Migratory Factories, Invisibilized Workers: How Migrant Workers from “the East” Keep Europe Running

Freedom of movement and employment are to be ensured inside the EU. In this spirit, East and West Europe are supposed to grow together. Nevertheless, an army of EU citizens has emerged who belong to the European Union on paper but are de facto disenfranchised labor migrants who keep the West running, as anthropologist Tanja Petrović and journalist Maja Ava Žiberna argue in their contribution to the text series “Black Box East.”


Neoliberalism heavily relies on flexible, socially invisibilized migrant labor – cheap, often illegalized, and performed in harsh conditions. These patterns of transnational labor are shaped through a constant flux of people, reshuffling of production sites, opaque investment contracts, ownership relations, and work regulations.

Although they seem to destabilize the East-West divide of Europe, as people, capital, and resources easily move across European borders, they actually deepen it, neutralizing any possibility for collective and political self-organization and action of citizens at the European periphery, who are already exhausted by disastrous effects of the so-called transition to democracy. These opaque, dehumanizing patterns of labor are so deeply ingrained in the economic and social relations of the present-day Europe that they define “European identity” no less than much more present discourses of European democracy and its values.

Celuloza”: The city as factory

Krško is a small, picturesque town in the Southeast of Slovenia, mostly known for the only nuclear plant in the area of former Yugoslavia, active since 1982. In the local world of Krško’s inhabitants, however, the Cellulose and paper factory “Đuro Salaj,” locally known as “Celuloza,” mattered more than the nuclear plant, as it was not only the most important driver of the city’s economic development, but also significantly shaped its urbanity and social and cultural life in the second half of the 20th century.

After Yugoslav socialism ended and Slovenia became an independent state in 1991, “Celuloza” went through privatization and several (foreign) ownership changes, while its “social standard objects” – apartments and holiday facilities used by workers – were sold out. No trace of the mutually feeding relationship between local industry and the town was preserved. In recent years, Krško’s urban structure has been changed significantly. A new industrial zone has been built, but unlike the socialist industry, it is detached from the everyday of the town and its urban life.

Recently, this small town attracted public attention when it was discovered that a record number of dwellers have been registered on a single address in Krško: namely, 265 migrant workers were registered at the address belonging to a hostel “Buco prenočišča” (Buco accommodation) which opened a few years ago and has 85m2 of living area, according to the publicly available information. 108 foreigners – migrant workers coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia – had a permanent residency at Buco accommodation, while 157 have been registered temporarily. Many of these people did not actually stay in Krško, but have been redirected elsewhere in the EU for temporary work. Meanwhile, quite many have stayed in Krško and worked there without any official registration.

Registered “ghosts” and invisiblized workers

One of these unregistered workers was Mladen, a father of three from a town in central Serbia. He spent four months in Krško several years ago, in a hostel similar to Buco’s, and worked six or seven days a week for a Serb-owned construction company together with other workers from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania. One day the police came and he and many of his unregistered colleagues had to leave Slovenia immediately.

Back in Serbia, Mladen continued working for the same company, based in a town in the vicinity of Belgrade, which was involved in building several important infrastructural and commercial projects in Serbia and the region, such as Lidl’s stores and Covid-19 hospitals. Mladen was happy to be closer to his home and family. But he could not enjoy normal family and social life, because long hours and the exhausting rhythm of labor remained the same. And, last but not least, because his labor was still taking place in a gray zone. With time, Mladen climbed the ladder of the working hierarchy. Now he is in charge of several workers, whom he recruited. He is responsible for their performance and payment. All of them are part of a scheme in which the company does not have any formal relation with or responsibility for the workers. Neither Mladen, nor the workers he recruits and manages are officially employed or provided with health insurance and other social security benefits.

Before his current post and his short stay in Krško, Mladen has been working in Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria, where he performed all sorts of work, from interior adaptation of apartments to building of factories. For some time, he was responsible for organizing recruitment and accommodation for other migrant workers and their coordination at the worksite.

Mladen is one of thousands of migratory, seasonal, temporary workers involved in the new regime of labor that mobilizes men and women from the societies on the fringes of the EU in order to cater to the needs and fill in labor market deficits of “core Europe.” The Covid-19 pandemic clearly exposed the scale and importance of this invisiblized labor force in Europe and draw public attention to it. When the pandemic’s first wave shattered Europe in spring 2019, halting public life and people’s movement, there were thousands of workers partially exempt from these restrictions. Media reported extensively on the seasonal workers from Eastern Europe who travelled to the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and other Western countries for seasonal farm work. Covid-19 also prompted an increase of need for care workers, simultaneously causing supply problems due to restrictions of movement. Care work is another realm of migrant, invisibilized, poorly paid, privatized and often undocumented transnational labor connecting Europe’s East and West in ambiguous and uncanny ways.

