Illustration by Louise Leong.
Illustration by Louise Leong.

Most Saturdays on campus are marked by low productivity, laziness and the occasional social disturbance, but this past Saturday was an exception to the rule. Academics took precedence as people gathered for a special event at Oakes College to discuss migrant labor brokers.

The Bodies, Brokers, and Borders conference caused a stir this past Saturday, April 3 by Steve McKay, researcher and UC Santa Cruz assistant professor of sociology. The conference had been a long time coming, and McKay — as organizer — was excited for its arrival.

McKay said he wanted to have the conference because it was a rare chance for these speakers to meet and discuss their topic of passion: labor brokers as a means through which migration happens.

“There aren’t a lot of people who do research on the actual brokers themselves … when I got the chance to hold a conference, I wanted to learn something new,” McKay said. “In a way it [was] sort of selfish.”

This self-proclaimed selfishness led McKay to begin organizing this event in the summer of last year. He said he loved the topic because it is relatable to every person around the world.

“We see it in the recession that the whole labor market is changing,” he said. “I have a secure job, and that used to be normal, but in this new economy I have an exceptional job, and the normal is actually the precarious.”

He expressed that more and more people find themselves in low-end jobs selling their labor for less.

This change in the market leads people to migrate to different countries in order to send remittances, or extra allowance, back to their families and secure their income.

Labor brokers match jobs to workers in every field from construction to health care. Conference attendees met to discuss the role of brokers, questioning whether they are key players in the labor industry or simply another vehicle for exploiting migrant workers.

The first speaker of the day, Robyn Rodriquez, drew on this point to say that the Filipino state encourages workers to work overseas because of the income they produce and send back to their home country and family.

“The state is a broker,” Rodriquez said. “[This] transnational migration apparatus facilitates and normalizes migration.”

Overall, she said, 10 percent of Filipinos are overseas, and they send back about $16 billion in remittances every year. The state benefits immensely from this, and so it encourages its people to do this kind of work, especially through propaganda.

“The state essentially changes the meaning of what it is to be a Filipino,” Rodriquez said.

But the Philippines aren’t the only place where this has happened. The second speaker of the day, Rob Saper, recognized the same transnational migration in a huge influx of Ecuadorians moving to Spain in the years between 1998 and 2005.

“They came in as tourists and then contracted work,” he said.

Saper put more of an emphasis on the negative aspects of the state as this move takes place.

“What’s at stake when we look at this is that it threatens the sovereignty of the state,” Saper said.

In addition to simply addressing these issues, McKay said that another reason for the conference in Santa Cruz was to provide local day labor organizers with a chance to collaborate with academics who have a somewhat different perspective.

“It connects local organizers to people who know what it looks like on a national level,” McKay said. “This collaboration is so important. This is a huge structural change in how labor markets work … and it impacts people most.”