This piece by photojournalist, David Bacon, identifies the source of migration: "Because of the political and economic crisis they create, free trade policies produce more migration to the United States, while more production leaves at the same time, looking for low wages across the border. Through bailout and loan conditions, the US government enforces a low-wage policy on the Mexican economy, with the Mexican government's active cooperation, in order to encourage maquiladora construction." I recommend reading Bacon's new book COMMUNITIES WITHOUT BORDERS.
Also worthy of note, "HR 2092, has been introduced by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Congressional Black Caucus members. It would legalize people already here, and outlaw discrimination based on migrant status."
t r u t h o u t | Perspective www.truthout.org
Tuesday 21 November 2006
In 1998, workers at the Han Young factory started the most famous strike on the border in the twelve years NAFTA has been in effect. After firings, wildcat work stoppages, and a campaign in cooperation with activists here in the US, they won legal recognition for their union. In Mexico and Central America, during a legal strike, workers can put up flags across the doors, and the company must remain closed until the strike is over. No one can go in to work. The problem, of course, is that it's very difficult for most workers to get legal status for their unions and strikes.
In the US, unions don't have to be registered with the government, and anyone can form one. But there's no real legal protection for unions, and we have few rights. A company can legally break a strike.
Behind these differences are different conceptions of rights. In the US, property rights are paramount, and overrule labor rights. In Mexico, the legal and political tradition of the Revolution still means something. Labor has important legal and social rights, at least on paper, and the state is supposed to honor and uphold them. Unfortunately, those rights often remain on paper, unenforced in real life.
There's a right to food and housing, but people go hungry and have no place to live. There's a right to strike effectively, but that right is unenforced, and in practice, independent and democratic unions are repressed.
Despite winning legal status for their union and the legal right to strike, Tijuana authorities brought in strikebreakers. A federal judge ruled the strike was legal, but authorities ignored the decision.
Because of the existing development policy of encouraging foreign investment at all cost, authorities were unwilling to allow the existence of an independent union at Han Young. The same thing has happened time after time along the border - Duro Bag, Sony, Compania Desarmadora, AutoTrim/CustomTrim, ITAPSA, Sara Lee are just some of the factories where workers have had the same experience. The number of workers fired in these efforts count in the hundreds, and many have been beaten.
The rule of law, as it has protected workers' rights in the past, has been undermined.
Because of the political and economic crisis they create, free trade policies produce more migration to the United States, while more production leaves at the same time, looking for low wages across the border.
Through bailout and loan conditions, the US government enforces a low-wage policy on the Mexican economy, with the Mexican government's active cooperation, in order to encourage maquiladora construction.
From the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 through the early 1970s, the Mexican government encouraged economic development by Mexican producers, making products for sale in Mexico. Foreign investment was strictly limited.
But under pressure from an accumulating foreign debt, the Mexican government created an investment climate that depends on a vast number of low wage earners. This sacrifices the ability of people to buy what they produce.
Well before NAFTA's passage, the disparity between US and Mexican wages was growing. Mexican salaries were a third of those in the US up to the 1970s. They are now less than an eighth, even a 12th or 15th, even during a period in which US wages have declined in buying power.
Over the last two decades, the income of Mexican workers has lost 76% of its purchasing power. Under pressure from foreign lenders, the Mexican government has ended subsidies on the prices of basic necessities, including gasoline, electricity, bus fares, tortillas and milk, which have risen dramatically. It estimates that 40 million people live in poverty, and 25 million in extreme poverty.
What happened in the same time in the US? By 2002, the US Department of Labor had received claims for NAFTA-related unemployment assistance from 507,000 workers. President Bush ordered the Department of Labor to stop counting, since the job loss figures were an embarrassment as he was trying to get Congress to give him fast track authority to negotiate CAFTA and FTAA.
NAFTA accelerated the export of capital, not the export of goods and services. These economic reforms transformed the Mexican economy and were imposed on Mexico by the International Monetary Fund, backed up by conditions on US bank loans and bailouts.
The CONASUPO stores, which purchased corn at higher prices from farmers to help them stay on the land, and sold tortillas, milk and food to poor urban consumers, were discontinued. Meanwhile, the ejido land reform system itself was abolished, allowing the reconcentration of land and rural wealth. Government businesses were sold to private investors. US companies were allowed to own land and factories anywhere in Mexico, without Mexican partners.
