Men Without a Country: Expatriate Workers and what Europe is doing to help them

Men Without a Country: Expatriate Workers and what Europe is doing to help them

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Jennifer Widner. Originally published in the HIR February 1980 Issue.

Good fortune has befallen many in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The streets overflow with tales of expatriate workers who find well-paying jobs in Middle East boom towns and quickly become "wealthy" men. Typical is the rags-to-riches story of a houseboy from Sri Lanka who traveled to Saudi Arabia, worked in the oil fields, and returned home a year later as a small landowner. But several hundred miles to the north, in Stuttgart, Germany, a fellow expatriate, also in search of a job and a fortune, lives a different kind of existence. Returning from a steel factory late at night, he crowds into a train already packed with Yugo- slavs and fellow Turks and wonders whether the authorities will renew his visa. He has no prospects of employment in Turkey and contemplates settling permanently with his family in Germany as a member of the new "underclass." And across the Atlantic, on the Mexican border with California, a young man works in a canning factory, earning less than the minimum wage, and dodging the police who regularly comb the factory and his neighborhood for illegal aliens.

Policy makers are just now beginning to perceive these cases as manifestations of the same phenomenon. Development of a sensitive world monetary system has fostered movement of labor across national boundaries from regions of unemployment to nations with labor shortages. The hiring of foreign workers in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States illustrates different stages in an international chain of migration which draws over nineteen million men and women from their home countries to temporary employment abroad each year.

The phenomenon exemplifies the kinds of relationships that arise in systems of complex interdependence. Unfortunately, the European case, in particular, highlights the tensions that such a convergence between domestic and foreign affairs can create. International migration has generated imbalances within countries and regions, produced political disruption within states, and left policy makers with the burden of formulating successful solutions to a problem whose sheer complexity clouds the interests of all parties involved.

The European experience deserves considerable attention as an example of the problems that recruitment of foreign workers can create and of the solutions which other developed nations may wish to try. Europe, in a sense, has served as the unwitting guinea pig in an experiment to test policies to which the United States and oil- rich Middle Eastern nations may eventually have recourse.

"Bread and Chocolate"

The plight of the migrant worker in Europe first aroused controversy in the late 1960s and early 70s with the eruption of increasing tension between indigenous workers and immigrants. Investigation revealed the existence of virtual ghettos of foreign labor throughout Western Europe and led to a spate of articles describing the living conditions of this new working class. These conditions have changed little over the years.

In the early 1970s, approximately thirteen to fourteen million immigrants resided in northern European nations. Most governments banned further immigration in 1973, but many foreign workers remained in the host countries. In addition, some have continued to enter under special, bilateral arrangements. An indeterminate number settle clandestinely, either on their own initiative or at the urging of firms unable to pay market wages and willing to harbor illegal immigrants in return for cheap labor. Currently, at least two million foreign workers live in France, and an almost equal number have found work in Germany. In both countries, immigrant labor makes up six to seven percent of the work force and completely dominates some industries. Switzerland is home to a million workers who compose nearly a third of its work force. Another two million have settled in Sweden, Belgium, Britain, and Austria.

Most of the workers come from southern Europe and the countries of northern Africa, underdeveloped regions with high unemployment rates and rampant poverty. They receive nine-month work permits and obtain temporary employment – hence their popular name, guestworkers. Most send their families the major portion of their paychecks, keeping only as much of their wages as they need for survival. The jobs they take are heavily concentrated in the building and manufacturing sectors, industries with the most unpleasant and taxing working conditions and the lowest pay. In German automobile factories, for instance, foreign workers often hold eighty percent of the assembly line positions.

For both Europeans and Americans, the film "Bread and Chocolate" endowed the laborer with immediacy and urgency. The movie describes the life of an Italian worker living in Switzerland and focuses on the disparity between the immigrants' struggles to earn enough to buy bread for themselves and their families and the lifestyles of the wealthy Swiss who frequent the restaurants in which the immigrants work. The film reveals the squalor of the shanty towns in which the guestworkers live – the unheated barracks, crowded and segregated by sex – and the proliferation of laws and parietals which govern the guestworker's life. Most important, the movie captures the fear and suspicion which govern relations  between the Italian immigrants and the Swiss, dramatically illustrated by the arrest of the film's protagonist for a murder he did not commit because the police and the public believed only a guestworker was capable of committing the crime.

