The Good Worker

Published 1 October 2013 / By Dace Dzenovska

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Images: Ricardo Hernández Santiago, independent artist, Oxford

In the early 1990s, I went to visit a friend in Ireland. I recall crossing the Irish border proudly with a newly acquired Latvian passport in hand. The Soviet Union had recently collapsed, and many people had learned that within the vast region commonly referred to simply as Russia there were culturally distinct peoples with aspirations for political self-determination.

I remember thinking that the Irish were in solidarity with the Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and other former Soviets. This sentiment surely emerged more from my then uncritical desire to be part of a collective historical subject—the Latvian nation, rather than from anything that the border guard may have said or done during my border crossing. I was not the only one who felt that way. Many Latvians the world over, both those who had lived in Soviet Latvia and those who had spent their lives in the West working towards Latvian independence, thought that this was indeed the end of history, the ultimate victory of liberalism (or nationalism, for some) over socialism, and the return of Latvia to its proper place in the international order of things.

good worker 1In 2010, when I crossed the Irish border again to attend an anthropology conference, now with a passport that was both Latvian and European, I experienced the border differently. The sense of belonging to a nation equal among nations had been transformed, because by then I had acquired critical awareness of the power relations and racializing hierarchies through which Latvia and Latvians were both constituted as historical subjects and integrated into the international order of things. Moreover, many Latvians and other former socialist subjects had emigrated to Ireland and the United Kingdom to work in farms, factories, and hotels. Latvians ironically referred to themselves as the free nation of mushroom pickers. While the work conditions were often less than desirable, the reputation of Latvians, like that of many other migrant workers, was that they worked hard.[1] When during an intermission of a theatre show in Dublin I struck up a conversation with an elderly Irish gentlemen and told him I was from Latvia, he noted: “Good workers those Latvians are, good workers.

I understood, of course, that he meant to say something positive, something that suggested he was sympathetic to the Latvians who had come to Ireland to work. Nevertheless, the designation of the “good worker” carved out a particular place for Latvians in the European present.

When I moved to Oxford in 2012 to undertake research on the Latvian state’s diaspora politics, I once again encountered the good worker. A new acquaintance told me about a Latvian couple with two teenage children who lived on their street. Having gone to a Sunday brunch in a nearby restaurant, they discovered that one of the children worked in the restaurant. “She worked really hard,” said my new friend. The figure of the good worker appeared not only in conversations with sympathetic acquaintances, but also in the media. A Boston businessman, interviewed by BBC Radio in the midst of the pre-election hype about Eastern European benefit scroungers, emphasized that Eastern Europeans were good workers, that they worked harder than the local population, that they continued working in the rain while locals packed up and went home. More recently, the world-famous British chef Jamie Oliver made a controversial statement that the Brits do not know how to work anymore. He said that mothers of 23-year old British boys call him and complain that their sons are tired on a 48-hour week: “On a 48-hour-week! Are you having a laugh?”[2] He said his business could not go on if it were not for the good European workers.

good worker 2Many Eastern Europeans I encounter in the United Kingdom recognize themselves in the figure of the good worker. They too think that they work harder and better than their British counterparts, both those British who think of themselves as “indigenous” and the racialized citizens and non-citizens addressed by the UKBA’s “go home” van, also known as the racist van.[3] For example, a Latvian man in Boston told me that in his factory it was the Eastern Europeans who always got the hard and unpleasant tasks, whereas their British counterparts could choose what they wanted to do, as well as when to take a smoke break. On another occasion, I had hired the services of a small moving company to help me move house in Oxford. When we were done, I was surprised to find out that the job was finished much faster than I thought it would be. Satisfied with my appreciation of their efficiency, the leader of the two-men team turned to me and said: “That’s because it’s a Hungarian job.”

While there are cases of discrimination at the work place, many of the “good workers” think that this is the deal you get when you leave your home to work elsewhere. Many take pride in being designated as good workers. They do not think that migrants’ rights politics have much to do with them. They pass both the racist van and those who protest it on their way to work and rarely stop to think whether this has anything to do with them either in their capacity as European Union citizens, migrant workers, or both. And then one day, European Union citizens, the ones who think they belong to a nation equal among nations, only this time Lithuanian, learn that a leading British newspaper has depicted them in a “racist and xenophobic manner.”[4] Namely, The Independent has published a cartoon depicting “four asphyxiated Lithuanian men” packaged in a Tesco tray stamped with the label “Migrant workers. Cheap labour value pack. Product of Eastern Europe” and accompanied by a caption “Every Lithuanian helps.”[5]

For the European Union citizen from Lithuania, this cartoon suggests that Lithuanians are collectively placed in the category of racialized migrants. Indeed, critique of Tesco notwithstanding, the images are quite graphic, and one wonders whether certain groups can be depicted this way while others cannot. As one Lithuanian said to me: “Think about it. What if it were other workers, like South Asians, depicted in this way? Would not people think this is racist? If somebody is discriminated or exploited, there are mechanisms in place for dealing with it. But to depict Lithuanians in this manner is racist.”

The Lithuanian Ambassador wrote an open letter to the Editor of The Independent. Apparently, many people, academics, intellectuals and businessmen, had written to the Embassy expressing their outrage about the “racist and xenophobic” depiction of Lithuanians. The Independent apologized. At the same time, my politically attuned academic colleagues of Eastern European background did not see the cartoon in that way. Rather, they saw it is as a critique of Tesco’s employment policies and the Ambassador’s reaction as an attempt to secure Lithuanians the proper place in the European order of things, which was one of a nation equal among nations rather than of migrant workers at a British supermarket. And yet, as Aiste Saulyte pointed out in her article in The Lithuanian Tribune: “The truth is, quite a number of Lithuanians are the cheap labour shown in the caricature. This is the sad truth, but surely not a fault of The Independent, rather the economic situation of our motherland, and capitalist exploitation affecting migrant workers.”[6]

Lithuanians, like other Eastern Europeans, are European Union citizens who leave migrant footprints. And yet, racialized hierarchies that organize the European political landscape present a challenge to a politics of solidarity against exploitation at workplace that could cut across such categories as citizen, migrant, or worker.[7]

The politics of the new Europeans tend to be oriented towards carving out a proper place for themselves in the European order of things rather than questioning the order of things. The good worker passes another racist van, shakes her head and thinks: “They really should go home. This is Europe.” Her British counterpart thinks in response: “We do not want to be in Europe. We want [Eastern] Europe to go home.” The good worker is an ambiguous figure. It’s meant well, I am sure, but, as Marx reminded a long time ago, "the road to hell …good worker 3

[1] Here I am referring to Latvians as a civic rather than ethnic category.

[7] See Bridget Anderson’s book “Us and them: The dangerous politics of immigration” (Oxford University Press, 2013).