Of Human Bondage: The Global Traffic in Disposable Labor

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

— Communist Manifesto

It’s a story as old as class society; employers seek more wealth by lowering wages, and workers seek to survive by raising wages. The history of this conflict has shaped, and continues to shape, our world.

The international traffic in temporary workers is Capital’s latest move to accumulate more wealth by lowering the price of labor.

Lies

Capitalism has perfected the art of making shit smell good. The cozy phrase, “guest workers,” hides the brutal reality of extreme exploitation.

Workers from impoverished nations pay their way to rich nations to labor for paltry wages with no legal protections and no right to change employers. They are forced to work back-breaking hours, live in substandard conditions and can be deported any time for any reason. In the truest sense, they are disposable workers.

We are told the “guest-worker” system benefits everyone: the “guests” make more money than they could at home; the money they send home helps their families and communities; the sending nations benefit from economic development made possible by remittances; and the receiving country gets workers to do jobs that native workers either don’t want or aren’t qualified for. Everybody wins. NOT.

In Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism, Immanuel Ness exposes every one of these sentiments as a bald-faced lie. Using statistics and interviews with Indian and Jamaican workers, Ness shows how the global temp-worker system benefits only the capitalist class and drives down conditions for workers of ALL nations.

If there is a shortage of skilled American workers, why not invest in educating and training them? Ness links the decline in state support for education with the ease of importing skilled foreigners who will work for less.

Labor shortage?

Nor is there any shortage of American labor, skilled and unskilled. Ness documents how, even as unemployment rose among American IT workers, IT corporations were pleading a shortage of workers in order to acquire more cheap programmers from India. And in South Carolina, a state with persistently high unemployment, the hospitality industry imports thousands of temporary Caribbean workers every season.

The donor nations don’t benefit. Their economies have been distorted to supply workers for export. High unemployment and the elimination of publicly-funded social services (demanded by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) force workers to migrate for jobs and to help their families pay for education, medical care and other social services that used to be free. Long absences by young parents tear families apart and contribute to social breakdown.

The hunger for capital is relentless. Corporations that can move production to areas of cheaper labor do so. For industries that can’t move, like hospitality and health care, the disposable worker is the employers’ dream. These workers are not protected by US labor laws; they get no benefits; they can be discharged when not needed; and they can be deported for protesting or organizing. They also serve as a permanent surplus of cheap labor that prevents native-born workers from maintaining their unions, wages and benefits.

The State plays a duel role in supporting a disposable labor system. On the one hand, it allows as many “guest workers” as employers demand. On the other hand, it promotes an anti-immigrant stance that divides the working class, pitting native-born against foreign-born. Both hands strengthen the capitalist class.

What is the solution?

While Ness’s book is rich in information, it is written for academics and very difficult to read. The parts that sing are his interviews with workers and his descriptions of their experiences and conditions. Here’s what I took from this book:

We live in an international economy. Capital moves freely over the globe in search of more capital and, as it does, it subjects the workers of all nations to increasingly similar conditions.

By enforcing national borders, capitalism prevents the working class from uniting to defend itself. National borders divide workers into legal, illegal, documented, undocumented, permanent, temporary, native-born and alien.

The global trade in labor proves that the capitalist class has no loyalty to any set of workers. The extent to which workers fail to understand this and stand behind “their” capitalist class is the extent to which they fail to protect their own interests as workers.

This book confirms that the workers of the world have no nation but the nation of the working class. Accepting and acting on this fact is the only solution and the only way out, for all workers.

Susan Rosenthal is a socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Power and Powerlessness (2006). She recently launched ReMarx Publishing. She can be reached through her web site or by email: susan@susanrosenthal.com. Read other articles by Susan.