Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
21 March 2024

Freedom or labour: Deconstructing work at the FIFDH

At the FIFDH in Geneva, Saša Uhlová's documentary "The Limits of Europe" unveiled the harsh realities of migrant labor through her eyes. Maria Mexi, an associate researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, highlighted the film's profound impact on understanding the systemic exploitation of migrants in Europe.

Saša Uhlova can barely remember the year 2021. She spent that year living as an eastern European migrant worker in various countries, sectors, and conditions. Yet, when asked about the documentary she filmed through a hidden camera during this year, “the Limits of Europe”, she is not able to recall details. “I’m not sure of when exactly everything happen, I am piecing it together as I watch it” she admitted during the Q&A that followed the film’s screening at this year’s FIFDH – the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights Geneva.

This is because the documentary doesn’t only depict the experience of being on a factory floor cutting cabbages or having to clean 50 hotel rooms in a day, and rather depicts the life that surrounded these experiences. We are with her when she is rushing from one house cleaning to another in Marseille’s public transport, when she takes advantage of a smoke break with a colleague to plan a strike, when she has to leave her family behind, and we are with her when she hears the news of her father’s passing an ocean away. Of course the film offers a perspective of the labor market in europe, but it is also able to show us the very real pressures that it puts on migrants’ lives as a whole.

The panel discussiont hat followed the screening at the FIFDH on March 15th, gathered Saša Uhlová herself, who shared her firsthand experiences and investigative findings on precarious work conditions across Europe, Maria Mexi, Research fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and Senior Advisor on Labor and Social Policy at the TASC platform, who offered deep insights into the complexities of global labour trendsPhilippe Poutou, a French unionist and politician, who brought to the table his extensive experience in labour activism and political engagement, and Hadrien Klent, a writer and the author of "Paresse pour tous," who brought the utopian perspective that shines through his book.

“This is a very precise experience, very personal view of work, death, family. But this is an attempt to extrapolate, make it bigger and see how it applies to all of us”  clarified Saša. And it did, indeed, apply to each panelist’s area of expertise, as they were able not only to approach the film from their own perspective but also to examine the how they interlink throughout the documentary.

Both Hadrien and Philippe chose to highlight the erosion of social protections for workers, and particularly for migrant workers. Having worked on the Ford assembly line in the 1980’s Philippe Poutou was deeply familiar with the ways in which this work could be brutal but still provided stability, protection and even a community. The new landscape, highlighted Maria Mexi, is additionally taxing our psychological wellbeing. As the film pointed out several times, workers are often isolated, any socialization relegated to stolen smoke breaks in hidden corners. 
“A utopia this is not” pointed out Hadrien Klent, who’s book examines a word where the work week is only 15 hours long. A far cry from the 12 hour days Saša filmed on her journey.

Maria had also seen this trend within her research. Expressing gratitude to Uhlová for uncovering uncomfortable truths, Mexi underscored the film's role as a personal yet universal narrative that aligns with the wider trends identified in her research. She highlighted the precarious existence of migrants, who often face a "migrant penalty" characterized by limited access to protection, stability, and a heightened fear of deportation and retaliation. This, according to Mexi, not only imposes a psychological strain on migrants but also underscores the systemic exploitation embedded within European labor markets.

Critically, Mexi addressed the dichotomy inherent in Europe's approach to migration. On one hand, there's a political narrative focused on restricting migration, while on the other, there's a pragmatic reliance on migrant labor to fill gaps in under-serviced sectors. This hypocrisy, as Mexi pointed out, reveals a willingness to exploit migrant labor without extending the necessary rights and protections, perpetuating a cycle of vulnerability and exploitation.

Philippe Poutou and the discussion highlighted the broader socio-political context, touching upon the class egoism that often undermines workers' rights and fosters a resistance to solidarity, driven by fear of increased costs and loss of social status among the middle class. Yet, Mexi's contribution went beyond diagnosing the problems, hinting at the potential for cross-border solidarity as a countermeasure to the prevailing trends.
In a poignant closing remark, Mexi aligned with Hadrien Klent's hopeful vision, albeit acknowledging the current reality's stark contrast to Klent's utopian ideal of a 15-hour workweek. Her reflections on the documentary and the panel's discussion underscored a critical understanding: while the current landscape is far from the utopia envisioned by some, the first steps towards it are awareness, dialogue, and solidarity. 

Photo by Michael Bueno