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A Publication of OKCIR: The Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science (Utopystics)
ISSN: 1540-5699. Copyright by Ahead Publishing House (imprint: Okcir Press) and authors. All Rights Reserved.
Journal of the Sociology of Self-

Migration Theory in the Domestic Context

North-South Labor Movement in Brazil

Terry-Ann Jones
Fairfield University

Abstract: Sugar cane has remained central to the Brazilian economy, and increasingly so as rising
petroleum prices spark an increase in the demand for ethanol. As a world leader in sugar cane based
ethanol production, Brazil has a need for low-skilled, low-wage workers in this industry. As petroleum
prices rise, and with them the demand for biofuels, the incentives to produce more sugar cane in Brazil
have fueled the demand for labor on plantations and in sugar mills. In Brazil's sugar-producing regions of
the central and southeastern states, the labor demands in the fields are primarily filled by migrants.
However, these migrants are not foreigners, but Brazilians who migrate seasonally from northern and
northeastern states such as Maranho, Bahia, Alagoas, Par, and Minas Gerais. Although these workers are
Brazilians traveling and working in their home country, they face many of the difficulties that international
migrants in other countries face, including discrimination, poor wages, and inhumane working conditions.
This article discusses theoretical approaches to domestic sugar cane labor migration in Brazil.

INTRODUCTION with the most limited resources and even

more limited access to these resources who
According to the theory of the New In- find themselves in these difficult forms of
ternational Division of Labor, access to em- employment that offer them little compen-
ployment is not only based on the skills or sation. In more industrialized states of
education of individuals. Some jobs are tar- Western Europe, the United States, Canada,
geted toward particular members and and Australia, among others, these jobs are
groups of the population. Certain jobs, often filled by immigrants, especially those
most often the menial, strenuous, and low- who have recently arrived and are undocu-
paying, are reserved for those who, in the- mented. The jobs vary from domestic work
ory, have the fewest skills and lowest levels to agriculture and meatpacking, among
of education. However, in reality it is those other sectors.

Terry-Ann Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Fairfield University, with primary teaching responsibili-
ties in the International Studies Program. Professor Jones is actively involved in the Latin American and Carib-
bean Studies and Black Studies programs and serves on the advisory boards of both. Her areas of research and
teaching interest are in international migration, particularly between Latin America and the Caribbean and
North America. Her previous research compared Jamaican immigrants in the metropolitan areas of Miami and
Toronto, and was published in her book, Jamaican Immigrants in the United States and Canada: Race, Transnational-
ism, and Social Capital, in 2008. Professor Jones is currently doing research on temporary labor migration in Bra-
zil, particularly among sugar cane workers who travel from Brazils northeast to the central and southeastern
regions. The role of migration as a livelihood strategy among both domestic and international migrants is cen-
tral to this research. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Miami, School of International Studies in


With its rapidly growing economy and such as Maranho, Bahia, Alagoas, Par,
wide range of industries, Brazil has a need and Minas Gerais. Although these workers
for low-skilled, low-wage workers. Brazil is are Brazilians traveling and working in
a world leader in ethanol production, and their home country, they face many of the
has been engaged in the widespread use of challenges that migrant workers in other
ethanol since the mid-1970s.1 With increas- countries face, including discrimination,
ing fuel prices worldwide, there is a grow- meager wages, and inhumane working
ing demand for alternative sources of conditions.
energy. Biofuels, including sugarcane- Migration is a hot topic in academia,
based ethanol, are considered by some peo- and a range of theories has arisen to ex-
ple to be a viable alternative (Goldemberg plain, discuss, or otherwise dissect the pro-
2007). Consequently, ethanol production cess of migration. Among them, several
has increased in both the United States and approaches have emerged as accepted,
Brazil, the worlds two leading producers. dominant theories of migration. Some of
In the former, ethanol is mainly produced them explain the reasons for migration,
from corn, while in the latter sugar cane is while others explain how and why the pro-
the main source. In addition to global con- cess continues once it has begun. It has also
cerns regarding energy availability, there is become accepted among scholars of migra-
a high local demand for ethanol within Bra- tion that these theories do not operate inde-
zil, driven by three main factors. First, eth- pendently of each other, but are all
anol is 35% less costly than gasoline. complementary. However, these models all
Second, ethanol is taxed at 9 cents per liter, emphasize international migration. Within
in comparison to the 42 cents per liter the field of migration studies, international
charged for gasoline, also influencing the migration is certainly dominant. Further-
overall cost. Finally, flex fuel vehicles, more, rural to urban migration dominates
which use both ethanol and gasoline, have discussions of domestic migration, further
become increasingly economical in Brazil, marginalizing migrants such as Brazilian
encouraging their popularity (Luhnow labor migrants who have very different ex-
2006). periences in their movement from poor ur-
In Brazil, the incentive to produce more ban settings to agricultural spaces. This
sugar cane has resulted in an increased de- article proposes an alternative way of per-
mand for labor on sugar cane plantations ceiving internal migration, one that consid-
and in sugar mills. In Brazils main sugar- ers the similar plights that they share with
producing regions of the center-south international migrants. Case studies of
states, the labor demands are filled by mi- Campos dos Goytacazes in the state of Rio
grants. However, in this case the migrants de Janeiro and Guariba in the state of Sao
are not foreigners, but Brazilians from the Paulo are used to illustrate the complexities
lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. In of domestic labor migration in Brazil. Infor-
some cases the migration is permanent and mation from these two regions is based on
the workers live in slums, land reform set- interviews conducted there from summer
tlements, and other poor communities. to fall of 2007. The following section de-
However, many of the workers are tempo- scribes the major theories of international
rary labor migrants who migrate season- migration, emphasizing the ways in which
ally from northern and northeastern states these theories are applicable to domestic
migration, particularly in the context of
Brazilian labor migrants.
1 Source:



