Your “5- EUR-per-hour-plumber”. Or the unknown mother who leaves behind her kids 2.000 kilometers away, to take care of your elder. Or your “Shawarma boy”. You know that nothing would function in the West, without the constant and cheap supply of humans from the East.
During the Berliner Gazette 2021 conference “Black Box East”, ten people with different backgrounds, all from the East, chose to unpack how Eastern Europe is shouldering the West – looking at new trends as well as at continuities. Their professional backgrounds: art, journalism, academia, activism and in-between. Thus the gathered perspectives varied: from a historian point of view to the activist organiser.
Some were interested in the knowledge on poverty, other in the past knowledge about sharing scarce resources. Some focus on the supply chains from China to Europe. Other in the digital work, either the geographic spread or the varieties of such work, like the content cleaning and moderation of digital platforms.
Each participant explored what aspect from the East could be important and why. A lot of focus is on the digital gig workers who contribute behind the screen to the hype of AI. Focus was also put on the inequalities in the production of social knowledge and the grant-dependent gig work in knowledge production in general.
A list of ideas and topics has emerged, with more ideas flowing. Criminalization of poverty. East and South as margins. What makes labor precarious? Hidden resources of the past. Continuities between generations of migrant workers. Knowledge fraudsters.
At some point the flowing of ideas had to stop. Nobody would follow up such ideas with an investment into a Hollywood production to tell the story of how the East is supporting the West.
So it was for the group to do just that – to show how such a movie would look like. A script was produced to showcase both labor as well as structure perspectives. The vehicle to circulate such knowledge ? A bus.
This script for an audio session that is focused on precarious laborers lives on an old bus that is going from Eastern Europe towards somewhere in the West.
All the characters are fictional but are informed by our collective histories and knowledge of labor migrations: personal, family, collective as well as by our respective field works. The setting of the bus, various characters and the approaching border, is a vignette from Rutvica Andrijasevic’s fieldwork experience that we adopted and re-imagined here.
- Sanja (20), travelling to a summer job at the restaurant at the Croatian island of Krk. / RENA
- Milica (about 30), based in Serbia, IT job through internet platform, is traveling to her job appointment in Stockholm. / DUNJA
- Slavko (67) former gastarbajter who worked in Vienna during Yugoslav time. / STEFAN
- Alina (52), from Romania. Works as a carer in Italy. Her husband used to worked in Germany in construction / ADELA
- Dirk (late 20s), from Germany. Works as a digital nomad in Tiblisi. / HOLGER
- Volodya (early 30s), from Ukraine. Previously worked in an electronics factory in Slovakia, now a Bolt driver in Germany. / RUTVICA
An old bus from the west. Now recycled by a private bus company in the Balkans to serve long-haul cross-border routes.
On the bus
So, Somewhere on a bus, in between Tbilisi and Stockholm, on a random summer day in 2021.
Conversation 1: Sanja, Milica, Slavko
Slavko: Where are you going, Milica?
Milica: I have an IT job offer in Stockholm. My sister is already working there.
Slavko: You plan to leave Serbia? I worked 15 years in Vienna, in the 70ies, 80ies. Not bad. I have an Austrian pension now. But I am not that kind of person who can sit at home and do nothing. I have my own company now, in Slovenia.
Milica: Actually my job wasn’t bad, nice salary. I have worked as web developer through this portal. The only thing was that I needed to work late during the night, because of the time difference with Canada.
Slavko: So why to go to Stockholm? it is cold up there.
Milica: They changed the rules. I need now to pay so much taxes back to the state. I will spend more than half of my earnings on taxes in the future. Until now nobody working on the internet was taking care about this, really.
Slavko: You work through the internet ?
Milica: Yes. More than 100.000 people work on such jobs in Serbia at the moment. I just bought a flat in Belgrade. Now I cannot pay back my loan with this salary.