From Gastarbeiter to migrant workers

These present-day temporary migrant labor patterns are not new; they are part and parcel of a long process of labor migrations based on the dependency of European rich nations’ economy “on the labor of several poorer nations,” which started in the 1960s. These patterns of migrant labor, commonly known as Gastarbeiter, keep attracting scholarly attention to date (Le Normand). While the present-day migrant workers’ experience shares many traits with conditions and feelings of the Gastarbeiter, which were arrestingly and profoundly explored through words and photographs by John Berger and Jean Mohr, there are also important differences among them.

Berger pointed to some of the changes that occurred between the first (1975) and the second (2010) edition of his and Mohr’ book: the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the binary blocs dividing the world; the establishment of a global neoliberal order; the diminished power of trade unions and national governments; the unprecedented concentration of global economic power; the increased impoverishment of the poor. “Factories now,” Berger also wrote in 2010, “are becoming as migratory as workers. It has become as simple to build a factory where labour is cheap as to import cheap labour.”

These “migratory factories,” which mushroomed in the “investment-friendly climate” of the countries in the European southeast, offered state-subsidized workplaces, but these came with poor working conditions and significant curtailing of workers’ rights. These factories do not stand in opposition to the regime of migrant work, but participate in reinforcing the idea of an “ideal” neoliberal worker: able to grapple with severe production regimes; flexible, movable, and attuned to temporary conditions. Easily replaceable, this worker is removed from public attention, reduced to labor skills and seen as a mere laboring body that is detached from what makes the worker human in political and emotional terms: the spheres of labor rights, union organizing, family and social life, health protection, security, and stability.

Europeanness of workers’ exploitation

Invisibilized, hard, and poorly paid migrant labor is a worldwide phenomenon, governed by flows of capital and not confined in the margins of the European Union. Serbian migrant workers also go to Russia, while Indian migrant workers construct railways and buildings in Serbia. All of them share a similar reality: life and work in harsh, often inhuman conditions, isolation and lack of social networks (that would enable self-organization and collective mobilization), and dependence on various middlemen, agencies, and travel services, which frees the employers from any responsibility and leaves these workers without means to oppose the severe violations of their rights.

In the context of united Europe, modern day transnational migrant labor nevertheless has a specific weight. The EU accession politics and the Schengen border regulation do not prevent mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers from East- and South-eastern Europe, but actually support them. This reveals uncanny alliances, circumventions of legislation, and violations of rights as practices acceptable for the EU as long as they bring economic profit – and as long as their damaging consequences remain limited to the poor from the European periphery. In a similar way, the European health insurance card is “reproducing rather than reversing healthcare inequalities” between Western and Eastern Europe (Stan, Erne and Gannon), pointing to the persistence of the East-West divide and wide array of its consequences.

Mladen’s story and his migratory trajectory reveal a dense network woven on both sides of the Schengen border, which connects economic moguls, local politicians, entrepreneurs, and EU labor and movement regimes, all working together in maintaining a profitable gray zone for cheap and unregulated migrant labor. This uncanny synergy creates a fertile ground “for the misuse of subsidies, white-collar crime, and organized crime,” as Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki argue. The massive registration of workers is a well-paid (illegal) side business for hostel owners in places like Krško, as each registration brings them several hundred Euros per year. Needless to say, such business would not be possible without the silent support of the local authorities. This is also true for the companies which make use of migrant workers’ labor, and agencies and middlemen facilitating this transnational outsourcing.

It would be easy to see these shady, corruptive, and exploitative labor arrangements as a consequence of backwardness, failed democratization, or lack of political culture in East and Southeast European societies, whose Europeanness has always been questioned (Todorova; Petrović; Taube/Woznicki). However, such view would ignore the fact that not only these arrangements emerge in the context of Europeanization understood in normative terms as the accession of the southeast European countries to the European Union, but that they also significantly shape the EU’s economic and social relations. Embodiments of the modern European economy, technology, set of values and “way of life” – such as buildings, industries, food production, farming, healthcare, and care for the elderly – are all literally founded on the invisibilized labor of invisiblilized men and women from European periphery.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

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