THEORIES OF INTERNATIONAL movement of people. The case of Puerto

MIGRATION Rican migration to the United States repre-
sents an unusual case, as it is not consid-
ered international migration. Although the
For the last several decades, beginning
move from the island to the mainland in-
perhaps with Everett Lees (1966) pioneer-
volves linguistic and cultural adaptation,
ing push-pull theory of migration, schol-
Puerto Ricans hold U.S. citizenship. Simi-
ars have attempted to explain the causes
larly, this model could also be applied to
and trends of international migration
domestic migration in the contexts in
through a range of theoretical perspectives.
which the unequal distribution of wealth is
Several theories have emerged as dominant
geographically based, as in the Brazilian
and generally accepted approaches to inter-
national migration, some of which explain
The neoclassical economics model of
the reasons why and the ways in which the
migration could certainly be used as an ex-
process begins, while others explain the
planatory tool for migration from Brazils
perpetuation of migration. A consensus has
northeastern to center-south states, as the
developed that these approaches are not
former represents an area that is abundant
mutually exclusive, but are complementary
in labor, while the latter boasts higher
and applicable to different types of interna-
wages and a greater availability of re-
tional migration. The models of neoclassi-
sources. Brazilian sugar cane cutters in the
cal economics, new economics of
center-south earn an average monthly in-
migration, segmented labor market, and
come that is about 15-22 percent higher
world-systems theory are the dominant
than the monthly wages in the northeast
models that explain the initiation of the mi-
(Romero 2000). For example, in Pernam-
gration process, while networks explain its
buco in the northeast, sugar cane cutters
continuation. These approaches are dis-
earn a median monthly salary of US$167,
cussed below.
while in So Paulo they earn US$195 (Ken-
field 2007). Consequently, the migrant flow
Neoclassical Economics
moves in a north-south direction, from the
The neoclassical economics approach labor-abundant regions to the capital-abun-
to international migration is based on the dant areas, despite the obstacles or difficul-
premise that individuals will migrate in or- ties.
der to improve their standard of living. Although domestic migrants in Brazil
This approach recognizes the imbalance be- do not face the same legal issues as interna-
tween the supply and demand of labor and tional migrants, or the linguistic and cul-
capital such that there is an abundance of tural concerns of Puerto Ricans in the
labor in developing or migrant sending United States, they are nonetheless mi-
countries, while capital is more readily grants, leaving the familiarity of their
available in developed or migrant receiving homes and settling in sometimes un-
countries. According to this theory, migra- friendly locales. However, one of the cri-
tion will continue as long as this imbalance tiques of the neoclassical model is that, by
exists. Massey et al. (1994) use the example assuming that migrants are individual ra-
of Puerto Rican migration to the United tional actors who make migration choices
States mainland to support the claims of based on the propensity for upward socio-
the neoliberal economics model, although economic mobility, the model has signifi-
they agree that it does not adequately ex- cant limitations and ignores a range of
plain fluctuations in the international other considerations.



