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Migration Management?

Sandra Paola Alvarez Tinajero


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  • 1 There is a debate around three key issues of “globalization”: first, when the process began (i.e. s (...)

1Today there is hardly any locality untouched by globalization and migration. Although the term “globalization” may seem rather vague to some1, for migrant workers, it acquires meaning in their everyday lives. In fact, migrants’ mobility prospects are embedded in larger social structures that bridge different localities across the globe. Migration routes may be determined by historical, cultural, economic, social and political linkages between those localities, but also by migrant institutions, targeted services and industries, as well as by the mass media and the work of imagination. Some of these bridged localities constitute specific migration systems. The contemporary organization of the neoliberal global economy that promotes privatization, de-regulation and liberalization affects all the localities connected in any given system. Because those systems are embedded in power and economic structural imbalances, some localities yield more benefits than others from the circulation and transfer of labor and other resources within the system. However, all the hubs of a system, whether in a more privileged or disadvantaged position, remain subjected to the neoliberal restructuring of the economy and face differing, yet shared pressures imposed by that process. At the subject-level, despite the various opportunities and resources engendered through mobility, low-wage migrant workers are often reminded that movement is a stratifying factor of our contemporary societies, and that not everyone is entitled to enjoy the benefits of capital accumulation.

2In my research, I set out to gain a better understanding of the ways in which the neoliberal restructuring processes shape the constitution of a specific low-status workforce. I have argued that care and farm migrant workers in Ragusa share much more than their condition as low-wage laborers. I have analyzed their processes of subjectification as they enter a particular nation-state and labor market, as they relate to specific social networks, as they cope with their conditions of work, and as they negotiate with their employers their social positions and identities in the receiving context.

3First, I situated my understanding of the experiences of migrant farm and care workers within the context of the structural forces that underlie contemporary labor migration flows to Ragusa, linking it to specific migrant-sending localities. Second, I have traced the constitution of farm and care migrant workers as they navigate two institutions that shape their labor market outcomes and social standing in Ragusa: the receiving state and social networks. Third, I situated migrant workers’ subjectification processes in their relations with their employers.

4Methodologically, the choice of taking care and farm migrant workers as analytical units has proven to be useful in order to balance out the ethnic approach prevailing in the literature concerned with migrants’ incorporation. By concentrating on a bounded field-site I gained a deeper understanding of the practices and relations that develop among specific actors, especially between employers and workers. I was also able to identify some processes of subject formation at the intersections of class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and morality within a specific spatial location. In terms of theory, I benefitted from the insights of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, as well as scholars specialized in the study of migration, globalization and domestic labor.

5My findings point to various similarities between migrant farm and care workers in Ragusa, such as their shared structural position as low-wage laborers in today’s world economy. The participation of low-wage laborers, who fill low-status jobs in local labor markets, contributes to the accumulation of capital, wealth and welfare even in societies that not many see as affluent, or as deserving of the label of “global cities” such those depicted by Saskia Sassen (1991). This has called for an attempt to understand the specific structural needs that generate a demand for foreign labor in a location such as Ragusa. At the same time, it became necessary to problematize the North-South development divide in order to understand the contradictory position of the province, often portrayed as a backward area that has managed nonetheless to meet its demographic challenges and labor imbalances, and respond to the pressures of a highly competitive global economy by relying on migrant labor. Adopting a more flexible approach towards the innovative articulations of market calculations and local contexts allows us to gain a better understanding of such an apparently contradictory position.

6As shown in Chapter 1, there are not necessarily strong and weak states, but rather more affluent areas and marginal areas that may be bridged though migration. This means that sending countries as a whole should not be regarded as peripheries. My research shows that specific localities share common pressures linked to the demands of the neoliberal economy, regardless of their territorial location in any given nation-state. Similarly, migrant workers’ experiences are situated within the larger framework of the global expansion of the market economy. Many farm and care workers contribute to the accumulation of wealth in distant places because a neoliberal restructuring has rendered their sources of livelihood (especially subsistence or small farming) unviable, or narrowed their employment opportunities in their usual place of residence. At the same time, migration has opened up new possibilities for these workers to deploy strategies of self-improvement and claim their share of capital accumulation, as self-enterprising subjects who have developed a neoliberal ethos along with other ethical regimes and identities.

7Another dimension in which the experiences of migrant farm and care workers seem to converge relates to their entry into a local labor market and their labor market outcomes. As shown in Chapter 3, these processes are strongly influenced by their participation in networks that shape their migration trajectories and influence their job search paths and the dissemination of place-based-knowledge. Indeed, besides guiding the invisible hand of the market to match labor supply and demand, networks contribute to the constitution of a supply of self-recruiting and self-disciplining migrant labor force, reducing the material and non-material costs (and risks) of recruitment processes. Network mediation has the potential to reduce the anxieties and reservations that employers and workers may have prior to establishing an employment relationship. Networks contain screening and enforcement mechanisms that are likely to guarantee the satisfaction of employers. At the same time, rotation mechanisms may enable workers to build resilience towards the hard conditions of work that characterize their occupations, by allowing them to temporarily detach from their subordinate positions in the receiving context. My study further confirms the findings of other scholars (e.g. Goss and Lindquist 1995 and Salazar Parreñas 2001) according to which social networks are embedded in power relations, and both solidarity and self-interest coexist within them. In fact, the intervention of (illegal) recruitment-for-profit organizations and the commodification of certain services and ‘favors’ exemplify the extent to which a market ideology pervades social relations. Ultimately, while the premise of embeddedness suggests that all economic action is socially oriented, it would be worthwhile looking at how the market ideology affects social relations influencing the formation of strong or weak ties within migrant groups. This would be an interesting area for future research.

