History of Migrant Labor in South Africa and California Essay


            The constant renewal of a labor force through the establishment of vacancies and filling them, aids a capitalist economy to function efficiently; this is the maintenance of the labor force. To characterize a system of migrant labor, there has to be an establishment in the difference between the institution itself, and the physical separation of the processes of renewal and maintenance. Migrant labor also depends upon the presence or lack of employment in a specific area, and the state of an economy of another area. Migrant labor in most countries is managed by specific policies that include legal and political, which determine the geographical mobility and restrictions in some occupations and is made worse by the fact that such migrants are powerless in their place of employment. This powerlessness is brought about by the fact that there are certain legal and political mechanisms that restrict some of their freedoms.

            The term ‘migrant’ in general means an individual living in a country other than his, or her own native country. The lack or inadequacy of certain fundamental requirements such as land, food and water, have been the main causes of migration since time immemorial. Other causes include natural calamities such as major floods and severe droughts, which may also force people to move out of their native country. The major divide between the rich and the poor in economically challenged countries is also a major factor in the migration of people. In such countries, there is a surge in the rate of population growth, while the social amenities remain stagnated, putting pressure on individuals to migrate. This stagnation is brought about by poor economic policies which include massive debts, lack of technological know-how which hampers economic development. Some countries that are strife torn, due to political, religion, race or ethnic conviction also produce migrants known as ‘refugees’, who have the right to be protected by foreign countries due to international convections. Migration is also made possible by improvements in technology that enable adequate advertisement of destinations, and what is there to be expected upon migration.  The push and pull factors that Burawoy is highlighting include political factors, with the push factor being the migration due to fear of persecution due to war and conflicts, or due to a certain political preference, for example Jews fleeing Europe due to the holocaust. The political pull factor could be the lure to freedom for such migrants to more peaceful and welcoming countries.  The economic push factors could include low employment levels and poor income on the few available jobs. The pull economic factor is the presence or even the perceived presence of availability of better paying jobs.  While the physical push is the presence of natural calamities as mentioned above, the pull is the attraction of a more conducive climate and environment.

                        Burawoy (1976) argues that there should be a distinct separation between the maintenance and the renewal of labor within a given economy of a country. This is due to the fact that the costs of maintenance and renewal of workers can bear a major grunt in the financial status of an economy since; it is the economy of a country that sustains the costs. He also argues that the political and or economical costs that the migrant employee may bring about is not borne by the employer of migrant labor, since to some extent it is extended to an alternate state or even economy. He further talks about how there is necessity for the economy to grow in a capitalist economy, and this is achieved through production and reproduction. The laboring population on the other hand, depends on the employment for their survival. This interdependence is the drive towards the unification found in a feudalism system and is further reinforced by coercive regulation.

            From Burawoy (1976)’ s research, he argues that the prior findings found on the benefits and costs of migrant labor are far much more complicated than it is depicted by writers who wrote about migrant labor before him. According to his findings, he states that the cost of the reproduction of labor power is reduced, or much more manageable, when there is an effective system of migrant labor, which constitutes a cheap labor power. He however states that the costs that writers are talking about are not categorical in stating to whom the cheap costs of labor are, whether to the employer or to the state. He also figures out that the writers do not examine exactly which aspects of the costs of reproduction of labor are reduced, that is, whether it is the renewal or maintenance. Some other findings that Burawoy (1976) found out that the other writers did not dwell on, was the fact that even though migrant labor may present itself as a saving to the economy and the employer, the costs of the reproduction of such a system (migrant labor) might outdo the benefits gained, since the writers did not dwell on the political and economical costs of the reproduction of such labor. Looking at the case of black migrant labor in the mines of South Africa, Burawoy (1976) notes that such workers receive just enough pay to sustain their day to day needs. He also notes that such black workers migrate between the areas where they are allowed to acquire domicile land also known as ‘reserves’ and or neighboring black countries, and their places of work. He also notes that since migrant labor is perceived as cheap to the employer, mines would have to increase their wages to a certain significant amount if they were to compete with the other manufacturing sectors for this cheap labor.

            Burawoy (1976) also looks into the costs associated with migrant labor such as the economical costs and the political costs. The economical costs are driven down, owing to the fact that most of the black people from the neighboring countries and the reserves are desperate for a source of income, considering that majority of the population from the reserve depend on the income from their kinsmen residing or working within the urban areas. This makes it possible for the employers to acquire cheap labor that they can exploit, and there is no legal framework protecting the worker, but instead it is the other way round where the employer is the one protected by law. The political costs include the presence of a large population of black stable people, governed by a white supremacist state. Burawoy (1976) also looks at the concept that migrant labor is cheap and comes up with the question, ‘cheap to whom in particular?’ He argues that although migrant labor is perceived as cheap, it is actually expensive if looked at in a broader sense, or at least to some sectors of the economy. He states that large industries rely largely on unskilled labor, as opposed to small scale industries that mainly rely on skilled labor, which is normally more expensive to maintain and recruit. This is due to the reliance on the market institutions for the regulation of the labor supply. Considering that the state relies on funding from other institutions such as these industries, it is important to note that the state will bear the grunt of the costs associated with migrant labor, as the industries will only have to bear a small percentage of the costs. He also notes that as much as migrant labor might be cheap to the large industries that rely on migrant unskilled labor, it is paramount to note that since it is the state that bears the burden as mentioned earlier, the state does not finance itself, but rather gets it’s funding from revenues collected via ways and means such as taxation. By extension, the industries also bear the grunt of the costs of migrant labor, and thus the question is not only to who is migrant labor cheap, but also in respect to what, and also under what conditions.

