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The economics and governance of people in motion.

The Economics and Governance of People in Motion

Christina Gabriel and Helene Pellerin, Governing International Labor

Migrations: Current Issues, Challenges, and Dilemmas, London:

Taylor & Francis, 2010.

Globalization comes in many forms. One of globalization's more politicized manifestations is the global movement of labor. The book Governing International Labour Migration: Current Issues, Challenges, and Dilemmas outlines the complexities of governmental mechanisms and modalities that give meaning to the phenomenon of global migrant labor. As this volume demonstrates, international labor migration has received varying scholarly treatment, contextualizing it as both an issue of the nation-state and economic beliefs. This book provides much needed insight into labor migration philosophies, offering unique perspectives for the novice and expert alike.

Globalization, or the global circulation of commodities and information, has received a great deal of attention in both popular and academic venues. Although there are many who find problematic the current formation of the global political economy, the massive flow of goods and ideas around the world has been popularly viewed as matter-of-fact, evidence of an assumed progression towards market integration (Harvey 2007): akin to Tomas Friedman's 'flattened' earth. The international movement of labor, however, is far more divisive in terms of political, cultural, and economic debates. The constructed nature of both the nation and the state has hinged on the creation of individual subjects and the collective ability to exclude unwanted bodies (Hansen and Stepputat 2005). Labor migration provides a catalyst in the creation of national subjectivities and the debates concerning communal belonging. Debates about community, identity, and economy no doubt result in policy as varying and intricate as the nations that produce them. The book Governing International Labour Migration: Current Issues, Challenges, and Dilemmas provides a holistic scholarly insight into the ways these debates are formed and the modalities of labor migration that result.

The group of scholars that editors Christina Gabriel and Helena Pelleri bring together reminds the reader of several recurring issues relating to the social scientific study of international labor migration. Firstly, this book develops an image of a world that is crystallized into a post-colonial North and South. States in Europe, North America, and East Asia are in control of the majority of the world's wealth and economic capabilities while countries in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America remain marginalized economies that primarily export raw materials to industrialized economies. Secondly, there is a conflicting set of modalities and mechanisms embedded in the nation-state and neoliberal economic philosophies that are responsible for the current global formation of labor. While northern economic powers impose free market economic policies that are intended to spur development and equalize the benefits of global trade, powerful countries maintain capacity to exploit labor abroad and develop new industries at home. Lastly, there is a reification of racial, gender, and class hegemonies that are often ignored through the construction of neoliberal subjectivities. As migratory labor is increasingly seen in light of economic capabilities, culturally and socially produced positionalities are covered up and ignored. These formations permeate the articulation of migrant labor policies throughout the globe; this book demonstrates that it is difficult to detach these formations from any conversation involving the actual processes and practices that result.

As the authors in Governing International Labour Migration demonstrate, these formations, policies and practices are constantly shifting over time. There is nothing 'concrete' or static behind labor migration policy. The ways in which labor migrants are perceived varies based on context and era. A new generation of scholars has moved beyond articulating the 'threats and challenges' of migration and have begun looking at 'the meaning of states' and how civil liberties are being redefined for migrant labor (p. 4). This new generation of labor migration scholars notices a contradiction and paradox. There are competing and coeval ideologies in play, one professing to liberalize the world economy and the other seeking to protect the interest of national economic powerhouses in the global north. Political and governmental ideologies often abstractly construct economic values such as skill and risk that play into socially and culturally subjective frameworks. Ever-changing definitions of the nation-state, the individual, and civil rights, often leave migrant labor in a precariously in-between position between member and guest.

Because of the shifting, changing, and contradictory ideas of labor migration, we cannot be seen as discussing one uniform and fluid process. There are multiple stages and types of migration. The path to citizenship, as a compelling chapter by Eleonore Kofman describes, exposes the contradictions inherent to contemporary labor migration policy. For Kofman, the process of naturalization is a form of 'supervision' rather than 'assimilation' (p. 14). The immigrant is given the tenuous position akin to a 'guest', providing a constant threat of deportation or the denial of their civil liberties. As Kofman explains, the immigrant is placed under these constraints not for his or her own benefit, or the particular benefit of the national economy, but to prove to the electorate of a given country that a national consensus will not be disrupted through the presence of an individual who is marked by a different set of social and cultural markers. In other words, according to Kofman, the state often frames labor migration policy and the creation of citizens in liberal economic terms while operating to fulfill a politicized conception of belonging and consensus.

