• The Bracero and European Guestworker Programs Revisited: A Comparative Analysis

    Nur Banu Kavaklı BIRDAL

    Abstract: This paper analyzes two guestworker programs, the Emergency Farm Labor (Bracero) program and the European Guestworker Program (by focusing on the Turkish migrant workers in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Gastarbeiter) in a comparative historical manner. The Bracero Program between Mexico and the United States of America, and the Gastarbeiter Program between Germany and Turkey were both bilateral labor recruitment agreements designed to meet the labor demand of the host countries, the US and Germany, where domestic labor supply failed to meet. Even though they were both effective temporarily, they had significant implications in the formation of immigrant communities in the receiving countries. By underscoring the basic similarities and differences between these temporary labor recruitment programs, this paper aims at showing that international migration is not solely a temporary phenomenon responding to economic necessities but has social and political repercussions. While both programs were based on the institutional differentiation and physical separation of the maintenance and reproduction of migrant labor force, each ended up paving the way for the formation and expansion of immigrant communities even long after the abolition of initial labor recruitment agreements.

    Özet: Bu çalışma Acil Çiftlik İşgücü (Bracero) Programını ve Avrupa Misafir İşçi Programını (Türk göçmen işçilerinin Federal Almanya tecrübesine odaklanarak) tarihsel ve karşılaştırmalı olarak incelemektedir. Amerika Birleşik Devletleri ve Meksika arasında imzalanan Bracero ve Federal Almanya ile Türkiye arasındaki Gastarbeiter programları ev sahibi ülkelerdeki (Amerika ve Almanya) domestik işgücü arzının yetersiz kaldığı işgücü talebini karşılamak üzere tasarlanmış programlardı. Her ne kadar geçici programlar olarak uygulamaya konmuş olsalar da, misafir işçi programları Amerika ve Almanya’daki en büyük göçmen topluluklarının oluşumunda önemli rol oynamışlardır. Bu yazıda bu iki programın benzeşen ve ayrılan yönlerinin analizi aracılığıyla ekonomik ihtiyaç güdümlü uluslararası göçün dahi tekil bir olgu olmadığı, sosyal ve siyasi etkilerinin de olduğu gösterilmek istenmiştir. Bu programlar emek gücünün kullanılması ve idamesi ile yeniden üretiminin kurumsal ve fiziki olarak ayrıştırılması üzerine kurulmuş olsa da, programların iptalinden çok sonra bile göçmen cemaatlerinin yerleşmesi ve genişlemesine yol açan süreçler haline gelmişlerdir.


    “The basic dilemma faced by farm employers, particularly those with farm operations requiring seasonal hands in large numbers, is this: They want a labor supply which, on the one hand, is ready and willing to meet the short-term work requirements and which, will not impose social and economic problems on them or on the community when work is finished. That is what is expected of migratory workers. The demand for migratory workers is thus twofold: To be ready to go to work when needed; to be gone when not needed.”

    U.S. President’s Commission on Migratory Labor 1951

    in Burawoy, 1976: 1066.

     “Foreign migrant labor had to fill out numerous questionnaires, submit to medical examinations, fingerprinting, and sign numerous papers. Part of their medicinal preparation for travel abroad consisted of a compulsory bath and haircut. This regimentation persisted on the trip northward; each Mexican farm worker received a number, was assigned a seat, and was instructed not to leave the train before it reached its final destination. Even their meals were conducted with military regimen; in a deep and orderly silence they were taken to the dining-cars, where colored waiters in spotless uniforms served them a meal which they ate without saying a word.”

    Kirstein, 1977: 51.


    “All the men must be fed, sheltered and treated in such a way as to exploit them to highest possible extent at the lowest conceivable degree of expenditure.”

    Sauckel, the Head of the Office Supervising Foreign Labor in Germany

    in Rist, 1978: 60.

