by ISABELLA CONSOLATI and MAURIZIO RICCIARDI
Like every other storm, even the migrants’ storm that hit Europe in 2015 has finally calmed down. The Balkan route is apparently closed. The recent result of the Austrian elections seems to be the final seal that should prevent new migrants from disturbing the neoliberal dreams of the Central European countries. However, not everything is as it seems. Not only are migrants keeping on moving, taking advantage of every passage, but also those among them who arrived in the «welcoming» Germany are not just objects of reception. If we do not read migrants’ movements only through Angela Merkel’s declarations, we can easily note that ‒ beyond the good intentions, the cultural differences, the vicissitudes of monotheisms, the ghost of integration and its terrorist flip side ‒ there is something more in reception. Hundred thousand migrants escaped in search of freedom, for a life without the deadly mortgage of war, poverty and subjugation. When arrived in Germany, they found reception dressed up as coercion to work. This does not clearly mean that work is the only category that allows reading the migratory movements. It is out of doubt, though, that, in order to reproduce their lives, migrants are put to work in particular conditions and with particular rules that irresistibly determine their existences. Fled looking for freedom, migrants meet something that they cannot get rid of and that once was called capitalism. If we want to deal with the migrant condition we cannot avoid considering the political centrality of migrant labour and the importance that it takes on not only for migrants, but also for all those who are likewise obliged to reproduce their life going through the so-called labour market. Under the facade of the European reception system, many men and women are compelled to work and are constantly trying to elude the conditions and regulations that establish the rhythm and quality of their existence.
Germany is not the future of Europe, but its conditions of exploitation of migrant labour help to understand much of what is already happening and is going to happen in the other European countries. It is true that Germany has incorporated 800.000 people, while other countries like France didn’t. However, both share many relevant tendencies, especially that of making the loosely defined «economic» immigration more and more difficult, just as family migration, which is nowadays considered maximally out of control, since it is legitimated by principles that are hard to ignore, such as the right to family life. It is likewise true that the hotspots in Greece, the EU-Turkey refugee deal, but also the Libyan traffics of the Italian government cannot be explained without taking into account that Germany at a certain point has closed its borders, producing a domino effect that has arrived up to the EU borders. However, the point is that only considering all the differences inside the European production network we can grasp the connection of migrant and precarious labour policies, also in operational terms. Being articulated according to different temporalities and methods, such a connection might not appear immediately evident. What interests us, then, is the way in which processes that are apparently national are showing common and intertwined characteristics, or the way in which Europe, while undergoing a political crisis, is anyways establishing rules and protocols of a logistics which affects the existence of precarious, industrial workers and migrants. This logistic regulation, which is at the same time a new European logistics, does not only connect the immediate forms of exploitation of the labour force, but also valorises the local histories in a construction that pretends to be systematic and without exceptions. In order to discuss this reality, it is very useful to read the book recently edited by Moritz Altenried, Manuela Bojadžijev, Leif Höfler, Sandro Mezzadra, Mira Wallis, Logistische Grenzlandschaften, translatable as Logistic Border Landscapes. Its subtitle brings us back to the condition of migrant labour although it sounds like The regime of mobile labour after the summer of migrations. The central thesis of the volume is that, after being removed from the 70s onwards, since 2000s, and more intensely after the summer 2015, migrant labour has become in Germany the fundamental object of legal regulation concerning migrations and is firmly at the centre of the public debate, involving parties, trade unions, entrepreneurs and various associations. Around the necessity of making it possible for asylum seekers to work, unexpected convergences have been established: two years ago, during a press conference a Manpower manager insisted on the need to let the refugees work. In order to do so he reported the initiative of the migrants of Lampedusa in Hamburg who, since 2013, have been struggling against the Dublin system, for a long-lasting residence permit and for the access to work. In order to valorise migrants’ labour, one can also evoke the reasons of those who ask to overcome the daily conditions of existential misery of refugees’ life. If also unions support the right to work, then the hard part is over.
