Looking at the last drama among EU leaders, it looks like there are in the EU diverging views on migration policies. The long and lively discussions at the Bratislava summit seem to foreshadow the end of cohesion among Italy, Germany and France, while in the East a block of four is forming and threatening to make the EU even more right-wing, especially speaking about migrants. Looking carefully, beyond the tensions there is an unprecedented synergy among governments concerning the command on labour and the government of mobility. The much praised German model, started with the Schröder’s agenda 2010 and the Hartz laws – unsurprisingly founded on the same principle of «support and demand» («Fordern und Fördern») that now Merkel is flaunting as a tenet of the government of migrations – is really exemplary in terms of impoverishment of labour and welfare cuts. The model has been praised because it supposedly increased Germany’s employment rates to the highest degree in the last few years. However, what they do not say is that this decrease in unemployment has meant a deep cuts in wages and a stunning increase in precarious labour. In Germany, like in every European country, the fight against unemployment hides the logic according to which labour is a privilege to be accepted under whatever condition. Being the expression of policies which are at least European in their dimension, this model rules the roost, providing the perfect recipe of a regime of wage made of restriction and precarization of welfare remnants, exploitation of extra-European migrants and degradation of internal migrants’ status.
Since 2003 the advancement of the European regime of wage has been inexorable in Germany. The last chapters of this history are the welfare reform or Nahles law, passed in the Bundestag on June 23rd 2016 as a law for the simplification of the legislation regarding Hartz IV system, entering into force on August 1st 2016, and the law on integration of asylum seekers which was approved in July. While the Nahles reform concerns German citizens, in these days the Parliament is discussing proposals that affect European migrants in Germany. If a seemingly solid social system has managed to keep the effects of precarization under control until now, the time has come to attack directly these temporary compensations for the blackmail of precarity. From now on also welfare will be something to be conquered at a high price, permanently becoming a tool to control and discipline migrant and non-migrant labour force, even though migrant wave itself is the pretext of the double reform of immigration and welfare. The German regime of wage is being consolidated through the reform of immigration policies, including the reform of EU citizens mobility, as well as of labour market and welfare.
Welfare as a blackmail
The reform of Hartz IV under discussion will hit EU and non-EU migrants imposing the principle of paying one’s right to remain with availability to work. However, the «will to work» will be measured by the Job Center according to unappealable criteria and at the price of the most intensive exploitation on the wage and social level. Until now, the EU citizen living in Germany for more than 6 months had the right to receive Hartz IV subsidy, which is allowed to those who are able to work but do not reach the minimum level of subsistence by their wage or pension, or else to those who are seeking a job but are not entitled to get the subsidy limited for those who have paid unemployment insurance. If the reform for internal migrants is approved, unemployed EU citizens who have never worked in Germany and whose efforts to find a job are not evident, would not be entitled to assistance for five years. Only after five years, indeed, the residence can be considered permanent and you are entitled to Hartz IV benefits. Furthermore, the Sozialhilfe, a social provision limited to people unable to support themselves, will not be granted to European citizens, despite the contrary opinion expressed by the BSG (Federal Social Court). Under the pretext of simplification, the government wants to introduce policies that limit the entitlement to welfare payments to «deserving» workers and postpone it in an increasingly uncertain future for those who are not able to prove their merits. The effect, passed off as a form of dissuasion for «welfare tourists» who would aspire to settle in Germany, is more predictably an invitation to submit to precarity without expecting any kind of social protection.
This restriction logically follows the reduction of the social provisions even to those Germans that are fully and formally entitled to them. By the Nahles reform, those who benefit from the welfare system are expected to pay their debt to society. This system establishes an inescapable dependence of the worker both on the wage and the intermediation agencies, the Job Centers, which are supposed to become the real tools of control of the work-force: welfare benefits are allowed, loaned and sold in exchange for the availability to accept even jobs in very bad conditions, minijobs, 1-euro jobs, etc. By reducing to one month the period in which you can bring a lawsuit for the mistakes made by the Job Center in the payment of social benefits, the Nahles law aims at dramatically lowering the number of legal disputes. Even though the appeal might be right from a legal point of view, after 30 days the claimant cannot obtain what, ironically, she is entitled to by the law! This happens notwithstanding that the payments of the Job Center are often wrongful and those who brings legal actions have good chances to win.
Antisocial and indebted
If the recipient of social aids refuses a job that the Job Center offers to him/her, he/she runs the risk of being classified in the case of «antisocial behaviours» and to incur in sanctions as a form of reimbursement for the damage that the Job Center suffered. The reimbursement amounts to the 30% of the benefit and can be claimed as soon as the period of benefit expires, because only in the end the damage can be measured. This penalty measure is valid even when a new benefit program starts after the first one expired. The reimbursement could be obtained until the damage is not repaired. Yet, the sanction is based on the period in which you benefit the social aids up to a maximum of three years, a ceiling that, as many predict, sooner or later will be erased in order to leave space to lifetime sanctions.
If the case of antisocial behaviour is not new in the German system, although it was never easy to apply it, its progressive generalization is instead a real innovation. The reform indeed envisages the widening of the set of antisocial behaviours that can imply the enforcement of sanctions, establishing once and for all the availability to precarious job as a proof of social aptness. The behaviours that maintain, increase or do not lower the already existent need to receive social provisions will be now considered antisocial. The definition is technical and relates now to conditions considered objective: if you have not been able to maintain yourself you are an antisocial individual and as such you do not deserve the benefits that society should grant to you, even through your exploitation. In this way, those who refuse job interviews or job offers of any type, who willingly quit a job or a training course, even if unpaid, or violates the duties imposed by the Job Center, are forced to rely on a borrowing mechanism, made of loans, rather than services, and of sanctions that activate a vicious circle of impoverishment.
