Are migrants regarded as â€œvictimsâ€ of economical determined relationships, that should be advised or protected? Or should migration be regarded as a potentially â€œsubversiveâ€ process of crossborder appropriation of a better living and working quality?
Nicholas Bell, member of the European Civic Forum, warned in his contribution in a conference in Crete of a too optimistic view on the â€œautonomous qualitiesâ€ of migration, referring to his own experiences with the working conditions in the agricultural business in El Eljido (Spain) and the enormous competition between old and new groups of â€“ often undocumented - migrants, which come there to work.
â€žTransnational Europe Migration across southern/eastern bordersâ€œ, that was the title of the international symposium, held in Rethymno, Crete, from 21th to 24th of October 2004. The conference at the same time came up as the starting point for a mayor initiative project of the Foundation for Culture of the German Federal Government and as a cooperative project between the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology (University of Frankfurt) and the Institute for Theory of Design and Art (ZÃ¼rich).The aims of the symposium were to analyse the economic and political impact of â€“ controlled as well as uncontrolled â€“ migration in between and to Europe. The debate focused primary on the perspectives on migration process.
Migration, autonomy, exploitation : Questions and contradictions
Today I want to share with you some impressions, questions and indeed doubts that have arisen during the work that I have been involved in over the last four years with regard to the situation of migrants working in the hyper-intensive production of fruit and vegetables. I do not speak from the standpoint of a researcher on the subject of migration, but as someone who has become increasingly aware of the deep contradictions inherent in such a campaign of information and denunciation.
I am part of a grand-sounding, but in fact very modest organisation called the European Civic Forum. I, like many of those active in this Forum, have lived for many years in Longo maÃ¯, a network of mostly rural cooperatives in several European countries. In Longo Mai we have tried to give concrete expression to our rejection of the capitalist, exploitative and consumerist society in which we were born. It is from this background that back in February 2000 we decided to react to the vicious riots against mostly Moroccan migrant workers in the Andalusian town of El Ejido. The European Civic Forum sent an international commission there to investigate what economic, social and political realities could lie behind such an outburst of racist violence. From being one of the poorest areas of Spain forty years ago, with the majority of the population forced to emigrate, El Ejido has become the third richest town in the country. This â€œeconomic miracleâ€ entirely depends on the possibility of employing thousands of migrant workers for short periods throughout the ten-month season. At present it is estimated that there are about 40.000 â€œlegalâ€ migrants in the province, and about the same number of undocumented ones. Almost all have no work contract and they are subjected to intolerable working and living conditions. The area produces three million tons of vegetables a year, much of which is exported to the rest of Europe (above all to Germany, France and the UK).
The province of Almeria is one of the most obvious and spectacular examples of transit migration. It is one of the main arrival points of so-called â€œillegalâ€ migrants in Europe. This is not only due to the fact that it lies just a few kilometres from the Moroccan coast. It is also because the migrants know that anyone who manages to make it across the Mediterranean and who is willing to accept appalling working and living conditions has a good chance of being employed for at least a few hours a week in the greenhouses of El Ejido. Almeria is only seen as an initial landing point, as a stepping stone to further migration to other parts of Spain or Europe. Due to the miserable wages and accommodation, as well as the climate of racism, they leave the region once they have the chance, above all if they succeed in obtaining a residence permit. But of course they will be immediately replaced by other recently arrived migrants. The municipality of El Ejido has a deliberate policy of segregation aimed at keeping migrants out of the town centre. Most have to live in old farm buildings abandoned by the rural population or in huts made of wood and plastic. They work in heat of up to 50Â°C and in contact with huge amounts of pesticides. The wages are miserable : 15 to 30 euros a day. There is a strong climate of racism, both from the local authorities and much of the population. This was clearly revealed by the riots in February 2000, but has continued since then with regular aggressive attacks against individual migrants and intimidation meted out by the municipal police. African workers are refused access to shops, bars and night-clubs. Of course this phenomenon does not just concern Spain. The situation in Almeria is just the most spectacular example. With its 35.000 hectares of greenhouses, it is after all probably the largest concentration of industrial vegetable production under plastic in the world. But there are abuses in the fruit and vegetable sector throughout Europe. For example, one can find migrants suffering similar working and housing conditions in intensive agriculture in southern France, a few kilometres from where I live. The influence of supermarket chains is enormous. In many countries they control up to 80% of the market, and it is they who decide what must be produced. They constantly cut prices to compete with their rivals and attract customers. Their buyers can call farmers at any moment and ask for a lorry-load, or just one or two palettes, of this or that product the next day. If the farmer is unable to deliver, the buyer will look elsewhere. The fact that a dozen or more workers are suddenly required for a few hours makes it impossible to have a fixed labour force. A reserve army of unemployed, supplementary benefit claimants and migrants is needed. The producers try to survive by making savings in the only area they control, namely employment.