The authors read the recent centrality of migrants’ labour as the reconfiguration of the fundamental contradiction of the German immigration policy, from the 70s on, namely the friction between the economic need for migrant workforce and the political and cultural logic of the govern of the boundaries. That contradiction found over time three successive forms: the system of Gastarbeiter in the 50s-70s; the asylum regime up until the end of the 90s; the present phase that focuses on the exploitation of migrant labour while affirming the lack of qualified labour. Today, that contradiction is governed through what the author defines a logistic regulation and forms of differential inclusion, where the proliferation of institutional and non-institutional roles emerges, as well as the progressive and widespread informalization of labour. Logistic regulation means a govern of the workforce and of its movements that increasingly imposes a «just in time and to the point» model, following the general criterion of right quantity, right quality, right time and right place. Accordingly, the entire paradigm of integration is transformed: from the previous logic of «exchange» in a long-term perspective, to the current logic of inclusion – given the term is still meaningful – which is partial, temporary and variable.
In this way, the most absolute contingency took the place of the promise. Actually, also the Gastarbeiter system operated as a temporary recruitment in which the right to stay was limited to the work to be done. In 1974 four million of Gastarbeiter existed and it is not a coincidence that the previous year a law against recruitment was introduced, as it became clear that many immigrants arrived to stay. After the end of this recruitment model, similarly to what happened with the Italian Bossi-Fini law, the asylum application became the only channel to enter the country and is widely used to this scope, also by the Gastarbeiter who have been living in Germany for many years. In 1973 the asylum applications were only 8000, but they doubled every year until 1980. The debate on the abuse of the right of asylum emerges and the contradiction between refugees and economic migrants is set. To avoid the wrong use of the asylum application in 1980 it was established that asylum seekers could not work for one year, in 1982 for two years, in 1987 for five years. As a result of war both in Iraq and in Yugoslavia, the asylum applications increased exponentially. In 1991 the ban on migrants’ labour was lifted: at that point, indeed, the number of migrant workers in Germany was such that it represented a cheap available labour force which could not be ignored and allowed to burden free of charge the State coffers. The tension between the voracity of capital and the need of legitimation of the political system causes that in 1992 every migrant must wait a given period of time before being eligible to work; then, in 1993 we see the radical reduction of labour permits and the enactment of a law that establishes that a migrant can be legally employed only if it is possible to demonstrate that there is not any German people that can make that same job.
We are on the threshold of the society of precarity, of the Schroeder Agenda and of the various Hartz systems. In few years we see the transition from the permanent ban to work for every refugees that had arrived in Germany since 1997, to the gradual abandonment of the contraposition among economic migrants and refugees. Migrant and precarious labour start showing all those symmetries that the first one has faced and unveiled. In 2005 a new combination between job and stay is established for some categories of workers and only for the skilled ones. Therefore, we arrive to the present and from 2015 the problem returns to be how to exploit the potential that all these new arrivals hide in their heads and arms. The CEO of the automotive giant Daimler holds that accepting 800.000 refugees is for sure «a labour of Hercules», but the could be the «reason of the next German miracle». The compelling lack of moderate cost skilled job suggests to create a «culture of welcome» that pushes everyone to give the best he/she can. The same German association of industrials supports the need of an unconditioned access of the refugees on the labour market and of the removal of all the obstacles. The businessmen took enthusiastically part to the solidarity movement maintaining that is a moral responsibility to give a job to refugees, besides a long-period economic interest. For instance, in February 2016 the initiative Wir zusammen [We Together] born thanks to the involvement of 100 firms, between whom Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen. It consists of a platform where the good will of the businessmen and the needs of the refugees match. The market of reception has opened and claims its own rules to bear the cost.
Thus, the refugee becomes openly work-force and an object of an integration policy based on the labour market. It is reduced the length of the labour ban for the refugees considered skilled and the priority in employment to be granted to German workers is no more mandatory. Yet, first of all, the result is a division between the refugees who have «good chances to stay» and those who have not (the decision is increasingly based on the country of origin, if it is consider safe or not). The fact that a more precise evaluation of the possibilities to stay is totally entrusted to the discretional behaviour of offices and chancelleries combines with the arbitrary criterions that makes a country to be considered «safe». Those who are considered to have low possibilities to stay are thrown in a limbo where they cannot work and are bound to live waiting for the expulsion. For the first ones it instead opens the problem of the test of their competences, that is of their immediate usefulness on the German labour market. A logistic net composed of many public and private actors, from Job centres to associations, looks after the profiling of migrants and the job matching.
