Migration Worldwide: Left-wing Strategies, Migrant Actors and Capitalist Interests from the Sixteenth Century to the Present

ITH Conference

venue: AK-Bildungshaus Jägermayrhof, Römerstraße 98, 4020 Linz

56th ITH Conference, organized by the International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH)


English and German


Few topics are as politically charged as “international migration”. The 56th ITH Conference seeks to discuss the issue from a global and historical perspective. Changing employment opportunities and income inequalities within and between countries and regions will be its starting point. The agency of migrants and the relationship of the political left to labour mobility will be situated and discussed within this large frame. We are interested in analysing the connections between the mobility of capital and the mobility of labour and the diverse responses of workers and worker organizations and employers to these processes from the early modern period to the present day. We use a broad definition of migration, including free and unfree labour, temporary and permanent migrants, as well as the full variety of status classifications, ranging from sans papiers and asylum seekers/refugees to classical migrant workers.

Over the last two centuries international wage differentials have grown enormously, and labour markets are divided into more or less impermeable segments, with migrants often predominating in the low-wage sectors and a few other specific segments (e.g. health care). In the immigration countries and regions, workers in the higher-placed segments and some sectors of the political left tend to see the low-wage sectors as a threat. They can respond to the challenge posed by badly paid competitors in three different, but frequently connected, ways: 1) exclusion, i.e. the attempt to block immigration; 2) institutionalization, i.e. the confinement of low-wage workers to certain occupations and economic activities; or 3) solidarity, i.e. the attempt to raise lower wages to higher levels; this includes demands for global redistribution (at the expense of capital/propertied classes and/or at the expense of the labouring classes) in order to improve conditions in the emigration countries. In the emigration regions, the emigration of people with low qualifications has often been promoted, while the migration of skilled personal trained in these regions is considered more problematic. Overall, it cannot be presupposed that an increase in labour supply automatically results in more difficult conditions for the labour movement, while labour shortages would lead to wage increases and improved working conditions. The first set of questions is: Under which conditions do higher-paid workers prefer which response? Which strategies did the labour movement pursue in the emigration and the immigration regions and how did it justify these strategies? How do migrant workers relate and respond to these varieties?

From the perspective of migrant workers there is a second set of choices. They can aim to pursue different plans and strategies when migrating: 1) permanent immigration of the worker him/herself and, if possible, with his/her family; 2) commuting in a wide range of temporal rhythms, depending on the distance between workplace and home and on job requirements. These options, of course, overlap and the migrants´ plans and strategies may change due to changing conditions, personal expectations and preferences, or experiences. (Potential) migrants also develop strategies to negotiate, sidestep or alter migration regulations; for instance, they may migrate as refugees, or engage in cross-border marriages, when facing restrictive policies. Alternatively, potential migrant workers can choose to focus on the improvement of their conditions at home. They can use a variety of strategies: 1) collective struggle against the destruction of their livelihoods and for the improvement of working conditions and higher wages; 2) individual strategies of upward mobility; 3) demands for global redistribution (at the expense of capital/propertied classes and/or workers in privileged countries). The second set of questions is: Under which conditions do migrant workers aim to pursue which strategies? How are their choices affected by the preferences and actions of their autochthonous competitors on the labour market? How has the political left, including organizations involving migrants, related to the agency of migrants?

Third, there are strategies pursued by employers. Wage increases in general and rising wages in the low-wage sectors in particular may induce businesses to develop at least six different strategies to maintain profitability: 1) the geographical relocation of production or certain components of production (commodity chains) to regions with cheaper workers and less regulated work; in doing so, capital may develop strategies to ensure more advantageous regulations concerning capital movement and labour law; 2) the reduction of the number of labourers through the transformation of labour processes; 3) a shift to new economic branches and product lines; 4) the shift of capital from production and trade to the finance sector (”financialization”); 5) the shift to other labour relations, e.g. self-employment; 6) influence on migration policies and regulations in order to secure additional influx of cheap labour. The third set of questions is: Under which conditions does capital opt for geographical relocation or geographical re-composition? Under which conditions does it opt for one of the other strategies? How has the political left responded to these various strategies?

Naturally, the relocation of capital and the mobility of the workforce are closely interrelated. Population growth and the freedom to move have often served as important pre-conditions for the renewed accumulation of capital. At the same time, the relocation of capital has social consequences both for the old and the new locations, and both for autochthonous and migrant workers. At the old locations unemployment will probably increase. Families of unemployed workers may use several methods to cope with the job loss, including e.g. increased subsistence activities; migrant workers may return to their (former) homes – perhaps attracted by the relocation of capital to their home regions. Both groups may also aim to move to more promising locations, elsewhere in the country or abroad – thus leading to new forms of migration. The new production site will often not only attract workers from nearby, but also from further afield. So, in various ways capital moves may lead to workers’ moves. The fourth set of questions is: Under which conditions does the movement of capital lead to outmigration and/or in-migration? How have migration policies shaped these processes? In which way have processes of migration triggered the relocation of capital?

