Mobilizing Temporary Migrant Workers

a Compendium of Forms and Preliminary Discussion – Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin No. 1014, by Salimah Valiani, July 25, 2014.

… The purpose of this article is to provide a compendium of the varying forms of temporary migrant labour organizing in the early 21st century. Empirical accounts on this question are hard to come by, especially of global scope. Examination and reflection on this evidence can advance theory and praxis around transnational labour organizing in the broadest sense. I stress labour organizing broadly and transnationally because temporary migrant labour is increasingly the primary basis of labour supply growth in several economic sectors and labour markets around the world. Given that current organizing of temporary migrant workers is in nascent stages in world historical terms, the article concludes with a preliminary analysis of the differing forms of migrant worker advocacy and action today … //

… Temporary Labour Migration as a Specific Labour Form: … //
… Frontline Activism Promoting Workers’ Rights: … //
… International Union Collaboration: … //
… Inclusive Sectoral-Based Unionization: … //
… Temporary Migrant Workers Self-Organizing Internationally: … //
… Collaboration Between Migrant-Led Organizations and Unions: … //
… Temporary Migrants Self-Organizing and Affiliating to National Labour Federations: … //

… Preliminary Discussion:

  • Clearly the examples used here to illustrate various forms of organizing are the outcomes of specific historical circumstances – for instance, the particular economic sectors, working conditions, labour union histories, or/and make-up of migrant worker populations in question. As I demonstrate elsewhere for nursing labour markets, sector-specific analysis is crucial to develop an understanding of the varying reasons and timings for increased employer use of temporary migrant labour in different economic sectors and labour markets (Valiani: 2012). From such sector-specific analyses, along with continued engagement in the various forms of organizing exemplified here, viable, appropriately transnational labour organizing and collective bargaining strategies may be devised. Given the relatively recent shift to substantial use of migrant labour in most economic sectors, and in turn, the rather early phase of migrant worker organizing currently unfolding, only a preliminary analysis is attempted here.
  • In an article entitled “Beyond Social Unionism: Farm Workers in Ontario and Some Lessons from Labour History,” Butovsky and Smith (2007) underline the inadequacy of the “legalistic and legislative strategy” of unions and activists struggling with migrant farm workers in Canada. Included here are both the UFCW and Justicia, which Butovsky and Smith criticize for employing tactics such as “court challenges, moral suasion, and public education” which accept as “a given the permanence of capitalist exploitation,” (Butovsky and Smith: 2007, 70).
  • Migrants and allies marching to the United Nations building in New York, October 2013.
  • Instead of these tactics, Butovsky and Smith argue for “direct struggles” of workers “against capital and the capitalist state,” (Butovsky and Smith: 2007, 70). Drawing “lessons” from farm workers’ struggles in California from 1950 to 1970, Butovsky and Smith make three key prescriptions: that unions and activists demand full citizenship rights for past and current temporary migrant farm workers in Canada while calling for the abolition of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP, the program allowing farm employers access to temporary migrant workers); that the pursuit of pro-labour legislation is to “abdicate the fight for farm workers’ rights before it even really begins”; and that “labour solidarity”, or unity between workers of all industries and beyond nationality is fundamental (Butovsky and Smith: 2007, 93).
  • Rather than Butovsky and Smith’s stark juxtapositioning of legalistic-legislative strategy versus class struggle based strategy, Samir Amin’s (2012) notion of acting for “radical reforms in stages” is more useful in the post-1980 context. More specifically, since 1990, over and above formal labour migration programs, employers have benefitted from near endless supplies of migrant workers (i.e. undocumented migrant workers) resulting from 30 years of neoliberal capitalist development involving jobless growth and increased unemployment globally. Justicia’s long standing demand and public campaigning for immediate permanent residency and full citizenship rights for past, present and future migrant [farm] workers – essentially the opposite of demanding abolishment of the SAWP – is a radical reform proposal which not only grapples with the current realities of workers and labour supply, but also changes public and union consciousness around migrant workers’ rights. This strategic demand by Justicia is likely what led to the inclusion of permanent residency for migrant workers in collective agreements bargained by UFCW locals in the meat packing industry in Manitoba (Local 1118) and Alberta (Local 832). In greater detail, in provinces where employers can nominate temporary migrants for permanent resident status through ‘provincial nominee programs,’ the UFCW has pushed employers to do so by including such nominations as part of the terms of employing temporary migrant meat packing workers.
  • This dialectic between Justicia’s strategic demand and public campaigning for radical reform (i.e. immediate permanent residency), and strategic inclusion of the demand in UFCW collective bargaining processes illustrates the relation between different forms of migrant worker organizing today – all of which are important and necessary. While perhaps not the direct worker action that Butovsky, Smith and others would like to see, the range of tactics – varying in their degree of confrontation to capital and the capitalist state – are crucial in a socio-political context where temporary migrant workers risk deportation merely by speaking against injustices or joining unions.
  • Similarly, though not militant, direct worker action, the use of collective bargaining by FILCAMS-CGIL and its migrant worker members (documented and undocumented) to secure the basic employment rights afforded to locally-based domestic workers is the first step to empowering a set of extremely superexploited workers who may then move closer to envisioning and engaging in direct workplace battles.
  • Finally, though still not legally recognized, the move to form the Migrants’ Trade Union and seek legal status (a pro-worker legislative change seen as an abdication of rights by Butovsky and Smith) was a major advance in that it made visible a significantly sized group of invisible, superexploited workers in South Korea. In moving to visibility, undocumented and documented migrant workers began erecting political limits on the employer abuse structured into immigration and labour laws little known to the public and many elected officials in South Korea. While far from the power of collective bargaining or strike action, in forming an independent union, MTU leaders and members experienced a previously unknown degree of collective empowerment, including by breaking from dependence on the charity of religious and nongovernmental organizations and joining forces with local workers through affiliation with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.


