Conservative Sovereignty & Freedom in Migration Politics

At the end of the Trente Glorieuses, Nepalese society did not have significant outmigration. That changed in the 1980s, when labor out-migration began to grow. India and Malaysia are the primary recipients of Nepalese labor migration.

At first patriarchal policy suppressed female labor migration. While in the 1980s-90s, Nepal male or parent guardian consent was required for female labor migration, labor migration was liberalized in the 21st century.

Piling oil rents in the Gulf states have led to high demand for domestic labor. Because affluent women do not work outside the home in Gulf countries, this domestic labor is recognized not as reproduction work, but as an entitlement of wealth to a luxury, slavery. Nepalese labor policy has continually shifted, responding to both domestic and international economic pressure for female Nepalese migrant labor, and the high individual costs incurred in highly-vulnerable, low-skill feminized labor in the Gulf States, which maintain a kafala labor policy that combines low wages with abusive slavery conditions for immigrants serving an inegalitarian oil-rentier population. In 2010-11, Nepal actively facilitated women’s labor migration to the Gulf States. At the peak in 2017, women comprised over 12% of Nepalese migrant labor, which in total remits about 20% of Nepal’s GNP. By August 2017 a Nepalese parliamentary committee traveling throughout the Gulf and studying the treatment of Nepalese domestic workers ordered the government to stop sending male and female Nepalese domestic workers to the Gulf countries.

Since then, the international community, with the cooperation of social scientists, has pressured the Nepalese government to lift its ban on domestic labor export to the Gulf societies, citing “discrimination” against women (though more Nepalese men than women are domestic workers to Qatar), and backing that charge by recalling Nepal’s 20th century patriarchal permission policy. Because of its post-1970s drift into remittance dependence, economists tend to reduce Nepal to its labor-factor supply role in the global economy, evaluating the rationality of Nepalese actions on that fetishization. More recently, economistic migration advocates have romantically invoked the metaphor of detention, charging that the Nepalese ban on domestic labor tours of kafala duty in the Gulf is the central moral hazard, responsible for “trapping” Nepalese women.

In February 2020, migration advocates cited two cases of female Nepalese workers who had sneaked into the Gulf against the ban. When the two young women’s preference structure somehow inexplicably flipped, and they found themselves surprised to discover that kafala slavery was not to their preference after all, they sought to escape their kafala contracts and leave their employers and the Gulf states. One of the women took out a loan to fly home to Nepal, and the other asked the Nepalese government to pay for her flight back to Nepal.

The Nepalese consulate used its state power (inferior to Kuwait’s) to negotiate a short (9 day) prison sentence for the escapee, and for the Kuwaiti government to pay for the woman’s flight back to Nepal. It thereby used state power to assist the woman, while preserving a commitment to not use scarce Nepalese resources to subsidize slavery in rich Gulf societies. International migration advocates responded to Nepal’s intervention approach with indignation.

21st c. Moral Economy: Efforts to Mobilize Factors of Production v. Antislavery

It has become clear that migration is an essential element in the world economy. Sending countries benefit increasingly from remittance payments and the return of skilled migrants, receiving countries benefit from younger workforces, and migrants themselves find new opportunities through their move to a new country. Migration redistributes wealth at the world level and plays a central role in development and poverty reduction. Moreover, within the current globalization process, which favours an increasingly free circulation of goods, information and capital, it is worth considering including free movement of human beings as well.”–A. Pecoud, Universite Paris, paragraph 3 in Migration without Borders, 2007.

Because of the economistic reductions of workers to a factor of production, and  democratic sovereignty to consumer sovereignty, as well as the resurgence of the classic conservative (per Hobbes 1651) opposition of freedom qua movement to democracy, the capacity for neoliberalized subjectivities to recognize injustice in slavery has been drastically eroded. This is an interesting development, given that economists’ role is to justify and support capitalism. It looks like there is room in conservative economics for conceptualizing slavery as consistent with capitalism, a la Hobbes in the era of global chattel slavery (1651).

Of additional interest:

  • Single-column accounting: Economists are not concerned with the costs to the sending country associated with managing the outcome of abusive labor contract. There has been no attempt to conceptualize or measure the costs to the Nepalese state and society of rescuing and reintegrating abused workers. Those costs are simply black boxed as irrelevant to the economics of labor mobilization. This is a good indicator of what dogmatic apologists conservative economists are.
  • Migration Justice Warriors support slavery where it is consistent with labor “mobilization.”

