[Image: According to the Financial Times, this is the former prison ship that houses foreign workers employed at Lindsey Refinery, at Grimsby docks.]
In the last few weeks fierce demonstrations and strikes have erupted across Britain over the issue of foreign labor. “Some 6,000 workers across over 20 construction sites at power stations and oil refineries took unofficial action as part of the dispute” from sites all across England, Scotland and Wales.
This all seems to have ignited around some of the dealings at the Kent power station, which – as far as I can tell – has been subcontracting major labor contracts to firms who use foreign laborers exclusively, which of course has set off a firestorm over cheap labor moving in on the territory of the local workforce.
Tough times, tough economies, the borders of desperate capitalism bursting wide open at the seams.
Now, admittedly I know nothing about this situation. There are apparently a number of firms who have been granted contracts that UK labor unions claim have been dolling out work to non-British citizens: from Polish and Lithuanian construction workers to Italian and Portuguese, primarily.
The Socialist Worker made this comment: “Behind the rash of strikes in the construction industry lies a concerted attempt by multinational construction companies to tear up hard-won agreements covering the safety, wages and conditions on multi-million pound sites.” In the same article they point to the Financial Times who reported "building bosses admitting to using the subcontracting system to try and hold down militancy in the industry.” The real reason, Socialist Worker says groups of workers are being shipped in is to control the subcontracting system.
It’s not a surprise, nor is it even remotely unfathomable.
But, labor politics aside, what caught my attention in all of this was the vessel one company has used to bring over Italian laborers and house them as well, moored on the docks for the duration of their contract.
According to this article, it is quite literally an old prison barge that’s been converted into dismally cheap shelter. Not only is the interior what you mght expect of an old prison ship, but “Italian workers living there claimed they could not leave it without being attacked by angry locals.” They are being vanned in to the sites for their protection.
Wow. Not only is it literally and functionally an old prison ship but by virtue of the violence looming on the outside of those walls they are even all the more confined there.
[I haven’t been able to dig up any interesting info on this thing, I'm still searching though. If anyone out there has some scoop on this particular vessel, or any similar such scenarios, please contact me. I would appreciate it greatly!]
Some interesting comments appeared at the bottom of this link which seem too important in my own ignorance not to mention. Stevie Robbo, from Manchester writes:
“That’s one of the reasons how it’s cheaper to employ foreign workers. By NAECI (National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry) agreement, which governs wages on these sites, all employees are paid a set hourly rate for craftsmen, labourers etc have another predetermined rate of pay.
British workers would get an accommodation allowance of approx £200 to cover accommodation, food etc. plus travel expenses.
The employers house these workers in cheap accommodations, saving at least 50% and usually drive them over in coaches or vans, again saving on individual travel costs.
No British worker would accept living in these conditions, nor should they, but these immigrant workers are so desperate for the work that they accept this.
Typically, from my own personal experience working on construction sites, immigrant workers will also accept a lower standard of safety at work. I have seen them traveling around site in the backs of vans, no seats, laden with tools and construction materials etc., in flagrant breach of health and safety regulations.”
While UK laborers bark about equal opportunity and contract fairness (and perhaps spew some racist vitriol in the process) there is the greater undercurrent of geo-economic exploitation here bobbing spaces of injustice on the surface. Particularly eerie to me in this picture is the spatial intermixing of incarceration and migrant labor, and how architecturally speaking the surplus of global capital's industrial bodies are rounded up at sea inside the old remains of an overcrowded penal system, once oceanic jails now filled with a new kind of transient inmate, a new kind of quasi-prison labor force.
Is it the prison industrial-complex and the floating populations of globalization's labor excess passing the baton in some sort of spatial relay? -- the recycling of old prison architecture for the expansion of labor marketplace exploitation?
If anything, the barges give these corporations the flexibility now to scoop up hundreds or even thousands of desperate workers like these stranded in an Italian warehouse, and provide a bare bones option for shipping and housing them to and from construction sites all over -- like the cargo industry of human labor.
[Image: Warehouse a home for Italy's migrants, BBC.]
They're floating labor camps, seabound slums, theoretically tolerable migrant housing “converted” out of old prison barges.
But, one can only wonder, what “converted” actually means here, and what defines "tolerable." By the sounds of it, perhaps a few locks have been taken off the doors, a few bars removed from the cabin (cell) windows, but essentially, from what I can tell, the rest is what you might still imagine.
All of which naturally conjures wretched images of slave ships from the colonial era swarming the coasts of the frontier, and begs some very basic questions here: what are the regulations around reusing or “converting” prison barges into suitable housing? What are the health standards that apply to such floating migrant camps? What constitutes appropriate compensation for their work? Are they protected by any certain safety guarantees? Is there any political agency to act on their behalf? How are these labor barges governed internationally if they operate as a sea-based entity, perhaps domiciled outside the boundaries of formal juridical sovereignty? I mean, I don't know. What is the oversight for this type of practice, if any?
Is this the abhorrent future of global labor? Or, more accurately, is this the abhorrent contemporary? Global contracting firms profitting off the benefits of indefinite prison barge leases, sailing to wherever there is a demand to undercut the subcontracting labor markets with cheap resource that technically belongs to no country but rather now to a multinational company, where international law is perhaps somehow circumvented by floatillas of sublegal worker camps perpetually cruising beyond the horizons of legal scrutiny?
Of course, I am utterly unschooled on labor law, so, you'll have to bare with my ignorance – maybe there is an apparatus of protection that applies to these workers once they set foot on shore, but if the nomadic fortress ever decided to overtly get into the business of supplying migrant labor coupled with its venture in refugee interdiction and naval deportation, then obviously the ground work has already been firmly laid.