In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labor Migration: Dynamics and Politics

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical and Historical Overviews
  • International Division of Labor
  • Political Economy of Labor Migration
  • Regulation and Management of Labor Migration
  • Regional Migration Governance
  • Skilled Labor Migration
  • Temporary and Precarious Labor Migration
  • Rights-Based Approach

Political Science Labor Migration: Dynamics and Politics
Eeva-Kaisa Prokkola
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0329


Much of the early research on labor migration drew on the push-pull factors of migration. The emphasis was on economic and individualistic assumptions with little notion of institutions, power, and politics. Since the early 1970s, the interest has shifted toward historical and institutional processes and structural factors and their explanatory power regarding the dynamics and patterns of labor migration. The national and international regimes of migration control have expanded and directed scholarly attention toward border and migration policies and their production of migrant categories. Migration policy research has also extended the focus from receiving countries toward complex dynamics and interactions between the labor-sending and labor-receiving countries. The migration trajectories from the global South to North have been studied extensively and more and more attention is paid to South–North, South–South and North–North migrations. Different types of labor migration and mobilities are also subject to different regional, national, and international policies and policy change. In current literature, the heterogeneity of migration is underlined, as well as how labor migration politics and policies address high-skilled migrants in different ways than low-skilled ones. However, the categories of migration are in many ways arbitrary. Labor migration is a highly complex and politically contested issue that intersects and forms a continuum with other types of migration and migration politics. Migration politics and the precarious conditions of foreign workers have been studied, among other ways, in explorations of what influence the temporal nature of migration and restricted permission to stay in the foreign territory have. Moreover, although labor migration is usually understood in terms of voluntary migration, the conditions of migrants sometimes resemble those of unfree labor, illustrating the complexity of determining what is counted as labor migration and what politics it concerns. The recent research on migrant rights and political atmosphere brings together the subjects of different migrations and how migrants navigate between different legal and political statuses. The literature is organized chronologically into eight themes that have a similar theoretical approach or similar thematic perspective to labor migration: (1) Theoretical and Historical Overviews, (2) International Division of Labor, (3) the Political Economy of Labor Migration, (4) Regulation and Management of Labor Migration, (5) Regional Migration Governance, (6) Skilled Labor Migration, (7) Temporary and Precarious Labor Migration, and (8) rights and protection in a Rights-Based Approach. The historical and geographical migration trajectories are visible through the themes, revealing how and why the particular aspects of labor migration have become questions of politics in different parts of the world.

Theoretical and Historical Overviews

The early work on labor migration mainly draws on Ravenstein’s individualistic models and the push-pull factors of migration. In the neoclassical theory of migration, migration was considered as a response to regional economic disparities and wage disparities. After the early 1970s oil crisis and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, attention rose toward labor migration as a question of regional politics and conflicts of interest within societies. The research on labor migration increasingly turned toward institutionalist, historical, and critical approaches. Castells 1975 put forward an argument that in advanced capitalist countries migration policies can be understood in terms of a class struggle. Piore 1979 argued that labor migration should be understood, first and foremost, as a demand-driven phenomena, and therefore the politics of destination countries would have an impact on migration. Zolberg 1989 provides an overview for migration theories and the shift from the individualistic economic model toward historical and structural approaches. Freeman 1995 analyzes and compares the immigration politics of liberal democratic states. Hampshire 2013 analyzes the different histories and institutions of the liberal states, and their contradictory imperatives, from the perspective of immigration. In Massey, et al. 1993 and Meyers 2000, important questions put forward for migration research comprise how the mainstream theories of migration and migration control influence migration and immigration policies. De Haas, et al. 2018 shows that, in recent decades, migration policies have become more complex and selective. The bestseller De Haas, et al 2019 provides an overview of migration theories and policy information and analyzes the key migration trends in major world regions and the effects of migration.