Not all scholars in Governing International Labour Migrations would agree, however, that the primary goal of the migration policy is to protect a national consensus. Pellerin's discussion of 'Lex Mercatoria' demonstrates that migration policy is concerned primarily with the creation of economically marked subjects rather than nation building. For Pellerin, Lex Mercatoria is a type of Bourdieuian 'juridical field'. Subjecthood is defined primarily by the contractual economic relationships between individuals operating in a liberal market. Individuals are considered to be economic vehicles whose purpose is to supply various forms of labor and trade to the economy, and not to the nation or community. All social concerns, including the path to national citizenship, are seen as secondary to economic relationships between individuals. Since individuals are reduced to economic vehicles that operate with other individuals in an open market place, only the most basic civil rights that would protect migrant labor as a viable economic vehicle are seen as necessary. Pellerin sees migratory regimes increasingly inspired by the philosophy of Lex Mercatoria. Playing into neoliberal economic beliefs, this model is seen by policy makers as decreasing the risk of both economic and social rupture within the nation while allowing for increased economic competitiveness between national economies. Furthermore, the subjective understanding of the migrant is primarily constructed through economic perceptions, causing the subordination of cultural and social concerns.

Pellerin's discussion of Bourdieu's juridical field provides an excellent means to frame this book's overarching themes. Migrant labor is categorized by a linguistic habitus whereas social hierarchy is maintained through specific discursive and ideological practices. Although all aspects of subjective reality are put into play through migration policy, social relationships become firmly rooted in the activities of the market. Governing International Labor Migration oscillates between discussions of the manipulated subjecthood of migrant labor along constructed social understandings and the overwhelming force of economic philosophies in defining actor positionality in governmental policy.

Two chapters, one by William Walters discussing the politics of 'illegal' migration and another by Alan Simmons commenting on the place of remittances in the migratory economy, bring this oscillation to light. Both of these articles discuss the failure of powerful nations to adequately address the economic and social disparity in north-south global relations. Walters demonstrates that illegalization debates in the EU go hand in hand with labor migration policies. The undocumented worker is often seen, if not tacitly in the political sphere then publically through popular expression, as disrupting the imagined national community. Concerns for the economic livelihood of a nation often provide justification for the exclusion of foreign labor from national civil society.

On the other hand, for Simmons the main purpose of labor migration is 'to return' (p. 62). This can be viewed as either a physical return of the migrant to their nation of origin or the remittance of wages to the migrant's family. International economic organizations like the World Bank and IMF view remittances as a positive feature of the globalized economy. For wealthier, neoliberal oriented governments remittances signify integration into a global economy. This assumption is problematic for Simmons as it does not address the conditions under which migrants are employed or the disparities that encouraged individuals to relocate for work. In other words, the migrant is being contextualized in terms of its economic contribution to a global flow of capital and not in terms of the hierarchical relationships that support this flow or that maintain a migrant's subordinate economic status.

The subordinated position and market-based subjecthood discussed by the authors above must also be noted as a key feature of labor migration. Economics and nation building primarily concerns the creation of difference and competition between those who are made different. Whether we discuss nationality or class, hierarchical structures define the international flow of labor.

A contribution to Governing International Labor Migration by Parvati Raghurman discusses 'skill' as a means to situate the various individuals and groups that comprise the global migratory labor market. One of the key operating ideologies of migration policy, as Raghurman outlines, is the concern for brain-drain and brain-gain. This opposition creates a falsely rationalized dichotomy of labor value. Skill, as a subjective category, frames the valuation of individual labor. Brain-gain is when a country views the addition of valued labor through migration whereas Brain-drain is the loss of valued labor to another nation. Skill is the category where labor is given value. As Raghurman points out, the actual economic viability or contribution of an economic activity is never measured in terms of dollars generated through labor or citizens cared for. Rather, skill is qualified through a subjectively nebulous and abstract determination of desired industry.

