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International Labor Movements

International Labor Movements“Workmen of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains!” were the words of Karl Marx in late 1800s. Just a few of decades ago finding a Polish lady employed in a British pub, a Romanian working on a building site in France, or a man from Morocco picking fruit in Southern Spain, would have been a much less frequent prospect than it is today. As we move into the 21st century, patterns of employment are changing as workers are becoming increasingly globalized and free of national boundaries, seeking work overseas. But are governments, trade unions and labor markets, the latter of which has been historically constrained by national borders, embracing the growing trend of people migrating abroad for work and working together for a strong international labor movement? Or are they, instead, suppressing and discouraging people from departing national borders to find work?

Multinational companies are becoming more and more dominant, influenced by the rising levels of global trade and creating a need for an intercontinental workforce, which inevitably manipulates the geographical movements of workers. Despite a healthy growth in the productivity of international labor, unemployment in many countries remains a problem, particularly lately since the global recession manifested itself. Because of high unemployment, people are choosing to migrate to more ‘affluent’ countries, lured there by the prospect of higher wages, more ‘lucrative’ jobs, and a better standard of living.

Because of this increase of trade on an international scale, the merging of divergent ethnicities in many large, global corporations, and the growing tendency for workers to migrate, there has been renewed efforts for international cooperation to adopt a set of international labor standards, that would improve and advance the interests of workers globally.

These efforts have seen the birth and development of several international labor movements with a vested interest to represent the collective interests of workers across the globe. For example, the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) was set up to support the welfare and defend the rights of 25 million metalworkers from almost 200 countries.

Although international labor movements, which seek to improve the working conditions of workers collectively across the globe is far from a new phenomenon. At the end of World War I, the International Labor Organization (ILO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, was set up to deal with labor issues on an international scale. In founding the ILO, the scholars, social policy experts and politicians involved in its naissance, carved an unprecedented international organizational framework for labor politics, namely promoting social justice and giving people the right to decent work.

But whilst the International Labor Organization has proved to be a vital asset in achieving international labor standards for over a century, so much so that in 1969 the organization received the Nobel Peace prize for its unprecedented efforts in facilitating international collective bargaining within the realms of the international labor movement, sadly there has been slow progression made in attracking attentin and interest in the welfare of workers extending their national borders.

Primarily laws regarding labor are still determined and confined within individual nations, and sadly, instead of embracing the growing number of migrating workers, some countries are implementing strategies and laws to control, limit and even reduce foreigners from working in their country. Regrettably, Spain, a nation of mixed fortunes at present, being the world champions in football but experiencing grave problems with its economy, has recently executed some controversial and arguably unfavorable policies regarding migrant labor.

The dynamic economy Spain encountered during the last decade was largely driven by the thriving property market which relied heavily on cheap, migrant labor to help construct the increasing demand of new builds, particularly on the coastal areas. Consequently the immigrant population in Spain leapt phenomenally in the past few years as workers from Latin America, North Africa and Eastern Europe took advantage of the situation, which was reciprocally favorable to the Spanish.

Today the picture is not quite so rosey, with the housing situation being reduced to a state of stagnation, there is no longer demand for foreign labor and as a result Spanish unemployment rates are at an EU high. Out of the 2.1 million foreigners registered for social security in Spain, during the past year the number of these foreigners claiming unemployment benefits has shot up by 81%. To combat the swelling unemployment rates, the Spanish government announced a controversial initiative to try to encourage jobless immigrants to leave Spain and return to their own country in exchange for their promise not to return to the country for at least three years. The initiative, which came into fruition last year, means participating foreigners are paid 18,000 Euros to sacrifice their Spanish residency.

Gheorghe Catargiu, his wife Michaela and their six year old son Alexandru, moved to Spain from Romania several years ago after a friend had informed them of the earning potential in this “lucrative” old Andalusian town, as in Romania, Gheorghe was earning as little as 100 Euros a month. Gheorghe was working in the booming Spanish construction industry, but since the building slump, both himself and Mihaela have been forced to arduously pick fruit in the vast fields near the coast of Almeria. Leaving in the early hours of the morning, the couple would not returned until 14 hours later as the plantations were over a two hour drive away. This gritty and determined couple could cope with this hectic schedule, until recently due to a work induced back injury caused by being bent over for ten hours a day, Mihaela has been bed bound for the past three months, unable to walk let alone work. Now with just Gheorghe bringing money into the household, times are even harder but in their typically tolerating fashion this Romanian family makes light of the situation, staunchly stating that even on one salary they are better off in Spain than in Romania.

Like Gheorghe and his family, many immigrants in Spain feel like they have been used and that the Spanish government is acting incongruously by pragmatically opening the doors to immigrants during the good times and then closing them when hit with a crisis.

Effectively bribing foreigners to leave a country is a far cry from constructing a cosmopolitan global future that encouraging international labor movements would inevitably bring. It also challenges the credentials of the International Working Men’s Association, formed in 1864, to increase international labor cooperation, and the appeals of the organization’s most influential member, Karl Marx for the “workmen of the world to unite”.

At a time of great financial uncertainty, flocking to where the “grass is greener” is an attractive solution. But as international labor movements, which persevere for global cooperation to protect the welfare of workers around the world is not being given the consideration it was at the time the likes of Karl Marx were involved, then people like Gheorghe Catargiu, instead of uniting with an international labor force will be forced to separate, with chains of bureaucracy prohibiting them from embarking on employment anywhere other than the four corners of their own country.

Gabrielle Pickard

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