Racialized Labor — Eastern Europeans on The Western Market

In this conversation with RevDem editor Kasia Krzyzanowska, Aleksandra Lewicki discusses her recently published article “East-west inequalities and the ambiguous racialization of ‘Eastern Europeans’”. Lewicki elaborates on the racialized imaginary of the Western European discourses on migration, talks about how the stereotype of hard-working Eastern Europeans negatively impacts their labor conditions, and ponders on the influence of neoliberal policies on the precarization of labor.

Aleksandra Lewicki is Co-Director of the ‘Sussex European Institute’ and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is In-House Associate Editor of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Her work investigates structural inequalities in post-colonial Europe. In particular, she is interested in political mobilisation, and the role public institutions play in crafting categories of difference. Her publications have appeared in leading international journals such as Sociology, The Sociological Review, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Patterns of Prejudice, Citizenship Studies and Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: Your recent publication has already attracted attention from wide audiences. The article analyzes inequalities in the life chances for Eastern Europeans migrating because of work to Western Europe, and you describe how they experience racialization. What kind of practices are denoted by this concept? What kind of social hierarchies are in place in Europe? Finally, what kind of racialized imaginary does the label of Eastern European carry in Western societies?

Aleksandra Lewicki: Thank you,  great question. As one of the starting points- if we take a step back- it is worth noting that anyone in any country in Europe’s East would know somebody who at some point moved West to work there. This is already something quite notable. It’s a very common choice for young people, middle-aged people, even older people to – at some point in their life- move West to make a living, maintain their family, or sometimes even just stay for shorter periods to renovate their house or fix the roof. 

We need to note that this choice is not necessarily a choice that somebody born and bred in a country like Britain, France or Germany — in Europe’s West — would ever have to make. Obviously, in Europe’s West there is poverty and social deprivation, but moving to another country is not a common strategy of survival . This pattern in itself is worth noting — and the sort of processes that lie behind it — because it’s also noteworthy that people who move from Europe’s East to its West very often are being down-skilled. They’re disproportionately frequently represented in professions in warehouses — such as logistics, packaging, and so on — or in meat processing plants, in construction sites. They are overrepresented in the provision of social care to older people (often live-in care) — which is a very unpopular job for a lot of people from Europe’s West — but also cleaning, food picking, and other seasonal work. All these are professions in which people from Europe’s East are disproportionately overrepresented in Europe’s West. It’s also worth noting that there is a whole industry in place of intermediary agencies that facilitate recruitment from Europe’s East into these professions.

What I noted in my work, and what kept creeping up everywhere since I started thinking about this, is that

there’s a discourse that ascribes suitability for these kinds of jobs to people from Europe’s East; it’s almost automatically connected to ethnicity. People in the West hear Poland, Latvia, Hungary, Estonia, and they instantly think of these kinds of jobs. This causal linking of a place of origin with specific skills is a key feature of their racialization.

You can see that this is structurally reproduced, because these people are disproportionately frequently represented in the kinds of jobs I mentioned, despite very often having higher qualifications. That is always an indicator for discrimination: if you cannot work in your own job and have to down-skill. 

As we know from various research contexts, they have limited access to social rights and a higher frequency of deportability. They’re more often forcibly removed from the countries into which they had moved. These are forms of structural racism because they’re tied to specific representations that I bring out in my article.

Important to flag is that I argue they’re racialized ambiguously. On the one hand, they’re seen as ‘lesser Europeans’ and inferior within Europe. On the other hand, they’re very often seen as capable of progressing into West European standards, ‘culturally similar’, or ‘racially’ the same. 

So commonalities are being invoked which are associated with Whiteness and Europeanness – but they often operate at a sort of never-quite-assured level, on a doubtful level, and position people as potentially capable of progressing into Europeanness. 

That is an expression of a form of in-betweenness or liminality, if you want, that other scholars have also described — which I call ambiguous racialization — that carries privileges and possibilities of passing – doubtlessly (I’m very cautious of comparing experiences of racialization) – but that also denotes structural disadvantages.

One of the symbols of these structural disadvantages was the Polish plumber sometimes evoked in the French discourse. What other tropes did you identify in the discourses on migrant workers from Central-Eastern Europe? What was the predominant emotion in those narratives? Was it fear? Was it envy, contempt, or pity?

Before I answer that, I have to quickly explain who the people were that I spoke to. My research drew on research interviews with people who mobilized against immigration. The sampling criterium — what made people eligible be approached by us for a research interview — was that they have had gain a public profile by publicly expressing their concern about immigration to their country. This is a cross-national project that I do with colleagues at the Peace Research Institute in Norway, led by Kristian Harpviken. We looked into lots of different contexts — Italy, Norway, Germany, Britain. In this piece, I looked just at the data from Britain and Germany. 

