In these years of recession, the most important export of the slackening economies of West Germany, France, or Switzerland is no longer small cars, machine tools, or electric motors, but unemployment. The southbound trains out of the great industrial centers still carry goods, but their most valuable freight consists of thousands upon thousands of small, dark men who sit on pasteboard suitcases with brown paper parcels on their laps, heading home. At the labor exchanges at Frankfurt, Lille, Geneva, long lines of indigenous workers and settled foreigners wait for their relief checks and seek new jobs. But it is the lines at the station ticket offices that count. The immigrant labor system, on which Western Europe now so heavily depends for unskilled work, ensures that the financial and political burden of unemployment in the north and west of the continent is carried by the south and east, in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, in the countries of the North African littoral, and in Turkey.

The migrants, on temporary recruitment, are the first to be laid off from the labor-intensive, unskilled sectors of the industrial economies. When they lose their jobs, they do not stay around to form embarrassing mobs waiting for relief, or to gather dangerously behind banners in the town hall square. Instead, they vanish. They drain away down the railroad tracks, and their unemployment happens somewhere else: in distant Turkish villages, in the hills of Croatia, in white hovels in southern Portugal, by barren watercourses in the Mezzogiorno. They and their joblessness cease to be the problem of the peoples of the industrial north.

To understand what the presence of migrant labor means, both to the “host” country and to the workers themselves, one must have two kinds of knowledge, one analytic and the other imaginative. One is collecting the statistics—a harder job than it sounds—and finding a distinguishable structure among the gravel heaps of detail. The other is to seek out the migrant himself—for he is usually a male alone, as befits a soldier in what Marx called “the industrial reserve army”—and learn about his sense of his own life. Rainer Werner Fassbinder has done this in such films as Katzelmacher and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but writers have tended to be reluctant.

What is important about A Seventh Man is that John Berger has mastered both kinds of knowledge. His book is a work of literature and of analysis. Jean Mohr’s intense photographs, with their juxtaposition of village and foreign city, peasant work and factory labor, all the agonizing departures, sugary nostalgias, strutting optimism, or dull-eyed routines of the migrant worker’s existence, are not illustrations but a carefully integrated part of the total work. The migrant’s journey northward, his recruitment and medical examination (sullen male chests chalked with incomprehensible numerals by an industrial doctor), his first encounter with the cities, his work, and his return are presented as a narrative, interleaved with blocks of statistical data. There are poems, dreams, snatches of talk from the migrant workers and from those who employ them or work beside them.

Berger is perhaps the most delicate and resourceful of Marxist critics writing in English, and he sensitively explores what a man loses or gains when he is making more money than he ever handled before by fashioning the consumer goods of an alien culture. Berger’s analysis is very harsh and direct: “If the organized national working class formed [the] entire labor reserve and suffered accordingly, they might begin to demand that an end be put to the system: they might become a revolutionary proletariat. If, however, a large part of the labor reserve is made up of migrant workers, they can be ‘imported’ when needed and ‘exported’ (sent home) when made temporarily redundant, and there need be no political repercussions….”

It is one of the strengths of this book that Berger and Mohr do not confine themselves to “the migrant as migrant,” to wringing their hands over the alienation of these men and women at their machines, in their hostels, loafing on foreign corners. They are almost more interested in the places they come from, where the worker can again be a husband, father, citizen, and patriot but cannot earn a living. Berger is especially observant about life in those desolate upland villages without men, and mordant about the concept of “underdevelopment” or “developing” (he prefers that bitter Cuban neologism, the active verb “to under-develop”).

But as I read this book, Berger’s text and Mohr’s photographs kept reminding me of landscapes in another continent. South Africa, so piously condemned by the governments of Western Europe, is not so far away after all. There too the hill villages of KwaZulu and Lesotho are places where women, children, and the old wait for the men to return at the end of a contract. There too are the “bidonvilles,” the shanty towns of illegal immigrants which are regularly flattened by the police bulldozers. There are the bleak hostel rooms where young men who are off shift doze on their bunks or quietly pluck the strings of an instrument brought from home, and there are the classrooms where lines of men on benches chant the syllables of a dog-language, a factory pidgin, “Fanakalo” or “Gastarbeiterdeutsch,” which will enable them to understand orders and pick up the right tool.


Europe and South Africa are converging. The South African Republic, where white supremacy itself is supported by the institution of migrant labor, contains most of its labor reserves, its “industrial reserve army,” within its own state frontiers. Otherwise, the mechanism is much the same. The black African works for most of his life in white industry, but with the status of a nonresident migrant. By law, he remains artificially attached to a distant, overcrowded, hopelessly impoverished “Homeland,” and he is obliged to return there at regular intervals—or when he loses his job. Although he is not permitted to bring his family to the city, the black migrant laborer is in reality an urban proletarian—except that he may never have the right of settlement and security which would make him one effectively.