     “Unless the next generation of foreigners are allowed to participate in German society with the hope of a way of life which approximates that of their German neighbors, the relationship between foreign workers and their German neighbors will deteriorate…Despite these gloomy prognoses, Germans are not yet ready to take the next step. With the assertion that ‘Germany is not an immigration country’, most Germans are reluctant to send the foreigners home or to allow them to become citizens.”

    U.S. department of State, Annual Labor Report 1975

    In Rist, 1978: 72-73.


    The history of Mexican immigration to the United States dates back to 1870s. It has not been a steady linear process but rather defined by cycles reflecting macro processes. A similar interpretation is valid for European case. Yet, immigration to Europe is very recent, since it was emigration rather than immigration that defined the place of international migration in European history. European countries experienced emigration to the United States at the turn of the century. As opposed to the United States, which defines itself as a country of immigration, Western European countries have no such claim. However, the developments of the second half of the 20th century rendered migrant labor inevitable for these countries. Today, at the turn of another century, international migration is no more solely an economic phenomenon. Political, social and cultural aspects, involving both host and home countries, are now significant features of international migration studies. In this paper I will analyze the Bracero Program and European Guestworker Program (by focusing on the experiences of Turkish migrant workers in the Federal Republic of Germany), which were effective only temporarily, yet had significant implications in the formation of immigrant communities in the host countries. This paper is just a preliminary step, setting the ground for a broader project by means of a descriptive analysis of the two cases. I believe underscoring the basic similarities and differences between the two processes will prove useful for an extensive research comparatively analyzing the experiences of immigrant workers and their implications in the U.S. and Germany, both for the host and home countries.

    The Bracero Program

    The Bracero2 Program entered agendas of both the U.S. and Mexico in 1942, as a short-term temporary program intended to fill the labor shortage in agriculture and railroad construction during the World War II. The railroad bracero program was smaller than the agricultural one in terms of the number of workers involved, and also it was actually a wartime action terminated after the war. However, the agricultural bracero program was extended to a span of over twenty years, renewed consecutively by the efforts of the American growers (Griego, 1996).

    Background and the Initial Phase of the Bracero Program, 1942 - 1946

    The Emergency Farm Labor Program, which came to be known as the Bracero Program, began in 1942 as a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, which aimed to satisfy labor shortages in agriculture due to World War II. It was intended to be a temporary solution to wartime economic crisis, yet, turned into an institutionalized feature of Mexican migration to the U.S. for a considerable period of time. Before the installation of the program the nature of the migratory flows were mainly shaped by the status of the US economy, and basically characterized by seasonal movements where both of the states were involved in the process in terms of volume and control of the flows. With the Bracero Program, a large-scale and sustained recruitment of contract workers, which was binding as an international agreement for both states, was set in action for the first time (Griego, 1996).

    On the US side, departments of State, Agriculture, Labor and Justice (INS) were involved in the administration of the program, and matched with more or less equivalent departments on the Mexican side. At this initial phase of the program the status of Mexico was relatively superior to the US. Mexico was willing to consider a bilateral agreement, yet this was dependent upon certain conditions such as that the amount of migration to the US would not reach a level to harm Mexican agricultural production. In addition to that macro-level concern, Mexico also insisted on measures that would guarantee and protect her citizens’ rights. These included;

    ·       The existence of a written contract,

    ·       Contract compliance and administration by both of the states,

    ·       Need based recruitment,

    ·       Payment of transportation and subsistence costs by the US government or employers,

    ·       Permit of permanent residence for the contract workers,

    ·       Action against racial discrimination, and blacklisting of certain areas, such as Texas and Idaho, where racial discrimination and prejudice against Mexican workers were experienced previously (Griego, 1996: 51-52).

    As a result of the emergency conditions and the pressure of growers, the agreement was signed in accordance with Mexico’s demands. Yet, the above-mentioned issues never ceased to be sources of dispute. Starting from the first phase, the problem of illegal immigrants (wetbacks) has also been a source of tension between the two states. By the time the war was over, the future of the program was highly contested.

