Guest Workers and Resistance to US Corporate Despotism, Immanuel Ness, University of Illinois Press, 2011, pp. 217, ISBN 978-0-252-07817-0
One of the more famous non-immigrant visas offered by the US Embassy in Belgrade is their J-1 visa. Officially the J-1 visa is given to a participant in an international cultural exchange program and allows the holder to travel to the US to “share their culture and ideas with the people of the United States through temporary work and travel opportunities.” Introduced in the 1960s to ensure that foreigners hold favourable views of the US at the height of the Cold War, the J-1 has since spawned its own Work and Travel industry, with numerous companies partnering with hiring firms in host countries to arrange employment in the US for students. In Serbia and much of Eastern Europe, students choose to participate in this program with the impression that they will be able to save up enough money and return home in a better financial situation.
This, of course, is rarely the case. The summer jobs students take are usually in the hospitality and food and beverage industry, where wages range from $7 to $13 per hour. To arrange employment, some hiring companies in host countries charge upwards of $1000, with the additional $500 for medical insurance. This exorbitant price does not include any of the ancillary fees, such as the return plane ticket, costs of transportation, and lodging. To break even, one can only imagine the hours and the conditions students must suffer through in the US.
The J-1 visa, although marketed as a cultural exchange program, is essentially a guest worker visa. Hundreds of thousands of people enter the US annually to undertake temporary employment, only to leave upon the expiry of their visa. Immanuel Ness’ Guest Workers maintains that this global trade in labour is a direct consequence of neoliberal capitalism and its attendant corporate restructuring of the workplace. Its goal is to furnish skilled labour on demand, while providing low-pay and no job security in return, thereby undermining the power of organized labour. By ensuring a larger pool of labour, businesses are able to increase their profits by driving down wages, speeding up the pace of work and introducing labour-saving technologies.
The creation of a guest-worker program is the result of a competition between capital and labour; a contest capital is winning. Businesses generally claim that temporary foreign workers are necessary to fill labour shortages, caused by the unwillingness of native labour to work for the prescribed wages or their insufficient educational training. Rather than respond by ensuring that all workers receive a living wage and the right education, the US government has responded by devising and allowing guest worker programs to expand. It is quite paradoxical for a government that waxes poetic against undocumented immigrants who “steal jobs from Americans” to readily accept the proposals by the businesses to allow more migrants to replace domestic labour. By allowing businesses to determine the need for migrant labour, governments have allowed businesses to manipulate their way into getting what they want.
Various labour laws and their half-hearted application by the government have allowed the country’s businesses to replace full-time well-paid jobs with a flexible workforce. On the other hand, these guest workers are in a precarious position, leaving them unwilling to agitate and organize for their rights. Guest worker visas tie them to a specific job and a specific employer, thus leaving them inherently vulnerable to exploitation. Fear of deportation and premature removal from the country of destination has led workers to forego reporting cases of abuse by their employers. The labour force as a whole suffers from such a situation, as the dominant practices of labour suppression are perpetuated. As Ness states, US guest worker programs “intentionally marginalize temporary workers.”
It is important to note that Ness’ invective is not against migrants nor guest workers, but against the US government policies that ensure that the labour force as a whole is subdued. His analysis essentially exposes the capitalist tactics.
Temporary work programs are the product of neoliberal capitalist development that advocates deregulation and free trade. Institutional actors, such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund have contributed to a fundamental restructuring of economies, forcing certain countries to specialize in exporting labour as a pathway to development. They believe that a labour exporting country could fund its development by way of remittances.
Ness tests this hypothesis by showing the effect exporting of labour has on two countries, India and Jamaica. He shows that neoliberalism has allowed US companies to close down “good” service sector jobs in the US and offshore their operations to lower-wage countries, such as India. While some workers are sent to the US, even there, Ness shows that they are forced to labour 16 to 18 hours per day, while the employer does not have to pay into their social security and other benefits. While migration of workers leads to brain-drain and therefore stifles development at home, restructuring of local economies to conform to foreign markets devastates the society. Communities are uprooted to facilitate the expansion of cities, while peasants are turned into wage-labourers and herded into urban slums. Thus the benefit of either temporary work or development for foreign markets only devastates societies. Moreover, it conforms to predetermined inequalities in the host countries, with the benefits accruing at the top, leaving the vast majority in poverty.
Jamaican hospitality workers are impelled to seek employment in Canada and the US largely because of the IMF onslaught on the country that restructured its economy under President Michael Manley, reversing the gains made between 1962 and 1975. IMF forced the Jamaican government to reduce public spending and curtail the provision of public services such as education and healthcare, wreaking havoc on the economy. As a result, Jamaicans had to cater to tourists and specialize in the hospitality industry.
Some Jamaicans, like those from Eastern Europe, try their luck in the United States. The vast majority of the workers who returned to Jamaica report that they barely have enough to sustain themselves, while others have reported having lost money. Naturally, they are unable to send money back to Jamaica, while at the same time suffering abuses at the hands of their employers in the US.
What Ness’s book shows is a profound lack of labour organizing beyond the local territory and the point of production. What he correctly advises is the need for cross-border unionizing, as “a means of transnational political citizenship and social rights for documented and undocumented migrants.” Successfully organizing the guest workers and extending the protection the labour unions have over the workers will benefit labour as such. Rather than succumb to nativist tropes, labour in the US ought to start organizing.