[Sanja rushes in]
Sanja: Oh no, I think I lost my phone! Have you seen it somewhere? I can’t find it anywhere… I must have left it at that gas station while I was buying coffee… I have to get it back! Driver, can we please go back?
[driver mumbles something]
Milica: No way, it would take us an hour to go back and forth. And I have a flight from Zagreb to Stockholm in 4 hours to get to this job interview. I cannot waste time for phone searching in some gas station in Serbia. You should have been more careful!
Sanja: You are so egoistic, I need it! Everything is on my phone, all the contact details, everything. I need my phone to get to my job in Croatia. I’m supposed to start waitressing tomorrow on Krk! My boss will kill me!
Milica: Well you’re not the only one who has to work!
Sanja: Well maybe your technology will one day replace my job!
Slavko: Sanja, don’t worry, there will be other phones. You’re traveling to the seaside, don’t stress yourself so much! And the job in Croatia doesn’t pay that much anyway. How much are you going to earn, 700 euros? For standing on your feet 12 hours jumping around the rich British? You know what you should do? You should go to Germany instead! It’s much better money! I have this company in Slovenia where I could register you and then you can go to work in Germany, pick asparagus, a nutritious vegetable. I’ll pay you 10 euros per hour and I can handle all of the paperwork for you!
Sanja: Asparagus….I have actually been researching asparagus farming for the last five years for my PhD. I had to stop after the university was restructured, our department was downsized, and there were no more scholarships. But I still need to earn money from somewhere and pay my rent. Did you know that the Nazis stopped planting asparagus because they thought it was not rich enough in calories? (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-asparagus-idUKBRE84L0UP20120522) But nowadays people in Germany seem to love it, I’ve heard about it. I don’t know, it might be good to actually collect these asparagus in the field. Especially having researched so much about their history. But what about my phone? I really need it! We have to go back.
Milica: While you were talking, have you noticed, we were driving for 10 more minutes further from your phone. Now it makes totally no sense to turn back. There’s no chance I’ll catch my plane if we go back.
Slavko: Whom does your job help anyway, Milica? These new generations are slaves to the technology…phones, computers, whatever.
Conversation 2: Volodya, Dirk, Alina
Alina: Let’s turn back. I feel sorry for the poor girl. My daughter is about the same age as her and you [Dirk] and I know how important the mobile phones are to you young people. She is always on her phone, day and night. My daughter is studying at the University of Bucharest. Are you also a student, dear?
Dirk: No, I finished my studies in Berlin. Right now I am working as a web designer in Tbilisi and I am traveling home.
Alina: Why are you not working in Germany? My husband used to work there and liked it.
Dirk: What did he do?
Alina: Construction work. Hard but well paid! He also worked together with other men from our town – his brother and two neighbors – he wasn’t lonely like me. Can you believe they learned to cook for themselves, even sarmale!
Dirk: So what happened? Why is he no longer in Germany?
Alina: He fell, poor thing. He had a back injury and returned to Romania. No construction work for him any more. He looked into a meat-packing job that a Serbian friend sent him, but that’s not for him. Hours are too long and he would have to stand at the packing line non-stop.
He is too frail for that. So it’s up to me to make money now. I am taking care of an old lady in Italy. She is sweet but her dogs are the devils. See how mean they are?
Dirk: I also wanted to adopt a dog in Tbilisi but I didn’t know how long I would be there. My work comes and goes. I work for different companies through internet.
Alina: I heard that internet jobs are good and there is plenty of those.
Dirk: It’s no longer that way. Covid made competition tougher. Now there are many more workers online. I can’t live off the money I earn anymore, so I am going back to Germany. I am after a stable job. I don’t like the idea of working from 9 to 5 but the money is good. I got a job interview in 2 days. Shit, I am soooo nervous!
Volodya: How much will you make?
Dirk: They told me its 4.000 EUR before taxes plus car allowance.
