Globalization and Labor Rights

by David Hollander MFA '97

Patrisia Macías’ “Globalization and Migration” class has been studying the contentious issue of immigration in US cities, hoping to penetrate the reductive terms of our national debate. “The question everyone asks is, ‘Do immigrants take jobs?’” Macías say. “Even the scholarly literature fixates on this.” But Macías is trying to both broaden and humanize this conversation. She argues that neoliberal policies in favor of private enterprise, free markets, and individual moral responsibility have forced impoverished workers to risk migration to more viable urban economies.

On December 3, in an effort to bind the class’ themes to actual lived experience, Macías invited Shura Wallin—an activist for the Arizona-based organization Green Valley Samaritans—to share powerful, firsthand evidence of the devastation wrought by US immigration policies. Wallin and her fellow volunteers work against an unforgiving desert to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants at dire risk. (Sometimes they discover bodies; there were 253 known migrant deaths in the Arizona desert this past year.) Wallin refuses to “let people die in her backyard,” and denies the simple moral calculus that would vilify migrants for behaving illegally. She asked the students, “How far would you walk to prevent your child from dying?”

Afterward, Macías encouraged her visibly affected students to consider their readings in the context of Wallin’s testimony. The ensuing conversation was suffused with emotion, and with a burgeoning sense of the human rights abuses obscured by the framing of immigration as a national security issue.


“Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers,” a 2009 report on labor violations in US cities co-authored by Ruth Milkman

Patrisia Macías: Maybe we could start by discussing what parallels we can draw between the powerful testimony Shura has shared with us and the findings in [Milkman’s] report. What do you see here?

Jaimie Luria ’12: I saw a huge parallel between border patrols that separate families and just decide to act [on their own initiative], and the employers who decide it’s inconvenient for them to pay their workers. I’m wondering where the federal government comes in. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t understand how this is all so unregulated.

Haleigh Larmer ’14: I was going to say something similar … I feel really ignorant, but it’s confusing to me how this stuff can happen.

Jane Moore ’11: There’s this complete dismissal of the humans who are being picked up and dumped back on their side of the border. And at the same time, there’s a utilization of labor without any humanity to it.

Chloe Noonan ’11: I think that in terms of finding parallels ... if you look at the historical loss of power for labor unions, combined with government deregulation, you see the creation of an environment in which employers have a lot more discretion over how they treat their workers. The report talks about how certain demographics—women and migrant workers—are especially vulnerable to abuse, but it also reveals that these abuses are spread across the entire low-wage working population.

Kayla Malahiazar ’12: I think it’s important to look at these things together—global economies and the neoliberal movement, and this idea of racism. Because I almost feel as if the economics come before the racism. The racism is just a tool to avoid talking about the problems caused by an economic doctrine … because people are profiting. It’s very easy to point to another person or group and say, “It’s all your fault.”

Priscilla Liu ’14: (nodding) We use this image of the Other to make our lives more bearable. Listening to these stories is crippling. People do not want to hear these stories. … I think this is linked to our reading, which shows that some people blame the new migrants for the declining influence of unions. But that has nothing to do with it! We should be addressing the economics first.

Daisy Hill ’14: I think people are afraid to see and understand what’s really happening here.

Jaimie Luria: It’s all unbelievably ironic. There’s this idea of “othering,” but these people—these actual human beings—are so integrated into our society … they’re a huge part of the structure of our daily lives. There’s no way to reconcile the idea that the busboy is an “alien” with the idea that it’s fine for him to clean your dishes.

Aman Banerji ’14: Sociologically, it’s just easy for people to make this divide. We want the chance to say, “They’re not like us, we don’t need to understand them.”

Shura Wallin: (referring back to Daisy Hill) The media keeps this fear going. They seem to say “if only”—if only we could purge the United States of everyone who is not “us,” then everything would be fine. They simplify a very complicated issue. Our policy is this: we don’t want you, but we want your labor.

Patrisia Macías: I’m really hearing two questions here. The one that Jaimie opened up with is “Why is this allowed to happen?” And we’re trying to work through some of the explanations. But Kayla asked a provocative question that I think we should address. In terms of responding to the racial hierarchy, she suggests it’s a by-product of economic conditions. That’s a controversial claim. Many people would say, “Hell no, this is all about racism.”

Jane Moore: I can totally understand how economics could be at the forefront here, and that needs to be addressed as a major component. But if you look far enough back to what makes NAFTA possible and what makes the undermining of Mexico possible—which influences poverty and the need to escape—it’s all those post-World War II structures that were born out of the end of colonialism. I’m not entirely convinced that racism is a by-product.

Kayla Malahiazar: I’m not trying to say that there isn’t racism involved here or that racism doesn’t play a part in the way immigrants are treated …

Jaimie Luria: I’m thinking now, as we have this conversation, that it may be impossible to separate race and economics. We’re talking about the way the structural economic foundation views people.

Alan Medina ’14: This is complicated. If you look at the charts, everybody is being affected by workplace violations. NAFTA was meant to make profit for big corporations, who are pretty scary in terms of the impact they have on the world. Their policies are responsible for what appears to be racism. If you look at [Harvard sociology professor George] Borjas, he claims that immigrants are taking jobs from African Americans … but this ignores the larger causes. …

Priscilla Liu: I agree with Alan. Things will always move toward minimizing costs. The employers are part of the larger framework. If you’re looking around to see where to plant a new factory, you’re just going to follow the numbers. …

Kayla Malahiazar: If you agree with neoliberalism … then nothing is wrong with the system. If a worker is unhappy or being exploited, he’ll move to another employer and things will even out. Neoliberalism thinks from the top down and doesn’t see the social aspects or the practical aspects of not having a job. A lot of people think in these terms, which is why nothing is really being done.