New Economics of Migration this work force is believed to be undocu-

mented (Martin 2001: 3).
Like the neoclassical approach, the The structure of sugar cane labor in
New Economics of Migration assumes that Brazil is such that cane cutters, who engage
there are global economic imbalances that in arduous manual labor, fall to the bottom
enable people to make rational choices in of the hierarchy. This level of labor is usu-
order to maximize their socioeconomic po- ally reserved for migrant workers. While
tential. However, this approach does not other positions in the industry are by no
assume that the individual makes these means trivial, the indoor positions, such
choices independently. Rather, the inclu- as those inside of the factories, are typically
sion of the nuclear or extended family, or in reserved for permanent workers, or those
some cases even the community, facilitates who are native to or have settled in the
the sharing of both the costs and the bene- communities in which the sugar mills are
fits of migration. found. Workers are recruited from the less
Community and familial relationships affluent states of Brazils northeast to work
are central to the migration flows of Brazil- in the cane fields of the southern and cen-
ian sugar cane workers. Male workers in- tral states. That migrant labor work in the
terviewed in Guariba indicated that their fields while local labor work in the facto-
quality of life improves in several ways ries, suggest the type of segmented labor
when they are accompanied by their part- market that this theory describes. This type
ners or spouses. Most importantly, the part- of labor organization was observed in both
ners are able to share the household duties, Campos dos Goytacazes and Guariba,
enabling the male workers to focus solely where the overwhelming majority of the
on their paid labor. While most female sugar cane cutters are migrants from the
sugar cane cutters face the double burden northeast.
of household and paid work, they are also
in some cases aided by the extended family, World-Systems Approach
most often in the form of child care. As
such, this model is a useful lens through As in the cases of the other major theo-
which to view domestic labor migration in ries of international migration, the world-
the case of sugar cane workers in Brazil, al- systems analysis is also applicable to do-
though as with the neoclassical model, mestic migration in the Brazilian context.
there remains an assumption that individu- According to the world-systems ap-
als and family members are rational actors. proach to international migration, since the
sixteenth century there has been a global
Segmented Labor Market division of states and regions into a core,
which is abundant in capital, a periphery,
The segmented or dual labor market which is abundant in labor, raw materials,
approach to migration is based on the as- and consumer markets (Massey et al.
sumption that there are jobs that have, over 1993:444), and a semi-periphery that com-
time, become labeled as migrant jobs. Oc- bines elements from core and periphery.
cupations such as domestic and agricul- Migration, according to this approach, is
tural work, for instance, often receive a the inevitable result of the problems that
majority of foreign-born workers. In Cali- are created by capitalist development. Al-
fornia, for example, 95 percent of farm though this may not be immediately appar-
workers in 2000 were foreign born, with ent, the world-systems approach to
100 percent of newly arrived workers also migration is appropriate because Brazil, as
foreign born. An estimated 50 percent of a semiperipheral region, is divided geo-



graphically along socioeconomic lines, the housing. Networks may consist of family,
north being considerably poorer than the friends, or others, but are most closely
south. linked to geographic space. Migrants typi-
Although world-systems analysis em- cally form or join networks with those from
phasizes global divisions, a similar struc- their town, region, or country.
ture exists within the large semi-peripheral Within the context of Brazilian migrant
geographic space that is Brazil. While natu- sugar cane workers, networks are funda-
ral resources and raw materials are found mental to the migration process. All of the
throughout the country, the North has long migrant sugar cane workers interviewed in
been an area with an abundance of labor. both Guariba and Campos dos Goytacazes
Furthermore, during the sixteenth century, noted that they were informed of the em-
which marks the inception of the global di- ployment opportunity through someone
vision of core and periphery states, Brazils they knew, most often a relative or friend.
northeast was the primary area for the de- Consequently, there is a spatial pattern that
velopment of the sugar cane plantation is consistent with Levitts (2001) findings in
economy, and the accompanying importa- her study of Dominican migrants in Bos-
tion of slave labor. As such, labor migration ton. Levitt emphasizes the value of migrant
will continue to take place from the north to networks and ethnic enclaves in her study
the south of Brazil as long as there remains of transnational migration between the Do-
an unequal distribution of wealth, re- minican Republic and Boston. Specifically,
sources, and cheap labor between the re- she underscores the relevance of networks
gions. The effects of the abundance of labor in the decision to migrate to a particular
in Brazils northeast are compounded by city, as her research was centered on mi-
the fact that the region, once the main sugar grants from the Dominican town of Mira-
cane growing area, has been largely desic- flores. In this case, the overwhelming
cated. Sugar cane remains prominent in the majority of Mirafloreo migrants choose
region mainly because of the historical de- Boston as their destination city. Similarly,
pendency on this commodity. However, migrant sugar cane workers interviewed in
production in the center-south is more Guariba were exclusively from the state of
widespread, intensive, and efficient, as the Maranho, and the majority of them were
figures below indicate. from the city of Timbiras.
Another way in which the role of net-
Networks works is articulated within the context of
Brazilian sugar cane migrant labor is
Networks represent a key component through the role of labor contractors or re-
of the migration process, as they affect mi- cruiters, known in Brazil as empreiteiros, or
grants decisions regarding their destina- more commonly but derogatorily as gatos.
tion locale. Information about the Empreiteiros are typically from the same
destination is channeled to prospective mi- community, city, or state as the workers
grants through those who have already they recruit, as this fosters a more trusting
made the journey (Thomas-Hope 2002). As relationship. Playing essentially the same
such, the networks, which are comprised of role as labor recruiters in Californias agri-
prospective migrants, migrants, and re- cultural labor market, many empreiteiros be-
turned migrants, among others, are in- gin as workers, become supervisors, and
volved in the decision-making process. are eventually promoted to the multifac-
Furthermore, these networks are crucial to eted position of recruiting workers (Ortiz
migrant adaptation, as networks facilitate 2002:402). In addition to recruiting, empre-
the processes of securing employment and iteiros also transport workers to the work