Mexico was a laboratory for economic reforms that have transformed the economies of developing countries, away from policies encouraging national development, toward ones opening up the economy for transnational investors.
This is the same plan being implemented in Iraq, enforced through war and occupation. The Bush administration sees Iraq as a beachhead into the Middle East and south Asia, a chance to transform the state-dominated economy of what was once one of the region's wealthiest countries. A free-market Iraq will then set new ground rules for the rest of the area, much as Mexico's economy became a prototype for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
On September 19, 2003, the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, and repatriation of profits. The CPA set a new salary schedule for Iraqi workers - Order 30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees. This lowered the bottom wage rate from $60 a month to $40, and eliminated all previous house, food, family, risk and location subsidies.
With 70% unemployment, the economic policies of the occupation create more hunger among Iraq's working people, transforming them into a pool of low-wage, semi-employed labor, desperate for jobs at almost any price.
In 1987, Saddam Hussein issued a law declaring that workers in state-owned enterprises (which includes most Iraqi workers) had no right to organize unions or bargain. Today the Iraqi government, under US occupation, is still enforcing that 1987 law. If workers have no right to bargain, privatization and huge job losses will face much less organized resistance.
In countries like Mexico and Iraq, with mixed economies, a large percentage of workers historically were employed by state enterprises. Unions had their greatest strength in the state sector.
Over the last ten years, most important Mexican labor struggles have been fought over the privatization of that sector, by workers at airlines, railroads, the telephone system, and many other industries. In February of 1998, one battle was fought by the copper miners in Cananea, one of Mexico's oldest mines and site of the historic battle that initiated the Mexican Revolution. Hundreds of miners lost their jobs after the mine was privatized, and the threat of military occupation was used to end their strike.
Since there's almost no other work in Cananea, a small mountain town, the jobless miners had to leave. Many of them crossed the border, just fifty miles north, to find work and a new economic future in the United States.
They're not alone.
Migrant Rights International estimates that over 170 million people today live outside of the countries in which they were born. They're not just moving from Mexico to the US, but from developing countries to developed ones all over the world.
What do they find when they arrive with dreams of a better life?
They become part of an immigrant workforce with conditions and wages at the bottom, denied the most basic rights - no unemployment insurance, no medical care, no social benefits of any kind.
They have no right to a job. Not only can they be fired at a moment's notice, like most workers, but for them the very act of working is a crime. They are denied the right to be a resident of a stable community, to live here at all.
And the irony is that they often wind up working for the same corporations whose operations in their countries of origin are part of the reason why they're here to begin with.
Transnational corporations want to invest in the developing world, moving production to whatever area the wages are lowest. And in developed countries, they seek the migrants who have been displaced by high unemployment and falling wages they themselves cause.
In this system, corporations are aided by US immigration laws. While they're are always presented in the media as a means of controlling borders, and keeping people from crossing them, for the last hundred years, they've been the means of regulating the supply, and consequently the price, of immigrant labor.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made the very act of working illegal for undocumented immigrants. This was a gift to employers - when working becomes a crime, it becomes very difficult for workers to organize unions, go on strike, and fight for better conditions.
Immigration agents now check documents workers must fill out to get a job, and require employers to fire those whose documents are in question. In Washington State, they did this in the middle of a union drive among apple workers, and fired 700 people. That effort was broken.
There has always been a conflict in US labor about immigration. Some sought to restrict unions to the native born, to whites and to men, and saw immigrants as the enemy. Others, however, from the IWW through the CIO to many unions today, see the labor movement as inclusive, with a responsibility to organize all workers, immigrant and native-born alike.
In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported IRCA and employer sanctions. Fourteen years later, in 1999, that position was changed by grass-roots immigrant rights coalitions and labor councils around the country. The AFL-CIO called for an end to employer sanctions, and for a new amnesty program to legalize workers already here.
Immigrant workers make up an increasing percentage of the work force in building services, health care, manufacturing and food processing, construction, and hotel and restaurant work. This change is going on everywhere, including in states that historically haven't had many immigrants.
Today most immigration is spontaneous, but there are many visa categories employers use to bring workers to the US as contract laborers, often called guest workers. They have programs for high tech and health care workers, farm workers, garment workers, and others. And often the workers displaced by these programs, or threatened with displacement, as in Silicon Valley, are other immigrants and people of color who lose jobs with higher wages and job security.