    Institutionalization of Mexican Labor, 19471954

    In spite of all the discussion around the program, the second phase marked its transition to a peacetime activity. The most significant feature of this period was the large-scale operations held by the US to deal with the problem of wetbacks, the undocumented migrants. These were generally initiated by the US government agencies, and Mexico was accused of not taking action to stop illegal migration other than forcing the US to penalize employers of wetbacks. Ironically, the methods US applied in dealing with the problem were not oriented in deporting the wetbacks, but rather legalizing them to supply the agricultural sector with even more contract workers. Thus, by 1954 the Bracero Program was transformed into an institutionalized system of legalizing undocumented workers (Griego, 1996; Craig, 1971). The legalization operation was also in accordance with the demands of the agricultural businessmen, who complained about the time and money consuming nature of recruiting braceros from Mexico. Hence, the INS gave priority to illegal immigrants already in the U.S., and “on-the-spot” legalization of illegal farm workers came to be the apparatus. Calavita notes that, by 1950, “the number of Mexicans “legalized” and “paroled” to growers as braceros was five times higher than the number actually recruited from Mexico” (Calavita, 1992: 2). Calavita is very critical in terms of the role of the government, especially the INS, throughout the process. She does not view the program as a mutually beneficial bilateral agreement but rather as the unilateral act of the INS serving the agribusiness. Thus for Calavita, the role of INS in this process was using its administrative power in a way to maximize the benefits of growers. In other words, “For the growers the program was a dream: a seemingly endless army of cheap, unorganized workers brought to their doorstep by the government.” (Hastell, 1978 cited in Calavita, 1992: 3-9).

    The 1954 “open-border” incident indicated a completely different system for the functioning of the program which was unilateral and allowed absolute control of Mexican workers by the officials of the US. This incident marked the most serious problem between the two countries, and resulted in Mexico’s unilateral termination of the program. However, the US took a step back from her latest policy and suspended the unilateral system, and the program was resumed (Craig, 1971). Yet, this event was remarkable both for the US and Mexican sides. One of the important features of the institutionalization phase was the deteriorating position of the Mexican state. After a decade of continuous migration, the function of the program had a changing meaning for the Mexican government: a safety valve for rural unemployment. Once perceived as inevitable, it meant increasing bargaining power and never ending labor supply for the US farm organizations (Griego, 1996).


    The Phase of Stabilization and the Demise of the Bracero Program, 1955  1964

    By 1955 there were no major disputes between the US and Mexico threatening smooth functioning of the program. Until 1960 the pro-bracero growers’ interests dominated the scene. The first half of this period indicated the integral nature of the braceros for Southwestern agriculture (Craig, 1971). However, there was a growing opposition against the contract workers especially with their massive involvement in US agriculture. As the number of contract workers increased, so did the belief among domestic agricultural workers that they had adverse effects on the conditions of domestic labor force, based on the fact that wages did not increase or stayed constant in the areas where braceros worked (Griego, 1996). The organized labor groups who were against the program argued that there was employment in the US; the Mexican workers were undercutting American labor by their willingness to work for low wages; wages paid to foreign workers deteriorated US balance of payments; and, the elimination of braceros could reduce the seasonality of farm work. Whereas growers argued that the use of braceros was in the favor of American consumers, since lack of braceros would mean less efficient and more expensive agricultural products (Fisher and Mair, 1966: 28-29).

    Although the relations were stabilized at the international level, the growing hostility against contract workers, and the tension between growers and domestic agricultural organizations gave way to the termination of the program in 1964. However, termination of the program did not mean the demise of Mexican workers in the US agriculture. In other words, even though the formal contract-labor period was over, the informal patterns of migration created during the program persisted, both legally and predominantly illegally (Griego, 1996). Thus, Mexican workers are still important features of agricultural production; yet, the lack of a bilateral program renders it easier for the growers to exploit the immigrant workers. From the perspective of domestic workers termination of the program can hardly be defined as a victory. Rather than employing domestic workers for higher wages and within state-bounded contracts, growers tended to replace labor force by mechanization or rely on wetbacks even for lower wages at the absence of a contract (Kirstein, 1977).