I was expecting that these people would talk mainly about refugee populations. The time we collected this data ended shortly before the beginning of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine last year, 2022. So our data does not cover this period since. I thought that the main focus – what people would be talking about – would be Syrian refugees and people who originate from countries of the global South and who are often racialized as ‘Muslim’. 

I was quite surprised to find that the figure of the ‘Eastern European’ was also often invoked. Just what ‘Eastern European’ means to these people was already quite interesting, because it meant a vast array of different positionalities. It ranged from people from the east of the EU — countries that joined in 2004 and in the next accession round in 2007 and so on — but also countries further east, or countries of the Balkans who haven’t yet had the invitation to join the European Union, such as Albania. It’s a vast space (you can call it the “post-Soviet space”) which is all lumped into the category of ‘Eastern Europe’, and the people are all imagined as the same. They all share the same features in the Western imagination.

There were some tropes that I teased out in this data that seemed to apply to both countries. The first trope represented ’Eastern Europeans’ as ‘carriers of disease’. 

That was obviously in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where lots of public figures and politicians in Germany at the time were making quite blatant accusations, as in, ‘COVID-19 eats its way into the German land via the border from the East from the Czech Republic and Poland.’ This is because people frequently commute between the two countries, since they work in live-in care, hospitals, and so on. At the time, everybody who was crossing the border had to take a COVID test every day, so that was absolutely ridiculous. There was no evidence for claims like that. Then, in Germany, Jens Spahn, the Health Minister at the time, blamed family visits in the Balkans and in Turkey for the spike in the second wave of COVID-19.

Armin Laschet, who was a candidate for chancellor at the time, said that meat processing plants are breeding grounds  where the ‘virus was coming from’. He meant Bulgaria and Romania, because that’s where the people who worked in some of these plants were from. These attributions focused very much on the classical ‘others’ in the German public sphere – for instance, Turkish communities who are racialized as ‘Muslim’, but invocations of ‘Eastern Europeans’ featured quite a lot in this too. And I also found parallels in the British discourse. 

It obviously masks that these people disproportionately frequently work in precarious jobs as essential workers, so they have higher health risks, but there’s was also an attribution of what they do in their free time or during family visits. Quite a few people (academics, journalists) examined all these statements and they turned out to be completely without evidence. These were racialized attributions that were invoked in this manner.

The second trope, which is quite dominant across Germany and Great Britain, is the sense that people who move from the East put a ‘strain on public services’.

There is a sense that public services are less available, which very often has a lot to do with the fact that they have been cut back because the welfare state has been rolled back, particularly in the UK. But there were also cuts to public services in Germany, particularly in the area of unemployment over the last 20 years. There’s this positioning of people who are coming over in swarms, hoards, and masses who are then accessing the NHS or childcare services that put these services under duress and strain. That scenario entirely exaggerates the scale at which this immigration was possible in the first place. Secondly, it completely ignores that most people who work in precarious jobs aren’t even eligible to a lot of these services. That trope seems to be also flourishing after Brexit, which cut people’s rights down further.

The third trope, which is also quite common across both contexts, is the positioning of people from Europe’s East as ‘traffickers’ or ‘tricksters’.

This imagines a figure such as the Pole who steals cars. I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in Germany, and that was the most knee-jerk joke that was always on TV. There were jokes such as ‘heute gestohlen morgen schon in Polen’ ‘stolen today, tomorrow already in Poland’ — whenever somebody had a problem with their car, they would invoke this trope. This sort of small-scale crime but also organized crime and corruption are often attributed to Europe’s East.

In this context now, for instance in Britain, this played out in the invocation of people who bring refugees to Britain as ‘Lithuanian’ or ’Albanian’ (this was obviously an arbitrary attribution). They ascribed specific nationalities to these traffickers who can get a criminal charge for many, many years because they’re the most criminalized in the whole industry of immigration management.

I suppose the people who I interviewed often are strong opponents of immigration, so they say ‘crasser’ things. But I try to show in this article that these tropes can also trickle down – so milder mainstreamed versions of them are pervasive in public discourse and in policy and the law.

You mentioned precarious jobs. This is precisely one of the points that you elaborate in your article, namely the neoliberal policies and their influence on the situation of migrant workers in Germany and the UK. The precarization of labor, the politics of austerity, the fortification of borders — all influenced the subjective position of Eastern Europeans in the racialized hierarchies in Western Europe. Could you speak more on this neoliberal influence? 

