Around the globe, migrant women’s labour plays an important role in developing capitalism.
Vicki Morris explores some of the issues this raises for socialist feminists. We welcome comments as we are developing a workshop around the topic — email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women make up around half of migrant workers and travel throughout the world to work in all fields.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are currently around 90 million migrant workers worldwide of whom about 15% have no legal status.
Migration can be within country, involving moving from the countryside to town, moving to another region, or moving to another country. For the women involved migration usually involves stress, hardship and sometimes danger, and, for the time that they are away, often, loneliness and mixed feelings about leaving loved ones behind.
What drives a woman to migrate? The drivers can be a mixture of positive — seeking better opportunities, more personal freedom — and negative — to escape oppression and repressive circumstances, including, mainly, poverty.
Many women send money they earn back home to help their families, children in particular.
A migrant’s immigration status is crucial in shaping their experience.
If people do not have the legal right to be in the country or to work they are vulnerable to extreme exploitation. Employers use workers’ fear of being discovered by the authorities and expelled from the country to force them to put up with long hours, low pay below the legal minimum, poor health and safety conditions, and sometimes violence and humiliation at work.
Employers take advantage of the availability of illegal migrants to pay low wages. As cleaners working for contractors on London Underground became more outspoken for their rights at work they found themselves more vulnerable to checks on their immigration status, and some newly active trade unionists were even deported.
Women in particular are vulnerable when they have no legal status; many end up doing sex work, with all the personal risks that can entail. Domestic workers living in with households can be isolated and abused, as their right to be in the UK can depend on staying with a particular employer. The rules on this have been tightened; since April 2012 domestic workers arriving in the UK cannot change their employer and still be sure they will be allowed to continue working in the country. Opposing this change, campaign group Kalayaan (Justice for Domestic Migrant Workers) said: “This can only facilitate slavery.”
Socialists want to change the world and believe that the working class — in all its diversity — is the social force to do it.
Migrant women workers occupy particular positions within capitalism and the role they can play in changing the world will be shaped by that, but they certainly will be part of socialist and feminist change. Socialist feminists need to rise to the particular challenges.
Even when women do have the right to stay and work in a country, they tend to find themselves in lower paid jobs with fewer employment rights.
How can these women organise to defend their rights as workers — and as women? The particular challenges they must overcome, with the help of allies in the women’s and labour movements include:
• Finding ways to combat isolation.
• Assisting women to find a place in society, including in the labour movement. This might involve offering training, advice on rights, language lessons, etc.
• Fighting racism, nationalism and immigration controls. Migrant women have as much right to a decent life as any other person.
• Fighting sexist attitudes about women workers, in wider society but also in the labour movement.
• Learning from migrants. Many migrants bring prior political and trade union experience, and many exhibit the sheer combativity, that we need to help revive the British labour movement.
Women’s Fightback believes socialists and feminists need to transform the labour movement in order to make it fit to fight for socialism, and even to win basic, bread-and-butter battles over issues such as pay. Migrant women workers stand to gain particularly from a more combative trade union movement since they are often in the lowest tiers of the workforce. Trade unions need to meet the challenge of helping all migrant and women workers to organise against exploitative employers. In their turn, migrant women workers’ struggles can inspire us and remind us of the origins of the labour movement.
Most labour movements were built as people — migrants — displaced from the countryside moved to live in towns and entered the early industrial, capitalist economy.
Differences of time and place are very important and each situation must be assessed concretely.
But the key tasks are the same everywhere and at all times: to organise the unorganised, to build solidarity between workers, to fight for a common goal of socialism that will end exploitation forever.
Migrant women — life in the UK
The “Moving Here” website has interesting accounts of the working lives of migrants from Ireland, the Caribbean, South Asia, and Jewish people.
Women migrants from Ireland sometimes outnumbered men. Throughout history, they have worked in all fields, as domestic servants, in factories, particularly the mill towns of north-west England, and, more recently, in the public services, particularly the health service — by 1971, 12% of Britain’s nursing staff were Irish.