The description of immigrant life in "Bread and Chocolate" comes disturbingly close to the truth. Housing for foreign workers is scarce and of poor quality. Often employers rent barracks to the men and women who work in their factories, but the living conditions in these are appalling in their lack of amenities and in their stringent parietals. Workers in German cities pay one-third more for accommodations smaller than those rented by German nationals. Black African workers in France often live huddled four to a bed.

This attitude of neglect in the interests of economy carries over into the rules governing employment. Under Swiss law, for example, a worker who has labored in the country for 45 months over a period of five years gains the right to annual residence and thus the right to draw the same pay and advantages as the Swiss citizen. But in 1977, Italy and Switzerland agreed that as a precondition to continued Italian immigration, workers in construction industries would be hired only for periods of eight months and three weeks, making it impossible for the guestworkers to accumulate the 45 months required for residence. In France, guestworkers must receive the same pay as French nationals, according to established pay scales, but the foreign workers often complain that their skills are downgraded and that they are therefore receiving lower wages.

The legal systems of the host countries reinforce the attitude of the employers, emphasizing that the immigrants are external to the life of the nation and have few, if any, of the rights of true citizens. Although governments have purged the most visible signs of exploitation in recent years, inequalities remain. Germany's Alien Law dictates that any immigrant unable to support himself or his dependents without welfare assistance be expelled. Sudden illness, injury, or pregnancy are guaranteed tickets home. While the government has launched efforts to make this law less restrictive, it has simultaneously established new guidelines protecting the rights of German nationals, rendering attempts to improve the position of guestworkers negligible at best.

West Germany has also enacted laws intended to reduce the chances of severe social disruption, which it  fears it could not easily contain. Foreign workers have no right to move about the country freely or to choose their employment. They must renew their residence permits annually, at which time they are assigned to cities. No city in which guestworkers comprise more than six percent of the population may allow further settlement, although the ban is not in effect in Stuttgart and Offenbach, industrial centers with heavy demands for manual labor. Each city restricts guestworker settlement, designating some areas off limits because of existing high concentration of foreign workers or potentially dangerous sources of social tension. Underlying this policy is the premise that ethnic enclaves pose a danger to society. Apparently, improved access to opportunities does not enter into the considerations, as it does in U.S. desegregation policies.

In France the structure of the law as much as its content has helped place immigrant labor in a legal ghetto. According to French law, each nationality works under separate agreements and regulations, making a general attempt to upgrade the position of guestworkers impossible without a complete revision of French immigration laws and tactics. The fractured legal code creates barriers to unions and political parties interested in organizing the guestworkers and obtaining better conditions for them. But perhaps the most annoying and visible aspect of the legal situation of foreign labor lies in the sheer ambiguity of their status and the apparent arbitrariness of judicial opinion.

The separation of family members as the result of restrictive laws and housing practices has received considerable attention from policy makers. Several nations banned immigration of families in the 1960s to prevent foreign workers from settling permanently. Governments have repealed these measures recently and have encouraged reunions on humanitarian grounds. Nonetheless, other practices often thwart reunions. In Germany, for example, restrictions on settlement patterns often mean that a worker's family cannot obtain permission to live in the same city and must wait until other workers leave. More important, the government does not grant work permits to children of workers who entered the country after June 1974. Offspring must usually return to the home country as soon as they reach working age. German officials estimate that about ninety percent of all foreign youths leaving school are unemployed.

In recent years, antagonisms have developed between native workers and the immigrants who are seen, rightly or wrongly, as competitors who will accept any wage, thereby undercutting the bargaining power of the working class as a whole. A 1976 poll revealed that over
one-half of the German workers believed foreign
workers were the cause of unemployment. This fear of competition has led to rampant racial prejudice among the lower ranks of the working class and resulted in riots. Violence broke out in Rotterdam in 1972 against the Turks, and six Algerians were killed in Marseilles a year later. In May 1976, rioters destroyed 4 Turkish bank and consulate office in Zurich.

