Left Nationalism and Labour Migration: A Law and Political Economy Perspective

There is no doubt that we are currently seeing what the journalist David Adler has identified as a resurgence of ‘left nationalism’ – a theme picked up in recent contributions to Futures of Work. 

The formation of Aufstehen (‘Get Up’) in Germany, which proposes a strong welfare state and curbs on migration, is one of the most prominent examples of this trend. Meanwhile, in the US, hot on the heels of a  well-received book dissecting the toxic online subcultures of the ‘Alt-Right’, the writer Angela Nagle summed up some of main themes of the emerging left nationalism in an incendiary articled called the ‘Left Case Against Open Borders.’  

Ostensibly drawing on Marxism, Nagle argued that bosses foisted low-paid migration on unsuspecting workers in rich countries as a tool to fracture solidarities and drive down wages. For Nagle, open borders and mass migration were ideas dreamt up in the laboratories of free market thinktanks and corporate boardrooms.  

Against such arguments, most defenders of migration miss the mark, at least politically. They often rely on complex econometric models to contend that migration has negligible impacts on labour markets and social welfare systems, and in fact, in the long-term, can improve economic growth.  

Both positions – the uncomplicatedly pro- and anti-migrant left  are deeply unsatisfactory because they provide an incomplete description of the relationship between migration and labour markets. More importantly, these partial accounts lend support to political programmes that either entrench anti-immigrant, right-wing populism, or conversely, exculpate a status quo that permits precarious forms of migration subjected to a variety of immigration controls.  

Law and political economy 

Following on from discussions in previous editions of Futures of Work, I provide a law and political economy analysis of labour migration, focusing particularly on temporary, low-wage guest worker programmes. This analysis advances our understanding of the complex effects of migration on labour markets in at least three distinct ways.  

First, rather than just focusing on outcomes, a law and political economy approach seeks to elucidate processes. Migration is a dynamic phenomenon, which concurrently responds to domestic and international conditions as well as stimulates them. To obtain a complete picture of migration, it is important to see how labour markets create the conditions for the expansion of migration, and in turn, to think also about how migration contributes to the transformation of labour markets.  

Second, a law and political economy approach seeks to identify who benefits from migration. Narratives about the national benefits of migration often obscure the fact that labour markets are made up of actors with different class positions and divergent interests. Not everyone benefits equally from migration.  

Third, a law and political economy approach examines the constitutive role of the law in these processes. All forms of migration are not identical, and the legal rights and restrictions that accompany various forms of migration determine the degree and form of the political agency available to workers. In doing so, these legal rights and restrictions shape the labour market outcomes for domestic and migrant workers. The focus of this piece is on temporary labour migration because it brings many of these dynamics into sharp relief.  

The model I propose takes as its starting point the neoliberal restructuring that Global North countries have undergone in the last few decades. This restructuring has starkly affected labour markets and government services, creating an environment where demand for foreign workers runs high. Governments have responded by devising a variety of immigration programmes to sate this demand.  

These programmes usually impose a series of de jure and de facto restrictions on migrant workers, thereby ensuring that they have no option but to occupy the sections of the labour market blighted by precarious work arrangements. In turn, the presence of migrant workers subjected to immigration restrictions deepens and extends the process of neoliberal restructuring of labour markets. It also allows governments to temporarily address the contradictions created by years of privatisation and austerity. This model can be pictorially represented as a feedback loop (fig. 1).  


Fig. 1 

Neoliberal restructuring of labour markets and the state 

Labour markets in Global North economies have undergone profound processes of restructuring since the late 1970s. For the sake of this argument, I will focus my attention on the UK, but similar patterns are observable in many other comparable countries.  

One significant change has been the decline in the manufacturing sector’s share of employment. In 1971 there were almost 7.87 million workers employed in manufacturing in the UK, but this number was down to 2.68 million workers in 2016. In the same period, the population increased by almost 20 per cent.  

This period was marked by the shift of production to Global South countries where wages were comparably lower and the prospect of workers organising to improve their situation more difficult. The manufacturing that remained was either advanced production typified by the use of cutting-edge technology (e.g. weapons and aerospace manufacturing in Filton), or production characterised by subcontracting and informalisation (e.g. ‘fast fashion’ garment production in Leicester).  

Meanwhile, the service sector’s share of employment continued to grow spurred by the growth of the ‘FIRE’ (finance, insurance, and real estate) economy as well as low-wage industries to service the lifestyles of these new professional and technical overlords.  

A powerful set of economic and legal processes have driven these trends, but a law and political economy perspective must pay particular attention to their legal construction. Chief amongst them has been the ‘deregulation’ of employment law, a motley label that encompasses a diverse set of legal processes involving the three overlapping systems of work regulation: the contract of employment, statutory rules imposing various standards (e.g. minimum wage) and processes (e.g. unfair dismissal), and collective agreements between unions and employers.  