There are good reasons for this. Old economists used to say that “prices take the elevator, but wages take the stairs.” For the union-organized work forces of industrialized countries, this is no longer true. But it remains true in South Africa, and to a lesser extent with the migrant workers of Europe, because the intermittent nature of the laborer’s presence in the city, and the constant rotation of labor and its replacement by raw recruits from a backward peasant economy, cripple the development of bargaining power. Wages in South Africa famously lag behind both the rate of the growth of profit and of price inflation. To achieve and maintain this phenomenon, a nonsettled and constantly rotating labor force is essential. So is the poverty of the “Homeland.” Stripped of its young people, the village will never achieve its own prosperity, however many smart new bicycles and wristwatches glitter on its streets. It remains condemned to send its sons away on contract labor.

Obviously, the resemblance cannot be pushed too far. One year ago I attended a seminar at the University of Cape Town in which Professor Francis Wilson—who has himself worked as a migrant worker in an automobile works at Lyon—tried to explore the comparison. Wisely, he pointed to the extremes of the situation in South Africa, which have no parallel—at least in quantity and intensity—in Europe. Nine out of every ten African workers in Cape Town are migrants, 84 percent of all farm workers in the Republic, something like 99 percent of mining labor. Since 1948, 10.5 million people have been arrested and prosecuted under the Pass Laws, which bind workers to migrant status.

Some aspects of the migrant’s life, which in Europe are merely prevalent or present only in dilute form—the absence of wives and children, for example, or physical segregation by housing—are pushed to their limit and enforced by law and police action in South Africa. It is safe to assume that every African woman seen in Cape Town is an illegal immigrant: as night falls on Bloemfontein, a siren blows and every black man and woman downtown must take to their heels and be clear of the white area within five minutes. In contrast to that sort of thing, the lives of Turkish railwaymen in Cologne (who enjoy a special boxcar-mosque, shunted into alignment with Mecca) are a succession of privileges.

It is a half-truth, Professor Wilson said, to make a comparison between migrancy in Europe and in South Africa. But the half that can be compared is the half that matters. There is, in particular, another interesting similarity between conditions in Europe and in South Africa which needs exploration, and that is the changing role of the sovereign state, as separate political systems adapt themselves to the larger relationship of rich countries to poor countries.

It is fundamentally important to those modern industrial economies using foreign labor that there should be political separateness among countries within an unevenly developed continent. The existence of independent or quasi-independent states which provide migrant labor assists the smooth operation of the whole system. This is not merely because the definition of a worker as a “foreigner” is a conventional excuse for diminishing or restricting his civil rights at his place of work. More important, it enables the industrialized country to export to another government the responsibility for the social and political consequences of exploitation and of trade cycles as they affect employment. There is a single European industrial economy, whose capital is the “golden triangle” Rotterdam-Lyon-Milan, and in which Turkey, Portugal, and Algeria are functional components. But this unity magically vanishes when the Turkish, Portuguese, or Algerian worker loses his job: he returns home, and it is his own “independent” government that must find the resources to deal with his distress or his anger.


Compare the development of South Africa. At the beginning of the century, there emerged from the Boer War a loose union of provinces, each containing a very varied mixture of races. Today, the policy of “separate development” is producing a quite different political map: a pattern of so-called “Homelands” or Bantustans, each equipped with a growing measure of internal self-government. These black puppet states serve as suppliers of migrant labor to the white areas which have the best agricultural land and the industrial centers, areas which in effect constitute a single “Blankestan,” or white Homeland.

The urban black worker is forcibly assigned rights and roots in one of the Bantustans, where his legal family is obliged to live and to which he must return at regular intervals between contracts, even if he is in reality a second- or third-generation city dweller. In this light, the role of the Bantustan “states” and their political separateness becomes apparent. They are responsible for breeding, despatching, and, within their miserably small resources, succoring the industrial reserve army. The Transkei will be to the Witwatersrand as Turkey is to West Germany, KwaZulu as Algeria is to France. “Separate development” is not just the work of racist ideology and fanaticism, any more than it is a political concession to the human rights of Africans. It is the very base of the migrant-labor mechanism, and the condition of the political security of the white ruling group. The nation-state in Europe and in South Africa, supposedly so obsolete an institution in the age of transnational investment and the global corporation, is actually performing a final and quite indispensable service to capitalism.

