Civil society is the beneficiary of institutional arrangements developed within state frameworks in the modern period. Those have been the outcome in large part of historic accommodations between parties to conflicts where a common interest in resolving differences has outweighed even long-standing mutual antipathies. The capital–labour settlement in Western democracies is a prime example, and that was significantly informed by a tradition of thought represented above all by Georg Simmel (1983), Lewis Coser (1956) and Ralf Dahrendorf (1994), which treated conflict as a social relation that, managed effectively, could have positive outcomes for the broader social configuration in which it was embedded.

Is labour just a commodity?

In economic theory, labour is just a factor of production along with capital and land. Thus, if free movement of capital is allowed, so free movement of labour should be. Against this is the view of Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation that labour is more than a factor of production and that the reaction against laissez-faire in late 19th century Britain was an attempt to contain in the market for labour within certain safety nets (Polanyi 1944). Marx (along with classical and neo-classical economists) and Polanyi represent two extremes of attitudes towards labour. One holds that labour power is a commodity and hence should have as much freedom of contract as does capital (though for Marx, but not the classical or the neo-classical economists, it does so in a condition of class inequality). The other holds that protection of workers from the worst effects of commodification defines the essence of the revolt against free markets. These rival perspectives on labour are useful as markers for judging attitudes towards migration.

This chapter focuses on legal voluntary migration, which involves both skilled and unskilled labour, typically from South to North. Migration can be within national boundaries – rural-urban migration, for example – or across national boundaries. The focus here is on international migration. The chapter explores economists’ argument for the freer movement of labour which, unlike the freer movement capital, has found few champions. Unlike flows of other resources, such as goods and finance, labour migration is not only about economics but encompasses human rights, issues of identity and concerns about security. The post 9/11 context has injected a new dimension into the debate about migration, encouraged the emergence of new civil society groups, polarised political parties, and seen immigration rise on the political agenda in developed countries. This chapter outlines the ways in which these different arguments are represented by organisations and groups within global civil society.

These diverse responses indicate the complex causes and effects of the movement of labour, an increasingly significant feature of globalisation, the extent and impact of which civil society, nation states and institutions of regional and global governance have begun to consider in recent years (Klein Solomon and Bartsch 2003; Aleinikoff 2002).