    The response of Mexico to the termination of the program was twofold. On the one hand Mexico had to create jobs to absorb the ex-bracero population. However, the border industries (export processing zones) created with this aim employed young female workers rather than ex-braceros. On the other hand, Mexico tried to renew the contract labor program both to control undocumented emigration and sustain the safety valve function of the program to deal with unemployment.

    In the US post-bracero period was not very different when the controversy over Mexican migration was concerned. The legal importation of workers was over with the termination of the program, nonetheless, undocumented immigration sustained the importance of the issue of Mexican migrant workers in domestic policy making (Griego, 1996).

    The Railroad Bracero Program

    Like the agricultural growers, railroad companies demanded the recruitment of immigrant workers during World War II. Based on the argument that chronic labor shortage was severely impeding the construction of railroads and efficient contribution of the Southwest to the war effort, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company was the first to ask for permission to import workers (Driscoll, 1999). Similar to its agricultural counterpart, this demand faced widespread railroad union opposition. Even the State Department was against the implementation of a non-agricultural bracero program, based on an account of the War Manpower Commission reporting that the labor shortage was existent but it was due to low wages and rigid hiring policies rather than lack of domestic manpower. However, after about a year of discussions, railroad companies convinced the State Department about the necessity of the railroad bracero program. The bilateral railroad worker agreement between the US and Mexico was signed on April 1943 (Kirstein, 1977).

    The terms of the railroad bracero program were similar to those of the agricultural one. Nondiscriminatory treatment and equal rights and wages with the domestic workers were again important parts of the contract, insisted on by the Mexican government to ensure the protection of her citizens. Employers were responsible for the return of workers back to Mexico. In order to prevent the exploitation of braceros, Mexico asked for terms to guarantee that immigrant workers cannot be used to replace domestic workforce, or to reduce wages and deteriorate conditions of labor (Kirstein, 1977).

    Unlike the agricultural bracero program, the railroad labor importation program ended with the victory of the US over Japan. Thus, the railroad bracero program was actually a wartime emergency solution. However, the termination of the program did not go about without any disputes. While the railroad companies sought to delay the repatriation of Mexican workers, unions demanded immediate and unconditional ending of the program. The United States government was in between the two opposing parties, whereas the Mexican state was in favor of suspending the program due to various reasons. First of all, the Mexican railroad system necessitated labor services performed by Mexican workers in the US. Secondly, Mexico was not satisfied with the way the program functioned. Mexican workers were not given the chance of either horizontal or vertical occupational mobility, and working conditions were hazardous (Kirstein, 1977; Driscoll, 1999). Hence, the demise of the railroad bracero program was relatively smoother compared to its agricultural counterpart.

    The Significance of the Bracero Program for the United States

    The profile of the Mexican worker is also important in an analysis of the bracero program. The braceros were exclusively male and generally between twenty and thirty years of age, with the majority being unskilled agricultural laborers from a rural background. Throughout the program dependents of Mexican workers were not allowed to join them in the US (Kirstein, 1977: 51).

    The Bracero Program was established as a temporary program based on meeting the labor demand of the US agricultural sector. The idea behind the program was similar to all other examples of guestworker programs, where the contract workers were expected and supposed to return back to their home country when the need for them ceased to exist. Yet, the consequences of the Bracero Program turned out to be very different than estimated. Most of the braceros chose to stay in the US, and both the nature of the program itself and the unique relationship between the US and Mexico account for this outcome. It is suggested that the Bracero Program motivated illegal migration mainly in three ways:

    ·       First of all, it acted in a way to train Mexican migrants in adapting to the US social and cultural institutions, thus, provided the infrastructure for permanent migration.

    ·       Second, it also provided the environment for the formation of social networks both with their employers and their fellow workers and Mexican-Americans.