Deregulation with regards to the statutory rules generally involves the reduction in the scope of their application, if not their wholesale repeal. It can also mean the non-enforcement of these legal standards by underfunding labour inspectorates and imposing upon them a regulatory philosophy of compliance rather than enforcement.  

In the collective sphere, so-called deregulation often means changing the rules governing industrial action to make it more difficult for workers to take collective action to protect their interests or those of other workers. Since collective action is the leverage that workers need to negotiate a collective agreement, the curtailment of the right to strike has meant a decline in the proportion of the workforce covered by collective agreements.  

The reduction in statutory protection and the de-collectivisation of employment law means that the contract of employment becomes more important as a mode of regulation. One of Britain’s foremost labour lawyers once observed that the individual employment contract is critical to the British experience of ‘deregulation’.” Stubbornly attached to a juridical notion of equality and wilfully blind to the imbalances in power between workers and bosses, the common law of contract allows employers maximum flexibility in determining workers’ conditions of employment.  

The result of these economic and legal transformations is a deeply segmented labour market, divided into primary and secondary labour markets. The primary labour market provides secure jobs with decent rates of remuneration and the potential to enjoy some level of career progression. These conditions allow workers to organise and ensure that the regulatory structure continues to protect these benefits. The secondary labour market provides low-wage jobs that are insecure. Workers are usually engaged in a variety of precarious arrangements, including seasonal or temporary work, engagement through employment agencies, on zero-hour contracts, and as own-account workers. The secondary workforce draws heavily on workers with marginalised identities who continue to face discrimination in the workplace, such as migrants. Thus, labour markets both exploit and perpetuate the exploitation of racialised workers, the young, women and differently-abled.  

We also need to look beyond remunerated work to understand transformations in labour markets. The treatment of the unemployed merits special attention. Neoliberal restructuring of the welfare state, which has in many instances resulted in punitive changes to the provision of unemployment benefits, drives people into secondary labour markets by forcing them to accept work that is precarious and underpaid.  

Similarly, feminist scholars have alerted us to the interdependence between the formal labour market and the sphere of social reproduction – the latter a focus of earlier contributions to Futures of Work 

The participation of women in the formal workforce is shaped by whether the needs of social reproduction are met through unpaid domestic work or paid wage labour. Neoliberalism has generally meant a shift from community non-profit childcare centres to privately-run operators. This has left low-income women with the invidious task of juggling paid work and parenthood, while those on higher-incomes have had the option of ‘importing’ workers from the Global South—often mothers and carers themselves—to provide care for their children.  

Producing labour demand 

Labour demand in the economy must be understood within this broader context. It is clear that employers in the low-wage economy, including agriculture and social care, find it difficult to recruit workers. This is one instance in which straightforward employer mendacity is not an adequate explanation. While there is a myriad of reasons for this labour demand, such as geographical mismatch between the jobs available and those looking for work, one of the main reasons is that local workers do not want to accept jobs with working conditions that have become severely degraded through the process of neoliberal restructuring described above.  

Labour shortages also exist in fast-growing sectors of the high-wage economy, such as finance and information technology. However, in the cases of these industries, the labour shortages are mostly caused by inadequate investment by states and employers in education and training. 

To meet these labour shortages, employers express a desire for migrant workers. While often couched in the language of labour shortages or migrants’ superior worth ethic, employer preferences should be understood as a preference for workers with legal restrictions on mobility in the labour market and inferior employment rights. Temporary labour migration programmes, which allow workers to be tied to particular employers, are especially popular with employers because these programmes prevent workers circulating in the labour market.  

Immigration law can impose further restrictions which appeal to employers. For example, many low-wage guestworker programmes do not allow workers to be accompanied by their family members, which means that these workers are more likely to work asocial and longer hours to meet fluctuating demand.  

Finally, the labour rights of these workers are rendered ineffective because employers can effectively have these workers deported by terminating their contracts of employment—migrant workers’ visas require them to be employed as a condition of stay. This means that these workers are less likely to agitate in the workplace for improved working conditions.  

In addition, many of the ordinary channels of political representation open to citizens, such as voting, are closed off to them. Understood in these terms, employer appeals for migrant workers are nothing more than demands for workers with restrictions, which cannot be imposed on citizen-workers, to fill the lower echelons of the labour market. 

Migrant workers are often aware of the misery and tedium that awaits them, yet they come in search of jobs. Some come looking for work because war, persecution, or climate change-induced phenomena have left their homelands uninhabitable. Scholars have also drawn attention to the ways in which global economic processes create the conditions that create migration. For example, Saskia Sassen has shown how foreign investment stimulates workers into wage labour, creates cultural and ideological links between sending and receiving countries, and increases migration.  

