Globalisation's Unsung Martyrs
by Jeremy Rose; ZNet; April 09, 2006

In same the week that ETA announced an indefinite ceasefire -- after more than 40 years of terrorism and 817 deaths -- Spanish police revealed that between 1000 and 1500 sub-Saharan Africans had died attempting to reach the Canary Islands in the last five months.

The first item was, rightly, front-page news and attracted acreage of coverage in the world's press -- the second was, generally, relegated to single story on the inside pages.

Those nameless 1000 to 1500 Africans represent between five and seven times the number of people who died attempting to reach West Berlin during the Berlin Wall's entire history.

But unlike the East German victims who were viewed as martyrs to an unjust tyranny, worthy of obituaries and tributes, the portrayal of the sub-Saharan Africans is usually that of an amorphous horde -- mere statistics that remind Europe of the need to strengthen border control.

The strengthening of the razor-wire curtain that separates Morocco from Spain's North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and the Moroccan Government's practice of rounding up would-be fence jumpers and dropping them off in the desert without food or water are no doubt contributing factors to the massive increase in the number of sub-Saharan Africans attempting the perilous journey for Mauritania to the Canary Islands.

The would-be immigrants pay about 500 Euros for a place in an over-crowded pirogue -- a traditional canoe-like fishing boat -- for the three-day, 960km journey. (A similar amount would easily cover the cost of a return flight from Barcelona to the tropical Spanish Canary Islands a journey of more than 4000km)

Spanish authorities estimate there are currently between 15,0000 and 20,000, West Africans in Mauritania planning to attempt the journey. Many of who will ultimately pay with their lives in an attempt to reach the high-wage economies of Europe.

The free market cheerleaders who forcefully proclaim the need for developing countries to open their markets and liberalise their economies are strangely, if predictably, silent on the human cost of the rich world's closed labour markets.

Their intellectual hero Adam Smith was in no doubt that there is no such thing as a free market for goods without an equally free labour market.

In his classic 1776 work The Wealth of Nations he wrote:

"Whatever obstructs the free circulation of labor from one employment to another obstructs that of stock likewise; the quantity of stock which can be employed in any branch of business depending very much upon that of the labor which can be employed in it. Corporation laws, however, give less obstruction to the free circulation of stock from one place to another than to that of labor. It is everywhere much easier for a wealthy merchant to obtain the privilege of trading in a town corporate, than for a poor artificer to obtain that of working in it...."

The more things change, the more things stay the same....

Europe is not alone in erecting barriers against would-be immigrants that result in large-scale death. Since 1995 the bodies of more than 3000 Latin Americans have been found along the 3000-plus km US-Mexican border. The actual death toll is likely to be much higher as many bodies are surely never found in the large stretches of desert that make-up most of the border.

None of this is to say there isn't a significant flow of labour from the poor world to the rich. The World Bank estimates that 70,000 of Africa's most qualified people leave each year and the continent spends $4bn to replace them with expatriate workers.

A few years ago I asked Tonga's then assistant secretary of labour, Maliu Mafi, how long he thought the island nation would require aid from New Zealand. He answered with a question of his own: "How long will New Zealand continue to keep nine out of 10 doctors we send there for training?"

A visit to a hospital in a developed country, be it New Zealand, Britain, the US, provides a graphic illustration of the extent to which poor countries are being plundered of their human resources. An extraordinary percentage of both the doctors and nurses have received their education courtesy of the taxpayers of the poor world.

At the other end of the scale immigrants, both legal and illegal, invariably carry out the lowest paid, most dangerous and least desirable work throughout the developed world.

Last year, I asked a well-to-do, liberal businessman in Beirut how often his family maid got a day off. "There's no provisions for days off in her contract," he replied. Her contract was for two years -- a long break between weekends in anybody's terms. The family's summer apartment didn't have enough bedrooms for the children, so the maid slept on the kitchen floor.

In countries without legislated minimum conditions and pay rates temporary guest workers are plainly vulnerable to exploitation.

And illegal immigrants are at even greater risk -- often regardless of whether there are legislated safeguards or not. No matter how bad the treatment they are hardly going to approach the authorities for help in the knowledge that deportation is the likely result.

In the US, business and farming lobbies are traditionally among those most opposed to serious crack-downs on illegal immigrants entering the country.

Illegal immigrants form the backbone of the nation's seasonal agricultural workforce. A workforce that is near impossible to unionise because of the ease at which "trouble-makers" can be disposed of.

The Socialist Government in Spain last year offered an amnesty for illegal residents that saw 40,000 people granted residency -- providing them not only with the ability to work legally but entitling them to free healthcare and the other benefits of the welfare state.

The move was inevitably criticized by the main opposition party but otherwise passed with little popular opposition -- apart from some grumbles from tomato growers in the south who objected because it would mean paying their workers more.

Meanwhile, President Bush is advocating a "non-immigrant temporary guest worker" visa. Union leader Linda Chavez-Thompson describes the proposal as a "blueprint for exploitation."

The proposal is viewed by the Hispanic community as a return to the Bracero program -- which allowed farmers to import "guest workers" for agricultural work.

Between 1942 and 1964 more than three million Mexicans entered the U.S. to work. The U.S. Department of Labor officer in charge of the programme, Lee G. Williams, described it as a system of "legalised slavery."

So what's to be done? Introducing a truly free world labour market definitely holds some appeal. It's hard to think of a surer way of convincing the power's that be in the rich world for the need for a Marshall-type plan for the entire developing world.

It's also never going to happen. Increasing and enforcing minimum pay rates in the rich world will not only ensure immigrant workers receive a fair days pay for a fair days work it will prevent the availability of immigrant labour pushing down pay rates for locals.

Perhaps most importantly we need to recognise the sub-Saharan Africans and Latinos workers who die attempting to open up the labour markets of the rich world for what they are: globalisation's unsung martyrs.

Jeremy Rose is a New Zealand journalist currently based in Barcelona