Mobility & Migration

When it was published in 1975, with text by John Berger and photos by Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man made the invisible visible. In Germany and Britain at that time, one in seven manual workers was an immigrant. In France, Switzerland, and Belgium, the corresponding figure was 25 percent. European prosperity during the Cold War years, when American aid had become a memory, depended more and more on the contributions of Turks and Poles and Moroccans. To capture this story, novelist and art critic John Berger set out in A Seventh Man to describe in poetic prose the migrant’s journey to Europe.

Jean Mohr’s photos – of the medical examinations at a recruitment centre in Istanbul, migrant workers preparing supper on hotplates in their barracks, a window washer at the Vienna airport — reveal a world that European citizens either didn’t know or had become blind to.  Europe was a source of money for the newcomers and little else.  The foreigners could stay in Europe as long as there was work to do, then they had to leave, for Europe was not America, not a land of immigrants.

At the center of the book is the story of a particular job site, of a particular group of men.  Deep beneath Geneva, an international city of UN offices and financial buildings, migrant laborers began in 1971 to dig drainage tunnels to collect rainwater and redirect it to the river Rhone.  All of the workers came from other countries, mostly from the poorer margins of Europe: Yugoslavia, Spain, southern Italy.  The work lasted until the mid-1970s and was dangerous, dirty, and difficult, what would later be called 3D work.  Workers expected that it would take them three to five years to achieve their savings goal.  “Each year, after nine months’ work, he has to return to his country,” writes Berger.  “Usually the contractor is willing to re-employ him when he re-applies.  But when he re-enters Switzerland, he has to undergo a routine medical examination like all other migrants entering for the first or nth time.  One of his recurring fears is that the next time this happens, he will be refused entry on the grounds of a shadow on his lung X-ray…”

Today, in Geneva, there are still many guest workers doing work that the Swiss apparently don’t want to do. Much has changed, though.  For one thing, it is no longer just men coming in as guest workers.  The Trade Union Without Borders estimates, for instance, that 2800 foreign maids are cleaning houses and offices in Geneva.  Also, compared to 1975, a number of international organizations now work on behalf of migrant workers, such as Migrants Rights International, founded in 1994.  Migrant workers are coming from further afield – the Philippines, the Middle East, southern Africa.

Still, as in 1975, the presence of foreign workers has generated considerable xenophobia, racism, and far-right wing sentiment – as the riots in nearby France demonstrated in 2005.  And while Europe has expanded to include Spain and Greece and, more recently, the Central European countries of Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia, the European Union and its member countries have been careful to keep their immigration policies restrictive.  Europe is by no means unique in its restrictive policies.  Despite a rapidly declining workforce, Japan maintains one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world, though it too has brought in guest workers. Globally, it is estimated that 175 million people live outside their countries of origin.  Half of this number are workers.

Even with technological innovation and outsourcing, the global economy still relies heavily on the services of people willing to undertake the risks of crossing borders to earn a living for themselves and their families.  Of course, people do not cross borders only to find jobs. Some leave or are expelled for political reasons and become refugees. Some emigrate to join loved ones who earlier made the trek abroad and, by so doing, strengthen diaspora communities: Bengalis in London, Cantonese in New York, Turks in Berlin.  And then there are the tourists, who cross borders to experience other cultures, to look, to eat, to buy, to learn.

Mobility doesn’t involve simply border-crossing. The migration of farmers to the city, of the middle class to the suburbs, of workers from sunset regions to sunrise areas all contribute to transforming the social order.  In all of this mobility, there is some element of exploitation.  People move to exploit new opportunities; employers exploit the potential of their workers; tour agencies exploit the ignorance of tourists; real estate agents exploit the fears of homebuyers.

What would a world without borders look like? Would wealthy countries be flooded with immigrants?  In contrast, what would a world with impenetrable borders look like?  Who would pick all the crops in California, run all the take-away shops in Berlin, clean all the houses in Hong Kong, do all the construction work in Kuwait?  Are all refugees treated equally or do some political situations produce refugees and others don’t?  Are all immigrants treated equally or does a Delhi software designer have a better chance of getting into England or the United States than a Delhi street sweeper?  What role do diaspora communities play in the politics of their home countries?  To what extent does W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of the “twoness” of Blacks, the double consciousness of being both African and American, apply to all immigrants?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read Teresa Hayter’s arguments against immigration controls in Open Borders, catch up on the latest immigration news in the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights newsletter Network News, go online to find out everything you need to know about brain drain, pour over Jacob Lawrence’s stunning paintings of the passage of Africans into slavery in the Migration Series, listen to the sounds of Black Slate and Matumbi in the CD collection Don’t Call Us Immigrants, and see Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses about an organizing drive among immigrant workers in Los Angeles.

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