Migration from the Global South to the Global North takes place against the backdrop of uneven development and extreme inequality. For most migrants, the act of moving is an act of political agency, albeit one exercised in a world of extremely constrained choices. Migration provides a narrow path for migrants to shape and control their life and provide the basic needs of their nearest and dearest.  

Regulating labour markets 

The presence of temporary labour migrants can have a regulatory effect on the labour market. What does it mean to say that migration regulates labour markets?  

The model I have proposed has adopted the labour market as the unit of analysis. However, this is not the same labour market that neoclassical economists claim is regulated by the inviolable laws of supply and demand. Instead, following the work of scholars such as Jamie Peck, I consider labour markets to be regulated by a range of legal rules, institutions, and social processes. This suggests that phenomena such as migration can have a regulatory effect because they control, order, and structure economic and social activity. 

Through migration, states can ensure a regular supply of workers to meet labour demand in the secondary labour market. This may take the form of formal guestworker programmes, but it may also occur through a variety of other less well-understood means—e.g. youth mobility programmes and working rights for international students. States also have the capacity to adjust their border enforcement policies to regulate the flow of workers.  

But outcomes do not always match government intentions. For instance, when the United States set out to import temporary agricultural workers during the middle of the 20th century under the Bracero Programmeit had the unintended consequence of creating a permanent undocumented workforce in America.  

Of course, states do not act merely at the behest of capital—nation states mediate between a complex web of interests and have geopolitical interests of their own. For example, we should see the widespread use of temporary Chinese workers in Africa in Sino-funded infrastructure projects as part of a strategy geared towards ensuring China takes its place in the pantheon of great imperialist nations.  

State policies, however, do more than simply regulate the movement of workers. Through a combination of immigration controls and labour laws, states can channel workers into particular industries and segments of the labour market and render them compliant. Cindy Hahamovitch has described this process as the mobilization and immobilization of labour.  

Labour migration can also act to discipline local workers, because employers can readily point to this willing workforce to compel workers to work harder for less and to restrain their demands for more. In the process, these sectors can become dependent on migrant workersIt is for this reason that labour migration can be said to expand and deepen the neoliberal restructuring of labour markets. 

Finally, labour migration also assists states in obscuring the contradictions wrought by privatisation and underinvestment in public services by requiring sending states to bear the costs of the social reproduction of these workers. This has obvious fiscal benefits for host states, allowing them to pursue austerity and neoliberal tax strategies. The importation of highly skilled doctors and nurses from the Global South represents a particularly troubling example.  

Depending on the programme in question, guest worker programmemay also limit migrant workers’ access to welfare services in host states, such as health, education, and retirement benefits. Hence, labour migration allows states to obtain the full benefit of having a ready and willing workforce without any of the costs of maintenance. 


A law and political economy perspective has several important implications for the political programme that the left should adopt. For a start, and as made clear in a recent piece in Futures of Work by Tonia Novitz, it makes clear that that migrants are not the problem – the issue instead is the neoliberal restructuring of labour markets. Migrant workers are just as much victims of these processes as local workers. To the extent that recent migrants displace workers and negatively affect wages and conditions, the impact is borne by local workers who are migrants themselves.  

Even if left nationalists get their way and migration is limited or curbed altogether, working conditions in the secondary labour market are unlikely to improve automatically. Wages might temporarily increase because the structural power of workers in the secondary labour market would improve, but employers would soon counter this power by exercising new forms of control over the production process, such as utilising technologyexploiting gender and racial differences amongst the workforce, and manipulating legal categories 

To meaningfully and permanently improve wages and working conditions in the secondary labour market, there will need to be a collective effort to build power amongst the workers engaged in these precarious jobs.  

Even while we might inveigh against the way in which manufacturing jobs have become conflated with good jobs in the political imagination, we can recognise the role that labour struggle played in improving the conditions and status of manufacturing work.  

Similarly, jobs in the secondary labour market could improve, but it will require a fight. Given the gendered and multiracial composition of the workforce, a successful fight will require building alliances between the disparate groups to present a united front against capital. Left nationalism risks rupturing the very solidarities necessary to surmount these difficulties.  

One of the key ways in which labour movements can build these bridges is by supporting everyone’s right to move and migrant workers’ demands to be free of immigration controls such as restrictions on their ability to circulate within the labour market and the right to be accompanied by loved ones. By recognising that immigrant workers’ struggles are forms of class struggle, and by supporting their demands, we might just create the conditions for a true transformation of labour market conditions.  


Manoj Dias-Abey is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol

Image Credit: TheAndrasBarta, via Pixabay