What is Migratory Labor

Migratory labor has been defined by the United States Department of Labor as “workers who occasionally or habitually move, with or without their families, to seek or engage in seasonal or temporary employment, and who do not have the status of residents in the localities of an expected job opportunity or employment” (Report and Recommendations of the Federal Interagency on Migrant Labor, Washington 1947). Although largely confined to agriculture, especially the harvesting of fruit and vegetable crops, migratory (or migrant) workers are still found in some branches of lumbering, road construction, and metalliferous mining, although their number has greatly diminished over the years. The increasing mechanization of farm work has reduced the importance of migrants in some phases of agriculture.

Migratory Labor in the United States

The necessity for migratory labor arises when an industry cannot obtain an adequate labor supply from local sources. Whenever the demand for additional labor is temporary, the industry must depend on its supplementary workforce upon migrant workers. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that there were about 1 million workers in this group, composed of single men and families. The number is influenced by general economic conditions.

Migratory workers are exposed to more than the normal economic hazards. Employment is less certain for the migratory than for the regular worker. He is required to travel by himself or with his family to obtain employment. He ordinarily suffers from underemployment and low income. His housing is often below Standard. He is likely to be regarded with some suspicion, if not hostility, in the communities in which he works.

The child is usually the most defenseless of migrant laborers. Frequently denied the normal securities of childhood and an opportunity for adequate schooling, these children may be exposed to long hours of hard work. School attendance laws may not be enforced; some communities, in fact, refuse to accept migrant children in their schools. At best, attendance is likely to be for shorter periods of time than is needed to train the child adequately. Even though migratory workers have been found to suffer from more dis-abling illnesses than the general run of workers, their status for obtaining welfare aid and medical assistance from the community may be challenged. All in all, this group of workers appears to be a forgotten segment of the United States community.

These workers, nevertheless, perform vital economic services, and their failure to appear for employment would be a near-disaster for many communities. Some industries could not operate effectively, since they must rely on workers introduced from outside to supply the peak demand for labor. As the workers are continually moving be-tween jobs, a particular employer or group of employers cannot know in advance the amount of labor that will be seeking employment in the locality. Employers interested in procuring an adequate and even an excessive supply of labor are likely to “overadvertise” and consequently assemble a surplus of workers. This not only leads to unemployment, but it also imposes upon those unable to find work the needless expense and the trouble of moving to points where job opportunities are not adequate to provide employment for all.

Better utilization of government employment offices, the dissemination of more accurate information, and greater concern for the well-being of the migrant would reduce some of the hardships involved in recruitment and yet assure industry an adequate labor supply. The migrant family needs to be protected âgainst many of the avoidable hardships, and the children in these families need to be assured sufficient education so that they may have an opportunity to develop their potentialities and to improve their economic position.

European Migratory Labor.—In Europe the movements of migrants raise problems of international concern. In many countries, the employment of foreign workers is subject to strict regulations. Foreign workers can accept jobs for only limited periods and in specified occupations, and permits are generally necessary. As a rule, however, foreign workers enjoy the same wages, conditions of employment, and social security benefits, and the restrictions may be canceled after a given period. In some years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as many as 150,000 Italian seasonal workers migrated to France and Switzerland and another 80,000 to Belgium.

Migrant seasonal workers account for a considerable proportion of worker movements be-tween European countries. Farming, the building trades, and the resort and health industries are the chief industries using this kind of labor. The movements are generally from Italy to France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the United Kingdom; from Belgium to France; from Ireland to the United Kingdom; and from Denmark and Finland to Sweden. In all cases except for the movement from Ireland to the United Kingdom, the flow of workers is strictly controlled. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland have a common employment agreement, and there is a labor market arrangement among Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Both these agreements are designed to eliminate barriers and to expedite the movement of workers between countries. There is also an arrangement among Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom to exchange lists of jobs available to aliens, so that occupations not acceptable to natives may be filled by foreigners.

The seasonal movement of labor between countries dates back to many years. Wars, changes in government, and about-faces in government policies have tended to build barriers to these movements, while high or full employment and improved living standards in certain countries have stimulated movements of workers from lower to higher real wage areas. To the extent that native labor finds farming, mining, domestic service, and the heavier kinds of unskilled labor unattractive, the movements of workers between European countries may be expected to increase.