The Migrant Condition

, by BELLO Walden

Dear Friends,

Akbayan Party congratulates Rep. Walden Bello who was recently named as
chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs. Our representative in
Congress needs the support and cooperation of our comrades and friends in
the international sphere specifically the migrant groups and lobbyists who
are contributors in reforming our migrants’ agenda.

Thank you very much.

In solidarity,

Akbayan’s International Committee

The Migrant Condition

by Walden Bello

(When I was recently named chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers’
Affairs of the House of Representatives of the Philippines, I was approached
by members of the press for my views on migrant labor. I remembered a
speech I delivered last year at the Global Forum for Migration and
Development in Athens, Greece. The thrust of the speech was that migrants’
rights have to be addressed on two fronts: ending the neoliberal policies
that are responsible for creating poverty in their home countries, thus
forcing them to emigrate, and demanding that they are given full rights in
their host countries.)

The migrant worker experience is one that is increasingly typical. Let’s
start with myself. I am now back in the Philippines, but I spent nearly 20
years as a political exile in the United States during the Marcos
dictatorship. During that time I survived by working as a journalist,
teaching, doing research, and taking on odd jobs in different American
cities.

 Multiple Sites, Multiple Identities

This experience of multiple sites of work during one’s active years is not
too different from that of the Palestinian engineer who returns to the West
Bank or Gaza after working in Kuwait, Egypt, and the United States. Nor from
that of the Mexican peasant who goes to the United States to work in a
variety of jobs, returns to tend to his or her farm in Morelos for extended
periods, then heads back to Chicago. Nor from that of the Keralan who
alternates between tending a small shop back home built with savings from
her overseas work and long stints serving as domestic help in the Gulf
countries.

With multiple sites of work have come multiple identities. Over the years,
in addition to our original identity, we begin to regard our country of work
as our home, indeed even with some affection, even when that country is not
hospitable to us. And beyond identities forged by nationality and residence,
there is the identity of class—that becoming aware of a condition we share
with so many others of different nationalities, that sense of being part of
an international working class.

 Negative and Positive Realities

But let us not romanticize the lot of the globalized worker. Instability and
lack of security is the condition of many. Capitalism in the neoliberal era
destroys jobs at home and creates them elsewhere, forcing many into
dangerous transborder journeys to find those jobs. Unregulated as it is
today, capitalism is marked by periods of expansion and contraction. When
contraction arrives, the lot of the migrant becomes a perilous one, as
opportunistic politicians scapegoat him or her for the loss of jobs of
workers from the dominant culture. This is the situation in the developed
countries today, where discrimination, police repression, and deportation
have become pervasive. In Europe, this is accompanied by cultural
stigmatization, with migrants of Muslim origin being defined as the “Other.”

But let us not be too negative either about our host societies. These are
often democratic societies where there are rights and liberties that are
institutionalized. Many migrants, of course, are deprived of a number of
these rights and liberties, but in many respects, these polities provide a
model of what is possible in our societies of origin, where rights and
liberties are fragile if not non-existent and political corruption is
pervasive. Women from many developing societies find in their host societies
a level of respect and a state of formal equality with men that is sorely
absent where they came from. Filipina women, for instance, are afforded in
Europe and the United States the means to assert their reproductive rights
via contraception which benighted forces make it difficult for them to
obtain back home. They also have the right to divorce abusive partners, a
course of action they are legally deprived of in the Philippines with is
medieval code governing marriage.

 Crisis of the Home Economy

But when all is said and done, most migrant workers would probably prefer to
stay and work in their countries of origin if they could find the jobs that
would provide them with a decent living. This is why it is important for
migrant advocates to understand the conditions which have made emigration
from developing countries so pervasive over the last three decades.

Conditions of poverty and economic distress push people out of their
societies, but these conditions are not natural. They are created. And in
scores of developing countries since the late eighties the prime engine
expanding poverty and economic distress has been structural adjustment
programs pushed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and
trade liberalization promoted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and
trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Promoted under the guise of bringing about efficiency, these programs have
destroyed agriculture and industry in country after country. In Mexico,
severe cutbacks in state support for agriculture, efforts to roll back
agrarian reform, and NAFTA-imposed trade liberalization have made
agriculture a losing proposition, forcing Mexico’s peasantry, as the saying
goes, to transfer en masse to the United States. In the Philippines,
structural adjustment has destroyed the country’s industrial base and with
it, hundreds of thousands of industrial and manufacturing jobs, while
WTO-imposed trade liberalization has made farming unattractive for peasants
whose products cannot compete with the subsidized commodities being dumped
by the US, Europe, and other countries. For many of these displaced farmers
and their children, relocating to the urban metropolis is followed by
emigration.

 The Remittance Economy

So massive has been the unraveling of our industrial and agricultural base
wrought by neoliberal policies that it is oftentimes only remittances from
migrant workers that keep our home economies afloat-something that can be
said without exaggeration of the Philippines. Remittances are critical and
our migrant workers are to be complimented for their heroic role, but the
remittance economy is no substitute for a vibrant domestic economy.
Unfortunately, in the Philippines, our policymakers have made remittances a
substitute for domestic production.

 Two-Front War

Thus, to seriously address the problems they confront, migrants and migrant
advocates cannot but be involved in a two-front war. On the one hand, we
must struggle in our countries of origin to end the conditions of structural
adjustment, trade liberalization, and other neoliberal policies that have
eroded our industrial and agricultural base and destroyed millions of jobs.
We must tell the US government and the European Union that we do not need
aid; what we need is for them to stop imposing bilateral trade agreements
and economic partnership agreements on us. What our countries demand is a
halt to the structural adjustment programs still in effect in scores of
countries in Africa and an end to further liberalization of trade under the
WTO and bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Of course, development
has many other requirements, but stopping structural adjustment and
indiscriminate trade liberalization is a sine qua non, a condition without
which other indigenous development initiatives cannot prosper.

When it comes to the other front, in our host countries, the agenda is
clear. We must aggressively assert what is the unvarnished truth: that
migrants overwhelmingly make a positive contribution to the economy and
culture of their host countries. We must frontally oppose state repression
of migrants and confront the right wing populist groups that scapegoat them.
We must demand an end to the deportation of undocumented migrants, the rapid
legalization and granting of full citizenship rights to those with papers
and their children, and the facilitation of the achievement of legal status
of those without papers.

Success in solving the dilemmas of migrants will necessitate progress in
both these fronts. There is no guarantee of success in our advocacy, but
unless we confront the challenges in both fronts, we are sure to fall short
of our goals.


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