Research Project: Global Immigration and Labor Conflicts in Europe, 1950-2010

In the second half of the twentieth century, global income inequality between countries reached an unprecedentedly high level.  With better communication and transportation facilities, a growing number of migrants from less developed countries tried to reach Western Europe. Spectacular demographic growth in immigrants’ regions of origin further amplified this movement. Global immigration to Europe originated in North Africa, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America, South-East Asia, and East Asia. Main destination countries included first Britain and France, then Germany, and more recently, Italy and Spain. Other European countries, such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Greece also received a significant number of ‘global immigrants’. Yet, gradually, Europe became one of the regions of the world the most closed to immigrants. Difficulty to integrate most global immigrants in Europe drove closure policies, despite declining demographic trends in Europe that could be seen as a favorable factor for immigration of young workers. With the Schengen agreements and further cooperation, the European Union strengthened its capacity to reduce, divert, and stop immigrants at Europe’s external borders. The opposed forces of expanding global migration flows to Europe and the continent’s growing protectionist stance have recently culminated to make Europe’s borders the bloodiest worldwide, with 9,000 migrant deaths in 2015 and 2016 in the Mediterranean only, accounting for over 60 percent of all migrant deaths worldwide.  Such opposition of forces has worsened the existing tensions in the regions of origin, has intensified the sources of conflicts between Europe and these regions, and has consumed growing amounts of Europe’s resources in the fight against immigration. 

Research on the factors behind this situation and the objective to identify a more sustainable migration regime for Europe have already given rise to numerous studies.  With this historical research project, I intend to contribute to this field of research by investigating a factor that has so far been neglected: the role of working class interests in destination countries and the implications of labor actions for the integration of global immigrants and for public policies, including immigration policies. Three reasons justify the focus on the labor factor. First, the tension around global immigration in Europe was largely the result of the failure of integration. The starting point and the core of any integration for immigrants had to do with occupying jobs. And labor actions impacted access to jobs. Who could be employed? How should wages be set? What should be the length of working time? What were the conditions for layoffs? All these questions could affect access to jobs for immigrants and were handled by the representatives of organized labor, the representatives of employers, and governments in each destination country. Second, the preferences of organized labor in destination countries over each of these questions were unlikely to promote accessibility to jobs for global immigrants. A major factor of the difficult integration of the latter may therefore lie in the way these preferences affected the access to and the regulation of the labor market. Indeed, global immigrants could negatively impact wages and working conditions for local workers, because immigrants came from countries with significantly different living standards and therefore were ready to accept lower wages and less good working conditions, driving them downward for all workers. Sluggish economic growth in Europe from the late 1970s onward was likely to amplify the risks that global immigration created for natives’ wages and working conditions. Third, labor conflicts were acute in several destination countries over the same period, suggesting both that labor enjoyed influence over political arrangements and that workers were faced with major challenges. The intensity of these conflicts may well have been associated with the challenges that the absorption of global immigration created for local workers. Therefore, shedding light on the labor factor could help us to understand better both Europe’s migration problem and labor conflicts, which have been themselves another major challenge in recent European history, impairing Europe’s capacity to maintain its share in the world economy.