Analysing transnational labour mobility regimes

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Katharine Jones University of Coventry, UK

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Nicola Piper Queen Mary University of London, UK

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Matt Withers Australia National University, Australia

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Labour regime analysis is enjoying a resurgence as a way of (re-)centring workers at the heart of questions concerning the organisation of production and social reproduction in the global economy (Baglioni et al, 2022). Migrant labour, and specifically the regulation of migrant labour, is part and parcel of these dynamics yet is often left to the sidelines of labour process studies. Bringing together six papers presented at the 2023 International Labour Process Conference at Strathclyde University, this themed issue of Work in the Global Economy considers how our understandings of international labour migration and its regulation can be extended through a transnational labour mobility regime approach. The rationale is to bring together labour process approaches and theoretical insights from migration studies. These six contributions examine how transnational labour mobility within and from the majority world intersects with a variety of specific local labour control regimes (Jonas, 1996), collectively foregrounding how the bordering of capital-labour relations (within/ beyond the worksite/ state) informs workers’ individual and collective struggles for life and livelihoods.

Abstract

Labour regime analysis is enjoying a resurgence as a way of (re-)centring workers at the heart of questions concerning the organisation of production and social reproduction in the global economy (Baglioni et al, 2022). Migrant labour, and specifically the regulation of migrant labour, is part and parcel of these dynamics yet is often left to the sidelines of labour process studies. Bringing together six papers presented at the 2023 International Labour Process Conference at Strathclyde University, this themed issue of Work in the Global Economy considers how our understandings of international labour migration and its regulation can be extended through a transnational labour mobility regime approach. The rationale is to bring together labour process approaches and theoretical insights from migration studies. These six contributions examine how transnational labour mobility within and from the majority world intersects with a variety of specific local labour control regimes (Jonas, 1996), collectively foregrounding how the bordering of capital-labour relations (within/ beyond the worksite/ state) informs workers’ individual and collective struggles for life and livelihoods.

Contemporary labour regimes are historically evolved and geographically specific, and also multi-scalar and transnational (Baglioni et al, 2022). They arise out of the articulation of contested social relations, formal and informal governance arrangements, and the commercial demands of firms in global production networks (Kelly, 2009; Azmeh, 2014; Goodburn and Mishra, 2023). Adopting a labour regime lens thus enables an extended empirical analysis of the labour process in the context of overlapping sets of regulations, which are imposed by a variety of institutional actors. Analysis of labour regimes also facilitates an examination of labour agency, including resistance strategies beyond the worksite and transnationally.

Within this conceptualisation, social reproduction is a critical component to understanding labour processes. In this themed issue, social reproduction is understood to be what ‘makes workers’: how they are fed, clothed and raised, educated and provided with healthcare, and trained and acculturated into the workplace (Mitchell et al, 2003). Social reproduction activities are necessary to the existence of waged work, to accumulations of surplus value, and to the functioning of capitalism overall (Fraser, 2018). How, and where, workers are reproduced impacts on the visible and invisible ‘costs’ of labour. Indeed, it has become increasingly apparent that social reproduction is fundamental to valorisation across the contemporary global economy (Mezzadri, 2019). Social reproduction matters to how, where, and in what ways labour is subsumed into production under capitalism, including under differentiated forms of exploitation (Mies, 1982; Bhattacharyya, 2018). Therefore, as the processes and relations of social reproduction also rest on substantively gendered and racialised divisions of labour, these are further complicated by transnational migration (Bhattacharyya, 2018). Consequently, how capital, and states, organise and control social reproduction is an intensely political matter (Winders and Smith, 2018). At the same time, the extent to which workers are able to exert agency over their own reproduction (biologically or socially) is highly contested and a potential site for labour resistance (Fraser, 2018).

