In December 2008, security guards opened fire on a crowd of migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The workers, employed in Iraq by a subcontractor of Kellogg Brown and Root, were held in makeshift camps awaiting deportation after arriving in the country to find the jobs they had been promised had disappeared. The frustration caused by the dirty, cramped conditions, the debts incurred in the migration process, and their impending deportation had obviously become too much for them to bear. Though no one was injured in the shooting, the workers were left with their livelihoods and their hopes for better future in tatters. “We have been turned into beggars,” one of the workers from Sri Lanka told a reporter.
Were they to have started their jobs in Iraq, however, their lot may not have been much better. Many reports of migrant workers from India facing exploitation and racist violence while working for US subcontractors or at US military bases in Iraq came to light in 2004, and continue to surface today. When asked about his situation, one worker from India employed by a subcontractor at a US base told a reporter: “We are being treated worse than animals."
The situation in Iraq has often been described as a microcosm of the world at large—a place where, under the US occupation, the hand-in-hand workings of militarism, imperialism, and capitalism have been all too evident. For the migrant workers who have described their position in Iraq as that of “beggars,” “animals,” and even “slaves” under a racially stratified economic system, this idea unfortunately holds all too true—as is clear from the many reports released by international rights groups, local unions, NGOs, and research bodies on the myriad injustices faced by migrant workers.
Asia is the site of some of the largest migration flows in human history. According to the International Labour Organization in 2005, there were about 35 million migrants from China, 20 million from India, and 7 million from the Philippines working around the world. According to the Migrant Forum in Asia, there were around 25 million migrant workers employed within Asia as of 2005, and more than 90 percent of the documented migrants from the Philippines employed in other parts of Asia were women.
Given the staggering numbers of people on the move, there are also of course huge amounts of money involved. Economists estimate that in 2008, remittances (the money sent home by workers abroad) accounted for 20 percent of the GDP of Nepal, 12 percent of the GDP of the Philippines, and 11 percent of Bangladesh's GDP. The World Bank expects the total amount of money sent home by migrant workers globally to amount to $290 billion in 2009. It is perhaps small wonder that global capitalist institutions increasingly seek to be involved in migration and its “management and control.” Migration in itself is a major industry in the region and in the world.
The idea of migration as an industry helps to expose the structural nature of the problems faced by migrant workers in their everyday lives. A major study released in Hong Kong in 2005, for example, found that the underpayment of individual Indonesian migrant domestic workers was not an aberration by a few “bad apples,” but the expected outcome produced by institutions involved in the migration process. The role of recruitment agencies, governments, and employers meant that the abuses and exploitation faced by migrant workers were at the heart systemic problems, with deep institutional roots.
The immense challenge of facing up to these institutions is the backdrop for the arduous but deeply human struggle of people around the world—as workers, migrants, and as women—against their exploitation and for the simple right to life and livelihood.
The writers involved in the following section of Left Turn are themselves very experienced and familiar with these issues, and though one section in one issue of one magazine can only provide the briefest of introductions to the vast concerns involved, we are excited to make such links with activists working in Asia. We will certainly continue to develop these connections and run more features about migrant workers' issues in Asia in future editions of Left Turn.