‘Being treated like slaves’: Why migrant exploitation exists


Recently Unite Union discovered a case of migrant exploitation where the workers talked about being “treated like slaves”.

In a capitalist society labour is meant to be “free” – unlike the forced labour associated with slavery. Workers are not meant to be the property of an individual owner. But it is also meant to be free in the sense that the worker is not bound to the land like feudal conditions. Then the serfs had no right to leave the land but the owner had no right to evict them either. Creating a class of “free labour” under capitalism involved the forced eviction of peasants from the land.

So, under capitalism, workers are meant to be free from any attachment to the means of production which is owned by the capitalist class. Capitalism appears to be full of freedoms. Landowners are free to rent their land to someone else or not. Big businesses can sell anything they own – be it a factory or an iphone – when or if they like.

Workers are “free” to sell their labour power to an owner at a certain price. But I may not find a buyer for my labour if my price is too high, Slaves or serfs did not have this problem. They could not be “laid off” when business was bad. A slave could be whipped, beaten, killed for poor performance but not sacked. The serf always had a piece of land to work.

Capitalism is a system of markets – for commodities, money, shares and bonds – but the most important market of all under capitalism is actually the “labour market”. In this market a worker must offer their labour power for sale at the prevailing price or “wage”.

For this market to function properly it needs a certain surplus of supply relative to demand, otherwise the price would be bid so high profits would be undermined and the system which relies on making profits as its driving force would cease to function. In his briliiant analysis of capitalism the socialist theorist Karl Marx called this relative surplus labour the “reserve army of labour”.

Current immigration policies in advanced capitalist countries like New Zealand is aimed at creating and preserving a “reserve army of labour” to hold down wages – the price of labour power.

Since class society arose a few thousand years ago, the class of non-workers monopolised ownership of the means of production. Serfs and slaves worked for these owners and a portion of their work each day went to their own reproduction and a portion went to the owners. It appeared that the slave was paid nothing but their were costs associated with their production and reproduction – food and shelter at a minimum – that needed to be met. What must be paid to the slave is “necessary labour” and the wealth produced beyond that is the “surplus labour”. The owner wants to minimise the former and maximise the latter.

Under “free” wage labour system it appears a worker is paid for all their labour. If I work a 20-hour week I get 20 hours pay. If I work a 40-hour week I get 40 hours pay. If I want more money I work more hours. If I want more leisure I work fewer hours. That seems fair. It appears I am working only for myself.

It appears I am selling all of my “labour” and am rewarded fully for it. Actually what I am selling is my ability to work – my “labour power”. The distinction is important. What I am paid is less than the value I produce – just like under serfdom or slavery. Value is simply a quantity of labour measured by a unit of time and embodied in a commodity or service.

LINKS for more

Comments are closed.