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The current migratory crisis in Latin America is the failure of neoliberal models for economic development in the region (2018)

Francis Vinicius Portes Virginio, University of Strathclyde (2018)

Caravans of Central American migrants crossing borders, the increased detention of unaccompanied children in the United States and the construction of a wall at the US border are hot issues. While emigration towards the United States make the headlines, this pattern of migration is only the tip of the iceberg of migration crisis in Latin America. Successive migratory crises remain a stark example of the incapacity of neoliberal capitalism to ensure the working class has decent working and living conditions in Latin America. Indeed, the super-exploitation of Latin American workers has been a key feature of development models in the region, forcing workers to engage in several extra activities to ensure their social reproduction. International migration has been one of these strategies: While the motivations of migrants are complex, the increased poverty, extremely low wages, high unemployment rates and violence caused by gangs and militias in Latin American States point to the failure of neoliberalism and effective governance.

The immigration of Haitians through the Brazilian Amazon region vividly illustrates an emerging migratory tension in Latin America. The emigration rate of Haitians has continuously increased since the 2010 earthquake despite the 13-year United Nations Humanitarian Mission in the country in which Brazil played a leadership role and helped to implement a neoliberal model for a much needed economic development in the country. Time passed, and Haitian labour remains the cheapest in Latin America and Haiti endures its dependency on external market for the most basic needs. While this model for economic development has benefited the local elite in Haiti and large economies in the region, it has doomed the Haitian population to extreme poverty. The employment rate and working conditions in Haiti remain insufficient for the local population to ensure its social reproduction, which make Haitian people the second most dependent on remittance payments sent from abroad in the entire world. The Brazilian government promised Haitians a Humanitarian visa which entitled them to full access to the labour market and local citizenship rights has attracted these migrant workers to Brazil. Rapidly, Haitians became the foreign population in higher numbers in the Brazilian labour market.

Meanwhile, the employment experiences of Haitian workers during Brazil’s particular development model (2003-2016) points to the contradictions of another neoliberal model in the region. Despite its social achievements and progressive rhetoric, Brazil’s development model expanded neoliberal reforms in the country in an attempt to create a model of class conciliation. Unfortunately time has shown that the model has not only failed but also left deep fractures in the employment conditions of the working class. The majority of Haitians worked in agribusiness and civil construction sectors, which have been central to the Brazilian economic boom during the past decade. A study of these sectors reveals the particular conditions of employment for Haitians but also a particular morphology of employment in Brazil: a high demand for a large workforce, unskilled labour, flexible employment arrangements, extreme precarious working conditions and high turnover rates. This means that the bottom of the labour market has widened to accommodate the expansion of neoliberal employment arrangements in Brazil. For instance, in 2009, during Brazil’s economic boom, 85.3% of the above-mentioned created jobs lasted for less than one year (p. 93, Pochmann, 2012). Moreover, the remuneration of 94% of jobs created during this period was less than or equal to only two times the minimum wage, which represents less than 50% of the required living wage in most Brazilian cities at the time (Oxfam, 2016). More specifically, both the civil construction and agrobusiness sectors have been responsible for approximately 33% of all cases of slave-like working conditions in Brazil. The combination between these historically low wages and new flexible employment arrangements has imposed further challenges for the social reproduction of workers.

Haitian workers became an easy prey for these most disadvantageous employment relationships in the Brazilian labour market. Interviews with Haitians showed that companies have specifically targeted these workers due to the large supply of Haitian labour concentrated in a single area and “the extra flexibility” Haitians offer to their employer. This ongoing struggle of Haitians for basic living standards has seen their increased visibility in particular border regions or ‘buffering zones’ here migrants are concentrated and hence viewed as a source of cheap labour for their employers. In addition to their dependence on sending remittance payments to Haiti, the lack of State settlement policies and a distinct deficit in social rights has created new dynamics of subordination: workers were queuing on an everyday basis waiting for work; depending exclusively on these jobs as a source of income and therefore living around sites of economic production. Therefore, the vulnerability of Haitians cannot be divorced from their struggle to support themselves amidst the Brazilian labour market and, in turn, support social reproduction of relatives in Haiti.

The increased use of foreign labour in Brazil since the arrival of Haitians also indicates an emergent pattern of transnational labour exploitation inherent in Brazil’s neoliberal expansion. New nationalities such as Venezuelans, Colombians, Senegalese, have been incorporated into the bottom of the Brazilian labour market, alongside longstanding foreign workers from Bolivia and Paraguay. In the workplace, this is also illustrated by the fact that international migrants disproportionally constituted up to 35% of the workforce in slave-like conditions in Brazil – although they represent less than 1% of the local working population.

In their stories they report similar motivations for their arrival to Brazil, pointing to a need to understand their struggle in relation to the general, structural failure of neo-liberalism in the Latin American region, the inequality and underemployment that are its hallmarks. Migration is a central element of this regional equation and must be conceptualised as such. Such analysis requires that we must refute the recent rhetoric of conservative political forces in the region, and most specifically in Brazil that aims to reduce complex social and economic problems to questions of morality that are to be solved by elitist responses. The latter involve giving further support to the neoliberal state to organise new attacks on workers’ rights and against those who represent a threat to the neo-liberal expansion. Therefore, in the face of rising populism from the right, the urgent construction of alternatives beyond the spectrum and limits of the neoliberal state is imperative for progressive thinkers and organisers alike.

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