Volodya: Wow! You will get a car allowance?! Will you buy or lease a car?
Dirk: I don’t know yet. Did not think about it.
Volodya: You can’t live without a car! How will you get around otherwise? I know a guy in Dortmund. He helped me with my Golf 4.
Dirk: I don’t know much about cars. I am better at computers. Is that a good car?
Volodya: Yeah! Volkswagen is the best!! I need a reliable German car as I work as a Bolt driver.
Dirk: How is that? I heard driver jobs are tough – not enough money and lots of stress.
Volodya: I really like it, it’s way better than my previous job. I used to work on the assembly line in Slovakia putting together computers. That laptop that you are using right now: its one of those we put together in the factory in Slovakia.
Dirk: That is such skilled work!
Volodya: No, its not. Its a screwdriver job. We just put components together. I had to stand for 10-12 hours, sitting down was not allowed. Imagine how swollen my legs were at the end of each shift. So much work for so little money. Sometimes I made 550 EUR a month, sometimes only 350 EUR if there were no orders. Plus it was in the middle of nowhere. I had to walk across the field to get to the factory.
Dirk: No way! That’s where you worked? There is nothing there.
[The Bus driver informs the passengers that in ten minutes we will arrive at the border and asks them to prepare the passports.]
Volodya: And that was not the worse bit. It’s where I lived that was even worse. The dorm I was in was full of bed-bugs and showers had no hot water. I had to stand in line for the showers too. There were 4 showers only for 80 of us. Imagine that in winter! All in all, work was shit but at least I got EU work papers and now I am in Germany.
Dirk: Why do you like being a taxi driver so much? Internet is full of stories about unhappy drivers.
Volodya: I am not a taxi driver. I am my own boss now. Before on the assembly line, the supervisor was always standing right next to me checking my work. Now at least I can decide on my own hours. Nobody comes to wake me up in the middle of the night because they need to assemble 300 more computers before 8am.
Alina: Boys, boys…. All you talk about is work. How will you ever start your own families if you travel this much and work all the time? When I was young ….
[Dirk and Volodya both look at each other, then look at their phones and start texting away pretending to be very busy]
[The bus starts to make strange sounds. It slows down and finally stops.]
Volodya: What’s going on?
[The driver leaves the bus. Everybody is looking out the window, speculating about what happened. After some time the driver comes back to the bus]
Bus driver: It’s the engine. It totally broke down. We will not be able to continue. The only thing we can do is to try to push the bus over the border.
Everybody leaves the bus. Slowly they are pushing the bus in the direction of the border
Slavko’s message: Ti stari avtobusi so odpadek. Ne vozijo. Prosim, pridite in me poberite na meji? (These old buses are rubbish. They don’t run. Please come and pick me up at the border?)
Milica’s message: Ceco, ja sam u potpunoj panici. Strasno kasnimo. Sada i neki problemi sa autobusom. Izgubit cu let i posao. Pomozi molim te. (Sis, I am so worried. We are so terribly late. Now we got some problems with the bus engine too. I will miss my flight and the job. Please help)
Alina’s message: Zice soferul ca s-a stricat motorul. Trebuie sa coboram sa impingem la autobuz. Te sun eu cand ajung, te pupa mama (The driver says the engine broke down. We have to get off and push the bus. I’ll call you when I arrive, kisses.)
Dirk’s message: Totalschaden. Müssen schieben (Engine damage. We have to push!)
Volodya’s message: Автобус зламався. Нам потрібно штовхати. (The bus is broken. We need to push. )
The ‘Shouldering the West’ workshop consisted of: Ivana Dražić, Adriana Homolova, Holger Kral, Katarina Kušić, Zoran Pantelic, Christin Stühlen and Mihajlo Vujasin.
This project was conceived at the Berliner Gazette’s annual conference 2021 entitled BLACK BOX EAST.
All text and images: Creative Commons License 4.0 (CC-BY 4.0).