Book Review: The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement. Edited by Joseph B. Atkins – reviewed by Richard Abernethy

Summary: A look at migrant workers in many countries, their experiences and struggles and the organisations they are building. Originally published by LabourStart, 2016 — Editors

If the migrant workers of the world had a country of their own, it would rank about sixth by population, of a size with Brazil or Pakistan. That’s just counting people – an estimated 200 million – who cross national borders in search of work. Migrant workers within countries are even more numerous, with an estimated 400 million in India alone.

These flows of human beings are driven by uneven development and global inequality. Lacking adequate livelihoods and opportunities at home, people travel to wealthier countries (or regions within countries) in search of paid work and in the hope of a better life.

Often, though not always, the migrant worker experience is one of low pay, long hours, harsh and unsafe conditions, disrespect, substandard housing, and legal rights either lacking or hard to obtain in practice. At worst, modern slavery enforced by threatened or actual violence. The chapter on India in particular recounts some horrific crimes against migrants. What’s more, migrants are often treated with suspicion or outright hostility by sections of the resident population, the press and politicians. As one contributor from Singapore, puts it, “It is easy politics all over the world – blame the foreigner”. Yet the destination countries depend on migrant workers for harvesting fruit and vegetables, cleaning, domestic care and much else.

This slim volume of just 132 pages brings together accounts of migrant workers in many countries, from many countries. Two chapters are situated in the United States. One is the story of Eulogio Solana, a Mixteco migrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, who arrived in California to work in agriculture and became an organiser for the United Farm Workers. The other tells of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. Other chapters relate to Moroccans in Gibraltar, Japan’s ethnic Koreans, the migrant experience in Singapore and Israel, and Argentina as a country of both immigration and emigration.

As the subtitle declares, these are all “tales from a global migrant worker movement”. As Joseph B. Atkins puts it in his Introduction, this is “a network that includes but also reaches beyond traditional labor unionism by incorporating churches, non-governmental organizations and a wide range of community and social groups. Whether by traditional strike, boycott, corporate campaign or word of mouth, it takes the fight to a broader public, and, although rarely credited in the mainstream media, it often wins”.

More questionably, Atkins writes: “The new and rising movement takes its inspiration from historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi, who preached corporate responsibility and the idea that capitalists are ‘trustees’ rather than owners of property, and Martin Luther King Jr., who died championing the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn.” There is no evidence for the direct influence of Gandhi or King anywhere in the book. Many of those involved may have little knowledge of radical history and think of their organisations as an ad hoc response to immediate problems rather than part of any historic tradition. For those who do identify with some tradition, this could be Marxism, syndicalism or anarchism.

Issues, forms of organisation and modes of activity differ according to circumstances. In China, where migration is mostly internal, from often impoverished rural areas to burgeoning cities, independent unions are not permitted but there is a network of law centres to support workers in taking their bosses to court over such matters as delayed wages, unpaid overtime and compensation for injury.

In Japan, half a million ethnic Koreans constitute the second largest ethnic minority (after the Chinese). Many are descendants of people who came to Japan in the early twentieth century, when Korea was ruled by Japan as a colony. In 1923, after a major earthquake struck Tokyo, there was a massacre in which more than 6,000 people were killed. Most of the victims were Koreans; ethnic Chinese and Japanese socialists were also targeted. To this day, the Japanese government has never recognised that the massacre took place. An organisation known as Hosenka [Jewelweed] (one of several support/advocacy groups for Koreans in Japan) works to commemorate those who died and discover their remains. Racism against Koreans remains a force in contemporary Japan.

To become an organiser in California, Eugenio Solano had to learn a new language – not English, but Spanish. In his home village in Oaxaca, people spoke only Mixteco. As a Mexican immigrant in the United States and a member of an indigenous community in Mexico, he faced multiple levels of prejudice. “In Santa Maria many immigrants are from Sinaloa and Guanajuato. They’re tall and fair, and they made fun of us for being short and dark. It made me mad when they’d call us Oaxacos or Oaxaquitos. We don’t call them Michoacanitos or Guanajuatitos. The people that call us these names think we’re inferior. But we respect others regardless of what Mexican state they’re from, and ask for that same respect back.”

This book deserves to be widely read to raise awareness and build support for this emerging movement of migrant workers.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



No items found