    ·       Finally, in accordance with the basic explanation of immigration theory, it introduced a new and better standard of life, hence, raised the immigrants’ expectations (Basok, 2000: 217-218).

    The initiators of the Bracero Program were not different from those of other guestworker programs. The US growers justified their demand for the Mexican workers arguing that domestic workers were not available in number, and lacking required skills for agricultural work. They also included Mexico in the discussion stating that both the state and her population benefited from the program, along with the domestic population who would gain from reduced costs. However, arguments against these statements also existed, insisting on the adverse effects of the program, and one-sidedness of growers’ claims. In sum, it wouldn’t be unfair to reflect on the program as realization of growers’ concerns. This specific nature of the program can also be revealed through an inspection of recruitment practices, enforcement of work-related and living standards, and the size of the program (Craig, 1971; Kirstein, 1977).

    Mexican state wanted to establish recruitment centers in her interior so that the needy people in the impoverished regions could benefit from the program. In addition to that, border recruitment had a stimulating effect on illegal migration. Yet, this demand contradicted growers’ interests who were in favor of border recruitment centers to reduce transportation costs and delays. The dispute over location was resulted on behalf of the growers due to deteriorating power of the Mexican state and policy implications of the US (Calavita, 1992). One of the conditions that Mexico required in order to participate in the program was that the working and living standards of her citizens would be maintained above a certain level. However, US authorities let growers determine standards unilaterally and this resulted in violation of contracts and eventually desertion became a widespread phenomenon among contract workers (Kirstein, 1977). Another factor contributing to the above factor was the enormous size and density of the program. Mexican contract workers were not only a large group in terms of numbers, but they also constituted a very significant percentage of the agricultural workers. And this is actually what made the experience of braceros so unique. The existence of a sizable fellow community made it easy for the braceros to remain in the country even if they broke the contract. The economic structure of the region allowed them to find jobs not only in the agricultural sector, but also in construction, garment, and service sectors. The Mexican community and the wide-ranging social networks also acted in a way to stimulate flows of illegal migration (Basok, 2000).

    European Guestworker Program

    After World War II Western European countries were in serious need of labor power. By the 1950s, they met this demand by signing several bilateral labor recruitment agreements first with Italy, Spain, Portugal and Yugoslavia, and later with Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In the 1970s, foreign workers in Europe reached a maximum. Several explanations are made to account for migration waves throughout Europe. These mostly made use of the push and pull factors to understand international migration patterns of Europe. Within the context of guestworker programs, migration flows were mainly determined by economic disparities between countries. Countries with growing economies, large demand for labor, and higher wage levels attracted migrants from countries with high levels of unemployment, relatively lower wages and life standards, poverty and economic underdevelopment (Fassmann and Munz, 1992: 469). However, the role of political and historical aspects along with social and cultural ones should not be neglected in analyzing this process.

    Within the framework of European guestworker programs, I will focus on the case of Turkish migrant workers in Germany (Federal Republic of Germany during the guestworker program), the largest and most significant immigrant community in country. Germany and Turkish migrant workers form a specific case since both the ratio of immigrant workers to domestic ones, and the ratio of foreigners to native population are largest in this country. In addition to that, Turks are the largest immigrant worker group and community, and also the source of several controversies. This fact makes a comparison between the Turkish immigrants in Germany and Mexican immigrants in the US feasible, and at the same time useful. However, within the boundaries of this paper, I will limit myself to a descriptive layout of the case, and leave a detailed comparison to further research.

    Guestworkers in Germany

    Following World War II Germany’s male work force was insufficient, industrial facilities demolished, and transportation almost nonexistent. Germany began to reconstruct her economy almost immediately after the war. Until the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, she used refugees from the eastern sector of Germany, yet after that serious labor shortages were experienced (Rist, 1978: 60-61; Krane, 1979: 63). In order to overcome the labor shortage the German government signed bilateral agreements with countries capable of exporting labor. The first one was with Italy in 1955 for the importation of labor to be used in building and agricultural sectors. The success of that program led to an expansion of the program to all sectors where labor was needed, and additional bilateral agreement were signed with Greece and Spain in 1960, Turkey in 1961, Spain in 1964, and Yugoslavia in 1968.