This is extremely evident if we think about how the treatment experienced by lone parents and women with dependent children, the category most at risk of poverty in Germany. A part of the social provision can still be subtracted from a lone parent for the days the child goes to the other parent. The lack of a common practice to enforce this measure is preventing, for now, a further restriction, and a deepening of that institutionalization of control, via the proposal of a complete cut of the additional benefits for the parent spending less than half of the time with his/her child, has been withdrawn because of the controversies it caused. Even in the current condition, anyway, the deduction of the benefit promotes a social compulsion to keep the integrity of the family unit, narrowing the spaces for women’s freedom, as they are the subjects most affected by the measure.
Welfare reform in Germany does not only establish a regime of wage in line with the one spreading in all Europe, but it goes beyond since it forces everyone, citizens and non-citizens, to obey to a social code entirely shaped on the needs of neoliberal order and of the State that guarantees it.
Integration into precarity
The same logic lies also behind the reform of «integration»: Germany cannot take a loss because of its «generosity» towards migrants. If anything, to keep its generosity it will have to increase the exploitation of all those whom it has so far accepted and whom will welcome in the future. The reorganization of welcoming policies requires the institutionalization of a process of forced integration of migrants, transforming refugees in a workforce compelled to reproduce itself alone, i.e. who have the burden of a continuous and never definitive conquest of the necessary conditions of their permanence and access to social benefits, that can be obtained only in provisional, determined and restrictive forms, and in exchange for an unconditional exploitation.
Once abolished, with the proposed integration law, the obligation to hire German citizens first, or holders of any other residence permit, it will be possible to hire asylum seekers without fuss, and above all with many more advantages. It seems like a convenient choice to the extent that allows the creation of around 100,000 new jobs paid one euro per hour, or more precisely 80 cents, since the work takes place inside reception centers, following a criterion of reduction of social costs that imposes on migrants self-subsistence and exploitation. The coincidence of work and life environment is worsened by a further reduction of the wage, already symbolic in itself, thus asserting the view that there are individuals who have to work practically for free to repay the debt of being welcomed. In case of abandonment of work or training course the asylum seeker can moreover be expelled: a policy that is even more explicitly blackmailing, evoking the logic of the anti-social behaviour applied to welfare beneficiaries. Although the proposal of the German Confederation of employers to hire refugees for 80 cents per hour also outside migrants centers has been rejected, the prospect of working virtually for free, even if only in reception centers and shelters, does not make less cogent the bond between exploitation and integration. From here to forced labour – like in North-American prisons – the step could be very short.
In a European landscape where the only way to enter Europe seems to exploit what remains of humanitarian protection, the outcome is the production of a vicious circle where the business of migrants welcoming is self-perpetuating and, pivoting on migrants free work, is functional to the precarization of the labour market tout court. «To support and demand» means, therefore, that the few rights and benefits still granted by the State correspond to its power to demand. What is demanded is the unconditional availability to meet the needs of capital.
The government of mobility in Europe, failing in practice to impose a total control on internal and external borders and to tackle their constant violation by migrants, acts at the level of economic integration and ensures a workforce that, if not docile, it is, however, precarious and impoverished. For example, before the integration law, after three years of residency, refugees got a permanent permit, if during the first three years the situation in the country of origin had not improved. Now things work differently. The permanent permit can be requested after three years, provided that the refugee attests excellent linguistic skills (C1) and to be able to provide almost entirely for his or her sustenance. After five years both the prerequisites for the permanent permit request are less tight. If even then they are not met, the permanent permit is bounded to the persistence of a situation of danger in the country of origin. Thus, coherently with the European tendency to abolish the permanent residence permits, the lesson Germany wants to give is clear: migrants do not have granted rights and the immigration offices’ arbitrariness decides about the legality of their stay.
Together with time, the integration law aims at reforming the «space» of residence for migrants. As a matter of fact, it envisages that each Länder decides in which place or in which city the asylum seekers can be transferred to, according to mysterious criteria of convenience that create further internal borders. This «prohibition to move», sold as an attempt to avoid «ghettoization», is a way to capitalize an impoverished labour force and to produce a metropolitan space extremely individualized and fragmented, which tends to limit the presence of communitarian and familiar networks and, most of all, the freedom of movement of migrants. This individualization is materially obtained through the expropriation not only of social rights, but also of the necessary means to obtain them, such as the presence of informal networks of support for migrants and the possibility to use one’s own mobility to seek a better wage. If the individualization and the limitation of mobility enforced by law are the mark of one’s own integration into society, this means that the social power of the labour force is abolished by law.
Precarization, impoverishment, individualization and division: this is the German model. A model that is fashionable not only in Germany but all over Europe, and that is part of the government of austerity and mobility, resulting in labour, welfare and migration policies reforms that are consistent with the neoliberal spirit of the Union. It is clear that not only the Eastern members of the EU are attacking its universalistic structure. The European regime of wage is the instrument through which all States without exceptions are preparing a Europe made of differences, distances and hierarchies, a Europe where the differences among States will be so much brutal as much they will be interlaced with those inside the States themselves.
If the EU institutions and the national governments try to operate a synchronization of the political conditions of exploitation, it does not make sense anymore to talk about Northern versus Southern European countries, of centers versus peripheries, or about national exceptions. In front of these Europe-wide processes, affecting in the short and in the long run the lives of precarious, migrants and industrial workers, a counter-attack on a likewise European scale, that does not stop to the organization of a singular symbolic event, is needed. To accumulate a power able to overthrow the European regime of wage we need common claims that show the connection between wage, welfare and mobility as the field of blackmail but also of strategies against the despotism of capital. The challenge to build a transnational social strike must be played on this field.
* Our sincere gratitude goes to Susanna Karasz for the research she carried out for the elaboration of the article.