Hobbes, 1651, argues against Enlightenment democratic freedom, instead advancing a naturalistic, conservative conceptualization of freedom, consistent with tyranny, as simply pertaining to the physical movement that powerful social actors permit:

Liberty or freedome, signifieth (properly) the absence of Opposition; (by Opposition, I mean externall Impediments of motion;)…(W)hen the impediment of motion, is in the constitution of the thing it selfe, we use not to say, it wants the Liberty; but the Power to move…(W)hen the words Free, and Liberty, are applyed to any thing but Bodies, they are abused; for that which is not subject to Motion, is not subject to Impediment. And therefore, when ’tis said (for example). The way is free, no liberty of the way is signified, but of those that walk in it without stop. And when we say a Guift is free, there is not meant any liberty of the Guift, but of the Giver, that was not bound by any law, or Covenant to give it…Feare and Liberty are consistent…Liberty and Necessity are Consistent…(T)he liberty of men would be a contradiction, and impediment to the omnipotence and liberty of God. And this shall suffice of that naturall liberty, which only is properly called liberty…For if we take Liberty in the proper sense, for corporall Liberty; that is to say, freedome from chains, and prison, it were very absurd…for men to demand as they doe, that Liberty, by which all other men may be masters of their lives. And yet as absurd as it is, this is it they demand; not knowing that the Lawes are of no power to protect them, without a Sword in the hands of a man, or men, to cause those laws to be put in execution. The Liberty of a Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things (…) the Sovereign hath praetermitted: such as the Liberty to buy and sell” Hobbes, T. 1651. “XXI, Of the Liberty of Subjects,” Leviathan.

Migration advocates are the contemporary exponents of the Hobbesian opposition to democracy.

Foreign Born Population

To do:

I. Quantitative analysis of home preference

  1. The pro-migration political coalition systematically ignores policy intervention options that make home more habitable. The conservative equilibrium economic theory undergirding the pro-migration political coalition is that labour will inevitably drain to higher wage regions until wages equalize globally. While there is occasionally some marginal investigation into stickiness resulting from transaction costs, the core presumptions are that a) repairing home, other forms of (Bourdieusian) capital, can be ignored as a rational-actor option; and b) no distinction should be made between sovereign movement and non-sovereign mobilization. Investigate the validity of this conservative economic theory supporting and naturalizing migration as the preferred working-class management policy (v. democratic policy).
    1. In what historical and present cases or statistics do we find evidence of resistance to economic migration, despite wage differentials?
    2. What is the comparative role of disruption and disorganization in promoting migration?
      1. War-driven migration
      2. Environmental crisis-driven migration
  2. Discuss findings relative to: How does the demise of Rousseuian social contract democracy, and the law-assisted dominance of governance for cosmopolitan capitalist interests, impel migration management as working-class policy instead of democratic institutional development?
    1. 3rd rail welfare state: Fortification against Hobbesian social contract?
    2. Suggestions for distinguishing sovereign movement from non-sovereign mobilization.

II. Survey economics & international human rights recommendations to preserve slavery. Classify (and compare with historical versions) rationale types, eg.:

  1. Worker (immediate) preference for slavery conditions;
  2. What is Slavery Even?” discourse;
  3. Prohibition against slavery is “discrimination” against natural slaves;
  4. Prohibition against slavery is “discrimination” against women;
  5. Hobbesian All Physical Movement of Individual Bodies = Freedom;
  6. Oligarchs as Protectors of the Marginal;
  7. Migrants with good jobs in countries with systematic labor abuse won’t be able to visit home and return to the employer;
  8. Migrants Prefer Jobs that Locals Don’t Prefer;
  9. Globalization: Circulate the Factors of Production;
  10. Migration = Global Wealth Redistribution;
  11. etc.

gni v life expectancy

There is no reason to believe that nonelites would want to voluntarily leave a society that had passed the ~$12,000 GNI/capita epidemiological transition in economic integration. If the life expectancy is over 70 years, there are enough regional resources to address basic social problems. Something else must drive mass emigration, like inequality and inegalitarianism, or global inequality in the form of, for example, US military imperial disruption and destabilization.

Notes & Bibliography

Badger, S., G. Cafiero, & Foreign Policy in Focus. 2014. “Kingdom of Slaves.” The Nation.

Global Slavery Index. “Arab States.”

Global Slavery Index. “Canada.”

HRW. 2012. New York.

Lainez, N. 2017.

A. Pecoud, 2007, Migration without Borders.

Shantz, Jeff. 2015. “’Slave-Like Conditions’: Abuse of Foreign Workers in Canada.”Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal. Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 233–23.


Shrestha, M. 2017. “Push and Pull: A Study of International Migration from Nepal.” World Bank Social Protection and Global Labor policy working paper 7965.

Nepal’s 2020 population: 29M. 3-7% of Nepal’s population, over 900,000 Nepalese emigrate, mostly to India and Malaysia. 2-12% of (20,000) labor emigrants are women. Remittances comprise 20% of Nepal’s GDP (UNICEF 2013).


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