    The process of labor recruitment was more or less the same in each country. German government had recruitment offices in sending countries, which informed the sending country about the demands of Germany. It was then the officials of the sending country who located eligible candidates. German officials held medical and criminal examinations of candidates, and a one-year contract was signed with the workers if everything went in order. Workers were supplied with information concerning life in Germany and future employment (Rist, 1978: 61). Recruitment of migrant workers went on in an increasing trend until the 1973 oil crisis, which caused recessions to be experienced in all the European countries. In November 1973, the Federal Republic of Germany banned further importation of migrant labor on the ground that “there was a need to overcome the unemployment that was developing in the country as well as to leave open work places for large number of young persons who would be entering the labor market for the first time” (Rist, 1978: 76-77). The aim of the ban was securing available job opportunities for domestic workers with the intention that no new labor would be recruited, and already existing ones would return to their home countries, thus the number of immigrant workers in Germany would decrease over time. However, the decrease in numbers of immigrants was a selective process based on nationality. While almost one-third of Spanish and Italian workers returned home, the number of Turkish workers remained almost intact. This was mainly due to two factors: even though they were no more part of the labor force, immigrants (mainly women who were dependents) did not leave the country; and there was a significant amount of births to foreign parents, thus new generations were born and raised in Germany (Rist, 1978: 65).

    Similar to the bracero program, illegal immigration was an important part of the guestworker program. Due to the growing number of foreigners who wish to earn money in West Germany, and the long and complicated procedures involved, many foreigners stayed and worked in the country illegally. Krane notes that the German government estimated the approximate amount of illegal immigrants to equal ten percent of total number of immigrants in the country (Krane, 1979: 67). Since there are no common borders that rendered illegal entrance into the country possible, foreigners entered the country with tourist visas, or did not live the country when their residence permits expired. Because of their precarious status, illegal immigrants were exploited by their employers. They were mainly employed in construction and service sectors, where examination of work permits were least likely. In most of the cases, the illegal workers in the service sector were wives of guestworkers, since guestworkers were allowed to bring their family to Germany after one-year of legal residence and having met the necessary accommodation conditions. After the 1973 ban, laws against illegal immigrants were also stricter (Krane, 1979: 67-68). In the German context, guestworkers could join labor unions, and even run for office. In terms of the social law, the guestworker and his/her family could more or less enjoy equal rights with German citizens (Krane, 1979: 79).

    Guestworkers were not given the choice of choosing the place of destination but they could choose from among available sectors based on the level of their skills. Nonetheless, guestworkers were concentrated in the industrial areas of the country. In addition to that, they were also concentrated in mainly three sectors: manufacturing, construction, and services, with low levels of upward or horizontal occupational mobility (Rist, 1978: 66-71).

    Turkish Migration to West Germany

    The first group of Turkish migrants in Germany was composed of workers and their families, brought to Germany in 1956 as part of a vocational training program, which was related to German capital investment in Turkey. The program did not work, but the migrants stayed and worked in Germany. From 1956 to 1961 bilateral agreement, the amount of Turkish migrants in Germany was negligible. After the agreement the number of Turkish migrants in the country increased rapidly, however, it was not only the labor demand of Germany that accounts for the signing of the bilateral labor recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey. The political atmosphere of Turkey during the period was also significant (Rist, 1978: 89).

    Abadan-Unat et al. summarizes the involvement of the state in the migration process as follows (1976: 28 cited in Rist, 1978: 89-90):

    “The army seized power and the multiple party system came to an end. In a way the Revolution of 19603 facilitated labor migration to Germany…. The new constitution explicitly granted the right to travel abroad to each Turkish citizen…. The following years saw further developments in the government’s involvement in labor migration which was still almost entirely directed towards Germany…. The First Five-Year Development Plan, drafted in 1962, was implemented in 1963. For the first time concerned officials decided to encourage the migration of Turkish workers deliberately and incorporated their designs in a State document: the First Five Year Development Plan (1963-1967) cites both “population planning” and the “export of surplus manpower” as measures of attaining the Turkish goal of a set growth rate.”