The examples of gender and class demonstrate the subjective ways skill is assessed. A preexisting devaluation of labor viewed as feminine, domestic, or spousal makes it difficult for women to migrate with their husbands. Manual labor is often needed in developed countries but is seen as undesirable in economic terms. Taking any compassionate authority from the debate of labor migration, migration is rarely seen as 'a route to survival' and is more commonly seen as 'class mobility' (p. 83). The construction of both gendered and classed subjects is indebted to cultural and social norms, which are reflected in labor migration and policy. Labor migration policies defined by concepts of skill cannot be seen as objective, as though skill is a definitive and reproducible scientific unit of analysis. Instead, concepts of skill are firmly rooted in culturally, politically, and socially constructed ideas of status and difference.

Raghurman points to a recurring trope in the discussion of labor policy where women are robbed of privileged positions and political agency, but this should not be seen as a universalizing construction of gendered or classed migratory labor. Christina Gabriel's contribution to Governing International Labour Migration describes a situation where women do indeed find economic, cultural, and social agency in the global labor market. In this piece, Gabriel describes female healthcare workers who under NAFTA regulations are allowed to migrate from Canada to the US. Beyond this, we must see Gabriel's argument as calling attention to the particularities that exist in all forms of labor migration. Often we see blanketing statements made about forms of domination enacted against marginalized groups that fail to examine how those same groups have, if only in a limited way, exerted a form of agency. Labor migration must be understood as a complex give and take between competing social, political, and economic interests.

Thinking in terms of agency, scholars must also look at the ways in which individual actors and non-state institutions work to shape international labor. Scholars, including the ones described above, often see labor migration and policy as modalities between nation-states. To frame labor migration solely in terms of the movement of individuals between nation-states and politically bounded entities is problematic, according to Michael Samers. For Samers, scholars should think in terms of a network of 'market cells' instead of nation-states when discussing migration. Labor is maintained and reproduced by international flows of capital that run parallel to nation-states. Under neoliberal economic philosophies the immigrant is mobilized not as a marginalized, classed actor but as an 'entrepreneur' who sells their labor to the highest bidder. Similar to Pellerin's discussion of Lex Mercatoria, individuals are economic entities that operate in terms of market principles. According to Samers, defining the migrant worker as an entrepreneur problematically creates an image of agency and authority over working conditions and subordinates other identity markers that place individuals in a community. As migratory flows increasingly concentrate between developed economic nodes, the idea of a 'national' economy and a unified laboring class is weakened. This, according to Samers, has reduced the ability of labor and states to maintain worker-safety standards in the most volatile of low-wage industries. By examining contemporary international migration in terms of market cells, we can see the veneer of agency covering a political-economic environment that is unfavorable to both the worker and the community.

The creation of new global labor regimes that weaken the nation-state should not be seen as destroying the state's ability to produce its own veneers of agency for the sake of a national citizenry. National policies for labor migration often include language sympathetic to migrant labor but this fails to produce adequate civil and judiciary mechanisms that function in the defence of migrants. Nicolas Piper demonstrates that within governmental institutions there is little space for migrant labor to assert political capital. Migrant labor is invited to participate in economic activities but more often than not receives less economic protection than the native citizen. Benefits considered basic in modern democracies, like the right to take part in political activism, the assertion of civil rights, and access to the legal system, are often withheld from immigrants because of their ambiguous positions with regard to citizenship. Immigrants under many immigration regimes can be understood as the guests of their employers, much like they were the guests of the state for Koffman above. Grievances are difficult to file. Employees are more or less silenced through the precariousness of their economic position. The traditional institutions in civil society that advocate for marginalized laborers, like national labor unions, tend not to assist migrant labor. The UN, as Piper points out, is ideologically suited to fight for the migrant but their efforts have proved largely symbolic and ineffective. There is an irreconcilable tension remaining between the nation and the economy that creates a particularly unique formation of migrant labor.