Workers often have to go thousands of dollars into debt to come to the US under contract. To repay the debt, they work long hours and take dangerous risks.
When any worker stands up for better conditions or organizes a union, she or he can be easily fired, immigrant or not. But when contract workers are fired, they lose not only their jobs but their ability to stay in the country. That effectively gives the employer the power to deport as well as fire workers, and makes people in these programs vulnerable.
That's why employers are making proposals for new programs. Congress is now debating an enormous expansion, in which employers would recruit hundreds of thousands of contract laborers every year. Behind these proposals are some of the largest industries in the US - the National Association of Chain Drugstores (think Wal-Mart) and the American Meat Institute. Democrats and Republicans both propose new guest worker programs
These industry-based visa programs are all based on the idea that immigration law should be used to supply workers to employers. This was the same logic behind the old bracero program, which Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez fought for 22 years to end. Bush says that there will be no amnesty for the undocumented. Only one bill in Congress, by the Congressional Black Caucus, would grant real amnesty to people here without papers.
The work of migrants is indispensable to many industries, from agriculture to construction. But so is the work of people born here. Everyone needs a job.
Deporting or denying work to migrants does not create a single job for anyone else. When sanctions are heavily enforced, union organizing is undermined and employers use the law to push income down and threaten those who demand workplace rights.
No matter how many walls are built on the border, no matter how many troops or National Guardsmen or helicopters patrol it, workers will still cross it looking for a future.
The dislocation of communities worldwide, forced to migrate in search of work, has never been a voluntary process. But the migration of people is as much a product of the global economy as the migration of capital.
Another product is inequality. Washington's current immigration proposals all assume that immigrants should not be the equals of those around them, or have the same rights. The proposals fly against a 400-year history of struggle in the US to expand the rights of all people.
The roots of this inequality lie in slavery. Even the current concept of the "illegal" person has its roots in the Black Codes, used to define who could be enslaved and who couldn't. Chinatowns and Manilatowns owe their existence, not simply to the desire for community and group identity, but to a century of social segregation.
US immigration policy doesn't deter the flow of migrants across the border. Its basic function is defining the status of people once they're here. A policy based on supplying workers to industry, at a price it wants to pay, has inequality built into it from the beginning. It denies community. It undermines workplace rights. It inhibits the development of families and culture.
Other alternatives are urgently needed. In 1999, the AFL-CIO proposed a freedom agenda that included legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, increased availability of family reunification visas, and enforcement of workplace rights. Community coalitions around the country have proposals that advance immigrant rights without tying them to guest worker or enforcement schemes.
The last amnesty, in 1986, legalized over 4 million people, who are now active members of our communities. A similar proposal, HR 2092, has been introduced by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Congressional Black Caucus members. It would legalize people already here, and outlaw discrimination based on migrant status.
Piling guest-worker programs and increased enforcement on top of unemployment and job competition is an explosive mixture, producing insecurity and low wages. Instead of promoting a bitter fight over jobs, Congress should make reducing unemployment federal policy. Common ground means fighting for jobs for everyone. People will still cross the border, looking for work. Increasing the number of green cards, or resident visas, would ease the pressure to cross illegally, and give migrants a status more equal to everyone else. People could reunite families without waiting decades.
Meanwhile, changing US trade and economic policies abroad would decrease the pressure for migration. Treaties like NAFTA promote poverty and low wages as incentives for corporate investment. In Hong Kong, the WTO even proposes a new international guest worker program, to exploit the workers free trade displaces.
Instead, to keep small Mexican farmers on the land, the US could provide rural credit, and stop cheap NAFTA-facilitated corn exports. US policy could stop boosting privatization of manufacturing and services, which lead to declining wages and huge layoffs. When the US promotes dumping, privatization, and unemployment, where do we think those affected will go?
Congress will never consider pro-immigrant, pro-labor proposals if its current push for guest workers and increased enforcement isn't defeated first. A strong coalition between immigrants' rights groups, churches, unions, civil rights organizations and working families can build a movement powerful enough to win legal status and rights for migrants - and jobs and better wages for everyone. It can not only stop the rightward push, but also win something much better.
It's time to fight for what we want.
David Bacon, Photographs and Stories.