Analysing transnational labour mobility regimes

Transnational migrant workers of all kinds are increasingly central to the labour processes of global capitalism, particularly across the Global South, where capital-intensive global value chains have been laid over stark developmental disparities (Phillips, 2009; Barrientos et al, 2013). Within almost every locus of accumulation, the coordination of capital and state interests have informed migration policies that prefer temporary labour supply (‘guestworker’) schemes. Such schemes are accompanied by situations of exception regarding the rights of those workers (Surak, 2013). Enabled in large part by the persistent production of uneven development within and between countries, these broad policy settings interface with specific employment practices in complex and contextually-specific ways that varyingly reorganise the social and material conditions of labour markets and migrant households alike. These labour mobility regimes demand a transnationally attentive analysis of production and social reproduction, as well as of the multiple actors, processes, structures and regulations that govern, and contest, predominant international labour migration policies. For instance, rising numbers of private sector recruitment intermediaries increasingly mediate cross-border mobility and migrants’ working conditions, sometimes subsumed within the auspices of formal state-to-state bilateral labour agreements (Goh et al, 2017; Jones et al, 2022). These processes are also intensely racialised and gendered, entailing the systematic recruitment of marginalised and disadvantaged populations whose rights are readily suppressed by virtue of their precarious footing in a labour market where, as low-wage workers, they are easily replaced (Piper et al, 2017; Jones, 2021; Hennebry et al, 2022).

Nevertheless, migrants, even in the most ‘unfree’ conditions, are often able to exert agency in a variety of ways (Mayer and Tran, 2022; Parreñas, 2022), even if this is constrained (Coe and Jordhus-Lier, 2011). The scope for individual and collective articulations of agency emerges at the intersection of migration governance and local labour control regimes (Zajak et al, 2017; Ford, 2019), requiring an analytical attention to both. At the same time, these struggles have broad implications for social reproduction, which, despite burgeoning scholarly interest, is often analysed independently of the labour process (Mezzadri et al, 2022).

Our primary goal in this themed issue is to advance the theorisation of transnational labour mobility regimes in response to these challenges, and others, that persist in the study of labour migration. Too often, research on migration processes is methodologically nationalistic and adopts a state-centric positionality (Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002; Anderson, 2019). Similarly, research tends to either understate migrants’ agency or downplay the economic forces and labour market processes that structure patterns of migration at national, regional and global scales (Coe and Jordhus-Lier, 2011). In other cases, where the complex dynamics of capital are foregrounded in the analysis of migration, the importance of socially reproductive labour has frequently gone missing (Withers and Hill, 2023) or been conflated with the performance of interpersonal care work (Kofman, 2012). The articles included in this themed issue respond to these shortcomings by analysing a variety of actors engaged in constructing, resisting and navigating transnational labour mobility regimes that organise productive and socially reproductive life.

Converging migration frameworks, diverse labour processes

Collectively, these articles pay particular attention to the role of low-waged migrant workers originating from the Global South who are frequently positioned at the most constrictive junctures between transnational structures and sub-national practices. A major commonality between the articles is attention to the migration frameworks that are encountered in the pursuit of working in foreign labour markets. Though the empirical studies are situated across six diverse employment contexts – spanning Scottish fisheries, Malaysian and Taiwanese factories, Malaysian service sector and construction sites, Australian farms and abattoirs, American fast-food chains, and Qatari construction sites – there are striking similarities in the ways in which migration policies impose restrictions that isolate, circumscribe, and render precarious, individual migrant workers. In reflecting upon these similarities, we recognise a profound convergence among migration frameworks designed to segment the lowest tiers of production within countries of destination. No longer can the kafala system that governs labour migration throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states be set apart as an egregious aberration to higher standards upheld throughout the Global North; the legal disregard of migrant workers’ human and working rights that inform capital-labour relations in that context have long had equivalents in East and Southeast Asia, but are increasingly common in Australia, Europe, and North America, too. Low-waged migrant workers are ubiquitously directed to particular regions and industries, deprived of rights to family accompaniment, subject to welfare chauvinism, and unable to freely sell their labour to different employers. Deepening global inequality continues to drive migration, but widening disparities within wealthier countries, and the crises of demand they generate, has underscored a widespread strategy of ‘fixing’ temporary migrant workers in place as a remedial productive input for flagging sectors and industries (Scott and Rye, 2023).