Preparatory Group

Rolf Bauer (ITH, Vienna), Josef Ehmer (University of Vienna), Simon Goeke (Münchner Stadtmuseum), Dirk Hoerder (Vienna), Marcel van der Linden (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam), Lukas Neissl (University of Vienna, Central European University), Susan Zimmermann (ITH, Vienna)


Organised by

International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH), kindly supported by the Chamber of Labour of Upper Austria, the Chamber of Labour of Vienna, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Politische Bildung, the Karl Renner-Insitut, and the City of Linz


Thursday, 23 September 2021

Registration of participants at the venue

12.00 – 14.00 Meeting of the ITH Board and International Scientific Committee

14.00 – 14.30 Break

14.30 – 16.30 General Assembly of the ITH

17.00 – 17.30 Conference Opening
Susan Zimmermann, Central European University, ITH President
-tba-, Chamber of Labour of Upper Austria
-tba-, Representative of the City of Linz
Florian Wenninger, Director of the Institute for Historic Social Studies, Chamber of Labour, Vienna

17.30 – 19.15 Keynote Lecture
Mahua Sarkar (University of Toronto, Canada): Outsourcing the Working Class: Rethinking Guest Work in the Times of Covid-19

19.15 – 21.00 Welcome Reception by the Major of Linz -tbc-

Friday, 24 September 2021

9.30 – 11.00 Round Table

Solidarity!?! The history of migration and the labor movement

Chair and comment: Dirk Hoerder

  • Rainer Bauböck (European University Institute, Florence, and Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin)
  • Nancy Green (Centre de Recherches Historiques, Paris) -tbc-
  • Leo Lucassen (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)
  • Christof Parnreiter (University of Hamburg)
  • Michael John (University of Linz) -tbc-

11.00 – 11.15 Coffee Break

11.15 – 13.15 Panel I: Trade Unionism and Migration

Chair and comment: tba

  • Nina Trige Andersen (Society for Labour History, Denmark): Filipina Chambermaids organizing within and outside the Copenhagen Hotel- and Restaurant Workers Union (HRF/RBF) 19602-1990s
  • Veronika Helfert (Central European University, Vienna): Women Migrant Workers’ Labour Activism in Austria 1960s-1970s
  • Lucas Poy (University of Buenos Aires): Argentine Socialism and the Question of European Migration (1890-1910)
  • Johan Svanberg (Stockholm University): Trade-Union, Internationalism and Migration. The International Metalworkers’ Federation, European Integration and post-war labour mobility

13.15 – 14.30 Lunch

14.30 – 16.00 Panel II: Migration as Shaped by Policy, Capital and Other Actors I

Chair and comment: tba

  • Radhika Kanchana (Sciences Po, Paris): Evolution of State Policies in the Arab-Gulf Region – producing (im-)mobile capital and labour
  • Kate Frederick/Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk (Utrecht University): Temporary Urbanities? Industrialization, urbanization and labor migration in colonial Africa: Southern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo compared
  • Ritesh Jaiswal (University of Delhi): Indian Migrants, Material and Mobility during the Interwar Ceylon

16.00 – 16.15 Coffee Break

16.30 – 18.00 Panel III: Migration as Shaped by Policy, Capital and Other Actors II

Chair and comment: tba

  • Clarice Gontarski Speranza (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul): The flow of refugees and displaced persons in the Southern Brazilian coal mines after the II World War
  • Yukari Takai (York University, Canada): Between Migrants and the States. Japanese Immigrant Hotels in Hawaii and Vancouver 1888-1907
  • Geoffrey Ewen (York University, Canada): Deploying and Deterring Migrant Workers: The Canadian State, the Catholic Church and the Asbestos Strikes of 1915 and 1916

18.00 – 19.00 Dinner

19.00 – 21.00 Public evening event (in German):
-tba- (at the venue)


Saturday, 25 September 2021

9.30 – 11.30 Panel IV: Migrants’ Experience and Agency

Chair and comment: tba

  • Beate Althammer (Humboldt University Berlin): Foreign Polish Labour Migrants in the  German Empire: A Reassessment
  • Cihan Özpınar (Portland State University, Oregon): The formation of immigrant workingclass substrata in France
  • Lara-Zuzan Golesorkhi (University of Portland): Employment integration at any cost? Germany’s 2016 Integration Act and Social Mobility
  • Verena Lorber (Katholische Privatuniversität, Linz): “Workers Wanted”. Transnational labor migration exemplified by foreign workers in Styria (Austria)

11.30 – 11.45 Coffee Break

11.45 – 13.15 Panel V: Labor Migration and Worker’s Life

Chair and comment:

  • Loredana Panariti (University of Trieste): Trade Unions, Left(s) and immigration between Italy and Slovenia
  • Selda Altan (Randolph College, Virginia): The Quest for Chinamen: Global Labor Markets in Coolies and the Making of the Chinese Working-Class
  • Aliki Vaxevanoglou (Academy of Athens): Behind-the-Scenes: The Current Labour Market of Immigrants
  • Andrea Tollardo (University of Milano Bicocca): Migrant labor’s contentious positioning and stratification in an alpine quarry

13.15 – 14.15 Lunch

14.15 – 15.45 Concluding Debate
Chair: tba