Admission of guestworkers has also placed strains on the state welfare programs. As more workers bring their families with them, the demands on the social welfare system increase. Schools must develop special programs to teach foreign children the native language; the government faces increasing demands for housing and maintenance assistance; and public health facilities must prepare for greater use. The actual demands placed on the system, however, are magnified by the prevalent belief among public servants that immigrants are a dirtier and more dangerous people than the native inhabitants. An official of a German organization of city managers and planners captured this sentiment, commenting that he would not willingly take a visitor to Frankfurt to the Turkish section of that city for fear of street gangs. "The Turks are such a dirty people," he added, "one can always tell where they have picnicked in a park because they leave so much garbage behind."

The home countries also have their doubts about the wisdom of allowing large numbers of workers to seek employment abroad. Governments of developing countries fear that guestworkers will bring back the ideology of the Western left and an awareness of the stark contrast between the lifestyle in their native land and that of the Europeans. The Turkish and Greek governments protested against communist indoctrination of their workers living abroad in the late 1960s.

Nonetheless, for developing nations immigration is critical to the preservation of short-term stability, so much so that Spain and Turkey once premised the continuation of United States and NATO military installations upon access for their workers to the European Community.

The European Dilemma

European policy makers did not anticipate the injustices and social tensions which characterize the system of rotational immigration. For over a decade, the developed nations perceived the existence of a foreign labor supply as a boon. The less developed countries believed it a partial, albeit temporary, solution to their own economic difficulties.

World War II had severely diminished the size of the indigenous working class, while postwar reconstruction emphasized the need for rapid industrial growth. European economies could only overcome the disparity between resources and goals by severely limiting production of consumer goods, transferring European labor to heavy industry, or by recruiting an outside work force. France and Germany chose the latter approach and embarked upon a concerted effort to attract labor front their southern neighbors who lacked the investment capital to spur new growth and who suffered from high unemployment rates. The advantage of this second arrangement over the first was its theoretical capacity to keep inflation under control.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, immigration accelerated. Germany operated several hundred labor recruiting offices and actively sought a manpower reserve. France simply relaxed its immigration laws and allowed those attracted by the prospect of employment to come and find jobs on their own, regularizing their status later. In both nations, the guestworkers became integral parts of the economic structure, generating social and economic mobility for the national force, providing additional demand for consumer goods, and allowing companies to recoup greater profits through reduced wages.

The rotational system also served as a safety valve for Western societies during periods of economic difficulty, an advantage unrecognized at first. Using guestworkers allowed France, Germany, and other developed nations to cut down on welfare costs during periods of recession. Instead of firing workers and creating a need for unemployment insurance and expensive welfare programs, industries, backed by government, simply stopped admitting new immigrants. Because those already in the host countries had to reapply y for a visa every nine months, the size of the labor force dwindled soon after governments imposed a suspension of immigration. The cost of sustaining the unemployed was exported to the workers' home countries.

For a time, the host country received more than  monetary benefits from this arrangement. By leaving during periods of rising unemployment, the guestworkers helped reduce competition for jobs and cushioned the impact of recession upon the native working classes, decreasing worker militancy, and enhancing the stability of the European regimes.

Or so the theory went. By 1973, it was clear that in reality the guestworkers had come to occupy a permanent niche in West European society. So  indispensable had they become that in the recession following the 1973 oil embargo, unemployment rates among guestworkers were the same as or lower than those among other workers.

The efforts to meet the manpower demands of industry had wrought changes in the position of the indigenous working class and ultimately threatened to reinforce the need for foreign labor. Manual workers experienced absolute increases in income, and many adopted the minds and mores of the middle class. Native workers began to move out of the industrial centers to the suburbs and increasingly displayed the avid consumerism so often associated with a middle-class, suburban lifestyle. Although the range of opportunities open to them was still inferior to that of the middle class, the status of the workers rose tremendously.