Yet, despite these converging migration frameworks, the labour processes they enable, and workers’ resistance to exploitation across productive and reproductive spheres, are far from uniform. The articles collected here instead demonstrate that experiences at work – but also beyond the boundaries of the worksite where social reproduction occurs, both in situ and through the reorganisation of transnational family life (Kusakabe and Pearson, 2010) – are diverse and contested. Taking transnational labour mobility regimes as a shared frame, these contributions extend the conceptualisation of labour process theory in relation to social reproduction, offer deep examinations of migrant workers’ efforts to navigate and exert control as gendered and racialised subjects labouring under precarious circumstances, and scrutinise the state and non-state actors sustaining and contesting the institutional apparatus of migration governance.

Both Kelly and Ducusin (2024) and Withers (2024) steer their contributions towards an analysis of how migration policies intersect with local labour control regimes, in ways that transnationally reconfigure productive and socially reproductive labour for migrant workers and their communities. For Kelly and Ducusin (2024), writing in the context of Filipino fishers working in UK waters, the ‘web of dependencies with family members back home’ are constitutive and inalienable elements of the labour regime: social reproduction in home communities is seen to drive and enable migration, while also shaping and constraining the aspirations of workers in the short term and throughout their life course. Drawing on research with Pasifika guestworkers labouring in rural and regional Australia, Withers (2024) likewise contends that production and reproduction collide at the intersection of migration regimes and labour process. Here Rai et al’s (2014) framework of depletion through social reproduction is transnationally extended to reveal how control over workers’ lives at (and outside of) work in Australia erodes socially reproductive capacities within migrant households and communities in the South Pacific, further entrenching regional uneven development.

Drawing on the experience of Indonesian factory workers in Taiwan, Dinkelaker (2024) explores in her paper how, in the face of exploitation, precarity, and racialisation, these migrants seek to reclaim control and dignity in relation to their lives as low-wage temporary workers, both inside and outside the workplace. She focuses on the ways in which migrant factory workers’ daily reproduction is organised, as an extension to the analysis of labour mobility regimes. Her rich ethnographic research shows that migrant workers’ responses to various forms of control go beyond formal forms of advocacy and organising.

In a similarly rich ethnography, Polanco (2024) examines how Mexican, working-class men pursued a range of strategies to recoup a desired sense of masculine identity, in the context of strict immigration controls and political economies that emasculated them. Research at the intersection of gender, migration, and service work theorise how entry-level service-sector jobs are often typecast as feminine. Polanco (2024) addresses how Mexican men contested this through engaging in a host of (transnationally produced) ‘compensatory masculine strategies’ (Kukreja, 2021), in order to retain or regain a positive gender identity. She argues that these ‘manhood acts’ (Kukreja, 2021) were nevertheless contradictory and often led to questionable if not detrimental ends.

Jones, Ghimire and Khor (2024) provide an analysis of how company housing (what has been conceived of elsewhere as a ‘dormitory labour regime’) is firmly embedded in the national labour mobility regime in Malaysia. Through a combination of detailed policy analysis and qualitative research, they show that the state played a significant role in establishing and enforcing the legislative framework which required employers to provide housing for their migrant employees. This allowed the Malaysian state to establish a clear boundary between citizens and non-citizens. However, in the process, Malaysia also rescaled responsibility for the housing to individual employers, hence extending the depth and breadth of the scope of regulation of migrant labour. Low-wage migrants in Malaysia are thus subjected to the dual layer of controls via the housing they are required to live in. These authors surmise that worker housing is both and simultaneously a function of the state’s governance of migration as well as specific sector-specific production regimes.