Sindicato de Obreros del Campo, SOC
The European Civic Forum has carried out all its activities in Andalusia in cooperation with the SOC, Sindicato de Obreros del Campo or Union of agricultural workers. This was created almost thirty years ago, just after the death of Franco, based on experience gained in illegal work committees during his regime. It has led a long and hard struggle to defend and improve the rights of Andalusian day labourers. Back in the early 80s there were 500.000 such jornaleros, most of whom had to emigrate for much of the year elsewhere in Spain or to other European countries. Traditionally it has been active in the parts of Andalusia in which agriculture is dominated by enormous latifundia with vast stretches of olives, fruit trees and other crops which require a large seasonal workforce. Already back in the 80s we launched a European campaign of solidarity with the SOC which was fighting for land reform, occupying large farms and creating cooperatives. It was only in 2000 that the SOC began its activities in the province of Almeria with the aim of strengthening the struggle of migrant workers working in the greenhouses. Following the riots, the workers had organised a general strike which paralysed production for several days. They managed to force the employers and the local administration to sign an agreement including most of their demands. This was, however, never respected and the El Ejido riots have come to be seen as a victory for the most racist and reactionary forces in the province. Shortly before the riots, representatives of the employers had gone to Lithuania and other Baltic countries in search of workers who could replace the troublesome Moroccans. Open racism and hostility form part of the recipe for forcing the Moroccans to leave the region. This is no new tactic. It was already used in the 19th century in the fruit and vegetable plantations of California. Jean-Pierre Berlan, a researcher with the French National Agronomy Institute, has studied the history of the "Californian model" which closely resembles today's reality in Almeria. "It is important", he insists, "to understand that racism plays an essential role in this schema. It is necessary to split up the labour market by various methods, including racism".
Since 2002 there has been a big increase in the phenomenon of â€œethnic replacementâ€ with large numbers of people arriving from eastern Europe and Latin America in search of work. This has been made possible by the way in which the European Union is being developed. Due to enlargement, the EU will be made up of a number of very rich and highly developed countries with a growing need for workers prepared to accept low-paid jobs refused by the population, and another group of countries whose economy and standard of living are infinitely lower. As a result, there is a large supply of cheap labour within Fortress Europe and it is becoming less necessary to import workers from Africa or Asia. The NAFTA is similar in that it includes Mexico within an otherwise highly developed economic zone. In Almeria the social situation is very tense as there is still a large African population which desperately attempts to find work, even for a few hours a week. What is more, the pateras continue to arrive on Andalusian beaches. There is therefore a growing competition between different migrant communities on the labour market â€“ all to the profit of the employers. It is very difficult for the migrant workers to organise. Those who are undocumented fear deportation. They live dispersed throughout the zone in huts between the greenhouses or on wasteland, many kilometres away from the towns. They have no places where they can meet and drink a coffee together.
Support the SOC!
The SOC has two full-time representatives in Almeria, one of whom is Moroccan and the other Senegalese. They both have considerable experience of local conditions, having worked for several years in the greenhouses. They help workers with problems linked to work conditions, violations of labour laws, requests for residence and work permits, poor accommodation, illnesses caused by pesticides... The SOC has also denounced many recent cases of physical attacks against Moroccan workers in El Ejido and has helped the victims to lodge complaints in the courts. However, the fact that there is a constantly changing workforce means that it is difficult to build up a strong basis of union militants able to organise the struggle for better conditions. In addition, the union is marginalised and harassed by the local authorities. Its two representatives often receive threats. It is the only union genuinely active in the field ready to denounce the abuses suffered by the migrants and to expose the fundamental injustice inherent in this form of hyper-intensive agriculture. And yet it receives almost no grant support from the government, unlike the major trade union federations which have never become actively involved in the defence of migrant workers in the region. Despite all these difficulties, the SOC is determined to expand its activities in the region. To do this, it needs to strengthen its presence directly in the greenhouse zone. It is for this reason that it has decided to open three union offices or centres at Campohermoso, Roquetas de Mar and El Ejido. These will enable the workers to have access to the services supplied by the union, but will also provide places where the workers can meet socially, exchange experiences and organise campaigns to demand better conditions. The SOC intends to buy these three centres. It is unrealistic to rent them as it is practically impossible to find a landlord willing to accept the union as a tenant, in view of the high level of intimidation. The European Civic Forum has decided to launch an appeal in different European countries, calling on trade unions, organisations and individuals to support this project. This solidarity should not, however, only take the form of donations. It is also important to develop long-term relations of friendship with the SOC, to visit Almeria and to be ready at any time to intervene on its behalf when its representatives face threats.
