A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe
Immigrant Workers and Class Structure in Western Europe
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.