As Governing International Labour Migration demonstrates, the global flow of labor is not an easily constructed phenomenon. Migration can be considered in terms of a gradient. Labour migration is a spectrum of identities, positionalities, and subjectivities that at times assert agentiveness but more typically find themselves under the pressures of the state and international economic forces. There is a general movement of individuals from the global south to the global north in pursuit of work. The north, paradoxically, has a deep priority in maintaining the global political-economic hegemony despite its own calls for egalitarian free market reforms. In terms of the scholars represented above, there is an oscillation between discussion of the hidden modalities of socio-cultural bias in the formation of labor policy and the overt pronunciation of market-based modalities that seek to overcome, or at least ignore, culturally constructed realities.

Governing International Labor Migration has presented the reader with a rather holistic approach to the analysis of global labor policy. There are, however, two topics that could be approached with greater vigor. Firstly, there is little discussion of South-South or North-North migration: an approach that would seemingly upset a well established global power dynamic between regions. For example, works by anthropologists like Janet Roitman (2004) and James Ferguson (1990, 2006) demonstrate a particular South-South migration of labor and capital. These works also demonstrate the issues that marginalized states must deal with in order to have even the most limited amount of control over their workforce's integrity. The issues faced in South-South relations are very different to those faced when the power dynamic is more straightforward.

Secondly, the book offers few examples of actual individuals negotiating a labor migration system: whether bureaucrats, migrating management, or unskilled migrants. As Ahkil Gupta (1995) has pointed out, it is at the lowest levels of the state where bureaucrats have the most power to interpret law and where the individual experiences the greatest effects of politics. Throughout the book we do not hear the voice of the migrant or the bureaucrat. Without an in-depth discussion of how individuals have actually interacted with the state, labor migration appears as an abstracted phenomenon. Of course these authors would not deny the very personal nature of migration and the dramatic effect it has on individuals and their communities, but the reader of this book is nonetheless left with a somewhat depersonalized account of the whole process.

Aihwa Ong's (1988) classic piece on spirit-possessed factory workers in Malaysia further demonstrates the problematic nature of migration politics at the interpersonal level. In this account, Malaysian factories owned by international corporations have created a hostile environment, not for the migrant who is typically in a management level position but for the Malaysian national. Female Malaysian line workers have been robbed of agency through the imposition of the migrant's managerial style. A wave of debilitating spirit possessions swept through the factories, causing great confusion among the migrant managers. As Ong argues, spirit possession acted as a form of cultural resistance to a global hegemonic discourse. The problems of top down labor migration did not lie specifically in policy but in the cultural and social global hegemonies imposed on the locals by migrant managers.

As one can imagine, international labor migration will never be a depersonalized issue. Culturally and socially subjective frameworks centered on the individual will act to shape the idea of the communal nation-state. Market forces, the material and social dynamics that individuals negotiate to sustain themselves and develop all types of Bourdieuian capital, are tied to the migration of labor and the means by which communities can carry out class mobility. As Governing International Labor Migration relevantly demonstrates, labor migration and the policies that articulate it are contentious, powerfully manipulative, and often short sighted; ignoring the needs and rights of the individual who seeks economic life through mobility. The book thoroughly dissects these issues and gives the reader a powerful perspective of the abstract institutional frameworks that guide them. It cannot be forgotten that these frameworks are acted out by, for, and against individuals, creating unique world views and agencies.

Jason Scott is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is currently conducting independent research in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil concerning digital technology in marginalized communities and how it is being used to alter definitions of inclusion in modern democracy.


Ferguson, J 2006, Global shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order, Duke University Press, Durham.

--1990, The anti-politics machine: 'development,' depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York.

Gupta, A 1995, 'Blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics, and the imagined state', American Ethnologist, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 375-402.

Hansen, T & Stepputat, F 2005, Introduction, in Sovereign bodies: citizens, migrants, and states in the postcolonial world, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Harvey, D 2007, A brief history of neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York.

Ong, A 1988, "The production of possession: spirits and the multinational corporation in Malaysia", American Ethnologist, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 28-42.

Roitman, J 2004, Fiscal disobedience: an anthropology of economic regulation in Central Africa, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Jason Scott

University of Colorado at Boulder
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Title Annotation:'Governing International Labor Migrations: Current Issues, Challenges, and Dilemmas' by Christina Gabriel and Helene Pellerin
Author:Scott, Jason
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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