Yeah, this is a brilliant question. Thank you. I think it ties quite nicely into what we talked about in the previous question. What I show in my article is that these tropes that people invoke who mobilize against immigration, they also have institutional trajectories and they map onto specific policy frames. 

For instance, the growing precarization of labour across Europe’s West, which is something we’ve seen in a lot of Western European countries since the 1990s, is very often connected with the so-called ‘Third Way’, the doing of social democratic politics in a neoliberal manner. That led to a systematic reduction of wages in some jobs where you can earn so little that it’s impossible for somebody who lives in a country for the whole year — for a local who needs to sustain a family, or just survive and pay housing and everyday living costs — to sustain oneself throughout the year. Seasonal work, construction work, a lot of hospitality jobs, and some of the live-in care jobs, are literally so badly paid that they’re not only unattractive, as we very often hear, but you cannot live of them. The system is set out in such a way that somebody else would come in for whom this is more attractive in terms of money, because they would return to their home country or live for a certain period in Britain or Germany, working this job precariously. There’s obviously  benefit in that if you can pay such low wages and still find people who do their job.

The precarization of labor relies on mobile labour and that is a key idea of neoliberalism — and always has been — which is very often downplayed in theories around neoliberalism that focus so much on market forces.

I’ve recently read Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists and he shows how the birth moment of neoliberalism already involved this idea of labor needing to be mobile at the most precarious end, and that West European countries would want cheap labor to come in, which can be switched off – like a tap. So if the economy changes, these people would be made redundant, and would also disappear from claiming social services, because they would return to their home countries.

That is obviously tied in with another big theme of neoliberal policy making, which is the politics of austerity: the rolling back of welfare services, the rolling back of public institutions which involve the cutting of social rights. Here again, groups racialized as ‘Other’ are disproportionately frequently affected by such reductions. Obviously, these measures affect everyone, but these ‘Others’ very often are the ones who bear the brunt. Here, the two are connected because

people who are disproportionately frequently concentrated in precarious jobs have no entitlement to claim benefits and have no access to social rights. But they will obviously very often then access social services in their home countries, which relocates the costs of this labor to their home countries.

Thirdly, the fortification of borders is again a theme which very often is under-emphasized in theorization of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is very often imagined as a free market ideology, but part of this always was the closing down borders for racial ‘Others’.

The way in which border regulations have been passed in the last 20 years makes people more disposable and deportable. We can see that people from Europe’s East are disproportionately frequently among those being deported. 

If they, for instance, become homeless, then they cannot access social services and then they are being deported back to their countries of origin. This is like a vicious circle that determines life opportunities of people who work precariously. 

Do the neoliberal conditions affect the situation of a person working on a construction site in a similar way that they influence the situation of a professor at a UK University?

It is really important as well. Is this something that affects everyone? I would say obviously not — well, I’d say yes and no. Obviously not in the first instance, because it’s very important to highlight that the people who move from Europe’s East to its West are not exclusively people who work below their qualifications. We have both in Germany and Britain people who work as academics, media producers, journalists, theatre makers, architects, pharmacists, who work in the cultural industries… 

There’s lots of people who work in high-skilled professions, but very often they’re invisible because there’s already an established trope about low-skilled workers from the East. What happens here – including to me – when people ask where you’re from and I say I’m Polish, the second question would be, ‘can you perhaps recommend a cleaner?’ Other high-skilled professionals who I’ve had conversations with report similar experiences. There’s this instant link, ‘she’s Polish, so she’ll know the Polish community, so maybe she can help me find somebody who can clean my place.’

You can see that even if you’re working as a highly-skilled professional, there are ideas traveling about what your real designation is, or what your community’s designation in that country is.

The other aspect of this is also that people who work in the cultural industries and artists are very often underrepresented in German or British public life. They’re one of the largest immigrant groups, but they’re very much invisible. For a long time, like my parents’ generation, they would quite happily blend in and just try and not ‘disturb’ anyone. We have a recent surge in literature of people describing that. I personally perceive that there’s a bit of a rise in voices where people are claiming their spaces and asking ‘why is it that we’re underrepresented in the cultural spheres?’ In the UK, we’ve recently had this case where ‘Centrala’, a gallery in Birmingham, which was one of the few spaces where artists from Central and Eastern Europe were being exhibited, has been cut funding and there was an outcry with quite strong public visibility about that. I think something’s happening here in that these communities are ready to become more visible.

