Dedicated to “all low-wage undocumented workers,” Scaling Migrant Worker Rights: How Advocates Collaborate and Contest State Power is special kind of academic book. It spans disciplines and is equally strong in theory and data informed by direct research. Clearly written, the book shines a light on an extremely complex economic, political, and social issue: Mexican migrant low-wage labor in the United States. The authors, Xochitl Bada, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Shannon Gleeson, a professor at Cornell, want to understand how labor laws, rights, organizations, governments and other players support, harm, and shape the lives of Mexican migrants. The authors are particularly interested in how non-governmental groups try to help low-wage migrant workers. These are the millions of people, many of whom are undocumented, who clean, build, serve, work in agriculture and restaurants, who keep sectors of the American economy productive and profitable. Active and with agency, they have rights. But how are those rights secured? What happens with workers’ rights in a transnational context? Who supports the migrant worker and through what channels? This question, which directly relates to millions who have Mexican origin who work in the United States, is also of relevance across the world. Transnational labor rates are increasing and are a global issues. Bada and Gleeson’s book brings an interdisciplinary lens to the task, really the only way to grasp the complex and changing conditions of modern low-wage labor.
The participants in the book include the Mexican and United States national, state and local governments, the broader international organizations, trade groups, businesses, agencies, and a wide range of non-governmental organizations concerned about the issue. Framing the questions are local and international politics and policies, court precedents, and the waves of economic change and innovation that change labor markets. In the context of workers’ rights in America, protection for foreign-born labor has long been weaker than that for American citizens. This has been true for centuries. The book reminds us that labor tragedies usually strike low-wage and immigrant workers. Governments do take action, but actualizing the workers’ rights has proven to be difficult and inconsistent. Many employer-employee relationships are unregulated and unexamined. A further challenge is that many policies in the US rely on an individual employee stepping forward to file a complaint. As one might imagine, that is a difficult ask, particularly for the foreign born worker. Bada and Gleeson, consequently, pay attention to all of the above and target their focus on Mexico, the sending country in this relationship, its role in securing workers’ rights, as well as the NGOs involved in the issue. Scaling Migrant Workers Rights presents an inclusive vision of civil society.
The authors further explain how the US is far from consistent when it comes to low-wage foreign born labor. There are many who push xenophobic anti-immigrant policies and laws. The contradictory impulse is also powerful: sanctuary cities, active support organizations, and and economy and employers eager to find these workers. The book does not bother with partisan rhetoric and jockeying, instead building its arguments through studying movements, electoral priorities, litigation and the influence of organizations. There are scores of bilateral agreements affecting labor conditions and rights. Power in the transnational labor arena is not only top down. Local changes and grass roots efforts also can affect change.
In the past two decades, the Mexican government has taken an ever greater role in protecting its diaspora, particularly in the United States. A 2003 Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision affirmed the importance of protecting transnational labor. This aligned with the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, known as the CMW. While the US has never formally agreed to the CMW, its impact and relevance is important. Other laws, rulings and proclamations have followed, creating a kind of “soft law” to protect laborers. They hold sending and host states accountable. NGOs can have significant impact in spaces where “soft laws” set the contours of policy.
Bada and Gleeson walk the reader through the changes, describing the various ways that the Mexican government has engaged with its diaspora. The Mexican consular network plays an extremely important role. There are 52 consulates in the US. Some geographic regions are well-represented; others not so. Note, too, that more than 10 million Mexican born people live in the United States, which means that local conditions are of great import.
Bada and Gleeson open their book by providing much data, from demographics to labor. The authors set the stage before moving to deeper levels of analysis. They interviewed many different stakeholders, including policy-makers, enforcement officials, labor unions, legal organizations, and grass root groups. Most importantly, they surveyed the Mexican consular offices. It is only with an appreciation of the multitude of stakeholders and actors that they can walk through what all of this might mean for workers. This is the heart of Scaling Migrant Workers Rights.
The latter part of the book explores the possibilities of “portable rights” for transnational labor. Bada and Gleeson look at what has happened, what is possible, and the critical ways in which organizations can influence policy and practice. The book gives language, structure and shape to the concept. Theoretically strong, Scaling Migrant Workers Rights is also simply bottom-line informative. Without this kind of rigorous scholarship, we would not have the numbers, tools or comprehension even to ask good questions about low-wage migrant labor. Super informative, this is the kind of book that makes the world more understandable.
Lastly, the book’s subtitle, “How Advocates Collaborate and Contest State Power,” is apt. The work underscores the importance of non-governmental organizations in supporting migrant workers. NGOs do more much than offer direct support. They are critical players in civil society, and that is an encouraging message for all who believe in democracy.