Broken Dreams: Corruption and the Reality of Migrant Labor in the EU

Caspar Löffler-Patterson
Brussels, Belgium. 28th May 2019.An official adjusts an EU flag in the lobby of the European Council building during the EU Summit.

Germany (Brussels Morning) When the EU experienced its first surge of refugees in 2015, claims of empathy and human rights were loud. Then-president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker urged the EU to solidarity over the question of refugee distribution, emphasizing Europe’s history and the fundamental human right of asylum. Especially in Germany, the conservative government under Angela Merkel recollected their love for their neighbors and granted entry to roughly 890,000 refugees. Since then, the discussion around migration has undergone a major shift.

Ask Not What You Can Do for People in Need – Ask What They Can Do for You

In 2023, eight years later, Germany’s new social democratic Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, feels ready to “dare more deportations”. Scholz’s coalition partners, the German Liberals, meanwhile, want to add the Maghreb states of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco to the list of supposedly safe countries of origin. Politically persecuted activists, journalists, and LGBTQI+ refugees seeking asylum in Germany could then be deported to their home countries without having their asylum applications properly examined.

The German abandonment of refugee solidarity comes rather late compared to that of many of its European neighbors. The EU migration debate has long since turned away from questions of universal human rights. Meanwhile, labor migration is becoming popular in European policymaking. Against the backdrop of demographic problems in the EU and in disregard of the damaging effects it has on origin countries, labor migration presents itself as the optimal win-win solution for both the growing shortage of skilled workers in the EU on one hand and for migrants longing for a better life in wealthier countries on the other.

This discrepancy between the handling of migrants who qualify as human capital and migrants who are desperately in need of help points towards a dangerously in-humanistic attitude towards migration. It also raises the question of how much of a win-situation the increasing labor migration into the EU will turn out to be for migrating workers.

The EU and its Migrant Workers

The utilization of migrant workers under heinous conditions is not a new phenomenon in the European Union. Since 2015, member states have been progressively widening their policy to foster labor in migration. Especially, seasonal work, construction work, transportation, and meat processing have increasingly been done by migrant workers from the West Balkans. The workers are regularly employed under semi-legal conditions, finding no minimum wage, poor work safety measures, no healthcare, and no social security in jobs for which they are typically overqualified.

A strike of truck drivers hauling goods for the logistics giant Mazur recently demonstrated how the free movement of goods in Europe is realized through extremely poor working conditions. Mazur and the drivers say they haul goods for large European companies like Ikea, VW, Mercedes-Benz, or DHL. In order to compensate for the rising lack of drivers in already stressed European supply chains, truckers oftentimes live in their cabins and drive longer than what is legally allowed, risking their own and many other lives. The truckers working for Mazur went on strike for a second time this past July, as Mazur had refused to pay their wages for months. During a first strike in April, Mazur showed up at the rest stop, trying to force the trucks back by threatening the drivers with a gang of thugs.

Migrant labor conditions are particularly grim, where foreign workers encounter cultural resentment. Poland and Hungary, whose governments are known to propagate harsh anti-migration politics, have lately introduced a policy to allow for increased labor migration into their economies. The recently launched Olefiny III project near Płock in Poland shows how the contradictions of xenophobia and labor migration are solved through means of extreme marginalization.

Approximately 6,000 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Turkmenistan are planned to live in refunctioned shipping containers to replenish the energy company Orlens’ lack of workers. A container of 13 square meters is to house four people without any internet reception inside and there is no public transportation to Płock, basically locking workers in on the factory premises. With a few recreational facilities and 24-hour police presence, “Container Town” is reminiscent of a kind of overcrowded Scandinavian prison.

Sensible Policy – Poorly Enforced

While labor standards have primarily been the domain of national legislation for most of the continent’s lifetime, the European Union has recently tried to become an actor in regulating working conditions. There are initiatives for European unemployment insurance or the Youth Unemployment Initiative. The directive to establish a European minimum wage seems like a first step in the right direction, increasing wages around the EU and establishing better conditions for collective bargaining.

The directive hardly stands a chance to improve migrant labor standards at a second glance: Roughly 17% of wage labor is done informally in the EU, which holds especially for migrant labor. It is difficult to imagine how migrant workers are going to be affected by any type of policy that does not sufficiently tackle the problem of enforcement in the shadow economy. This is not at last a question of fighting corruption, as a recent study by the IMF finds corruption and the shadow economy are highly correlated. This does not come as a surprise seeing the semi-legal exploitation of immigrant workers is frequently arranged through means of organized crime as Mazur’s gang of thugs indicates.

It is also difficult to imagine how the soft policy instrument of the directive should significantly impact national legislative processes if private and public interests continue to intertwine throughout the European Union. “Container Town” in Poland is not at last an ugly child resulting from a public-private partnership, the post-soviet European Union’s unholy fetish. Orlen is 49.9% owned by the Polish state, while the other half remains private. The company has expanded massively into the Polish media business since 2020 and has invested 1.5 million Euros in lobbying the European Union in 2022.

“Today is the day of the largest investment of the 21st century in Europe,” says the former president of the Polish Government Agency ARMA, now CEO of Orlen, Daniel Obajtek in celebration of Olefiny III.

But who is to celebrate?

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Caspar Löffler-Patterson is a German-American socio-economist specialized in economic policy, political economics, and labor sociology. His past work includes discourse analysis concerning the German post-migrant society, especially around the term of identity politics, and he currently analyses the potential benefits and risks of AI application in whistleblowing systems.