A substantial part of the working class has tacitly supported the need for guestworkers. The affleunt worker no longer finds all of society's jobs acceptable at any wage, and the use of foreign labor has therefore became a necessary, if unfortunate, arrangement. If European countries wish to continue their postwar economic growth rates while returning native workers to these jobs, substantial changes in the social structure may have to occur. European workers are unlikely to return to low-paying jobs without raising objections to the way in which existing regimes distribute these chores among their citizens. The implications of the guestworker system for the European social structure are debatable however. One line of thought claims that the tasks that guestworkers perform will always exist. Immigrants fill a necessary social function by performing the unpleasant, manual jobs which are nonetheless crucial to the smooth functioning of an advanced industrial society. While native workers have climbed the social ladder, the jobs they performed remain. Therefore, the argument concludes, Europe will have to live with its guestworkers, making the lives of the immigrants more bearable by implementing more social welfare programs, or it will have to offer members of its own population greater monetary incentives to perform the menial but necessary chores that guestworkers now do. Another group of scholars, proponents of embourgeoisement theory, contends that the guestworker problem will disappear as advances in technology eliminate society's worst jobs. Just as many indigenous workers have experienced upward mobility, leaving openings at lower levels, the new immigrant working class may also expect rapid assimilation into the middle class. These thinkers emphasize technological development as the most effective solution to the problem.

A third approach maintains that technology will not eliminate the monotony of society's basic chores, even if it improves other aspects of the worker's environment. Guestworkers, manual laborers in general, and the white collar clerical employees share the same class situation. The pattern of exploitation, of which the guestworkers are simply the most recent victims, will remain unless society is radically restructured. Social welfare programs will not suffice, though they may delay social unrest.

Of necessity, the first theory has guided the governments at the helms of Western democracies. Under current conditions, programs to restructure society would lead to certain electoral defeat. To wait for technological developments to improve the position of the guestworkers militates against common sense.

Welfare state programs seem the only option, but will they be enough? Both improving the living conditions of immigrant labor and enticing native workers to jobs they abandoned as degrading will require that the two ends of the pay scale be moved closer together. Expensive social programs will also redistribute private wealth. At some point, the distinction between welfare state reformism and structural reform begins to blur.

The Other Half

The less developed countries of southern Europe and northern Africa also faced severe economic difficulties at the end of World War II. Industrial obsolescence and a shortage of investment capital promised continuing unemployment. The temporary immigration of workers seemed an acceptable way of averting the social unrest that would undoubtedly follow from overcrowding, enforced idleness, and policies of austerity.

In the 1960s and 70s, economists and the leaders of the developing nations began to realize that the phenomenon was not as temporary as they had first thought. Their concern sparked considerable research to find out who was winning and who was losing in the migration game.

With a few dissenting voices, most researchers have found that the rotational system has only widened the gap between the "poor men of Europe" and northern Africa and the member states of the European Community. Western policy makers long regarded the use of guestworkers as a form of development aid. They argued that rotational immigration relieved overcrowding and encouraged foreign workers to learn skills that they could use to improve the home country's economy upon their return. They also contended that the paychecks the guestworkers sent home not only ensured the survival of dependents, who would otherwise suffer extreme poverty, but also spurred development of indigenous industries by creating new demand and easing the balance of payments problems of the less developed countries

The evidence argues overwhelmingly against this position on all but the first point. Exporting workers relieved unemployment in the home country, thereby increasing the stability of the regime in power. Rotation is especially important in Turkey, for example, where only eighty percent of the work force can expect to find employment. But the relief is not permanent. All migrants must return home periodically to renew their visas. Some stay home. Others wait for new work permits at a time when Western nations hesitate to grant them.

The skills that returning countrymen bring to their native industries are negligible. Guestworkers perform heavy manual tasks in construction, mining, or assembly line manufacture in European industries, jobs which by definition require little or no skill. German government figures indicate that 68.5 percent immigrant workers occupy unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Seventy percent of the Portugese, 70.3 percent of the Tunisians, 81.4 percent of the Moroccans, and 87.2 percent percent of the Algerians labor at such tasks.

Even those who perform skilled work find the training nontransferable. The fine points of automobile manufacture scarcely help a worker when no automobile plants exist in his own country. And the workers who come to Europe often experience demotions: a large number of skilled workers take jobs in unskilled sectors. German Department of Labor statistics show that 36.1 percent of Italian guestworkers were skilled laborers in their own country, while 46.3 percent of the Turks, 34.5 percent of the Tunisians, and 30.1 percent of the Yugoslavs posessed special skills.

