Just over a century ago, a young Max Weber assumed his first professorship in Freiburg with a highly politicized inaugural lecture in which he invited the audience to follow him to the eastern marches of the Reich. There he described the Junkers’ turn to Polish seasonal labourers—people with ‘inferior physical and intellectual standards of living’ brought in to work the sugar-beet fields. These ‘troops of nomads recruited by agents in Russia, who cross the frontier in tens of thousands in spring and leave again in autumn’, appeared desirable, ‘because by employing them one can save on workers’ dwellings, on poor rates, on social obligations, and further because their precarious situation as foreigners puts them in the hands of the landowners.’ Yet these ‘unviable colonies of starving Slavs’ were propping up an outmoded, labour-intensive system of production, and represented essentially a ‘side-effect of the death throes of the old Prussian Junkerdom’. The neophyte went on to rally the audience with the call that ‘the German race should be protected in the east of the country, and the state’s economic policies ought to rise to the challenge of defending it.’footnote1

A century later, the brand of racial chauvinism to which Weber gave unabashed expression has gone out of vogue, but not the fundamental issues he raised: employer preferences for temporary migrant workers as a cheap and exploitable labour source, broker networks channelling them across borders, fears of such workers shoring up outdated industries or inhibiting economic modernization, and—perhaps especially—worries about foreigners degrading the nation. After the Second World War, Germans would no longer speak of ‘troops of nomads’ but ‘guestworkers’, a refurbished version of the Nazi euphemism for Fremdarbeiter. But the phenomenon is much broader. Today, over fifty countries run temporary migrant-worker programmes: state-organized schemes for the import of foreign labourers, admitted on a temporary basis for the purpose of work, and granted limited or no option for changing this status. Yet the ubiquity of such schemes has provoked little comparative analysis. Investigations of individual programmes are plentiful, with small—two- to three-n—case studies common; but their evolution across the twentieth century and the globe has yet to be examined.footnote2

Five questions can guide an initial exploration of this terrain. First, what has been the place of guestworkers within the global flows of migrant labour since the late nineteenth century? Second, in what does the specificity of guestworker programmes lie? Third, what are the contradictions that—as with so much of social life—can be regarded as inherent to them? What kind of typology can we use to understand them? Where are they headed?

In 2010 the United Nations counted some 214 million international migrants in the world, of whom about half were migrant workers. Of the latter, nearly 20 million were guestworkers—slightly more than the number of refugees, according to un estimates.footnote3 Though not an inconsiderable proportion, 20 per cent is still clearly a minority. It seems logical therefore to assume that guestworker programmes form a rather specialized, perhaps even in some measure atypical, sub-set within the wider phenomenon of worldwide labour migration.

However, the statistical distribution between guestworker schemes and migrant labour conceals their structural relationship, which is the inverse. What typically makes immigrants economically desirable to employers—their submissive malleability as rightless outsiders who perform the undignified tasks that natives shun—are precisely the qualities that make them undesirable as members of a society.footnote4 If we take this paradox as a baseline for exploring patterns of migration, from the crystallization of the modern nation-state in the late nineteenth century onwards, a deduction would be that guestworker programmes of one kind or another are, virtually by definition, its ideal-typical resolution: they are designed to achieve the first (malleable labour) without incurring the second (unwanted members). Viewed in this light, they could be seen less as a sub-set of immigration more broadly considered, than as the rule from which departures are to be explained. Namely, at points in their economic development, nation-states, as caretakers of capital and the demos, will typically call up migrants as extraneous labour, but seek to repel them as durable intruders.

Departures from this standard can then be classified into three kinds of exception. The first are settler societies, where land is so abundant and labour so scarce that immigration is a condition of constructing the nation-state as such. The pre-eminent cases are the United States and the ‘White Dominions’ of the British Empire, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where native populations were wiped out or suppressed in the course of Western overseas expansion. The second are countries where overall demographic deficiencies threaten absolute labour shortages and/or military weakness in a competitive strategic environment. Again, members are needed and return not enforced. The France of the Third Republic, haunted by military defeat and a precocious onset of the demographic transition, sought to overcome its numerical inferiority to Germany by welcoming immigrants to man its heavy industries. Colonial empires formed a third type of exception: migrants might enter the metropole with substantial rights, as fellow-nationals or overseas subjects of the Crown, under no compulsion to return; post-war colonial migration to Britain, France and the Netherlands, or pre-war Korean migration to Japan, are cases in point. Of course, guestworker programmes have existed in all three of these exceptions to the rule, but their significance has been far less.

If guestworkers are foreign labourers without a guarantee of permanent settlement in the country making use of them, they are, nonetheless, a specific kind of temporary migrant. This is evident if we look back at a typical pattern of their use in much of the nineteenth century. Exposed so vividly by Marx, the spread of capitalist production in his time—and after it—relied on pools of workers on the margins of metropolitan economies, ‘reserve armies of labour’, to ensure the flexibility of production costs, holding down wages in upswings of the business cycle and cutting payrolls in downturns.footnote5 In Victorian England, it was the Irish who supplied such a reserve. But in still peripheral zones of an expanding world market, especially where plantation economies were installed, migrants often had to be imported from much greater distances to fill the fields and supply the necessary pools.