Castles and Kosack are not concerned with issues as wide and as speculative as this. Their book, nonetheless, is now the standard work on immigrant workers in Western Europe, an enormously detailed and systematic compilation of fact enlivened by patient and convincing analysis. The authors do not try to present, except marginally, the situation of the immigrant-furnishing countries and their relationship with the industrialized states. As their title suggests, they are concerned with the impact of the immigrant foreign laborer upon West European societies and their class structures. They concentrate upon four industrialized countries: Switzerland, France, West Germany, and Britain.

Their selection of targets is interesting, and rather challenging. By including Britain, Castles and Kosack are bringing into their analysis an atypical society with a highly particular pattern of immigration. The British immigrants, largely from the West Indies and Pakistan, are not contract workers but settlers, who have brought a very large number of family dependents with them. Moreover, Britain itself remains an emigrant-furnishing country, so that the net population gain from immigration into Britain is not great. This contrasts strongly with the other three countries, where the general pattern is still one of short-term or contract migrancy by men without families (and it should be recalled that foreign labor immigration into Britain has virtually been ended by successive governments over the last ten years, whereas it continues without more than corrective interference across the English Channel).

“Labor migration is a form of development aid given by poor countries to rich countries.” Castles and Kosack begin with this hypothesis, and it seems to me that they demonstrate its truth with finality. It is not a simple argument. To describe the scale of immigration—Switzerland is the extreme example, where no less than 31 percent of the population of the Geneva canton are foreigners, and only a tenth of those leaving Swiss schools enter unskilled or semi-skilled employment—is not enough. Neither is it conclusive to show that the foreigners remain at the bottom of the heap, that for instance only 8 percent of foreign workers in West Germany have non-manual jobs and only 7 percent of foreign men in 1968 were under any form of vocational training. The guts of the proposition are to be found in a more complex controversy, to which Castles and Kosack give much attention: whether migrancy depresses or restrains wage levels, and whether the use of mass immigrant labor is inflationary or deflationary.

Conceding the obvious—that working abroad brings the migrant worker a net gain in income in most cases—the authors conclude that while immigration has not pushed general wage levels down, it slows their rate of increase (though possibly not in Britain). It has also reversed a postwar tendency for wage differentials to narrow, and has done so almost entirely to the benefit of “indigenous” workers.

In the second case, Castles and Kosack argue that on balance the use of immigrant labor has increased productivity, by offsetting the tendency of the secondary (industrial) labor force to decline in relative numbers, by solving bottlenecks in labor supply and reviving shift work, and by keeping up the rate of profit. Swiss economists, especially, have maintained that immigrant labor becomes an inflationary factor as foreign workers bring in families and raise their own purchasing power. Other estimates suggest that it takes six years for a foreign worker to produce value to balance the excess demand he creates through the costs of his own needs and the provision of productive equipment for him. Relying largely on the pioneering work of Charles Kindleberger,1 the first serious student of the importance of labor migration in the postwar European boom, the authors argue that these conclusions are generally untrue. Though the huge scale of Switzerland’s import of labor did exceptionally lead to inflationary pressure after a time, the effects of creating growth and braking the increase of wages, coupled with the very low capital investment (as in special housing) undertaken for the immigrants, worked the other way.

Among the separate chapters on training, housing, education of immigrant children, and discrimination, Castles and Kosack give much attention to the role of immigrant workers in labor struggles. They appreciate the dilemma of existing trade unions, torn between protecting their own “indigenous” members against dilution and maintaining the principles of internationalism, and the European labor confederations emerge from this book with a substantial amount of credit (the authors make exception for the Swiss SGB confederation, and its disgraceful alliances with the extreme right against foreigners). Unions, nonetheless, have been reluctant to get involved in disputes in which immigrant members have been driven into wildcat strike action, even though examples of immigrants acting as strike-breaking labor—as European trade unionists expected them to—are practically nonexistent.

Castles and Kosack oppose proposals to establish separate trade unions for immigrants. They reject outright any suggestion that immigrants form a distinct class, but find that they do form a distinct “stratum” within the working class, and that this distinction has held back wages, has given “indigenous” workers a false idea of their own bargaining power, and lessened the unity of labor in the face of capital. On this ominous note, their book ends.

This is a solid, definitive, combative work of socialist research, which does not venture far into new hypotheses. What is needed now, as the world-wide significance of migrancy in the relationship of continental economies to nation-states begins to emerge, is further study, built upon and enriched by the speculations and perceptions of Francis Wilson,2 John Berger, and others who will follow them. Perhaps it is the turn of labor studies to dominate the battlefield of social theory.

This Issue

February 5, 1976