3. The international reserve army of labour

if you get status they are pressurising you…to find a paid job, otherwise you lose your benefits and you have to survive on something (refugee without status from Iran)

At the same time as conditions of underdevelopment, state repression and war place pressure on people from oppressed countries to move, the states of imperialist and other capitalist countries bring in restrictions to regulate peoples’ movement according to the needs of capital. The international division of labour, and the super-exploitation it enables, depends on workers’ immobility.[1] Within imperialist countries, the international reserve army of labour cushions employers against shocks by providing a flexible and mobile labour force, while also enabling a higher rate of exploitation and profit through systematic discrimination, denial of rights and harassment of ethnic minority labour.[2] Migrant workers in low-skilled jobs frequently only have temporary rights to remain, insecure contractual arrangements, and experience exploitative practices including non-payment or underpayment of wages, unauthorised deductions, non-compliance with health and safety, long working hours and overcrowded, unsafe or otherwise unsuitable housing.[3] The costs of migrants’ labour power is subsidised by their countries’ of origin, as John Berger and Jean Mohr put it:

‘They are not born: they are not brought up: they do not age: they do not get tired: they do not die. They have a single function – to work. All other functions of their lives are the responsibility of the country they come from.’[4]

For many workers this includes the initial costs of training and education, and the costs of care during periods when they are not engaged in wage labour, during infancy and old age, which are unproductive from the point of view of capital.

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

[2] Sivanandan, A. (1974). Race and Resistance – The IRR Story. London: Race Today Publications; RCG, R. C. G. (1979). The Anti-Nazi League and the Struggle Against Racism. London: RCG Publications; 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,

[3] Piper, N. (2010). ‘Temporary economic migration and rights activism: an organizational perspective’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 33(1), 108-125.

[4] Berger, J. and J. Mohr (1975). A Seventh Man: the story of a migrant worker in Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin.


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