8Moreover, migrants’ labor market integration implies a relationship with the receiving state. European female care workers and non-European male farm workers relate in distinct ways to the receiving state, owing to their dissimilar positioning and political treatment as members of, or outsiders to the European common space. In stressing the similar processes of incorporation whereby employers and workers jointly interpret the administrative norms and either meet or circumvent them, I have not ignored migrants’ distinct experiences and strategies of entry, sojourn and employment, as well as the dissimilar treatment they receive as European or non-European workers. Yet, both care and farm migrant workers navigate a spectrum of regularity/irregularity and formality/informality concerning their migratory and employment status. As discussed in Chapter 2, their shifting positions in such a continuum provide them with different resources and opportunities, and may or may not enhance their bargaining power to negotiate better conditions of work and pay. The human face of migration complexifies the implementation of labor migration policy as entrusted to private enforcers such as self-disciplining employers and workers. The de-personalization of foreign labor understood simply in market terms is offset by a re-personalization of the employment relationship at the micro-level. Ultimately, the development of mutual dependencies (material or non-material), complicity and loyalty between employers and workers shows that policies addressing migration in technical terms do not fully capture the human dimension of employment relations. This raises important questions with regard to the ‘manageability’ of migration, and labor migration governance.

9A neuralgic point in my study is the examination of the flexible articulations of market calculations with migration institutions, from the state to the constitution of migrant worker subjects. The analysis of these processes is particularly relevant in an era when migration has become an issue of high politics owing to economic and security concerns that call for integrated policy approaches to labor migration and international cooperation. Indeed, there seems to be a renewed interest on the part of a wide range of actors in ‘harnessing’ the benefits of migration for (economic) development, which differs little from the concerns underlying the foreign recruitment programs of the 1960s. My study problematizes political assumptions that merge the macro-economic concerns of countries of origin and destination with the micro-maximization interests of migrant workers into triple-win scenarios. This is not to say that migration does not carry any benefits. On the contrary, the economies of sending and receiving countries would certainly suffer without the financial and social transfers rendered possible by labor migration, and many households would not be able to enjoy certain welfare standards if their members did not work abroad.

10My findings indicate, however, that policy goals are not always in line with the ambitions and concrete practices of the persons whose lives they seek to optimize. Along these lines, my inquiry into the constitution of low-wage farm and domestic migrant workers opened up more questions than initially foreseen. Some obvious, and yet tricky questions include: Who manages what? At what level? And, most importantly, to what extent is labor migration actually manageable? While these are not new questions they point to interesting areas in which to pursue further empirical research to gain a deeper understanding of the implications of the flexible articulations of market and policy in the arena of international migration. Will this allow us to identify more effective policies and practices of labor migration management? This remains to be seen. It would be interesting to craft a research agenda that traces the different aspects of the effects of the market, from shaping of labor migration politics, to international migration governance processes, to the effects the former may have on specific local contexts, including on the construction and perception of self.

11I have introduced neoliberalism as an analytical category in the study of labor migration politics. In the future, it would be worthwhile to attempt a broader theorization of labor migration management as a neoliberal technology of governing migration, to gain a deeper understanding of the articulation of market calculations and political migration-related concerns that seek to harness and optimize the mobility of labor, and of migrant workers. The conceptualization of labor migration management proposed in Chapter 3 is a small but compelling contribution to address recent concerns of migration scholars about the need to adopt more comprehensive approaches to analyze the flexible modes of capital accumulation and the contemporary neoliberal restructuring of space, identity formation, and society. In particular, it offers a small window to understand “the way in which the neo-liberal restructuring of specific localities shapes the way in which migrants live in a specific place” (Glick Schiller 2009: 12).