The administrative control on the life of migrants becomes widespread. Yet, administration does not mean German precision and impersonal rules, but arbitrariness for the sake of profit. In order to be eligible at work, refugees must obtain a labour permit from a public office for every single job offer that they receive. The concession of this permit is totally arbitrary, depending on the random considerations concerning the impact of the entrance of migrants in specific sectors and on the eventual lowering of salaries. Practically, as some interviews in the volume reveal, it happens that the same offices make sure that it doesn’t occur that a refugee is hired for positions that are paid «too much»: in some cases, the same request for a certain job has been denied first, and then allowed when the wage was reduced. The reception system has also triggered the debate on the possibility of exempting refugees from the security of a minimum wage (introduced in 2015) to encourage entrepreneurs to employ them beside the allegedly low productivity of the refugees themselves, and given that the extension of the security of a minimum wage would facilitate illegal work. This has allowed a measure to be adopted so that refugees can be employed below the minimum wage standard up to a maximum of 12 months. In any case, the figures show that despite the rhetoric of skilled labours, most of the refugees are employed in unskilled activities, often in unpaid internships that last for months and months (in 2016: 30% as trainees, 65% as unqualified workers). In the industrial sectors, what makes the difference is the presence of migrants from Eastern Europe who are regularly preferred to refugees. Thus, the Job Centres’ control adds to the hierarchy and rationalization policy of the workforce, its constant fragmentation, the clear and precise indication that the colour of the skin is not indifferent.
In July 2016 Italy entered Germany or, if you will, both discovered how to behave in Europe. In both countries, reception has become a duty of migrants, a badly paid obligation strengthened by the threat of expulsion. Now in Germany, in the three months they spend in the reception centres, refugees can work, by carrying out well-known socially useful jobs at the price of 0.80 € per hour. If they refuse, they may incur a series of sanctions, because they have to pay the price for a welcoming society. Reception system thus becomes a process that has to work in two directions, but it must be supported in its costs especially by the refugees themselves, which, however, do not seem to want to be received in this way. The illegal labour control office complains in fact that «migrants escape the custody of the German State […] we no longer know where they are». Among the strategies to subtract control of Job Centres, which impose also the obligation to reside, stand out informal work and recruiting by word of mouth.
The «logistics fantasy» of capital is based at European level on a combination of this reception system and the outsourcing of border control and so shows its impotence to capture the movements of migrants. However, it produces effects and «constantly builds an imaginary of efficiency and smoothness by hiding the reality of precarious and migrant work» (Transnational Social Strike Platform, Logistics, Power, Strike: Elements for the Political Infrastructure). Logistic fantasy is not a German feature, nor is it anticipating an otherwise unknown future, but only the particular realization of processes in which we are all involved at a global level. That is why we are convinced that «any struggle within and against logistics» can only be imagined on a transnational scale, because it seems dangerous to linger on the scale of national societies, knowing that there are no national labour markets. The invention of the need to establish qualification or wage levels on a national scale is in fact one of the most important levers to legitimize the transformation of migrant labour into poor and precarious labour. For this reason, to overthrow the logistical fantasy we cannot limit ourselves to designing a counter-infrastructure of local-rooted solidarity, even if it has also had an unquestionable practical utility in these years. It seems possible to oppose the logistic delirium and deepen its leaks only by fighting against the transnational logic of the fragmentation that it produces. From the point of view of migrants, «logistics is a set of relationships of power» run by a network of public and private companies and associations that constantly co-operate in redefining the government of mobility. From our point of view, migrants, challenging territorial and administrative boundaries, hierarchies and forms of political subordination, define the most powerful challenge to the overwhelming frenzy of logistical command.