What It Means
Foreign or migrant workers are people who travel to another country looking for work. The classification is broad enough to include expert technology workers, language teachers, laborers, and even entertainers. Most often, however, foreign workers take agricultural jobs, such as picking fruit or harvesting crops. These workers tend to send nearly all of their wages back to their families in their home countries. It is estimated that there are 25 million foreign workers throughout the world and approximately 14 million working in the United States. The highest concentrations of migrant workers in the United States work in California, but every state in the Union hosts migrant workers at some point during the calendar year. Other agricultural areas that draw large populations of migrant workers include the cotton fields of Texas and the sugar beet fields of Colorado, Michigan, and Ohio.
Migrant workers are paid low wages and often live together in what are called migrant worker communities. The living conditions in these communities are often substandard, with tight sleeping quarters and a limited amount of running water. When the work is complete, foreign workers either return to their home countries or go to another area or country in search of more work. In this way foreign workers are different from immigrants, who seek permanent residence and citizenship in the countries to which they move.
When Did It Begin
Historians date the emergence of migrant worker communities to the rise of industrialization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and the United States. The United States and several European countries recruited workers from Africa, India, and South America to work in European and American factories. Industrialized countries tended to draw migrant workers from the countries they had colonized. For example, English industries drew large numbers of migrant workers from India.
One of the first major influxes of foreign workers in United States came from China after the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Gold mining became a major commercial industry, and few Americans were willing to endure the hard physical labor required by commercial mining operations. Peasants in rural China viewed this work as an opportunity to improve their living conditions back home. Thousands sailed from China to the United States planning to return eventually to their native land. They lived together in communities called Chinatowns, and many of them never ended up getting back to China.
More Detailed Information
In a migrant worker situation the country that hosts foreign workers is referred to as the receiving country and the country from which the foreign workers come is called the sending country. Sending nations tend to be rural, with undeveloped economies and not enough jobs for a large group of impoverished citizens. Receiving countries are usually developed nations looking for cheap, unskilled labor. In the past receiving countries have established official programs to attract foreign workers. This happened in the 1960s in Germany, when over a million workers were invited to come from Spain, Italy, and Turkey. The United States and Mexico had a similar arrangement when the United States offered Mexican workers temporary employment during World War II.
Developed nations prefer migrant workers to immigrants for several reasons. First, receiving countries accept migrant workers only when they are old enough to work; the sending country bears all the costs associated with raising children until working age. A second reason is that in most cases foreign workers come to the host country without their families, whereas immigrant workers are more likely to come with dependents. Receiving countries have to provide resources to support nonworking members of immigrant working families, including medical care for the elderly and often state-supported child care for the young. Finally, when foreign workers are too old to work productively, the receiving country may send them back to the host country rather than bearing any cost for supporting them in old age. Many social critics consider this an unfair system.
Foreign laborers are often forced to work and live in hazardous conditions. After mining, farm work is the second most dangerous occupation in the United States. Exposure to pesticides frequently results in chemical infections of the skin, and prolonged overexposure can cause cancer and death. Overcrowded living situations allow for the easy spread of disease. It is not uncommon for migrant workers to be housed in barns, shacks, or even chicken coops and open fields. According to some reports an average of 40 percent of migrant farm workers in the United States test positive for tuberculosis, and it is estimated that each year over 24,000 migrant workers are injured in the fields. Another study reported that up to 25 percent of foreign workers suffer from psychiatric disorders and that 20 percent of the females in migrant living communities experience physical or sexual abuse.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York, many countries increased national security and allowed fewer migrant workers across their borders. Workers from the Middle East have had the most difficulty gaining entrance into other countries, especially the United States. Many social activists argued that while increased security is a logical response to widespread violence, migrant workers and immigrants seeking opportunities for work and safe living conditions were being denied basic human rights. In response to debate on this subject, the United Nations held the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, at which a document requiring all countries to inform migrant workers and immigrants of their rights was drafted. No major Western nation signed the document, however. The countries that signed, such as Egypt, Mexico, and the Philippines, were those whose residents tend to emigrate to other countries in large numbers each year.