12Another similarity between migrant care and farm workers relates to their shared processes of subjectification. Introducing the notion of neoliberalism as a technology of governing at the subject level of analysis, I have argued that the processes of subject-making of care and farm migrant workers include the construction of a sense of self-improvement that articulates issues such as capital accumulation in migration projects. The subject level of analysis of labor migration is a key gateway to understanding the processes that reproduce global structural inequalities including at the level of the subjectivities of migrant workers themselves. This is not to suggest that migrant workers passively internalize certain cultural forms, market or consumerist ideals. Rather, I have argued in Chapter 5 that migration projects are part of unique self-engineering processes inherent in the construction of self that depend upon many factors (class, gender, age, family status, etc.), and that the construction of a neoliberal ethos may co-exist with other ethical regimes. One of the most interesting findings of my study is that the classic representation of the young (male or female) economic migrant is being challenged by the participation of an increasing number of senior migrant women in international labor migration, mainly related to the provision of care in Ragusa. The issue of aging migrants has not been sufficiently investigated in international migration studies. My research opens up another small window in this regard, but there is still much more to be done to understand how migration and the life cycle affect one another. For example, future research could look into the effects of the migration of senior women or men on transnational households; or focus on the linkages between aging migrant populations and the welfare systems of countries of origin and destination, for example in terms of retirement benefits. (Some interviewees in my study were entitled to retirement benefits in their countries of origin and yet migrated in order to gain supplementary income.) In short, there is a need for further empirical research to uncover the implications of the migration of more senior persons, articulating the structural, institutional and subject-level.

13Finally, my research is directly concerned with issues of class and identity construction. The subject-level of analysis reveals that in pursuing their projects of capital accumulation and self-improvement, migrants may be confronted with multiple dimensions of exclusion from the benefits of capitalism (or exceptions to neoliberalism, to take up Aiwa Ong's expression). The processes and intersecting forces that intervene in their constitution as low-wage laborers provide multiple examples. As shown in Chapter 4, employers ascribe specific criteria to foreign workers, and essentialize and gender their manageability and suitability to perform female- or male-dominated low-status jobs. Indeed, the constitution of migrant workers as low-wage laborers in the receiving society implies the construction of social boundaries along the lines of class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc. The implications of these practices are multiple, and they go from the reproduction of the local sexual division of labor, to the configuration of ethnic hierarchies in the agricultural and domestic sectors, to raising questions about the professionalization of care and farm jobs, as it appears that both require tangible (language proficiency, technical or practical know-how) as well as intangible emotional and interpersonal skills.

14Furthermore, the conflation of home and workplace in care and farm jobs in Ragusa is a major point for comparison of the experiences and processes of subjectification of these emblematic figures of migration. Proximity with employers, isolation, lack of privacy and the strategies employers deploy to affirm their superior standing denote the multiple ways in which live-in jobs allow for the optimization of migrants as living resources. In addition, migrants may be tacitly excluded from the public space, and they may be denied a different social status (e.g. as consumer or parent) other than that of low-wage laborer in the receiving context. This is particularly evident in the difficulties that some migrants face in reuniting with their families, owing to their subordinate status in the receiving society. Migrant workers are aware of their low status in Ragusa and adopt strategies to conceal or contest it, including by denying class hierarchies, highlighting their professionalism and cosmopolitanism, underlining their material achievements, and distancing themselves from other workers. In so doing, ironically, they may embrace some stereotypes and boundary work deployed by employers and turn them into resources for redressing momentarily their subordinate position without challenging, however, the larger structures of inequality in which they remain embedded. One interesting finding shows that the market also influences the way in which different migrant groups relate to one another in a given context. Competition among migrant workers in the receiving labor market may influence the ways in which migrants try to maintain their dignity. By embracing the criteria used by their employers to build the image of the good worker they may contribute to reproducing the local sectorial ethnic hierarchies. In addition, the construction of otherness as a strategy to contest their subordinate position may heighten distance and distrust among workers of different origins, whose constitution as low-status workers occurs, nonetheless, at the intersection of similar axes of domination. Competition among migrant workers may thus hinder the emergence of joint strategies of resistance. This is another interesting area that would deserve closer scrutiny in future studies.

15In sum, my research has dealt with two emblematic figures of migration, care and farm migrant workers, offering some reflections on the shared experiences and constitution of these workers as part of a low-status local, yet global workforce that participates actively in the processes of neoliberal restructuring. Contemporary labor migration in Ragusa is not only about optimization. It is about people who sustain several globalized lives through their personhood and their work. They do so whatever the category ascribed to them: as labor power, as tools of capital accumulation, as policy targets, or as self-disciplining subjects and enforcers of migration management policy.


1 There is a debate around three key issues of “globalization”: first, when the process began (i.e. since the beginning of human history; five hundred years ago, or in the second half of the twentieth century); second, what factors underlie its development (i.e. economic, political, cultural); and third, where the process is ultimately leading (i.e. homogenization or heterogenization) (Appelrouth and Edles 2012: 750-751). Although enriched by this discussion, I simply intend to highlight the consensus around the fact that human mobility is a key aspect of contemporary globalization. For Appadurai, for example, “ethnoscapes” (global flows of people including tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guest workers) are an essential feature of the world. Together with electronic mass mediation migrations, ethnoscapes can create “a new sense of the global as modern and the modern as global” (Appadurai 1996: 10). For Bauman too, mobility is a key feature of globalization. Yet, as the freedom to move is a scarce, unevenly distributed commodity, for Baumann it is the main stratifying factor of postmodern times (1998: 2). For Eriksen (2007) globalization is characterized by different streams of people from diplomats to South-South migrants. Migration is a central element of transnational processes (e.g. transnational economics, minority creation, border control, long-distance nationalism), and tends to reproduce global inequalities.


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