I must add, however, that the kind of campaign that we have been involved in is full of contradictions. I must also say that I have great difficulty in following some of the optimistic statements and analyses produced by many of our friends here about the potentially positive function of migration in the struggle against neo-liberal capitalism. Ever since the beginning of capitalism, migration has of course played a central role, from the artificially provoked rural exodus within each country to the organised reception of large numbers of immigrants by western industrial nations before the switch to an immigration zero policy in the 70s. When in history has migration genuinely contributed to the struggle to undermine the capitalist system? On the contrary, it would seem to me that it has far more been exploited by capitalism to adapt to changing circumstances and to further develop. Today we see a fierce acceleration of international competition. Faced by the emergence of countries like China, Europe is increasingly concentrating on services, rather than agriculture and manufacturing. In the case of agriculture, this is leading to a massive concentration in ever fewer regions. It is likely that within a decade or so we will see less than ten zones of ultra-intensive production, in Andalusia for fruit and vegetables, in the Danube plain for arable crops etc. Following the recent WTO agreement, the European Unionâ€™s agriculture grants and protection mechanisms will be abandoned in exchange for an opening up of the services market throughout the world. This means that zones like El Ejido will have to compete even more directly with products from countries like Morocco. In the Bouches-du-RhÃ´ne region of France, for example, 40% of fruit and vegetable producers have gone bankrupt in the last ten years. The only way that they can survive is through the brutal exploitation of migrants desperate for better economic conditions. To put it in another way, this totally appalling and unacceptable form of agricultural production can only exist thanks to the arrival of migrants.
However much the SOC or others might succeed in improving working and lodging conditions in El Ejido it remains a model of agricultural production that needs to be totally eliminated. For what does it fundamentally represent? The ruin of small-scale peasant agriculture and quality production both here in Europe and in the countries of origin of the migrants.
The real problem is a highly intensified and ferociously competitive form of agriculture producing unhealthy food for consumers seeking the lowest prices and unaware of the social and environmental conditions in which the production takes place. A different form of agriculture, based on food security for all countries with smaller farms producing quality products would automatically reduce the need for highly labour-intensive production systems and therefore for the employment of migrants. Modern capitalism needs the controlled migration of more or less desperate people. Todayâ€™s immigration policies and ineffective border controls, linked to new quota systems for legal immigration for the needs of the labour market, ensure the necessary mix of undocumented and legal contract workers which can be of maximum profit to employers. Patrick Taran, Senior Migration Specialist at the International Labour Office, speaks of the "benign tolerance by some States for poor work conditions and non-regulation - situations that attract irregular labour. Such tolerance appears to be all but official policy in some countries, in order to maintain marginally productive economic activity that nonetheless provides employment, export products etc.". This is cementing an intolerable form of segregation on the labour market which has consequences not only for migrant workers. A new form of underclass of temporary workers, both migrants and national citizens, replace each other in a sort of permanent rotation of precarious existence. I cannot help wondering whether the unconscious participation of migrants in the continuing transformation of globalised production methods does not involve more negative factors for the future than the positive elements with regard to their capacity to resist and challenge this system. Of course I do not question the fact that thousands of people living in conditions of severe impoverishment, drought, political repression, social or family constraints have the right to leave their home region in search of a better life elsewhere. However, many observers of the situation in a country like Morocco speak of a widely shared obsession with the act of emigrating. This affects even Moroccans enjoying relative prosperity. The situation they find in Europe is very often far worse than the one they leave behind.
One Moroccan organisation, the Association of Families of Victims of Clandestine Immigration (AFVIC), recently developed a project called the â€œcooperatives of hopeâ€. It is common for a whole group of mostly young people from the same village or family to decide to take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean. Each of them has to pay a large sum of money to the owner of the patera. Very often they do not succeed in crossing and have to make several attempts. Of course many also drown. AFVIC points out that the total sum paid by the group of would-be emigrants could be invested in a cooperative in the village which could provide a long-term economic base. So far the project has had little success due to the total lack of support from the authorities and from banks.
It goes without saying that in the European Civic Forum and Longo maÃ¯ we are not only in favour of, but also practice mobility. But I think that we need to think more about creating or strengthening a network of alternative structures or micro-societies, both in the north and south, in which exchanges based on equality and mutual respect can take place, migration for reasons other than just economic need. On a very modest scale we have begun to establish links in Morocco with people trying to maintain economic and social structures in villages in the Atlas mountains and other regions.
Globalisation from below?
The recently created â€œThis Tuesdayâ€ Internet site stresses the concept of autonomy of migration and its potential impact as â€œa globalised grassroots resistance against exploitative economies and their modes of exclusion, division and selectionâ€. In my opinion, it is far more likely that this autonomy of migration takes the form of the globalisation from below described by Alain Tarrius in his book â€œMondialisation par le basâ€. Here we see an astonishingly vibrant, successful and highly structured shadow economy centred on the Belsunce district of Marseille and based on trans-Mediterranean trade carried out by tens of thousands of â€œfourmisâ€ or â€œantsâ€ ferrying consumer goods for a market which is more or less invisible to the eyes of the white inhabitants of the city. A very large number of migrants have created their own means of existence, a parallel world or market. One of its characteristics is its lack of visibility. It is certainly not these migrants who will question the prevailing economic and political system in Europe. So there we are, full of contradictions and doubts, but also the willingness to act. In the next few months we will be actively involved in the campaign of support for the SOC, we hope with many other organisations. But our questions will remain.
Nicholas Bell, European Civic Forum
Tel. +33.492 73 00 64
Fax. +33.492 73 18 18