Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 18th, 2010

Jurgis Rudkus, conquering hero. (click to enlarge)

As the European Broadcast Union determines whether “Eastern European Funk,” in suggesting inequality between eastern and western Europeans, suffers from having political content, Lietuvos Rytas yesterday published an article by Andrius Užkalnis that argues a similar point of inequality, but from the entirely opposite direction.

Užkalnis, the most famous Lithuanian living in England now that John Gielgud is dead, takes as the occasion for his perplexing piece the news in England that Forza, a major meat supplier for supermarket chain Asda, recently looked to hire workers but insisted that the workers be fluent in Polish. At first, I imagined (despite the headline of the piece) that I was about to read some tales of some serious Jungle-style exploitation of foreign workers in the meat packing industry. I was wrong to expect that. Why is it, Užkalnis asks instead, that Lithuanians (and Poles) manage to always find work in the UK, while the English complain about unemployment?

The English, Užkalnis asserts, citing anecdotal evidence gleaned through a few pints at a hoteliers’ convention, are more inclined to hire foreigners than local English. They prefer the Eastern European job ethic, they admit behind closed doors, in comparison to the English one, ravaged by three generations of government-assisted sloth. Užkalnis even defines a “congenitally unemployed” Englishman who, having never seen anyone around him work a steady job, has no clue how to behave at work, himself. ((It’s interesting, of course, that the “congenitally unemployable” class of person was thought to exist in the Soviet Union. By eradicating the free market and private enterprise, our anti-communist indoctrination explained, the USSR had generated generations of permanently crippled workers with no initiative or drive, eager to wait for their government handouts and no more. How the Lithuanians and Poles got so lucky to escape this Lamarckian spiral while the English could not is a bit beyond me.))

In any case, Užkalnis ups the ante for his piece, indicting Western Europe as a whole, lulled into such decadent laziness by the hardworking Americans who funded the Marshall Plan that it can’t even build up the energy to procreate. I’ve heard many explanations for ZPG in my day, but sloth was never one of them. Finally–and you knew where this was going as soon as I used the words “decadent” and “sloth”–he compares Western Europe to Rome. “We Eastern Europeans are the new barbarians,” Užkalnis proclaims, “armed not with weapons, but with uninsured autos and close-cropped hair.” He concludes by asking his readers to be proud of their position in this storming of the gates.

Considering the British history of waves of people who came from across the water, conquered the locals, then stayed and integrated/inflicted their culture with/upon what was already on the ground, there’s something to be said here.

But the reliance on anecdotal evidence and essentializing moves (both those made by Užkalnis himself and recreated uncritically when asserted by others) notwithstanding, there’s one short paragraph over halfway through the Lietuvos Rytas article that troubles me quite a bit. It is, unfortunately, the fulcrum of the argument:

Dar kartą pabrėšiu: užsieniečius čia samdo ne todėl, kad jie pigiau kainuoja. Jiems dažniausiai moka tiek pat, kiek ir vietiniams. Bet vietiniai nebetinka.

I’ll underscore this again [presumably from other articles]: foreigners are not hired [in England] because they are paid less. Most of the time, they earn as much as the locals do. But the locals are no longer a good fit.

Now, I have never been involved in hiring decisions (thank god). Nor have I ever lived in England (thank god). But this sentence goes against everything I have ever heard about migrant labor, either in Europe or in the US. No one would ever make the claim in the US that migrants get the jobs “because they work harder.” People would not even assert that in private. The whole point of migrant labor is that one can pay less for it, both in terms of the workers’ take-home and, often, in terms of tax responsiblity to the government.

Furthermore, the migrant labor population has a reputation for docility: the unskilled nature of the work that highlights the precarity of employment, combined with fear of deportation (which is not applicable in this case, necessarily), further enhanced by ignorance of workers’ rights, topped by issues of communication make an intensely potent cocktail of straight-up old-timey exploitation. In fact, even if it’s empirically demonstrable that Poles make better meat-packers than the English, one can’t dismiss the role of the precarity of the Poles’ position in England in incentivizing the worker. Consider, again, the example from The Jungle, where paranoia over termination causes workers to quite literally work themselves to death. ((Despite the efforts by Užkalnis to bring into his “barbarians at the gate” fold Lithuanian professionals as well as unskilled laborers, I somehow suspect that as compensation grows, disparities in ethic begin to disappear. It’s notable that Užkalnis includes not a single white-collar gig in his tales of exasperation with lazy English.))

Sure, sure. England in 2010 is not the US in 1906. Or, well, even the US in 2010, with its own acute migrant labor issues. And, after all, I already admitted above to not being on the ground regarding English employment. But though Užkalnis draws heavily from the Daily Mail article about the situation at Forza, he completely ignores much of the first quarter of journalist Nick Craven’s piece.

Before his article degenerates into the crypto-xenophobia that one expects in a conservative rag like the Daily Mail, Craven makes reference to a recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK on, wait for it, “mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers” in, wait for it, the meat and poultry industry. I won’t even quote the press release on the report, since Craven makes the point clearly in his own article:

But Forza – a major supplier of Asda supermarkets – was last night accused of anti-British discrimination because of the adverts, which came after an official report detailed how unscrupulous employers prefer to hire migrants because they are cheap and less inclined to answer back…

Forza’s advertisement came as the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report condemned the ‘mistreatment and exploitation’ of foreign workers, who are often too afraid to raise concerns for fear of being sacked.

The commission said it uncovered ‘widespread evidence’ of physical and verbal abuse and lack of proper health and safety protection, while workers often have little knowledge of their rights.

It is also reported that British workers had spoken of difficulty in registering with employment agencies that supply mainly East European workers.

Netikėk lengvu uždarbiu užsienyje.

This report, which sounds like it describes 1906 Chicago after all, goes completely unremarked in Užkalnis’s retelling of the tale for the Lithuanian audience of Lietuvos Rytas. Instead, again, “[užsieniečiams] dažniausiai moka tiek pat, kiek ir vietiniams.” I don’t get it.

Certainly, there’s a middle ground to be struck between “streets paved of gold” and “Tave parduos kaip lėlę.” but the tack Užkalnis takes, even if true in general, is specifically not true in the particular case that gives cause to his writing the article in the first place: why would Forza want to hire only Poles? The government says it’s because they can be easily exploited. Užkalnis, on the other hand, suggests it’s because English make such terrible workers that perhaps Forza has just had it with their uselessness. I know whom I trust here, bestseller or no.

In “Eastern European Funk,” Jurgis Didžiulis makes a case for taking a perverse (in the many senses of the word) pride in the role of exploited. It’s a bit bitter, a bit vengeful, but it’s also mixed with enough sugar and smile to give the situation the complex texture that it demands. In his piece for Lietuvos Rytas, however, Užkalnis has managed to flatten this texture in a bewildering way.

And so while the larger, demographic thrust of the article I see with no difficulty (and I buy it, in much the same way that I respond with a big “so?” when Lithuanians complain to me about Ukranians getting “all the jobs” in Lithuania), I can’t imagine the meat-packing industry ever creating a lemonade quite as sweet as the one Užkalnis is peddling.

[Originally posted, with proper formatting, to Lithchat]

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