The significance of remittances is also in doubt. It is true that the paychecks that guestworkers send home tsave their families from extreme impoverishment. In addition, researchers for the World Bank have found that the increased flow of currency has helped alleviate foreign exchange bottlenecks and sheltered the less developed countries from the full effects of the recent oil price increases. A trade off exists nonetheless, for most of the money is spent on goods imported from industrial nations or on housing. This arrangement has two effects. First, it fails to establish any basis for industrial development in the home country. No jobs are created within the country, meaning that exporting labor will remain necessary. Second, it fails to have any mitigating effect on the balance of payments problem because the families of guestworkers generally spend the money on consumer goods produced abroad.

Without substantial outside aid to develop domestic sources of employment, the less developed countries find themselves tied to an arrangement that will continue to sap their strength. To support their own populations, these countries must develop some sort of economic base that allows them either self-sufficiency or a competitive edge in the world market with a particular commodity. Yet the governments of these countries find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If their governments purchase materials for upgrading industry, their balance of payments deficit rises, destabilizing their currencies, and making private investment unprofitable. At the same time, if the governments of these poorer nations do nothing, their economic base slips away, and they find themselves forced to import goods, again upsetting their balance of payments, fostering economic instability, and creating unemployment.

The Search for Solutions

In May 1978, then U.S. Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall commented, "Perhaps the most revealing test of any society is the manner in which it deals with those who lack the political or economic power to achieve their just aspirations." He was speaking of the U.S. policy toward illegal Mexican immigrants, a problem fundamentally similar to the guestworker issue. Certainly, relieving the plight of migrant labor poses a major test of the strength of European societies.

Limiting immigration is one theme of the European policy. Governments have universally extended the ban on new work permits first imposed in 1973. With illegal immigration, migration under bilateral agreements, and renewal of work permits of those participating in the rotational scheme before 1974, however, the number of guestworkers in Europe has remained substantially the same. The hesitancy of the developed countries to admit new workers is illustrated in the agreement to admit Greece to the European Economic Community (EEC) signed last May. The accord denies Greek workers the right to participate in the freedom-of-movement clause of the Treaty of Rome which permits other EEC workers to take jobs in any member country. Instead, the agreement gives priority to Greece should member nations wish to recruit more workers. After a seven-year transition period, Greek workers will receive the status accorded to others.

The European approach relies on incentive policies as well. In this respect it differs fundamentally from U.S. policy which consists principally in forcibly removing illegal aliens and periodically imposing laws mandating the return of temporary migrants. In contrast, the French instituted a bonus scheme in 1977 nicknamed the "golden handshake." Under the policy, a guestworker wishing to return home received a bonus of $2000 and one-way travel expenses. Working family members received between $1000 and $2000 as well.

Most policy makers agree that the government incentive schemes have failed. Almost 42,000 guestworkers left France under the "golden handshake" plan, but apparently most were Spanish workers who planned to return home in any case to take advantage of Spain's improving economy. The disparity between the sum offered and the considerably larger amount of unemployment insurance benefits an unemployed worker could collect if he remained in France undoubtedly explains much of the lack of interest demonstrated. Germany operated a similar scheme in conjunction with the Yugoslav government in 1974 but found only 1900 participants. The plan came under fire by political parties, particularly the Social Democrats, as unjust and too expensive.

Several individual firms have adopted incentive schemes of their own. The Ford plant in Cologne, for example, offered severance pay to employees who would relinquish their jobs voluntarily. Two thousand foreign accepted the offer, although many apparently believed they would have been laid off anyway. The French government is considering a similar plan to encourage guestworkers to leave the iron and steel sector, an industry likely to undergo radical restructuring in the next decade. estructuring in the next decade.

Direct aid to developing countries comprises the third pillar of the European approach. The Dutch government has led the way by appropriating money for projects to initiate or support enterprises creating direct employment in six countries. Germany has experimented with this type of program on a smaller scale under the Ankara Agreement, offering direct aid to Turkish firms.

Finally, most European nations have instituted sanctions against employers who hire foreign workers not already possessing work permits. Again, however, the policy has experienced little success. Governments are generally unwilling to enforce the sanctions seriously, and the fines are small in any case.

The European Community has encouraged member states to grant political rights to those guestworkers who remain and to develop social programs to facilitate their assimilation into northern European societies. However, the EEC itself may only suggest and persuade. Legislation remains the prerogative of the individual countries, and for the most part, little change has taken place. Most of the programs instituted focus on education. Germany has recently developed several language programs to teach German to Turkish workers and is making provision for special, pre-school programs.

