor force. Most migrants are men in their twenties and thirties, since the immigration authorities discourage them from bringing in their families. Rigorous medical examinations exclude all but the healthiest applicants. Once he has arrived, the migrant lives segregated from native workers--in barrack-like compounds in West Germany; in overcrowded shantytowns in France. Victimized by sleep merchants (housing profiteers), and endangered by unfamiliar machinery, the migrant also has no political rights to speak of--he can be deported at any time, and his residence visa depends upon his work permit. Alone in a strange, hostile city, unable to speak the language, working constantly, living at the mercy of his employer and the authorities, the migrant experiences the most drastic alienation of any worker in the West. He is wanted in the 'host' country only as a worker, neither as a man nor as a citizen.

AS A RESULT of the current recession, many migrants have been expelled from western Europe, taking their unemployment back home with them to the decaying peasant villages of Turkey, Yugoslavia, and North Africa, to the abandoned farmlands of Iberia and southern Italy. But ten million foreign workers still remain in western Europe. If the experience of previous recessions is any guide, the rest will soon return, because they have become essential to economic growth. The demand for migratory workers does not stem from a simple labor shortage in the western European economy. In most countries which have experienced large scale immigration, unemployment of native workers has increased simultaneously. To ensure rapid growth, western Europe does not need workers per se, but rather workers who can be treated as only temporary immigrants can.

The most obvious advantage of migratory labor for the developed countries is in relation to unemployment. When recession strikes, unemployed workers are shipped back to their home lands, and the economic and political consequences of their discontent fall to the governments of these countries. As John Berger points out in A Seventh Man:

If the organized national working class formed the entire labor reserve and suffered accordingly they might begin to demand that an end be put to the system... If, however, a large part of the labor reserve is made up of migrant workers, they can be 'imported' when needed and 'exported' (sent home) when made temporarily redundant and there need by no political repercussions...


The widespread use of migratory labor also offers economic advantages to western Europe capitalism. From the point of view of the economy as a whole rather than that of the individual capitalist, employing migrant workers lowers the social cost of reproducing the labor force. It costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to raise a worker to the age of twenty in an underdeveloped country. To produce the same worker in a developed country costs between $20,000 and $30,000. Not only does the country which uses migratory labor save substantial social costs at home, but in effect it also receives free the capital which has been spent raising the migrant in the home country. It has been estimated that the migrant workers now in western Europe represent a human capital of more than $50 million.

SINCE MIGRANT workers form the healthiest and most active sector of the population in their native countries, developed countries thus avoid any involvement in the support of those who are not directly involved in the productive process. Similarly, because migrants are not allowed to bring in their families, the 'host' country saves the cost of public facilities such as housing, schooling, hospitals, and welfare benefits. Instead of supporting a whole population, western European capital is only obliged to care for those workers it needs to employ, and those only while they are employed, not before or after.

At the same time, migrant workers are paid less than native workers. They live more intensively and under more hazardous conditions. The presence of migrants in the labor force also makes the unemployment of native workers possible and depresses their wages by weakening their bargaining position, though the exploitation of migrants may facilitate the extension of social welfare benefits to native workers. In many respects, then, migratory labor promotes economic growth and social stability, so that it seems correct to argue, as Castles and Kosack, two British students of the problem do, that "labor migration is a form of aid given by poor countries to rich countries."

While migratory labor stimulates growth in those countries which receive it, it hinders development in those which provide it. Underdeveloped countries lose the best secion of their labor force through migration and are consequently left with a population with too high a proportion of dependent inactive people. Remittances by migrants from their wages do not contribute substantially to reducing the balance of trade deficits of their home countries: these deficits rise at the same rate as do wages. And when migrant workers return with funds accumulated abroad, they tend to invest them unproductively, in small businesses that fail and in consumer goods that the country can ill afford. Most importantly, however, migratory labor relieves western European capital of any need to invest in the economies of underdeveloped countries by enabling it to attract the cream of their labor force to work in the developed countries themselves.

IT HAS BECOME apparent that contemporary European capitalism derives a great deal of its vitality from the fact that economic and political conflicts take place within different borders. Developed countries must be able to exploit a politically disen-franchised sector of the labor force more intensely, and to export the economic and political costs of unemployment to underdeveloped countries, both of which migratory labor makes possible. Thus political stability and economic growth in the industrial centers of western Europe depend on the political divisions between countries within a continent which is at once economically integrated and unevenly developed.

The growing importance of migratory labor presents the European labor movement with a serious challenge. On the one hand, the exploitation of migrant workers in the developed countries fragments the labor movement there, weakening its bargaining position and lowering the living standards of native workers. Therefore it is imperative that western European trade unions organize migrant workers in order to present a common front to the employers. On the other hand, many western European workers are racist and xenophobic, perceiving migrant workers only as a threat to the indigenous workers' position. And many migrant workers are so oriented toward their homelands that they are difficult to organize. Because of the particular political position in which they find themselves, migrant workers have special interests which are not directly relevant to those of native workers.

This problem has become particularly acute in the past few years with the passage of repressive immigration legislation in Britain, France, and Switzerland, and with mob violence against Algerians in France. In some cases, trade unions have had limited success in attempts to organize the migrants, as in France, while elsewhere, unions have collaborated in racist practices, as in Switzerland. But nowhere has the labor movement been able to organize migrants as migrants, or to defend them effectively from administrative harrassment. To organize a multinational involvement in a national political setting is a difficult task and the European labor movement's failure is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, until the labor movement is able to organize the migrants and to secure political rights for them, workers in western Europe will be divided along ethnic lines and their ability to defend their living standards and political interests will be consequently limited.