Reflections on film screening 'Living Labour'

On the 13th of May 2024 the Focus Area on Migration and Societal Change organized a film screening called ‘Living Labour’ in the Louis Hartlooper Complex in Utrecht. This documentary is made by Renzo Sgolacchia (2023) and provides a glimpse into the daily lives of Polish, Spanish, Roma and other labour migrants in the Netherlands. The room was full with a mixed audience ranging from students, migration scholars, professionals from the field to interested inhabitants from Utrecht. The film screening coincided with project meetings of two large European research projects on labour migration: VISION and I-CLAIM. After the screening a panel discussion was organized with the filmmaker as well as two migration researchers and a practitioner working on labour exploitation in the Netherlands.

The film 'Living Labour' shows the lives of migrant workers in the Netherlands. It starts with beautiful shots of nature, quietness, sounds of birds and somebody practicing yoga. Soon we learn however that this quiet forest is surrounded by highways and logistic boxes. In this seemingly idyllic forest, migrant workers live in a trailer park, owned and controlled by their employer, making people dependent on them for both housing and work. The calmness in the bungalow camp where migrant workers stay also represents isolation from the rest of Dutch society, as well as their family members abroad.

Contrasting this isolating calmness, is the story of Jarek, a migrant worker who has become homeless and now sleeps in empty buildings in Rotterdam. Through his story we learn that housing is key for migrant workers. For many it is the harsh reality if they loose their job they loose their house. We also learn that he prefers to live on the streets in the city, close to services, than being stuck away in a prefab home in between the woods and the highway.

The film also portrays a powerful tension between the calmness of the trailer park with the hard work and long hours under poor conditions these workers experience. For example, a female worker who also lives on the trailer park explains how she started working for Jumbo in the freezer. She explains it was so cold and damp that she got sick all the time. But, when you are sick you don’t get paid. This is another poignant element of the precarity many migrant workers find themselves in.

The film gives a face and a voice to the faceless and voiceless migrant workers working in the background of our society. Filmed with a dreamlike calmness, it shows how they wait in forgotten places on ungodly hours, and how they perform invisible labour that actually makes the economy run. Even when the salaries are higher than the ones in Poland, Bulgaria or Romania, the wages are (below) minimum for Dutch standards and rent is deducted from their salary by the employer. As suggested with the title of living labour, their precarious conditions are linked to capitalism. In a touching scene, one Spanish worker is calling with a friend to talk about his dire situation. “You are a slave. You should quit”, his friend answers. The worker remains quiet, shocked by the realization. People know they are exploited, but often keep on working, hoping to escape this system as soon as they can but often getting stuck in it whilst trying.  

During the panel discussion Kyoko Shinozaki from Paris Lodron University of Salzburg addressed the difference between cross border mobility and migration and the politics of mobility behind these categorizations. Who is classified as a migrant worker and why? We also explored where workers can go for support and why it is so difficult for them to unionize. Anna Ensing from Fairwork shared her experiences working with migrant workers in the Netherlands. Especially the ones with no documents are precarious and for them it is more complicated to get support.

Carolien Lubberhuizen from Utrecht University conducts fieldwork with agricultural workers in the Netherlands and Belgium. She explained how the stories from the documentary were familiar to her. Inspired by the practices of homemaking and struggles of the protagonists of the film, as well as her own research participants, she reflected on the aspirations of migrant workers, of which this labour is a sometimes small, but crucial part. The documentary really raises the question of how we want to address the housing challenge for migrant workers in ways that keep these hopes and dreams alive.