Sunday, January 19, 2014

How Can Migrant Laborers Increase Bargaining Power for Self-Protection?

In recent news, while India has been busy perceptively becoming the rape capital of the world, Hong Kong has been taking definite steps toward the title of "maid-abuse capital."  High-profile physical violence of foreign domestic workers, one of which involving a to-level administration official at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has brought forth a small but increasing focus on the plight of the lowly, underpaid migrant workers from Third World countries, toiling away in a strange land far from home, while little legal protection from authority both in Hong Kong or their home countries.

The stories of abuse is also at the same time being exposed with stories of increasing crackdown on the very institution of cheap migrant labor that has been well-established in many wealthy societies with persistent labor shortages.  Both Saudi Arabia and Singapore has been going through a review of their relevant laws and registrars on migrant laborers, heading toward a direction where zero tolerance of illegal laborers will become more strictly enforced, along with a trend to decrease overall number of migrant laborers over time.

Both situations, for obvious reasons, are extremely bad news for countries like Philippines and various nations of the Indian subcontinent that has for decades depended on the institution of foreign migrant labor to mope up high unemployment numbers that cannot be gainfully utilized by an underdeveloped domestic economy, and to provide a large share of national income in the form of remittances from abroad, boosting consumption at levels beyond what is achievable with only the low average incomes levels at home, at least when foreign expats are excluded from the calculations.

It has always been the author's primary belief that countries unwillingly resort to sending laborers abroad, instituted by a selfish, corrupt elite (especially in the case of Philippines) that is too busy siphoning off limited national incomes for personal gains rather than investing in long-term projects and programs to develop domestic economy.  For them, earning hard currency by sending people abroad is much cheaper, quicker, and easier than domestic development, while noting that those who are persistently abroad for work pose little threat to their almost hereditary political rule.

However, from the perspective of an average migrant laborer, suffering day in and day out from hard work and violence from their employers, blaming the elite from their suffering, while highly justified and worthy of note, makes little practical sense, as it provides no concrete solutions on how they can best protect themselves, especially since representation of their home countries abroad have repeatedly shown their cluelessness toward foreign cultures, and in the case of Philippines, repeatedly got itself into political conflicts with likes of Hong Kong and Taiwan that host large number of its citizens.

The fundamental problem with why migrant laborers cannot attain high position in their host societies is their lack of skills and abundance.  For many, despite many years of work, they have gained little additional skills or expertise as they toil in the same repetitive tasks for years and years without obvious improvement.  As they get older and less agile, then, they can be easily replaced with more energetic, younger laborers who are perhaps willing to work harder for even lower wages due to the stubbornly high birth rates and toil without complaints due to their lack of choices and a culture of conformity.

To overcome such a situation where laborers literally beg employers for any sort of work, with little leverage on how they work or how they are treated, a sense of collective action, a sort of international union movement, among the laborers are needed.  Societies that have high numbers of migrant laborers today are already so used to the institution that it cannot function on a daily level if migrant laborers simply stop coming and working there.  That is an extremely powerful leverage, if labor can organize in a way that ensure no one can breach an "unwritten code of conduct."

Easier said than done, but the basic framework ought to be the following: (1) a set of minimum wages agreed by labor agencies across the different countries below which every player agree to not send laborers.  (2) In case of violence against laborers by an employer, collective agreement by all to not send any more laborers there.  (3) Collective lobbying to foreign governments and employers to ensure continued hiring of foreign laborers as the standard policy.  (4) Collective action to destroy any agencies or individual laborers that refuse to act within the collective effort.

From an economic perspective, this is a repeated game of standard Prisoner's Dilemma.  Anyone who breaches will earn higher payoff in the short-term.  What would be important is that other players make sure to stick together to make the potential long-term difficulty of that player act as a deterrent for it to not breach in the first place.  The coordination will surely be extremely difficult given the wide array of choices presented to employers, and need for the vast majority of laborers, across different countries to follow the guidelines.  But in absence of effective government actions, there is no alternative.


  1. I appreciate the frank self-analysis, as well as the gem "The constant traveler is a social degenerate" - I hope that this isn't really true! But I have empathy. I've been starting to realize the same thing last year, that this "travel bug", in part, is just a search for greener pastures elsewhere, which become less green once lived, almost without exception. I too am trying to "turn the boring ordinary into the exciting on a daily basis". Shit's not easy, especially with the high standards and low attention span that our generation has, for better or worse, been blessed with.

    However, I do think that looking at it from the supply side, that is, the effort you make at putting roots into a particular community is also important, and the demand side ("I travel because I have yet to make that connection to the locale") shouldn't always be emphasized. I do think that once a strong effort is made to this regard, in doing things like finding a girlfriend, getting involved in community activities, trying to "compromise" a bit with friends, this journey you're on might have an endpoint sooner than you think.

    Or maybe I'm totally wrong....

  2. the key words here is basically "finding a girlfriend" - which is basically the most important thing. But I think it has a purpose more than the obvious - while in a foreign society, you need someone committed to you enough to help you connect with the surroundings and introduce you to deeper level of that particular society. A regular friend just wont go that far. They will show you the obvious stuff like museums and bars but leave you at that level, because they see no returns at helping you integrate into that particular society.

    Now with that said though, it is often a matter of questioning whether the traveler actually really want to even know about the society at a really deep, local level. There are a lot of ugly things about a society once you get past the superficial judgments about how developed it is, and how friendly the people seems to be. And a lot of that deeper stuff is not positive (makes sense, they dont want to present it to the foreign travelers) and thats what makes the "pastures less green" over time.

    So thats the fundamental dilemma, in my opinion. On one hand you want to become more local so you can settle down (hopefully through a new girlfriend) but on the other hand, you dont want to expose yourself to the local problems that end up putting you off to the society for the long-term. Hopefully, the former will win over over the latter at some point, but so far I have yet to see that place. I think I will keep looking.