Migrating Capital, Migrating People

From the May 2013 PNL #824

by David Van Arsdale

I’ve had the privilege of taking Onondaga Community College students to Mexico annually over the last five years on a study abroad program focused on history and social and economic development. Given the disproportionate news coverage here in the US of Mexico’s “drug war,” students are consistently shocked by the high levels of safety, civility and cultural richness they experience in Mexican municipalities. Cities like Xalapa, Cuernavaca, Oaxaca, and Puebla, for example, which are more than twice the size of the Syracuse-metropolitan region, have homicide and violent crime rates far below it. After a few days in Mexico, students begin to identify other distinctions and similarities related to development. They discover how difficult it is for ordinary Mexicans to obtain permission for travel to the US. While US citizens only need a passport, Mexicans need a US-sponsored visa. On the other hand, travel within Mexico is quite affordable and well organized.  Students also enjoy the walkability and vibrant social interactions of Mexican street life, and the variety of market places and commodities available.  They discover that the average Mexican salary of just over $11,000 per year tends to produce frugal shopping habits amongs ordinary Mexicans. Often our first trip to a Wal-Mart or some other big box store begins to confirm the many impacts the global economy is having on Mexican daily life.

Rallying for immigration reform in DC. Photo: NCLR.org

If an average worker in Mexico can go to Wal-Mart and consume the goods she needs to survive for less than she can make them or purchase them from neighbors, then of course she will. It’s no different for us here in the US. Working people shop at Wal-Mart to get the most from their hard-earned dollars. The providers of goods to big box and other multi-national chain stores utilize the most cost efficient production models available on a global scale. That translates into locating and using the most affordable labor pools, like those of the garment and food processing workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, or the technology factory workers of Shenzhen, China. These cities share a common characteristic. They are experiencing rapid urbanization primarily from the migration of children from agricultural families who can no longer sustain a living from the land. One of the major forces of the farming decline is the very global supply chain of food provided by big box retail. It’s a vicious cycle: poverty leads to frugality, the poor turn to big box to make ends meet, rural farming declines and the rural poor flee to cities for work in the factories that supply big box. (This would be an opportune time to talk about the environmental consequences of this cycle, but we can save that for another day.)

Though we often focus on immigration as if it is a condition specific to the US, migration has never been greater across the globe. The Mexican consumer is purchasing the same garment made in Bangladesh and the same electronics made in China that we are purchasing from Wal-Mart stores here in the US. This is no different in big box stores in India or elsewhere. The Mexican consumer may even purchase a pepper made in his home country, but a pepper made by workers earning a mere $7 per day. The global economy permits capital to move freely across borders, while it restricts workers to control for wages. Due to the fact that Mexicans (and everyone else in the world) are purchasing the same global goods, many of the social and economic consequences of our consumption are similar across geography: 1) small farms can’t compete 2) wages race to the bottom, and 3) flexible, unjust migrant work relationships are normalized.   

On global wages: Borders allow for wage variance in a number of ways. Underdeveloped nations are incentivized to keep wages low in order to attract jobs—the key ingredient to capitalist development. Wages are generally more affordable in Mexico, which has made it an attractive landscape for producers of global goods. In Puebla, my students witnessed the industrial sprawl of massive new factories owned by US and European automobile companies. Industrial zones in Puebla look like those of Detroit in the 1940s, albeit a bit more technologically advanced given the times. What we don’t hear much about in the US is how the global economy cheapens wages even further in Mexico. Not far from Puebla in Guadalajara, for example, after years of resistance and organizing, union workers refused to give up their jobs to more affordable workers abroad and formed the TRADOC worker cooperative. This is a rare and hopeful story. Most Mexican tire-making companies were forced to close with the expansion of more cost efficient production zones in India and China. It’s an unfortunate reality of the global economy. The consequence of workers organizing to improve wages and living conditions is met by business with the threat to leave for less organized labor pools elsewhere. This is why workers and labor need to build strong cross-border and global relationships. 

On the decline of the small farm: Here in upstate New York we have a pretty good sense of how the global economy impacted the family farm. Large-scale industrial farming and the production of more affordable agricultural goods from abroad made it difficult for the small farm to survive. It’s no different in Mexico. Family farms struggle to survive with the influx of cheap goods from across the globe—goods provided in chain retail and big box stores. Over the last two decades the availability of these goods has caused a great migration of farmers out of Mexico’s countryside into its cities where people look for jobs primarily in the service and retail sectors. Of course, many forgo the low wages in cities and head further north seeking higher wages in the US. Those that don’t make it often find themselves trapped in poverty along the border-region on the Mexican side, the recruiting grounds of cartels. This phenomenon of the displaced-farmer-turned-migrant-laborer is not unique to Mexico. It’s a global phenomenon and it has impacted border regions around the world.

Migrant workers from Mexico pick, core and pack
lettuce in a Yuma, AZ farm field in 2011. Photo:
Michael Duarte/Southwest Borderlands Initiative

On migrant work: At construction sites in Mexico my students are often surprised to see lines of migrant workers from Guatemala and Honduras hoping to land a job. It’s an interesting paradigm for them: the idea of workers coming to Mexico for employment opportunity and higher wages. The compromised employment status of migrants from south of Mexico’s border is an attractive asset to companies seeking to save expenses on employment and maximize profit. Certainly it’s no different here in the US. My own research has taken me into many factories in New York dependent on undocumented workforces for their survival and growth. In a food processing plant, for example, one that supplies big box stores with product lines, undocumented workers are bused from immigrant communities in New York City. These workers occupy all jobs in the factory except managerial ones. Collaborating with companies, employment agencies that specialize in supplying migrant workers arrange the employment exchange. After the agencies charge migrants for the jobs provided, their paychecks are often less than minimum wage. Without legal status migrants have no power to argue for legal or higher wages. In my interviews of management at such companies there is a resounding theme: “if we can’t get these [low-wage] workers here in the US, we cannot compete in the global economy and will be forced to go abroad.” Of course local government wants them to stay. Their tax dollars are needed for local budgets.     

During the Rally for Citizenship this past month, these global political and economic themes so intimately tied to immigration bounced around in my head. The owners of business flow freely across borders seeking affordable workforces while workers are not permitted the same freedom. It’s a sort of indentured servitude for workers tied to their home country’s level of development and wealth. It is this global condition that has led to both the availability of and massive consumption of goods at multinational stores across the globe.  Our consumption is an endorsement of the whole system which helps defeat our local farms and drives people to become migrants and search for work elsewhere. We simply can’t forget these narratives in the citizenship debate. The global economy cheapens work everywhere, which forces both communities and companies to move. Workers are the victims of a system whereby capital is free to cross borders, but they are not. The sooner workers realize that keeping us divided by citizenship status and border allows companies to control wages, the closer we will move to overcoming a massive global stratification of rich corporation and poor citizen.  We therefore need a citizenship bill to prevent the exploitation of millions of migrants who contribute to our economy on a daily basis. This will be step one in uniting our power as workers in the US. United, companies won’t be able to pit undocumented against documented. They won’t be able to turn to the employment agencies for cheap workforces, which will elevate the wages and collective power of all workers in the US. There are many “step twos” which must follow. They include legislating against corporate global citizenship and the rebuilding of democratic and sustainable workplaces. If capital is going to continue to enjoy global citizenship, workers must gain ownership of their jobs in order to build public charters with their communities that commit them to sustainable  and ethical employment, community development, and environmental standards.

David is an Associate Professor of Sociology at SUNY Onondaga Community College.