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The rise and fall of the Albanian migrant working force

 71st anniversary of the Party of Labor of Albania
71st anniversary of the Party of Labor of Albania

This article is published in collaboration with the Serbo-Croatian online web portal Bilten.Org

One of the main characteristics of Albania’s post-socialist history has been the big wave of migration to the West that has been undertaken by the workforce, especially to Greece and Italy where most Albanian migrants have worked for more than two decades. This large-scale emigration has been triggered not only by the economic and political collapse of the really existing socialist formation, but also by the neoliberal process of vast privatizations and deindustrialization. Although official data are uncertain, it is widely believed that at least one-third of the Albanian workforce has begun working abroad.

Before the explosion of the current capitalist crisis – whose effects are most clearly felt in Greece, which, not accidently, is the country that has hosted the majority of the Albanian migrant workforce – migration, mostly illegal, to Greece and Italy has been a ligne de fuite from the vast unemployment in Albania. For a country whose real percentage of unemployment in the nineties stood at around 35-40%, remittances coming from migrant earnings have been one of the major factors in stabilizing the social situation. Unemployed relatives, pensioners or sick parents etc. have benefited from the informal social safety net provided from this work. This seemingly paradoxical situation, in which people were working abroad but a monthly percentage of their earnings were being spent home, has had not only cultural effects – such as the strengthening of family or sometimes clan relationships, otherwise put into crisis by the socialist industrialization process – but also economic ones. The part of remittances which didn’t go directly to sustain migrant workers’ families went predominately, at least after the first decade of emigration, into the real estate market. Workers bought apartments in the hope that someday they could come back and rebuild a better life in their country of origin.

On the one hand, this triggered a process of continually rising real estate prices and boosted the construction industry, providing jobs for a lot of people within Albania itself.  On the other hand, for two decades the social existence of these migrant workers was characterized by an inherent class self-contradiction. In the countries where they lived and worked, they were part of the working class, in most cases of the lowest and least qualified strata. But due to the large gap of labour productivity, nominal wages and prices between Albania and Greece or Italy, Albanian migrants, returning home several weeks a year, had the status of some kind of petty bourgeoisie in their homeland. The fact that after years of hard work they could buy a house, open a small enterprise, like a coffee shop or minimarket, in Albania, and still make their monthly contributions to their native families, made them part of the Albanian petty bourgeoisie. Most of them planned to work harder and harder, and save for some decades – while they were still young and strong – so that afterwards they could return to Albania and start a small business whose starting capital is a lot more affordable in Albania than in any Western country.

This process has fed a petty bourgeois hope, an ideological belief that it is possible to overcome class stratification: today you were a discriminated and overexploited worker in Greece and Italy barely able to pay the rent, but after one or two decades you could own a house and start a small business in Albania. And this prospect led to continuous waves of emigration – at least, until 2008. The consequence of this is has been the formation of an ideological belief among the poor that there is something worse than being exploited within direct capitalist relations of production (as is the lot of migrants in Greece and Italy): not being exploited within direct capitalist relations of production and being left to wander as one of the unemployed in Albania.

The turning point of this process has been the 2008 crisis, which in countries such as Italy, but especially Greece, shows no sign of being overcome. A lot of Albanian migrants have lost their jobs or have been reduced to the ranks of the precariat. If they are lucky, one person in the family has been able to continue working. Remittances in Albania started to drop progressively. Most of these workers chose not to return immediately to Albania, hoping that the economic crisis would be overcome soon.  Whatever they have managed to save towards their prospect of returning to Albania, has been continuously eaten up. And with their future hopes faded, they have begun to come back; not as small owners, but as the dispossessed unemployed.

There are no official data about the exact number of the returning migrants, although some sources say that some 200.000 people – one-third of the workforce – have returned from Greece so far. Even before coming back, the progressive fall of remittances pushed the Albanian economy into a spiralling crisis. Its effects have been felt mostly in the real estate industry, where the fall of demand has led to a collapse in house prices and to vast unemployment in one of the most productive sectors of the economy. Now returning home, some of these migrant workers find themselves not only unemployed, but, due to stiff competition in the labour market, even less hopeful of finding work.

Furthermore, there’s little hope that their presence will coagulate some kind of worker’s resistance in the near future, although one might imagine them to be a source of a fighting class consciousness. While it’s true that they return from countries with large working class organizations and a long tradition of organized class struggle, Albanian migrant workers have been mostly aloof from these organizations and struggles not only due to their relative detachment from the social processes in those countries, but also because of a certain stigma that native organized workers have for migrant workers who compete against them in the labour market.

Arlind Qori

What is interesting, however, is that despite the former migrants’ lack of class consciousness, their children, having been brought up in Greece or Italy, have been more integrated into those contexts, and some of them have also been part of the youth and student organizations and struggles. This generation is bringing to Albania their experience in the resistance. But here a problem of acculturation emerges. Unlike their parents, who have spent most or, at least, a large part of their life in Albania before migrating, this generation has been born and brought up in another country, visiting Albania for only a week or two a year. Most of them find difficulties in expressing themselves in Albanian, a small part of them cannot even speak Albanian, and the process of their cultural integration in Albanian society has produced different aspects of social stigma and discrimination. For example, due to the interethnic prejudices especially between Greeks and Albanians, these youngsters, after being discriminated against in Greece as Albanians, find themselves discriminated against in Albania as Greeks.

This process, which started a few years ago, is ongoing. No one can predict its future socio-economic consequences, but certainly deep changes have to be expected in the social structure, and a new terrain for organizing radical social resistance is being opened.

By Arlind Qori

Arlind Qori works as a lecturer of political philosophy in the University of Tirana, Albania. He is also an activist at the radical leftist organisation Organizata Politike.