  • As demonstrated in these varying forms of migrant worker organizing, migrant workers and their allies face a range of complicated legal, political, and socio-economic challenges. Given this, it is both impressive and heartening that so many forms of organizing are being attempted to pursue workers’ rights within a global climate of state-sanctioned, deepening employer control. Critical for the building toward comprehensive, long-term transnational organizing and bargaining strategies is the collective learning emerging from the overlap and tension between different tactics and organizing forms. Workers, community activists and unions are all vital players, but without a major role played by unions – with their substantial financial resources, structural capacity, and institutional history – strategies to protect migrant workers’ rights, and by extension, workers’ rights broadly, are unlikely to expand to a scale proportional to the ever-increasing employer use of temporary migrant workers internationally.

(full long text with References).

(Salimah Valiani is a labour researcher and political economist. She has engaged with migrant worker organizations and unions on organizing and global policy issues since 2001. She is the author of Rethinking Unequal Exchange: the global integration of nursing labour markets, University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Related Links:


  • Justica/Justice for Migrant Workers J4MW is a grassroots advocacy group based in Toronto and Vancouver. Composed of migrant workers and allies, we fight for the interests of workers in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program, including workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and the Agricultural Stream;
  • MIGRANTE International, International Alliance of Filipino Migrant Organizations;
  • Labour / Le Travail: Journal of Canadian Labour Studies / Revue d’Etudes Ouvrières Canadiennes;

Seychelles migration profile: immigration and employment at a crossroads, on Seychelles News Agency, July 26, 2014;

Is a more inclusive and sustainable development possible in Brazil? – a WEA online conference, on Real-World Economics Review Blog, July 26, 2014: This conference on sustainable development is now open and you are invited to leave comments on the papers on the conference site:

2 Audios in russian: Tajiks Labour Migrants Confused About Status, on Institute for War and Peace Reporting IWPR, by Khurshed Duraksh – Central Asia Radio, July 11, 2014;

Labour to further incentivise immigration to regional NZ, on The, by Audrey Young, June 28, 2014;

Global Labour Migration, uploaded on YouTube by LeftStreamed, December 21, 2013:

Bring a Labour Migration Policy for Gulf Nations, on The New Indian Express, by Satish Misra, June 29, 2014;

Labor Exchange and Forced Migration, 4.27 min, uploaded on YouTube by UNRISO, June 4, 2013: Raúl Delgado Wise, UNESCO Chair in Migration, Development and Human Rights and President of the International Network on Migration and Development, talked about how inequalities lead to unequal labour exchange conditions. He was speaking at the policy forum A Rights-Based, Gender-Equitable Approach to the Regional Governance of Migration: An Elusive or Achievable Prospect? …;
Website: United Nation’s Research Institute for Social Development;

The Biggest Idea in Development that No One Really Tried, 25.14 min, uploaded by Center for Global Development, December 18, 2009: In this TED Talk-style presentation, CGD research fellow Michael Clemens exhibits his new research on the benefits of global migration;

more articles about Labour and Migration:

Scholarly articles for Labour Development Migration:

Other Links:

Refusing to kill their own: Over 40 Ukrainian soldiers flee to Russia, on Russia Today RT, July 27, 2014;

Only 8.2 percent of Human Genome functional: Oxford University researchers, on Jagran Josh, July 26, 2014;

Estimating capital – Robert Gallman edition, on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by merijnknibbe, July 26, 2014;

Economy Revisited – Will Green be the Colour of Money or Life? on Global, by Dr. Vandana Shiva, July 26, 2014;

ISIS militants blow up Prophet Jonas’ tomb in Iraq – video, on Russia Today RT, July 25, 2014;

Humanitarian truce – but what next? on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Dina Ezzat, July 24, 2014: As a humanitarian truce begins in the Israel war on Gaza, diplomatic efforts continue to find a lasting solution …;

Video: Big Oil and the Nigerian Frankenstein, 21.04 min, on The Real News, by Paul Jay, July 24, 2014, with Baba Aye (2/3): Western oil companies have been getting away with murder, backing a self-serving local elite that enriches itself, creating the conditions for the rise of Boko Haram – Transcript …;

Cheap talk at the Fed, on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by Dean Baker, July 22, 2014;

… and this:

Santana – Soul Sacrifice, Woodstock Concert August 15-18, 1969 (Mono-Mix from 1969 Cotillion recordings), 11.45 min, uploaded by VinylOldiesJukebox, March 11, 2012.

Comments are closed.