The contribution by Piper and Saraswathi (2024) discusses the recent reforms made by Qatar to its transnational labour management system, which were mainly triggered by the controversies surrounding its role as host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In light of the lack of robust institutional mechanisms and the absence of domestically grown and supported labour activism, they highlight the important role of transnational actors, notably the global labour movement, pushing for legal and institutional changes. Adopting the ‘established-outsider’ relations concept as proposed by Elias and Scotson (1994) as a central lens, they discuss the challenges those transnational (‘outsider’) actors are facing, affecting their ability to influence the conversion of legal (‘paper’) reforms into rights in practice, and leading to a shakeup of the social reproduction of a highly unequal labour mobility system.

Policy and policymaking

International labour migration is not just a matter of academic interest; it is increasingly a leading topic area for international as well as national policymakers (Jensen and Piper, 2022). In 2018, states committed to a major new global governance framework which aims to ‘facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration and mobility of people’ (GCM, 2018, emphasis added). While inclusive of some UN International Labour Organisation labour standards for fair and decent work, this framework also represents a more explicit pivot by states to support capital’s demands for low-waged, highly-regulated, migrant labour (Likic-Brborić, 2018). This raises questions as to what a fair and decent work agenda for migrants can realistically achieve. In this context, adopting a labour mobility regime lens enables us to better understand the nuances of how certain conditions are produced but arguably more important, how to change them in ways which centre workers’ rights. An explicit secondary goal of this volume is to open up spaces for identifying potential areas of solidarity between migrant workers and non-migrant workers.

Extending these concerns, the concluding ‘theory into practice’ article by Mieres (2024) looks to social reproduction as a means of unsettling prevailing policy discourse by illuminating the ‘human’ implications of transnational labour mobility regimes that routinely designate workers as mere labour input. Focusing on themes of housing, care, and agency to expose the fragmented policy spheres that scaffold temporary labour migration schemes, Mieres (2024) argues for a more unified approach that is at once attentive to the embedded social realities of migrant workers and the global inequalities that shape their livelihoods. Here, social reproduction is not only a tool of analysis, but a corrective lens for envisioning a broader suite of rights and regulations.

Conclusion

International migration of low-waged, precarious workers is increasingly a feature of contemporary capitalism. Nevertheless, migration literatures are often state-centric and ignore the explicit ways in which forms of governance (including of the state and firms, but also others) intersect with migrant agency. Moreover, labour process approaches have often sidelined the function of state (and intra-state as well as transnational actors’) governance of mobility which impact on workers’ conditions within firms and worksites. To address this gap, this themed issue collates six papers on the topic of labour mobility regimes. Papers empirically address the circumstances of migrant labour in Australia, the US, Taiwan, Malaysia, Scotland and Canada, extending our knowledge of its governance and workers’ resistance strategies in these places. In providing the space to bring these papers together in one volume, we have also sought to contribute and amplify conceptual understanding of how work is organised at the intersection of formal and informal migration governance frameworks, firm strategies and labour agency. To achieve this, contributors have drawn on labour process approaches coupled with theoretical insights from migration studies. The themed issue has centred the significance of geographical and historical variations in labour mobility regimes. There is much which remains to be done. Most critically for a future research agenda, further work is required on the intersection(s) between regulation of migrant labour by capital and state–capital relations, and labour agency, in the context of global production networks.

Funding

The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goh, C., Wee, K. and Yeoh, B.S. (2017) Migration governance and the migration industry in Asia: moving domestic workers from Indonesia to Singapore, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 17(3): 40133. doi: 10.1093/irap/lcx010

    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jones, K., Ghimire, A. and Khor, Y. (2024) Living at work: migrant worker dormitories in Malaysia, Work in the Global Economy, 4(1): 89108. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2024D000000018

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Katharine Jones University of Coventry, UK

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Nicola Piper Queen Mary University of London, UK

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Matt Withers Australia National University, Australia

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