The COVID-19 epidemic has intensified migrants’ struggles against confinement, against the deterioration of their living and working conditions, and for freedom of movement and legal status.
In Greece, a major pathway into Europe, about 80,000 migrants are currently trapped in overcrowded camps and detention centers. Hunger strikes erupted in two pre-deportation prisons, in Paranesti (Northern Greece) and Moria (Lesbos island). In both cases they were met with unprecedented police violence, including torture and force-feeding. On the island of Chios, a riot started after the death of a 47-year-old woman who showed signs of COVID-19 but had been refused hospitalization a few days earlier. Migrants attacked the asylum service offices, clashed with the police for hours and burned cars and police posts. In Austria and France, detainees in pre-deportation prisons are emphasizing their demand to be released with hunger strikes, and people confined in several camps are protesting the aggravated conditions under quarantine. Meanwhile in India, migrant workers have repeatedly rioted for the right to return to their villages, instead of being quarantined in overcrowded and undersupplied accommodations in big cities and industrial zones where they work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spread within a few months, regardless of quarantines and travel bans, tenaciously ignoring the borders of nation-states militarized by reactionary governments. In face of the crisis, national media outlets have reinforced sentiments of belonging to the “interclass”, imaginary community of the nation. This imaginary community has very material effects for the livelihoods of proletarians who seek a better market to sell the only commodity they possess: their labor power. Nationalism helps to suppress conflicts around work and reproduction, calling workers and bosses to fight together: against the new invisible threat, COVID-19, as well as against an old enemy, the foreigner.
The current situation has served as a magnifying glass for the working conditions in sectors that heavily rely on a migrant workforce; conditions that have often been made invisible. In China, where internal migration is regulated via the hukou-system – which excludes millions of workers from access to health care, education, and social welfare – state policies now attempt to alleviate the economic effects of the pandemic by loosening residency rules. In Europe, states are organizing exemptions to import the workforce of seasonal migrant workers, often including unpaid periods of quarantine and confined accommodation. 80,000 Romanian workers were flown to Germany to work in agriculture, flights of seasonal workers have been chartered by farms in the UK, the Greek state is arranging for the transport of 7,000 workers from Albania, and the Ukrainian government is being asked to send workers to various countries. This is not limited to agriculture: in Austria, Bulgarian and Romanian workers were brought in to work in 24-hour care.
The discrepancy between closing borders or restricting movement on one hand, and efforts to relocate workers on the other, relates to the global functioning of capital, which lowers costs by outsourcing productive processes and allocating a cheap labor force to where it is needed. Migration policies are an institutionalized method of devaluating the price of labor and dividing up the working class. These policies grant papers to some, deny them to others, and distinguish between residents, migrants and refugees, the latter facing deliberately slow application processes, imprisonment, militarized borders and deportations. Borders are not impermeable, but rather allow some to pass depending on the pressure from the movement of migrating populations and the needs of the labor market. Additionally, states can receive extensive funding for controlling and managing the “surplus” migrant workforce, as is the case within the EU-border regime. The impact of the distinction between “natives” and “foreigners,” or residents and non-residents, relates to its relevance for a wider set of strategies stratifying the working class, including other labor market policies, the restructuring of work processes and the division of labor.
The pandemic worsens the conditions for migrants, who are already under usual circumstances trapped in the middle of this structural process aimed at differentially introducing them to local capitalist economies. In parts of the world where emigration is already strong, people are increasingly faced with heavy state repression and the choice between risking contracting the virus or starving to death. The pandemic is likely to exacerbate the causes of migration while reducing the possibilities to do so.
In the centers of capitalist production, we are witnessing a simultaneous escalation of repression. In various countries, there is an outright or de-facto suspension of asylum laws and not even a pretense of concern for the health of people in camps and detention centers: when a case of COVID-19 is detected, they are simply placed under collective quarantine (in some cases with the infected person still inside) and treated as a public health hazard. The same is true at work: in a big meat factory in Germany, Müller-Fleisch, the reaction to more than 100 infected workers was to simply put the whole workforce of 1000 under “quarantine” – in this case meaning they are not allowed to do anything but work. The further spread of disease in the cramped workplace and the crowded living quarters, where the mostly subcontracted workers from Eastern European countries share bathrooms, kitchens and rooms, is of no concern as long as production can continue and the wider public is not affected. In the US, the state used the “Defense Production Act” to keep slaughterhouses from shutting down in response to wildcat strikes and sick-outs protesting 12,000 workers contracting COVID-19 and 48 dying. The workers in meat processing plants, previously regular targets of workplace-raids by immigration authorities, are now forced back to life-threatening environments under a Cold War era law.
So COVID-19 also highlights the dependence on migrant workers. With people no longer being able to move across borders and regions, the options for states and companies to mobilize the required labor force are limited. Either they organize the (temporary) migration of workers themselves, or they recruit resident workers. Both options are currently employed, and both expose the contradictions of anti-immigrant policies that are so en vogue: the first shows that “zero immigration” is mere rhetoric, garnishing the actual management of a stratified labor market to maximize profits. The second entails getting the local population to do exhausting jobs for shitty pay. These jobs are already refused by many, because picking cucumbers for a couple of bucks doesn’t seem like a remotely fair deal. This heightened visibility of capital’s structural demand for low-wage, labor-intensive work exposes the propaganda of migrants driving down wages to be false. In this context, the interdependence of local and migrant workers becomes manifest, and the potential for united struggles begins to emerge.
Social and physical isolation, further aggravated by the COVID-19 regime, and the growing social legitimation of anti-migration policies in many states across the globe, give a free hand to the repressive state forces to crush migrants’ struggles. But although these struggles, which in large part predate the COVID-19 pandemic, are often made invisible in the mainstream media, migrants have documented their actions on twitter and other social media and spread their struggles.
We need to break the walls of isolation and the divisions imposed on our class by living and fighting together against capital and its world!