Dissertation Abstracts

'Illegal' migrant labour and precarity: A case of unauthorised migrant workers in Witbank, South Africa.

Author: Machinya, Johannes , joemachinya@outlook.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Supervisor: Prof. Bridget Kenny and Dr. Shireen Ally
Year of completion: In progress
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: illegal migrant workers , immigration control , precarity , exploitation
Areas of Research: Work


‘Illegal’ migration signifies the unlawful entry, residing and/or working by a foreigner in another country without official documentation authorising them of such. The increased presence of foreign migrants provides strong justification for states to flex their muscles on immigration control, and more so on ‘illegal’ migrants, consequently exacerbating their existential precariousness. Quite often, many countries respond to ‘illegal’ migration through aggressive, often militarised policing of borders and interior places within their territories, thus translating such immigration control practices into a war against ‘illegal’ migration. Migrant ‘illegality’ then comes into being through various forms of application and/or enforcement of the immigration law, hence ‘illegality’ becomes a condition which is legally, politically and discursively constructed, and the non-possession of valid documents by foreign migrants then justifies the production of their illegalised migration status. In South Africa, ‘illegal’ migrants’ retribution is expressly pronounced in terms of apprehension, detention and deportation. Such exclusionary policies of migration control create gated communities that obsessively use militarised surveillance and policing to guard against the perceived threat of ‘illegal’ migrants. Oftentimes, perceived (il–)legal migrants have to produce identity documents to the ‘gatekeepers’, failure of which results in apprehension. Such is the case in South Africa where the immigration policy authorises law enforcement agents to stop and demand identification documents from any suspected foreigner. This therefore creates a legally vulnerable category of ‘illegal aliens’ whose political status is dependent on the specific legal and policy arrangements that made them. The illegalisation of undocumented foreigners’ migrancy is indicative of the essence of the border as both a territorial feature and a political concept, but, paradoxically, “in a world pregnant with rhetoric on free flows” (Nyamnjoh, 2006:2). Established territorial borders, fortified by restrictive and repressive immigration policy enforcement can be, potentially, used as fortresses of exclusion and expulsion. Therefore, borders delineate territories whilst creating zones of ‘alien’ exclusion based on one’s citizenship and migration status and sometimes racialised stereotypes. This disqualifies processes of immigration control as neutral sorting mechanism separating the desirable from the undesirable; instead, it signifies a political exercise that produces certain types of political subjects based on their foreignness, consequently producing the social type of ‘the stranger’. This study focuses on the experiential circumstances of undocumented migrant workers, on how they experience ‘illegality’ in their everyday encounters with state power through immigration policing/enforcement. The study pays attention to their daily, lived experiences of immigration policing – the raids (in the communities where they are living as well as their workplaces), the stop and search by the police, (and the fear of these) and try and find out how this is producing them as an economically and politically precarious people in their workplaces, the communities they live in and the broader South African community. The study is still ongoing. I am realising that most of the research participants have documents (the passport), but they play around with the document in order for them to appear legal; some have forged stamps, some fraudulently buy days but all this doesn't authorise them to work in South Africa. So I am also looking at the materiality (and malleability) of the document in their everyday life, how does the document penetrate their lives.