You mentioned in your article this stereotype of a hardworking Eastern European. How much does this negatively influence the situation of migrants from this region?

I think the answer to this question is ambiguous. On the one hand, all the research that speaks to people who work in these jobs shows that it can sometimes be a source of pride and dignity. A lot of people who do live-in care or work in cleaning jobs, and particularly if they have higher qualifications and have a different vision for their future and their professional careers, they would say with a sense of pride that they can just take more work than ‘any Western European’, which is a mechanism where you’re evaluating yourself up. They can work harder; they’re known to be particularly thorough and industrious, and that can be a source of pride for them. But, it can also be a source of exploitation — if this is something that they used to self-describe and others pin it to them, then they’re automatically the go-to place for the particularly hard work and they’re expected not to complain. It can often mean that these communities are putting up with a lot without protest. 

Although I would highlight that recently we’ve had a fair bit of resistance around meat processing plans. There were walkouts around seasonal work. There have been quite big rallies, for instance in Duisburg in the last few months, where the working conditions in a factory have basically led to the death of a migrant worker. This is something where the community didn’t just let this one go. There have been marches and there are repeated calls to investigate why somebody has lost their life in this factory and under these working conditions. My colleague Polina Manolova is working on this and has observed this situation closely. We shouldn’t underestimate the potential to resist and protest. That is more and more visible.

But, I think these invocations are also part of the typical racialized tropes.

The Polish Pearl, die Polnische Perle, in Germany is a trope that’s used for care workers who are perceived to be particularly caring, enduring, who put up with a lot and work overtime and so on. That is a trope that attributes specific suitability for a caring profession to a woman from Poland, and at the same time celebrates her capacity to self-exploit. 

The Polish plumber that you invoked in France and in the UK is a similar trope, where you’re connecting an ethnicity to the suitability for a specific type of manual job and you ascribe suitability and the capacity to work hard to them. I think they are exoticizations that are also racializing and exploitative.

Let’s talk a bit more about the resistance that can take place against those neoliberal practices. The discrimination of people from Eastern Europe in the area of social rights and institutionalized limited access to public services is visible and well-documented. We have seen a lot of reports in this regard and a lot of protest as well. Even though there is a prohibition of such practices on the grounds of EU law, it still takes place. Also, people who experience this kind of situation seldom have the opportunity to ask for assistance. They do not have the resources to engage in, for example, mobilizing EU law or other possible avenues that could amend this condition. What are the possibilities for migrant workers to somehow ease the situation?

First, I want to highlight that some of these limitations to social rights have only been possible because of EU legislation. The EU Citizens’ Rights Directive was passed in 2004. It was implemented in Germany after the enlargement of the EU, when the transition period was lifted seven years later [the maximum period allowed by the EU — KK], and in the UK the directive was enforced straight upon the enlargement of the EU — obviously, Britain was still a member state of the European Union then. As soon as the ‘free movement’ of people from Europe’s East was enabled, the EU introduced a new legal framework to basically tie the entitlement to social rights and benefits to an income threshold. You had to be earning at the level at which you pay into the social insurance, and only then could you claim benefits in these countries. 

As a result, people who work in the most precarious jobs can be prohibited from accessing benefits. That’s obviously something that EU law is not stopping, but actually facilitating so to speak, and member countries have implemented it.

But you’re right that there’s also EU legislation that forbids discrimination. If they are frontline workers in the job centre or when people are accessing housing or are accessing homeless services and so on, we find that these frontline workers often are confused as to the legal eligibility of EU citizens — mostly EU citizens from Europe’s East — and they’re not quite clear about their status. Obviously in the UK, there’s settled and pre-settled status and so on. Very often frontline workers just don’t know what that means and who can access the NHS. That is not only illegal according to EU law, it’s also something that national legislation rules out. This is something you could potentially litigate — but yes, you’re right, these aren’t often the sort of people who would activate their rights and mobilize around that. Very often if people can’t access social services, they become homeless, some of them get deported, or they just return to their countries of origin and access services there, which again relocates costs of this labor to countries of origin.

But recently, there have been a few instances where people have indeed used the legal route to claim their rights. There’s this exemplary case of a Bulgarian live-in care worker in Germany who — she had some support from charities — took her case up to the Federal Labor Court. She was asking to be paid the minimum wage, not only for the hours that she was doing actual work, but also for those hours that she was on standby. That was a loophole of exploitation that live-in care workers would often be available 24/7, but they would only be paid those hours in daytime where they actually put a hand on this person that they’re caring for. But the fact that they would be woken up at night, that they’re living in this flat, that they have literally no personal life, is something that they weren’t being remunerated for. She took that to court, and she won this case. The court ruled that she has to be paid not only the minimum wage but also for standby hours.

