Transnationalism is a fundamentally agentic concept. Emerging as a critique to methodological nationalism, it emphasises processes that occur between, beyond – and often in defiance of – the boundaries of the ‘nation state’. Applied to international migration, it stands as a dominant paradigm for framing sustained economic, social and cultural ties maintained by migrants across international borders, and enduringly celebrates the agency of transmigrant actors with fluid connections to countries of origin and destination.
Our Identities article, 'Forced transnationalism and temporary labour migration: implications for understanding migrant rights', takes a very different view of transnationalism. We suggest that, while the tone-setting ‘first wave’ of the transnationalism literature offered an important critique of assimilationist immigration regimes in the global north, its agentic emphasis had little resonance with highly-restrictive guest-worker migration prevalent across the global south – particularly the major migration corridors of Asia.
In these settings, state power was then, and still is now, pivotal in circumscribing the transnational existences of millions of migrant workers who emigrate out of economic necessity but are trapped between multiple political and economic interests that ensure their migration is strictly temporary. Though scholarship on transnationalism has typically shied away from defining these temporary labour migrants as transmigrants on account of the narrow scope of activities presumed to be carried out by the remitting labourer, this seems disingenuous.
For some migrant farm workers, exiting their state-approved contracts can provide an everyday means to refuse poor working conditions and evade coercive immigration and employment controls that are endemic to the agricultural streams of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Exiting their employment, an action that workers refer to as ‘escape’, puts at risk their right to legally reside in Canada.
However, in the Identities article, '"Escaping" managed labour migration: worker exit as precarious migrant agency', I examine how workers’ first-hand depictions of ‘escaping’ employment reveal new insights into how workers may claim a space of belonging that contradicts their experiences of status-based vulnerability.
By leaving the farm and by extension Canada’s state-managed labour migration regime, workers are both refusing a life of precarity and embracing an unknown future where hope and chance may reveal a happier and more desirable life.
I felt hopeless and sad. I was aware that there was nothing I could do. I packed my bag and hid it under the bed. My bag stayed hidden there for a few hours and then I escaped from the bunkhouse.
Deciding to quit their state-approved employer can be an important episode in migrant farm workers’ personal biographies of work and migration. Workers often describe sneaking out of their employer-provided housing complexes in the darkness of night, walking for hours along rural roads searching for the nearest payphone, and undertaking days-long Canada-wide bus rides in search of work and support in bigger cities.
What becomes clear from talking to workers about their decisions to ‘escape’ managed labour migration is that packing their bags and leaving the farm in search of better work opportunities and a life free from invasive immigration controls provides an everyday chance for workers to act on the aspirations that originally motivated their decisions to come to Canada.
I wanted to take advantage of the situation and to not lose the big opportunity to be in Canada, a country where the future will be better for me economically, from the perspective that one day I could provide better opportunities for my people, for my children and my family. If I go back to my country I will live in poverty.
In their refusal to inhabit the narrow terms of their contractual agreements to the state and their employer, workers are thus claiming an everyday space of belonging, however insecure and unpredictable this space may be. Placing themselves outside of the reach of their employers and of the state is a way for workers to both refuse institutionalised precarity and carve out an autonomous life that is at once meaningful and imperceptible to institutional mechanisms of power, and thus poses an analytical challenge to the more conventional understanding that visibility is central to social and political subjectivity.
Blog post by Adam Perry, St. Francis Xavier University, Canada
Read the full article: Perry, Adam. 'Escaping' managed labour migration: worker exit as precarious migrant agency. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1589157