sites and supervise in the fields. Many have gained much support (Wolford 2004).
scholars argue that empreiteiros exploit Migration flows in Brazil continue to be
workers (Pereira 1992:174), hence the com- driven by inequality, in particular regional
mon use of the term gatosliterally, cats inequality. Figure 1 below illustrates Bra-
to describe them as deceptive, untrustwor- zils regional income inequality.Although
thy, and even traitors to their kin. However, these approaches do not directly refer to
other scholars, though few, observe the domestic migration, they are certainly ap-
benefits of the empreiteiros, who play a me- plicable. Internal migration is often omitted
diating role between seasonal agricultural from migration theories, which tend to em-
workers and their employers. Rezende and phasize movements across borders. How-
Kreter (2001), for example, argue that em- ever, internal migration is a prevalent
preiteiros facilitate communication between phenomenon that deserves greater atten-
the two parties and reduce labor costs for tion. In addition to the millions of people
employers. As such, they play an important who are internally displaced because of
role in the producers economic productiv- wars, natural disasters, or other emergen-
ity. In either case, empreiteiros, considering cies, countless others are also migrants in
their role in facilitating housing, transpor- their home countries. While international
tation, and employment for migrants, are migrants have concerns regarding citizen-
key players in the networks of migrant ship, discrimination, and acculturation,
sugar cane workers. their experiences are not as different from
those of domestic migrants as they might
DOMESTIC MIGRATION initially appear. Domestic migrants may
not share citizenship concerns, but in some
cases such as China, for example, they need
In 1969, Fischlowitz and Engel argued
authorization to migrate even within their
that there were two main reasons for do-
home countries (Pieke and Mallee 1999).
mestic migration in Brazil. The first is the
Domestic migrants also face difficulties ac-
unequal distribution of land, which re-
culturating, particularly in large, culturally
mains concentrated in the hands of rela-
and socio-economically divided countries
tively few individuals and families by
such as China, India, and Brazil. There are
means of the perpetuation of the latifundia
further instances in which citizens become
system of large-scale agriculture. Their sec-
foreigners in their birthplaces, warranting a
ond reason represents the characteristics of
greater theoretical consideration. South Af-
migrant sending regions, which they de-
rica, in which the majority, indigenous pop-
scribe as having, alarmingly low income,
ulation was reduced to foreign status under
underemployment, undernourishment, ill-
apartheid, is one example. Palestine, in
health and illiteracy. Migration flows, they
which another population with an histori-
argue, reduce population pressures in the
cal memory of citizenship has become re-
less developed areas and encourage eco-
stricted to particular areas, is another.
nomic expansion in more developed areas
(Fischlowitz and Engel 1969:41-42). Al-
though much has changed in Brazil since INEQUALITY IN BRAZIL
1969, it remains among the worlds most
unequal countries (Birdsall 1998:78), and Brazils northeastern region accounts
some of the poor conditions that Fischlow- for 18.3 per cent of the countrys land and
itz and Engel describe remain evident to- 28.5 per cent of its population.2 However,
day. The latifundia system remains a reality
in Brazil, although land reform movements 2 Figures in this paragraph are based on
1996 statistics.



