Poor migrants and capitalism

Aleksandra Kubiak, "Baraca", 2012, courtesy of the artist

In one of the interviews concerning so-called “refugee crisis”1, Silvia Federici pointed out that right-wing European governments are not, in fact, running strictly anti-immigrant policies – keeping the immigrants away from the borders is not their goal. Federici claims that the aim is to regulate who can and who cannot cross the borders in order to select certain professionals, essential at a given moment of the capitalist economy development – a situation similar to the situation of the Irish, Italians and Poles trying to get to the United States in the past. In this way, disciplined newcomers are forced to accept low labour and living standards. The problem with immigrants starts only when they seek the right of permanent residence, or equal access to various forms of social support (e.g. housing support).

Extremely poor groups of people in the European Union have existed outside any system for decades, being considered ‘too poor’ to deserve to be real members of the community. For example, the poorest immigrant group in Poland are the Roma people of Romanian origin. Adaptation of low-skilled workers requires a developed social support system, which, from the neoliberal economy perspective, is not a priority. The Roma, in order to be able to make a living, have created their own economy networks – begging, trading of scrap, or construction work on the black market. This is not, however, a result of their cultural heritage, but rather an effect of administrative and class racism. “Nomadism” attributed to the Roma people functions as a racist cliché that considers “migration” as a feature written into their “cultural DNA”. According to this logic, the Roma are wandering and moving from one place to another because they enjoy it and because it is “dictated by their culture”. Factors related to coercion, exclusion and segregation are excluded a priori.

At the same time, lack of citizenship, which in modern nation states is closely related to territory, determines access to political rights, and consequently, also social rights.

Aleksandra Kubiak, "Baraca", 2012, courtesy of the artist

Aleksandra Kubiak, "Baraca", 2012, courtesy of the artist

The Roma, “nomads”

The first agreement on elimination of controls performed at the borders of signatory states was signed in Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1985. Since then, the Schengen area has changed its shape and its internal regulations of the free movement of capital and people many times, until the present state was reached. In Poland, no pro-migration policy was de facto ever developed. Attempts to introduce such policy resulted in taking anti-immigrant actions, as regards granting civil and political rights to the migrants. As early as in 1991, the Polish government signed an agreement concerning readmission of the “third-country” nationals (those not belonging to the EU community). Under the specific funding programmes (e.g. PHARE) the Polish government received funding for every deportation2. The next formal steps were taken in 1993 when Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany changed the arrangements of the bilateral agreement. In practice, it implied reinforcement of border infrastructure as well as the development of the programmes of accelerated deportation. As a consequence, Poland was systematically becoming a deportation spot of that part of Europe, rather than a pro-immigrant country.

At the same time, a group that was one of the poorest and the most exposed to the risk of deportation were the Roma people of Romanian origin, who first started coming to Poland in larger groups following the fall of Ceausescu regime in 1989. Officials in the Federal Republic of Germany referred to the “nomadism” as a justification for refusal to commence the asylum procedure, even though racial persecution of this group continued to take place in Romania. The Roma people’s supposed nomadism can be thus said to be best defined by Yaron Matras as “a specific socio-political construct that has a direct and significant influence on the obtaining of rights and the possibility to represent their interests by the Roma people themselves” 3.

As a result of being denied rights and a chance to satisfy their basic needs within the system, the Roma have built camps serving as a practical answer to the systemic exclusion. The camps, however, maintained the Roma’s low position in a social hierarchy. This situation has not changed ever since. Deportations from Warsaw, Wroclaw and Poznan that took place between 1990 and 1997 did not keep the Roma from coming back. In the following years, Polish officials had been taking down the camps, but in a few months new camps emerged in different places.

In 2004, when Poland accessed the European Union, a gradually implemented policy (theoretically) enabling the free movement of capital and people within the EU served also as a tool of division and exploitation of the migrants. It also led to the creation and strengthening of the new administrative obstacles – obstacles that Federici sees as new versions of non-material enclosures. The Roma people, as citizens of the country belonging to the European Union, are still living “outside the system” due to the registration policy that creates significant barriers, insurmountable for the poor migrants who lack sufficient financial resources required in order to register.

Aleksandra Kubiak, "Baraca", 2012, courtesy of the artist

Exploitation of the poorest

The Roma people forced to work on the black market are one of the most vulnerable to exploitation and humiliation – they are the ones most likely to beg and work illegally on the construction site or in crop harvesting. They leave the camp in Poznan every year to go to France or Greece for a seasonal fruit picking. Their position in the class and occupational structure enables an increased exploitation. During the fruit picking months, when the opportunity for additional sources of income arises, they live temporarily in the camps in Greece or France. Migration increases when the demand for the flexible and seasonal cheap labour is high, and decreases when it becomes low. At the same time, Romaphobia, by the scholar McGurry referred to as the last acceptable form of racism4, still does not belong in the past. According to its logic, it is considered absolutely “obvious” that the Roma people have a “natural” tendency to engage in outlawed practices, e.g. drug dealing.

The Roma people are excluded and kept systemically on the black market in Poland and Greece, as well as in France and Italy. When the chances for legal protection of the Roma people are small, the risk of exploitation increases. At the same time, thanks to the efforts of the trade unions, that believe in the priority of class solidarity over national solidarity, we can support the workers’ struggles, similar to that of an anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers Union FAU in Berlin5. The campaign “Mall of Shame” began in 2014, drawing attention to the working conditions of the Romanian citizens working on the construction site of the shopping mall in Berlin. The conflict has been going on for four years now. Thanks to the FAU trade union’s efforts the construction workers deprived of remuneration managed to win the legal case. However, they did not receive any money since the subcontractors had become insolvent. Nevertheless, trade unionists were able to gain new experiences while organising and supporting other immigrant groups, so that the Romanian workers’ resistance could be stronger in the future.

1 Video interview with Silvia Federici., The cricket – Silvia Federici | giving birth in capitalism,

2 Kostka, J. No Country for Poor People: The Case Study of the Romanian Roma Migrants in Poland.

3 Matras, Y., Leggio, D. V. (2017). Open Borders, Unlocked Cultures: Romanian Roma Migrants in Western Europe. London, New York: Routledge.

4 McGarry, A. (2017). Romaphobia. The last acceptable form of racism. Chicago, IL: Zed Books.

5 Mall of Shame. A conflict concerning outstanding wages for construction workers of the “Mall of Berlin”


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