    Thus, the role of the state was very significant in the Turkish case. Migration decisions were taken on an individual or household basis, but the securing of jobs in the country of destinations, and details of the terms of contracts were mediated through administrative means and based upon bilateral agreements. Turkey did not want private institutions to be involved in the process in order to prevent possible exploitation and discrimination (Abadan-Unat, 1976; Rist, 1978; İçduygu et al. 2001). 

    However, the dual nature of the recruitment process, limited the state’s power to manipulate migration flows. The semiautonomous agency within the Ministry of Labor, the Employment Service (ES), was responsible for the summoning of individuals who meet certain criteria (completion of military service, health, education, employment background), and placing them on waiting lists. When Germany declared vacant positions the recruitment process took a different shape depending on whether the ES received an “anonymous” or a “nominative” request. The nominative was a request by name for a specific individual. A German firm based on his/her network relations could have called an individual, and they need not be on the ES waiting lists. Once a person was called on nominative basis, the only thing the ES could do was issuing the worker’s passport and permits, yet, could not manipulate the process. Nominative recruits were usually used to legalize illegal immigrants who entered the country illegally but found jobs and convinced the firm to request himself/herself, and thus legalize. The anonymous category was for vacant positions that could be filled by any worker who met the criteria. It was the anonymous request through which the ES practiced its regulatory power on the recruitment process (Rist, 1978: 90-91; Krane, 1979: 204-205).

    By the end of 1975, almost one-third of all migrant workers were sent abroad by nominative request. Thus, the Turkish state had no control over one-third of migration flows. A major drawback of this was that the German recruitment offices took about 34 percent of all skilled workers in Turkey. The only skilled workers exempt from recruitment were coal miners, armament factory workers, and ship builders. Similar to the effects of the agricultural bracero on the Mexican agriculture, and the railroad bracero on Mexican railroad transportation, the migration of skilled labor had adverse effects on the Turkish industry (Rist, 1978: 91). Thus, for Turkey, emigration did not work as a surplus labor vent, on the contrary emigration of skilled and semi-skilled workers increased labor costs in Turkey. In fact, the initially the program was set to be rotational. The idea was that immigrant workers would respond to the demands of the labor market, arrive when labor shortages existed and depart during high unemployment (Martin, 1999: 6). This was also assumed to help the economies of the sending countries, the migrant workers would return back with their newly gained skills, and help improve the industry of their home country. However, this had not been the case for Turkey.

    The above fact was also related to the profile of Turkish migrant workers. The majority of migrants were skilled and employed, and the main motive behind the act of migration was the desire to accumulate greater wealth rather than unemployment or job dissatisfaction (Miller, 1976: 12-13; Davis and Heyl, 1986: 182).

    The reasons for the excessive recruitment of Turkish labor force were historical, political and also cultural. Germany has been involved in the defensive modernization of the Ottoman military, and historical links dates back to 19th century. Thus, there was no negative political climate to prevent the bilateral agreement. In addition to that, German employers preferred Turkish workers because of their reputation that they had military qualities (and related to that disciplined, modest, willing to adjustment and easy to manipulate) (Abadan-Unat, 1976: 6). At the initial stages of migration, workers were almost entirely male. Yet, the composition changed substantially over time. From 1967 onwards the ratio of women among workers rose from 8 percent to 25 percent. This change was primarily due to changing structure of economy, and the rising demand for female labor in industries such as textile, electronics, food processing (Abadan-Unat, 1976: 9-10). This new trend also marked changing patterns in Turkish migration to Germany. The waiting lists were too long and waiting period could have been as long as seven years. Hence, contrary to traditional Turkish family life, men encouraged their spouses and daughters to take up work abroad, since German immigration laws allowed family reunion after a certain period of time. In terms education level, the majority of Turkish migrants in Germany was young and had at least primary school education. In fact the ratio of primary school graduates among migrant workers was higher than the Turkish population in general (Zimmermann, 1992: 109-112; Abadan-Unat, 1977: 31).