I think we will be seeing more and more cases like this. But you’re absolutely right that the threshold to take a case like that to court is something that not many people who are working that precariously in Germany or Britain will take.

Let’s hope that this decision by this German court will be structurally implemented in the system. 

Well, we’re already seeing how intermediary agencies that are recruiting these people are then undermining this regulation by making people self-employed, whereby these regulations no longer apply to them. The loopholes are obviously also endless.

Let us come back to the narratives that you analyzed in the article. What they are for? What kind of ambiguous political and social practices are they trying to legitimize and who actually lends support to these narratives?

That’s important, because I think we have to be clear about this. The people who benefit from these neoliberal policies are mainly big businesses and politicians that have deals with these big businesses or are themselves implicated into these systems, offshore accounts, and so on.

Obviously, precarious labor that relies on mobility keeps wages and labor costs down. If you then relocate the social costs of this labor to countries in the East of the EU, that makes this labor even cheaper for the respective Western society as a whole. If this workforce is disposable, then you have a set up where you can just turn off the tap and say, ‘ok, right now we need you and then we don’t need you’.

That is obviously a very undignified way of thinking about human lives because people who move don’t want to just be working machines; they want to potentially build their lives in these new places. 

But the way in which immigration regimes have hardened and hardened, more and more—although, I’m saying more and more, but actually immigration regimes have always operated on this basis that if there is a time of economic stability, then they would be quite keen to get external labor in for growth, and if there would be economic recession, then they would want to introduce new legislation so they can ‘turn the tap off’. This is not something that’s unique to workers from Europe’s East. It’s just something that recently has been quite notable in this particular context.

For the second part of your question, I think international corporations obviously benefit from this. But there is an almost uncontested nature of economic growth as well in a lot of political parties. It is a mainstream story that we need to somehow cut wages and reduce workers’ rights. It’s something that the Labour Party in Great Britain isn’t particularly standing out in terms of contesting. I think there’s almost a consensus that there is no way past economic growth, and economic growth operates through the exploitation of those who somehow have been positioned as inferior.

In this particular context, it is also people from Europe’s East, but obviously West European countries have racial hierarchies that specifically designate specific precarious trajectories to different racialized groups. I’m not saying this is at all an exception, and I’m not denying that there’s a lot of privilege behind that positionality as well.

My last question to you is an exercise of imagination. Let us picture that in 2023, a Romanian graduate from international relations from, let’s say, the West University of Timișoara craves a better future and decides to emigrate to the United Kingdom. What are her perspectives of finding a good job in this place? And what are the odds that she will find a position that actually matches her qualifications? 

There are lots of avenues because of European Union membership, but also because of the ties that Great Britain still has with the European Union. Let’s assume this Romanian graduate wanted to come to the UK. Let’s use the UK example just because it’s specific after Brexit. So, they have several routes into the UK if they wanted to. They could come for six months on a visitor’s visa and try to apply for jobs. If they have studied one of these highly-skilled professions that are currently in demand in the UK, they could apply straight from Romania into one of these companies that are recruiting. If they got a job offer, the employer would act as a sponsor and they could come and work in this high-skilled job in the UK. This is something that’s possible and that’s happening currently.

If they are a graduate of international relations and don’t have a specialization, which would put them in a strong position for one of these companies that currently are recruiting, and they’re entering the labor market on a six-month visitor’s visa, things potentially get more precarious. We have a fair bit of evidence that if you go to a job centre, then there are specific ideas about what you are suited to do with this ethnicity.

Romanians are very often read as being ‘Eastern European’ on the one hand, but there’s also an amalgamation with Antiziganism. Very often they’re ascribed or read as being ‘Roma’. Roma obviously are specifically racialized within Europe’s East. The category  ‘Eastern European’ is internally also strongly stratified between its different parts including the racialized minority of the ‘Roma;.

It’s very possible that they would be automatically channeled into one of these precarious jobs. You hear that a lot from graduates who say ‘yeah, I have a degree in journalism, but because I’m from (Poland, Romania, or Bulgaria), it was obvious that I’m not going to work in my profession, that I’m going to start with hospitality first, and then I’m going to try and make my way up and climb the ladder.’ I would say that there are chances of working directly in your profession, but there are also quite high possibilities that this student would experience discrimination and wouldn’t get the same opportunities. Even if they applied for jobs, they might not get invited for an interview because of the discourses that circulate around their suitability.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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