            Burawoy (1976) goes back into the events that led to the emergence of migrant labor in the South African mines. The blacks living in the rural areas had heavy taxes imposed on them, making it hard for them to maintain their lifestyles from subsistence methods, forcing them to seek employment from the upcoming industries. The state also expropriated land; making it difficult for these Africans to exist on subsistence methods and making them look for an additional or alternative source of income. He even gives an example of the Malawians who trekked to the South African or the Zambian copper mines. Another point that led to the emergence of migrant labor was the conscription of healthy African males by the then colonial system. Also those Africans who stayed in their farms and opted for agriculture as the main source of income and their livelihood, were forced in to migrant labor, through subsidies imposed by the colonial administration, that were discriminatory in the favor of the white farmers. This was partly done by the lure of better rewards in the wage system of getting income, as opposed to staying in the reserves and trying to earn off agriculture. This system of migrant labor gave rise to a major dependence on a capitalist economy, where still taxes had to be paid, but yet a substantial amount could still be sent to the family members in the reserves by the individuals working in the urban areas. Hence the largely dependence on a capitalist economy was brought about by the inability of the reserve areas to support a labor force that is ever reproducing.

            According to the findings of Burawoy (1976) in his study, the wages of the African migrant labor workers is calculated based on the amount that they would have otherwise made form subsistence alternatives. However, the rural economy in the South African reserve areas are under serious decay, owing to soil erosion and over-population which make the subsistence mode of making a living increasingly difficult. He quotes the work of Wolpe and states his findings that the South African government having realized this worrying trend, sets to balance it off by setting aside funds to ease the situation, though the amount set aside as compared to the situation at hand, is not enough to reverse the situation. So the government turned to a system of communal land tenure system, by slowing down land accumulation by some Africans and the dispossession of land. In his findings, Burawoy (1976) further talks about the case being different in the neighboring country to South Africa, of Malawi. Instead of the rural economy suffering a blow due to the influx in migrant labor, it has got a boost. This is due to the fact that the able bodied men that migrated out of the reserves remit their earning to the rural areas, and those that remained in the reserves continue with subsistence activities.

            The laws in South Africa at that time according to Burawoy (1976), was such that a migrant worker was unable to get permanent residence within the urban areas, and thus was forced to go back to the rural areas in case the employment was terminated due to reasons such as disability, sickness or even retirement. These laws ensured that remittance of wages earned by the migrant workers aided in the sustaining of the rural economy and thus ensure that there was efficient circulation and renewal of the labor force. Due to the apartheid situation in South Africa, there was a color bar that was introduced that limited colored individuals from working in the skilled positions in the industries. This ensured that occupational mobility was highly limited especially and mostly, to colored workers. Such factors have made the permanent integration of the migrant labor force which is predominantly black close to impossible in that era and particularly in South Africa.

            In the United States of America, Burawoy (1976) notes that California is the largest in terms of agricultural production, and thus farm labor is the major form of migrant labor found in this state. He notes that the first migrant laborers were the Chinese, but due to the economic depression, whites also were later employed in these farms. Much later came the Japanese who where later replaced by the Mexicans. Burawoy (1976) notes that migrant labor is much easy to lay off in times of economic recession, and also considering that agriculture is seasonal, there are times when the labor force has to be reduced to a considerable number. Burawoy (1976) also puts into consideration the three types of migrant labor systems available in California, that is laborers moving from Mexico to California and vice versa known as external migrant labor, then there is internal migrant labor which consists of immigrants residing within California, then finally the domestic labor that seeks employment from place to place. Cheap labor is also an issue in California as it was in the South African mines, since migrant labor is much cheaper than domestic labor, considering that it is seasonal just like the harvest season. He also sees that there is lesser twin dependency on two economies as opposed to the South African case where migrants had to rely on both rural subsistence and wages made in the mines. In the case of external migrants in California, that is Mexicans, they tend to rely more on their state as opposed to relying on employment in America. For internal migrants, they are more dependent on employment in America, but yet, they are also limited to farm labor just like their external counterparts. On the issue of the regulation of circulation by the government, laws ensured that migrant laborers from Mexico returned to their native country once their contract expired. This also ensured that occupational mobility was limited owing to the fact that they were restricted to the unskilled labor. Equally, the color bar could not be put into use in the California case due to the fact that most if not all the labor is unskilled. Minimum wage conditions also prevents domestic laborers from demanding that they be employed over the eternal migrant laborers, thus limiting discrimination in the employment of labor as opposed to the South African case.

            From Burawoy’s study, one can conclude that race plays a major role in determining the level of exploitation of a work force since in the case of South Africa, whites have had political prominence as opposed to the black population. Also in the case of the California migrant workers, the relation that one or a certain group has with the state plays a major role in determining the difference between the renewal and maintenance of the labor force and distinguishes domestic workers from migrant workers. It is quite important to note that in both cases, there is competition between two castes of workers; in South Africa the whites and the blacks, while in California the migrant and the domestic workers. Thus it is fair to conclude that permanent integration into the work force is impossible owing to the political, social and economical policies set forth and promoted by the governments governing both these states.


Burawoy, M. (1976). The Functions and Reproduction of Migrant Labor. Comparative Material             from Southern Africa and the United States, Vol. 81(1050-1087). Retrieved from             http://www.geog.psu.edu/courses/geog497labor/Readings/Burawoy76_Migrant_Labor.pdf


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