2b. The consequences of under-development

The consequences of under-development

I don’t even agree with people who say…we should make [a] difference between asylum seeker[s] and economic migrant[s], because…just look what they’re doing to…economic [migrants] (refugee woman, arrived in Britain in 2005)

Imperialism involves an international division of labour that both discriminates against workers from oppressed countries and depends on their labour. Material underdevelopment and the tailoring of production to provide exports for imperialist countries have prevented these countries’ domestic production from fulfilling their own populations’ needs. This generates markets for imperialist exports and levels of underemployment that create an international reserve army of labour that holds down wages in oppressed countries and can be drawn on as needed by imperialist countries; workers who can be brought in when demand for labour is high and forced back to their home countries when demand falls. This benefits the capitalist class by allowing for fluctuations in demand brought about by the contradictory tendencies and periodic crises of capitalism.[1] The scale of this international reserve army of labour can be assessed roughly by adding together the total number of workers in the world between the prime working ages of 25 and 54 who are unemployed, economically inactive or informally employed, all of whom would be available to be drawn into regular waged labour if capital had need for them. In 2011 people in these positions totaled 2.4 billion, compared to 1.4 billion in the active labour force.[2] This is a massive reserve army of labour, which benefits the capitalist classes but represents a huge waste of human potential.

It may be misleading to see a sharp distinction between refugees as ‘forced migrants’, and economic migrants as ‘voluntary migrants’. In many cases migrant workers also have little choice but to leave their country of origin, because structural unemployment and underemployment leaves them with economic migration as their only option for survival.[3] The economic underdevelopment and impoverishment of oppressed countries increases the importance of remittances by migrant workers as a source of foreign currency, further increasing the pressure on families to send members to work abroad, and for those abroad to send remittances, often putting up with worse conditions of employment in order to do so.[4] These remittances, which in some cases exceed a country’s foreign exchange earnings from merchandise exports, provide foreign currency to buy further imports, simultaneously maintaining the underdevelopment of domestic production in oppressed countries and the demand for exports from companies based in imperialist countries, reinforcing relations of dependency.[5]


[1] Miles, R. (1987). Capitalism and Unfree Labour: Anomaly or necessity? London: Tavistock Publications; Chinweizu, C. and N. Jameson (2008). ‘Immigration and the reserve army of labour in Britain’. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!(201 February / March); Castells, M. ([1975] 2002). ‘Immigrant Workers and Class Struggles in Advanced Capitalism: The Western European experience’, in The Castells Reader on Cities and Social Theory, edited by I. Susser. Malden, MA: Blackwell,

[2] Foster, J. B., et al. (2011). ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labor and the New Imperialism’. Monthly Review, 11(1), 1-31.

[3] Miles, R. and A. Phizacklea (1980). Labour and Racism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[4] Datta, K., et al. (2007). ‘The new development finance or exploiting migrant labour? Remittance sending among low-paid migrant workers in London’. International Development Planning Review, 29(1), 43-67; Lindley, A. (2009). ‘The early-morning phonecall: remittances from a refugee diaspora perspective’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35(8), 1315-1334.

[5] Small, J. (2007). ‘Rethinking and unravelling the interlocking dynamics of caribbean emigration and return’, in Revitalising Communities in a Globalising World, edited by L. Dominelli. London: Ashgate

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