Immanuel Ness, Guest Workers and Resistance to U.S. Corporate Despotism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011)

Either to improve living standards or out of sheer economic necessity, workers have long migrated abroad in search of better job opportunities. At the same time capital has sought to make use of migrant labour in its efforts to lower production costs and increase profits. As the number of migrant workers continues to grow globally, Immanuel Ness’s examination of the expansion of guest worker programs in the United States – and of the threat they pose to all workers – is of great value. Looking at both skilled workers in high-tech industry and unskilled workers in the hospitality industry, and with particular attention to the experiences of guest workers from India and Jamaica in the US, the book illustrates the effects of such programs for labour in both the sending and the receiving countries. It refutes the argument often put forward that sending countries benefit from exporting their workforce abroad due to remittances, and also, importantly takes into consideration the impact on the workers themselves, many of whom would prefer to be able to stay in their home countries rather than migrate for work, often leaving their families behind. He finds, for example, that after working for a time in the US, the majority of Indian IT-sector guest workers find working and living in India more liberating than their jobs in the US. The book then goes on to argue that justice for many workers in the global south requires fair wages and good working conditions in poor countries themselves.

The book also takes on some of the myths and propaganda put forward by capitalists in relation to the use of migrant labour. It exposes the hypocrisy of politicians, for instance, who on the one hand attack undocumented migrant workers on the pretext that they take jobs away from US citizens, while at the same time advocating guest worker programs so as to benefit business. Indeed, Ness also observes that the claim by corporate interests that  migrants fill unskilled jobs that nobody else wants does not consider how the severe downgrading of wages and working conditions in these jobs due to globalization, outsourcing and the closure of manufacturing facilities has made these jobs less attractive in the first place.

The treatment of some of the migrants who have participated in existing guest worker programs, described in the book, is nothing short of horrific. We read, for example, of the protest of Indian shipyard workers lured by the false promise that they would eventually receive a green card, coming to work at Signal International in Mississippi, but made to live in unhygienic conditions in an overcrowded labour camp, given low wages, subjected to repeated retesting, and put under constant pressure to repay visa debts. Meanwhile, the accounts of Jamaican migrants working in US hotels and casinos illustrates the racism and discrimination experienced by many of these workers, whose treatment is much worse than that of others at the same workplace.

Such discrimination toward migrants is of course not unique to the US. Indeed, writing from Hong Kong, I can report similarities in the treatment applied to foreign domestic helpers here. These migrant workers are denied the rights that workers (including migrants) have in other industries. Domestic workers in Hong Kong have been excluded from the local citizens’ minimum wage law and have also been denied the right of abode. After seven years of continuous “ordinary residence”, most immigrants have the right to apply for permanent residence. Despite legal challenges, the government remains keen on excluding domestic workers from such rights. Like guest workers in the US, they are in effect seen as disposable.

Another important issue covered by the book is the way that the ruling classes not only take advantage of migrant labour to drive down wages and increase profits, but also use the shift toward a migrant work force to undermine the power of organized labour. In the IT and business services industry, for instance, Ness observes how multinationals have avoided national social welfare mandates and prevailing standards by shifting skilled workers to offshore contractors, and have created a global labour market of temporary workers who are hired only on demand.  Thus the keenness of capital to make use of migrant labour in such a way is linked to the historical offensive by the capitalist classes to downgrade labour standards.

While undocumented immigrants are sometimes organized by unions, the US guest worker program is of particular concern due to the way that it further undermines unionisation by in effect denying workers the right to become union members. Rather, guest worker programs “institutionally marginalize temporary workers” and create a labour force which fears union organizing and which endures “exploitative conditions that may become as abusive as indentured servitude” (3). What is particular about guest worker programs is that the workers’ status is highly temporary; they are confined to the employer with whom they have signed a contract, and once they have completed the tasks for which they were hired, they are usually sent home. This makes them particularly vulnerable, since if they start to organize or protest against mistreatment, they can be sacked and sent home immediately.

This book, as its title suggests, does not just document the assault on labour; it also discusses workers’ resistance. New agencies and forms of resistance, Ness argues, are needed to counter the newfound strength of capital.  Although highlighting the failure of traditional labour organizing to advance and defend workers’ rights against neoliberalism, he observes a new era of “point of production” collective action, aided by the Internet, which does not always rely on traditional trade unions and union bureaucracies. He gives examples of guest workers who have begun to protest against their ill treatment, suggesting that they are becoming more inclined to organize, which could help prevent the further decline of workers’ power globally. This, however, is not an easy task, due to the temporary nature of their work and the fact that (as illustrated by the case of the Indian shipyard workers) it is so easy for companies to fire guest workers who resist in any way. Indeed, Ness argues that to really improve the situation for migrants on guest worker programs, and to alleviate the intense forms of neoliberal exploitation that such programs represent, it will be necessary for the working class to “re-establish its own institutions of solidarity that would expand its bargaining leverage under capitalism” (178). The final chapter of the book, entitled ‘Who can organize?’ is thus relevant to anyone with an interest in the labour movement today.

Reviewed by Bai Ruixue
Hong Kong


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