Figure 2
(Brazils states shaded according to proportion in poverty)

(Source: Ferreira 2006:370)

this region provides only 13.5 per cent of SUGAR CANE PRODUCTION IN
the national income and has a per capita in- BRAZIL
come of US$1,836. In contrast, the southeast
contains 10.9 per cent of the national terri-
As the approaches to migration dis-
tory and 42.7 per cent of the population.
cussed above suggest, Brazilian migrants
This region produces 58.1 per cent of the
move from areas where there are fewer em-
national income and has a per capita in-
ployment opportunities to areas where the
come of US$5,443 (Azzoni 2001:135). The
prospects for employment are greater. Mi-
sharp contrast between economic condi-
grant sugar cane workers travel from their
tions in the two regions is reflected in the
homes in the poorer Northeastern region to
higher unemployment rates in the north-
the Southeastern and Central regions,
east. In the northeastern city of Salvador,
where about 80 percent of Brazils sugar
for example, the unemployment rate was
cane is produced. Although the Northeast
12.1 per cent in July 2008 while the unem-
ployment rate in the southeastern city of
So Paulo during the same period was 8.3.3 3 Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estats-
tica (IBGE) monthly employment survey, re-
trieved from
pme_nova/defaulttab2.shtm, September 23,



Table 1: Regional Sugar Cane Production

Center-South Northeast

Sugarcane production 75-80% 20-25%

Raw sugar production 60-65% 35-40%

Ethanol production 80-85% 15-20%

Sugar for export 25-30% 70-75%

(Source: Bolling and Suarez 2001)

has historically been the primary sugar fragmentation, discrimination at the desti-
cane region, desertification has rendered nation, and harsh living and working con-
much of the area unsuitable for agricultural ditions.
production. Because of the regions histori- The harvest period in Central and
cal dependence on sugar cane production, Southeastern Brazil lasts on average six
the Brazilian government has continued to months, from about May to November, de-
invest in sugar cane production in this area. pending on weather conditions and varia-
However, only about 20 percent of the tions in crops. During this period, workers,
countrys sugar cane is produced in the mainly men, leave their Northeastern
Northeast. Table 1 and Figure 2 below show homes and travel to the center-south,
the proportion and concentration of sugar where they live on the plantations or in the
cane production in the two dominant re- neighboring towns, often in tenement-style
gions. dwellings. They spend this period working
in the fields cutting sugar cane. Research
SUMMARY conducted during the harvest season of
2007 indicated that the most urgent con-
cerns among migrant workers include,
While migration is an increasingly sa-
among other problems:
lient topic globally, the process is too often
assumed to be uniform. On the contrary,
1. Long hours of work under difficult
migrant experiences vary widely, depend-
ing on such factors as the type of migrant
2. Sub-standard living conditions
(temporary, permanent, student, highly
3. Inadequate nutrition
skilled, undocumented, for example); the
4. Health concerns pertaining to working
origin and destination regions, countries,
conditions and poor quality of drink-
and cities; and the types of employment op-
ing water.
portunities that they are offered, to name a
5. Work-related injuries
few of these factors. While the Brazilian
6. Discrimination in the communities in
sugar cane migrant experience has some
which they live
unique qualities, it is comparable with
other examples of temporary labor migra-
Ortiz (1981: 97) found similar concerns
tion. For example, West Indian agricultural
as he gathers from other studies that,
workers who travel seasonally to the
the work day varies from ten to four-
United States face hardships such as family



Figure 2
(Source: USDA World Agricultural Outlook Board)

teen hours the large majority of workers cable to domestic labor migrants, a theoret-
are illiterate health problems are constant ical approach to migration that considers
and frequently severe most workers the disparities that exist within countries
families live in a three- or four-room shack and the consequent flows of labor in this
that they do not own nutritional short- context is lacking. This article proposes a
comings are widespread salaries are con- broader interpretation in migration theo-
sistently below the legislated minimum ries that accounts for the movement and ex-
wage and women are routinely paid less periences of domestic labor migrants.
than men. The comparative approach to sociolog-
There is an absence of a model of mi- ical and geographic studies, among other
gration that addresses the nuances of do- disciplines, emphasizes the relevance of
mestic labor migration. Domestic context. In migration studies, the impor-
migration can be placed within the para- tance of context has been well documented,
digms of some of the dominant approaches and studies on migrant communities and
to the study of migration, as there are many their experiences illustrate the myriad
similarities between the patterns and pro- ways in which migration is experienced by
cesses of domestic and international labor different groups. However, the bulk of the
migrations. While these models are appli- migration studies deals with international



migrants. While international migrants Kenfield, Isabella, Brazils Ethanol Plan Breeds
Rural Poverty, Environmental Degradation,
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