The Future of Work: The Guest Worker—Use and Discard

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
Demonstrators hold placards calling for change in Qatar's policies regarding the working conditions of migrant workers. (Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators hold placards calling for change in Qatar's policies regarding the working conditions of migrant workers. (Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

I spent the summer of last year in the slums of Beijing interviewing migrant workers whose children were being tossed out of public schools. The capital had recently adopted harsh measures to limit population growth, targeting the children of migrants in order to force them back to the countryside. In these heartbreaking interviews, I learned how government officials had arbitrarily imposed impossible documentation requirements, effectively barring migrant children from local schools.

Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University, and the author of Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China.


Chinese cities like Beijing welcome the cheap labor, but refuse to grant migrants full citizenship rights. Without a local hukou—the household registration system that acts like an internal passport—migrants and their children do not enjoy the same rights to social services as their urban compatriots. Despite the fact that migrants have literally built Beijing, these workers are second-class citizens in their own country.

This separation between the right to work (or more precisely, the right to seek employment) on the one hand, and political and social rights on the other is a growing phenomenon worldwide. And this fracturing of citizenship is a major threat to the well being of all workers. Is the right to sell one’s labor without citizenship the future of work?

One definitive feature of the neoliberal era has been the globalization of the rights of capital while the rights of workers remain tied to particular places. Most crucially, private property rights and management’s prerogative to hire and fire exist in some form or another in just about every country. When foreign investors feel as if their rights are infringed upon—as with intellectual property in China—it often becomes a major source of diplomatic friction.

But when it comes to workers, things have seemingly moved in the opposite direction. The militarization of borders and the re-emergence of right-wing nationalism are testament to this fact. Labor is emphatically not free to move about the planet.

Yet employers and governments often find the allure of cheap labor from poor regions too good to pass up, hence the global proliferation of guest worker programs. Migrants can engage in wage labor, but only if they forsake most if not all of the rights that full citizens enjoy.

Guest workers are likely to be excluded from whatever systems of social welfare provision exist in the receiving country. Things like public education, subsidized health care or housing, and pensions are off limits. If these migrants get sick, want to have children, or retire, the host country bears no responsibility.

Perhaps more worrying is that guest workers’ political rights are severely restricted. Voting rights, freedom of association, the right to strike, and even freedom of mobility are frequently abrogated. This muting of political voice is deeply troubling, as it leaves workers with little recourse when confronted with unscrupulous employers.

The most notorious examples of this dynamic come from the kafala system implemented by a number of Gulf states. New York University and the Guggenheim have come under fire for their labor practices in Abu Dhabi, where it was found that workers had their passports withheld and were living in squalid conditions. Even more shocking has been the unbelievably high numbers of fatalities among migrant construction workers in Qatar. While the specific numbers are subject to debate, it is certain that hundreds of workers are dying each year.

In East Asia, Hong Kong has consistently been ranked first in the Heritage Foundation’s “Index of Economic Freedom.” But while capital has found favorable treatment since the days of British rule, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Southeast Asia have been subjected to a brutal employment regime.

The exploitative nature of Hong Kong’s guest worker system was crystalized by the Erwiana Sulistyaningsih case. This young domestic worker from Indonesia was subjected to slave-like conditions for many months, during which time her employer physically assaulted and starved her. Although her tormentor was sentenced to six years in prison, nothing has been done to change the conditions that made such violations possible. Clearly, Hong Kong would fare poorly on an index of worker freedom.

It is the People’s Republic of China, however, that has gone the furthest in splitting off citizenship rights from the right to engage in wage labor for their own citizens. Rather than go abroad for a cheap and pliable source of labor, Chinese cities have looked to their own hinterland. The 270 million rural residents that have made for the cities—the largest human migration in history—are entitled to look for work. But cities have no obligation to provide non-locals with public services. As the earlier example showed, any inclusion is conditional and subject to arbitrary revocation. By avoiding the costs associated with childhood and old age, cities get to make use of rural migrants and then discard them when they are used up.

Global capital has embraced this second-class citizenry with gusto, especially since China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. It is precisely the disjuncture between hyper-mobile global capital and only partly free labor that has led to China becoming the workshop of the world. And it helps that there is no right to form a union or strike.

Many of America’s largest corporations are in one way or another dependent on these Chinese migrants as a source of labor. And Americans are not just implicated in this type of labor regime through our consumption. A recent BuzzFeed investigative report found pervasive non-payment of wages, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and brutal working conditions for people in the United States on the H-2 visa guest worker program. As with similar programs in Asia and the Middle East, the workers likened their situation to slavery.

The idea that free markets lead inexorably to political freedom—so enthusiastically embraced in the United States after the fall of the Berlin Wall—has been thoroughly discredited. If anything, the past 25 years suggest just the opposite: free capital tends to seek unfree labor. The peeling away of the right to work from rights of citizenship is not some aberration of greedy capitalists run amok, but in fact is indicative of the system firing on all cylinders. Barring major pressure from below, we have every reason to believe that these trends will persist. If this is the future of work, it is a bleak one indeed.

While such exploitative labor regimes are certainly morally repugnant, we all have a direct interest in resisting their expansion. The growth of politically excluded worker underclasses can transform rights into ephemeral privileges. As the Industrial Workers of the World used to say, an injury to one is an injury to all.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.