Don Flynn’s post on 14 October makes some excellent points about the need for a global perspective on migration. These could be developed even further – but how do we take public opinion with us?
Don’s argument is that unless we put migration into its global context we will never be able to explain fully why migration happens and why it will continue to happen. He points out that, far from living ‘over there’ and having nothing to do with the UK, the communities from which migrants come are intrinsically and intricately connected to us.
I very much agree with him and would like to share some thoughts on this, as someone living in a developing country with very high levels of outward migration.
Don’s starting point is this:
‘There is a very common perception that migration happens because a lot of very poor people want to come to regions of the world where they can enjoy a higher standard of living. The simple version of this viewpoint holds that they have no moral claim on access to this better way of life because they did not contribute to it and in coming to wealthier countries here they would only squeeze out the people who did.’
This encapsulates the issue very well. In contesting this common view of migration, Don then makes two main points. One is that it is often the better-off or more skilled people who migrate. The other is that if poor people want to earn more they may well migrate – often within their same global region – but on a temporary basis.
Nicaragua (where I live) is one of the poorest countries in the Americas – although of course far better off than many countries in Africa. At any one time, several hundred thousand Nicaraguans are living and working in next-door Costa Rica, which is five times richer per head. Many people on both sides resent this migration, but it’s also clear that the economies of both countries depend on it. Costa Rica simply couldn’t function the way it does without migrant labour from its neighbour, to pick its bananas and coffee for export and serve its tourists. Nicaragua needs the money sent back as ‘remittances’.
The parallel with migration into the UK isn’t perhaps obvious, but there are similarities. When a sunny day is forecast in summer, you can go to Tesco and find extra lettuces in the salad cabinets. That’s because Tesco looks at weather forecasts and someone picks extra lettuces at dawn that day so they can be on its shelves. That ‘someone’ is almost certainly a migrant worker. The price of the lettuce reflects (in part) the low wage that the migrant is willing to accept, that wouldn’t be accepted by a British worker.
Here’s another part of the story. Throughout Central America in the last couple of decades there has been massive growth in ‘maquilas’ – clothing factories usually owned by companies from Asia which assemble clothes to sell in North American shops. A woman working a 10-hour day in such a factory, six days a week, for perhaps a £10 wage is very well aware that the pair of jeans she is assembling will sell for many times this amount by the time it reaches the shops in, say, Austin, Texas. It’s hardly surprising that many thousands of people from Central American countries make the highly dangerous journey north as illegal migrants, to find out if maybe they could earn a wage that would allow them to buy the jeans, instead of just make them.
The point I wanted to add to Don’s is a simple one. Every time someone in Britain buys something to eat or wear they are connecting to the global economy, usually without thinking about it. The chances are that someone – in a factory in China or a field in East Anglia – will have put his or her labour into making sure that the article reaches the shops. Many of those people are not earning very much money, and the more that Tesco or Gap try to cut prices the lower their wages will be. In developing countries the opportunities to find well-paid jobs are very limited – the economies are built around low wages, kept down by reserve labour from the many unemployed or people moving to cities from rural areas. We in Britain – whether we realise it or not – have plentiful and relatively cheap food and clothing because of the armies of poor people working on our behalf.
How do we explain this interconnectedness and get people to think about how the daily choices they make affect people everywhere? That hamburger in McDonalds – did someone clear a section of rainforest to produce the meat that went into it? That tuna sandwich – is it on your plate because some factory ship scooped up the fish and left none for a West African fisherman? That £3.99 t-shirt in a Gap sale – if they can still make a profit on it, how much did they pay the woman who made it?
Western economies depend on plentiful, cheap goods provided through plentiful, cheap labour. Migration is one – relatively small – consequence of a global economy that we are not just part of, we created it! Shouldn’t we shoulder some of the responsibility for the consequences? And how do we begin to get the message across that each of us is only a couple of steps removed from that poorly paid factory worker or farmhand? Given the massive gap between their earnings and ours, it should be surprising that there are so few migrants, not that there are so many.
Original post and comments: Migration Pulse