“In Preston, the 1871 census shows 26% of Irish males and about 15% of Irish females employed in the mills.
“Crude racial stereotypes in appearance and dialogue lie behind [a] cartoon of Irish women mill-workers asleep on the job as their horrified employer looks on...
“Wages in the mills were low. Sometimes ...the workforce was dominated by women and young people. The money they earned was often vital to the survival of a working-class family. Such work was monotonous and it could be dangerous....
“Some commentators and journalists, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, argued that cheap Irish labour forced down the wages of native English workers and undermined the trade union movement. There is little evidence that this was so.”
The Grunwick dispute, 1976-8, was important in the history of the British labour movement; at its height it involved, for the first time, white, mainly male trade unionists showing solidarity with South Asian women workers who were organising for the first time. Jean Lane tells the story in an article, “The lessons of Grunwick”, extracted below:
“The Grunwick strike... was different from other big battles of the working class before it or since. It was, in many ways, a strike that was not meant to happen. It did not involve workers in a large, powerful union with a militant history like the miners who had brought the Tory government down only a few years before, or the dockers or engineers who had helped the miners close the Saltley Gates. The workers of Grunwick were not unionised at all and had no experience of being in a union. They were mostly women, in large part young women, who had to fight their families for the right to join the picket line; they were overwhelmingly Asian, many of whom spoke little English, and who were being employed by Grunwick because they could be used as cheap labour. Yet their struggle would reverberate throughout the labour movement.
“Grunwick was a small film processing plant in North London. Conditions inside the factory were appalling. The workers had no representation.
“Rates of pay differed from one individual to another — white workers were employed on different (higher paid) jobs. Overtime was compulsory and could be imposed at a moment’s notice. Conditions inside the centre of the dispute, the mail order department, were particularly draconian.
“Grunwick made itself competitive by paying low wages — about £28 for a 40-hour week: the national average for wages at that time was £72 and a full-time woman manual worker in London got £44.
“The pressure inside the mail order department was very high and the manager, a Mr Alden, ruled it like a despot. If women asked for time off to look after sick children they were told, ‘This is not a holiday camp’. Compulsory overtime could be imposed when a woman was going to pick her child up from nursery. She would have to either work on, worrying about the fate of her child, or argue with her supervisor and get the sack. Sackings were high. The annual staff turnover was 100%! There was an atmosphere of subservience and fear.”
Journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai researched the lives of Chinese migrants working in the UK — many of them illegally — for her book Chinese Whispers: The true story behind Britain’s hidden army of labour.
In a chapter about the popular restaurants in London’s Chinatown she writes about waiting staff on £5 a day basic pay who survive on a — small — share of the service charge or tips. Many of these have a legal right to work. In 2007 Pai worked a few shifts pushing the “Roast Duck” trolley in one of these restaurants. She paid £50 in deposits to secure her job, had to buy her own black skirt to wear to work, and was paid £3.20 per hour. The workers’ daily meal was served up in one large, metal container from which they all had to pick their food.
“Underneath” such legal workers were people with no legal right to work who were even more ruthlessly exploited. These included “greeters”, standing with advertising placards in the streets in all weathers; delivery staff; and kitchen staff. In 2007, the average wage for a kitchen worker was £200-£250 per week for an 11 to 12-hour day — £3 to £3.70 per hour. On the bottom rung of the employment ladder, kitchen workers were paid £2 per hour, and received no overtime, sickness or holiday pay. They worked injuriously long hours.
Many had paid a small fortune to gangs to be smuggled into the country. Most were working to pay off these debts. Immigration raids caused workers stress, and made it easier for them to be exploited.
• Hsiao-Hung Pai’s next book Invisible: Britain’s Migrant Sex Workers will be the subject of a Channel 4 documentary by Nick Broomfield in May 2013.