    The integration of Turkish migrants to social life in Germany was rather limited. They lived in isolated neighborhoods, showing great solidarity between countrymen, yet almost no interest in language learning or vocational training. However, social adjustment rates were higher for women migrants compared to men (Abadan-Unat, 1976: 12).

    Concluding Remarks

    Both the bracero and the European guestworker programs make it obvious that international migration is not solely a temporary phenomenon responding to economic necessities, but has important social and political dimensions. Now, both for the US and Germany, the issue is no more the level of unemployment but the integration of a very significant part of their population to the rest of the society. Until recently the US and Germany had very different approaches towards immigrant populations. Whereas in the US immigrants have the natural right of gaining citizenship by birth, in Germany even the second and third generation immigrants are considered to be foreigners. However, the recent developments in German legislation and the reconsiderations of the immigration law can be considered a positive step towards realizing more important aspects other than the economic ones.

    Revisiting the bracero and guestworker programs reveal the basic instinct of capitalist production systems. Quite different from the recent situation, both programs - dominated by the large capitalist forces either in the form of agribusiness or industrialists- aimed to exploit the migrant labor force as much as possible with the least possible expenditure. Within the context of these programs one can define the migrant labor systems as “the institutional differentiation and physical separation of the processes of renewal and maintenance” (Burawoy, 1976: 1050). While the maintenance of the labor force was met in the host country, the more costly renewal side was left to the home country. However in the bracero program, the inevitability of illegal immigration due to the common border rendered it impossible for the state to separate the two functions, and the program was terminated in spite of the demands of the growers. One of the most important differences between the Turkish and Mexican case is the geographical proximity of the sending and receiving countries in the latter one followed by the differences in the occupational structures of migrant workers. The demand for labor in Germany, and Europe in general, is largely dependent upon the technological and economic development, determined by the composition of the economic structure. Whereas in the US case, the Mexican workers are still a vital part of Southwestern agriculture. This fact has twofold impacts for both parties. It forces the US to consider the immigrant workers as a structural part of its economy, yet at the same time enforces illegal immigration.

    Along with the economic aspects there are even more important issues that need further consideration that I can only touch here. Race, gender and class dynamics are very important parts of any immigration study. Both Turks in Germany and Mexicans in the US suffer from severe racial discrimination. Changing the legislation in order to account for a pluralist society is an important step forward, yet it would be partial without the society internalizing it. The gender dimension of the bracero and guestworker programs is also not analyzed here. However, the changing and transforming nature of gender relations should be a central part of any comparative analysis.


    Abadan-Unat, N. (1976) “Turkish Workers in Europe, 1960-1975”, in N. Abadan-Unat (ed.) Social, Economic and Political Studies of the Middle East Vol. XIX. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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    [1] * Dr. Sosyal Politika Forumu Uygulama ve Araştırma Merkezi Boğaziçi Üniversitesi

    [2] * The term “bracero” means, literally translated, arms, or someone who works with his/her arms. Within the context of the program, it might be thought as the “helping arm”. Bracero, in this paper, will be used to denote Mexican workers brought to the U.S. on a contractual basis.

    [3] * Since the establishment of the Republic, Turkey experienced three military coup d’etats, almost every ten years. The one in 1960 was the first one, ended in an overthrown of the Democratic Party of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes (the first party to be elected for the government in the multi-party period, but the name shouldnot mislead you, it was a very conservative and almost fascist party) from power and establishment of a new (better and much more democratic) Constitution, which was abolished by the third coup in 1980 and replaced by a stricter one in terms of civil rights. That is why 1960 coup is usually referred to as a revolution rather than a coup.