The less developed countries have taken steps to provide returning workers with jobs and resettlement aid. The programs generally exempt returning workers from customs restrictions, grant special loans for housing, permit the workers to maintain foreign currency accounts, and provide assistance in identifying sources of employment. In addition, several countries offer social reintegration programs, apparently necessary to ease tensions between returning workers and those who remained in the home country. These programs seek to help those who experience discrimination because, as one Turkish woman explained, people think those who return adopt airs of cosmopolitan superiority. On the whole the programs have not proven successful. Workers often return to the host country or move from job to job after returning home.

Turkish workers are engaged in an experiment that shows some signs of success however. Migrants join in purchasing shares in new companies, instead of existing enterprises, about 1800 workers taking part in each company. The firms are regionally based, the prospect of contributing to the home region's development apparently being one of the program's major appeals. Since 1973, the Turkish government has cooperated by exempting the "People's Sector" firms from customs duties, granting them tax deductions and special credit, and assisting them in promoting exports. As of August 1978, only two or three of the first 42 firms established had failed, although many suffered from inexperience in management, dependence on credit, the high cost of raw materials, and unfamiliarity with marketing techniques. Since 1978, the firms have directly or indirectly created 17,000 to 20,000 jobs. Encouraged by friends and relatives, approximately ten percent of Turkish workers have participated in the program. Intervention along these lines at the point of return in the migratory chain is more compatible with the freedom of the workers involved, giving them no exceptional advantages over their countrymen yet providing essential employment incentives.


Professor Michael Wálzer of Harvard describes the guestworker problem as a fundamental challenge to Western ideas of political community and the meaning of citizenship. The current situation blatantly offends the ideals of liberal democracy. To deny political rights to those whose industry is largely responsible for the vigor of European economies and the speed of the postwar economic recovery contradicts the sense that those who contribute to a society's well-being ought to possess full rights of citizenship. At the same time, the Western outlook also views political community union of people with a common set of values and aspirations, a common language, and a common tradition. These, the gueastworkers do not necessarily share with native Europeans. Enfranchising two million foreign laborers in a nation the size of France may cause distortions of its political system. Unfamiliar with French political culture and often unable to speak the language, the guestworkers have little stake in preserving those traditions and institutions that distinguish France from other countries in the minds of men the world over. While these traditions are not necessarily adapted to contemporary social and economic conditions and while, some are undoubtedly symptoms of centuries of exploitation, they nonetheless bind French society together. To disrupt them suddenly  would place severe strains on the political system.

If it is to maintain its liberal democratic attitudes, Europe must choose one of three approaches. The first option involves granting full political rights to the immigrants and accepting responsibility for the economic strains that the social welfare programs needed to improve their lives will place upon the state. A second option encourages the return of the guestworkers to their home countries and accepts responsibility for upgrading working conditions, pay, and the organization of the work place in order to draw native workers back to the menial chores they left. A third "middle-of-the-road" policy recognizes the two themes in the Western conception of political community as equally valid and strikes a compromise in the interests of preserving liberal democracy: It institutes a transition period during which a large number of guestworkers would receive incentives to leave while those who remain would participate in educational programs to acquaint themselves with the societies which they have chosen to join. At the end of the transition period, the guestworkers would receive full citizenship rights.

Europe has settled, consciously or unconsciously, on this third approach. But the policies it has adopted to accomplish the task have the appearance of stop-gap measures. No determined effort is underway to help developing countries lure their workers back, and only minimal advances have occurred domestically in improving working and living conditions and obtaining participation in educational programs. Persisting in the current fashion and with current attitudes will indeed make a sham of liberal democracy.

The lessons of the European case for the United States and the oil-rich Middle Eastern nations are still unfolding, but it is clear that, as Rousseau theorized, interdependence has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. The free movement of labor, while possibly in the long-term interests of all societies, may threaten the stability of those societies in the short run and exact high personal costs of the men and women involved. By carefully examining the successes and failures of European policies and taking a hard look at current conceptions of community and citizenship, other nations may be able to avert the injustices and social tensions which have characterized the guestworker