  • Castells, Manuel. “Immigrant Workers and Class Struggles in Advanced Capitalism: The Western European Experience.” Politics & Society 5.1 (1975): 33–66.

    DOI: 10.1177/003232927500500102

    The article discusses the growing importance of the wage-earning working immigration population in Western European countries and draws attention to the increase in political struggles within societies. It analyzes migration policies from the perspective of social conflicts and labor unions, arguing that immigrant labor is an arena for new class struggles in advanced capitalism.

  • de Haas, Hein, Stephen Castles, and Mark Miller. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 6th ed. New York: Guilford Press, 2019.

    The book is one of the most cited books on migration, pointing out how international migration is the key phenomenon of modern times. The authors explain international migratory processes, the politicization of migration, and the role of migration and immigrants in the shaping of contemporary societies and political landscapes. The book offers a balanced coverage of Western and non-Western regions.

  • de Haas, Hein, Katharina Natter, and Simona Vezzoli. Growing Restrictiveness or Changing Selection? The Nature and Evolution of Migration Policies. International Migration Review 52.2 (2018): 324–367.

    DOI: 10.1111/imre.12288

    The article studies the characteristics and evolution of migration policies in forty-five countries around the world over the 20th and early 21st centuries. It demonstrates that migration policies have, overall, become less restrictive and simultaneously more complex and selective as to tightened policies and control directed toward undocumented migrants and family migration and simultaneously the facilitation of the entry of many other migrant groups across countries.

  • Freeman, Gary. “Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States.” International Migration Review 29.4 (1995): 881–902.

    DOI: 10.2307/2547731

    Analyzes the politics of immigration in liberal democracies and identifies three groups of states displaying distinct immigration politics: English-speaking settler societies, the migrant-receiving European countries, and traditionally migrant-sending European countries. It argues that immigration politics in these states are considerably similar when viewed in terms of expansionism and the objective of inclusion.

  • Hampshire, James. The Politics of Immigration: Contradictions of the Liberal State. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013.

    The book examines the different histories and institutions of the liberal state and distinguishes different constitutent aspects of statehood (representative democracy, constitutionalism, capitalism, and nationhood) and their contradictory effects on migration. The book provides a nuanced analysis of the multifaceted, selective nature of state migration policies in the Western liberal states.

  • Massey, Douglas, Joaquin Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaouci, Adela Pellegrino, and J. Edward Taylor. “Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal.” Population and Development Review 19.3 (1993): 431–466.

    DOI: 10.2307/2938462

    This frequently cited article explicates and integrates the leading theories of international migration and international labor migration, proposing an analytical distinction between the theories of initiation of international migration and the ones explaining their persistence. The article investigates the intellectual basis of the theories from the perspective of immigration policy.

  • Meyers, Eytan. “Theories of International Immigration Policy—A Comparative Analysis.” International Migration Review 34.4 (2000): 1245–1282.

    DOI: 10.1177/019791830003400407

    Delineates the major theoretical approaches in the field of immigration control research, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and their impact on immigration policy. The paper proposes different strategies for developing immigration policy theory.

  • Piore, Michael. Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies. London: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511572210

    The often cited and influential book analyzes the motivations of migration processes to industrialized regions and underlines the need to understand the roots and social context of migration. Whereas the dominant theories up to that point had focused on the push factors of migration, Piore takes the dual labor market theory as a starting point and argues that international migration is a demand-driven phenomena.

  • Zolberg, Aristide R. “The Next Waves: Migration Theory for a Changing World.” In Special Issue: International Migration an Assessment for the 90’s. Edited by M. Silvano. International Migration Review 23.3 (1989): 403–430.

    DOI: 10.2307/2546422

    The paper offers an overview of the major change and development of migration theory from Ravenstein’s individualistic model to a variety of new historical, structural, globalist, and critical approaches, and analyzes them with the help of the traditional world-systems approach and state theories. It then discusses the major topics and current trends of migration research and their normative implications.

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