Migrants in Brussels – against the odds

Migrant women especially face extreme discrimination in Brussels. But they don’t necessarily see it that way.
Nikolaj Nielsen
6 April 2011

Sevginae Mehmed, a recent migrant from Bulgaria looks out from the terrace of an apartment on the ninth floor of a 24-story building in central Brussels. Brilliant rays of sun bounce off the polished surface of the Atomium in the near distance.  She lights a Marlboro Golde and gently waves away a swirl of smoke. “I may have cried,” she says referring to the first time she was solicited for sex. “But now, it’s actually boosted my confidence as a woman,” she says smiling broadly.


Sevginae Mehemd

She left Bulgaria for Brussels three months ago to find work scrubbing toilets in people’s homes, serving dinners and preparing meals at parties, and washing out stains from shirts and blouses. It’s not uncommon for some clients to make additional requests for services she is unwilling to perform. Now, she tells everyone she’s married. Before going to work, she puts on a wedding ring.

In Bulgaria, she was the senior advisor at a labour bureau. Fluent in several languages, educated with two university degrees, this ambitious woman gave it up for a new and an uncertain future. She’s thirty-three.

Her five-year old son, Attila, is sitting in an oversized red armchair. Her estranged husband remains in Bulgaria – where Sevginae had left him behind along with his abuse, his violence, and his alcohol. He hasn’t paid child support for almost two years now. With debts, an abusive husband, and a child to raise, her meagre salary of 250 Euro at the labour bureau was no longer sustainable.  In Brussels she makes close to a 1000 Euro.


Sevginae Mehemd’s Attila with family friend

She’s registered as an independent worker and deducts around 230 Euro for social security and taxes. With rent, food, utilities and daily expenses, she’s left with next to nothing. She has no account and must be paid in cash. In her spare time, she volunteers her services at a Turkish travel bureau. Still, she’s happy and is now planning on opening her own travel agency by the end of this year – a prospect that would create more opportunities and more jobs.

But why come to Brussels?  And why as a cleaning lady? Sevginae explains that many Bulgarian women find themselves as house cleaners because they don’t have the language skills. “It’s the easiest job we can find,” she says, adding that age is also a factor: “The older you are, the more difficult it gets.”

But the reality is more complex. Many migrants, documented or not, are also shut out from the normal labour market.  “The industrial sector is no longer the sector with highest demand in foreign labour,” says Bernd Hemingway, Regional Representative at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Brussels.


Bernd Hemingway, Regional Representative at the IOM in Brussels

“Belgians are evenly spread over all the various sectors of activity of the labour market, unlike migrant workers. The over representation of foreigners can be observed in agriculture and services,” he says, adding that migrants often occupy unsavoury job positions in construction, hotels and restaurants, retail and industrial cleaning. He then explains that migrant women especially face severe discrimination. “Female migrants are discriminated both as migrants and as women, and often relegated to the bottom of the labour market irrespective of their qualifications.”

According to one study by the Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, the gap in the employment rate between non-EU nationals and their Belgian counterparts is among the highest in Europe. In 2008, 17.2% of the foreign active population were unemployed as opposed to 8.9% of the Belgian active population. EU citizens account for nearly 68% of the foreign population living in Belgium – most of whom reside in Brussels. With more than 12% foreign-born in the population, Belgium has in relative terms one of the largest immigrant communities in Europe. In 2008, around 9% of the whole population were foreigners.

“To work in Belgium, citizens from new Member States who joined in 2004 were required to have a B labour card,” says Vincent Corluy, a researcher at the Herman Deleeck Centre. “Then in 2009, all new Member States, except for Bulgaria and Romania, were no longer required to have such a card.” As a result adds Corluy, Bulgarians and Romanians who came to work in Belgium did so on the black. The restriction will be removed in May.

Sevginae sees it differently. Her friend, himself a Bulgarian working in Brussels for an NGO, gave her an outlet, a possibility to establish a new life. And that’s all she ever really wanted.

Belgium’s stratified migrant labour market 

Despite numerous studies that point to the positive role migrants play in society, decision-making in migration policy remains embroiled in contentious issues. Questions over national identity, integration, welfare, and sustainable economic models often dominate the debate. Rarely discussed are some of the more positive aspects of migrants.

According to the IOM, migrants in Germany contribute far more to the social welfare system than they take out. But as populist politicians, some trade unions and certain media distort these fears, many Europeans are finding it difficult to extend the notion of solidarity and a socially inclusive Europe to third-country migrants. A rhetoric of exclusion has emerged that on the one hand rejects out-right racism but on the other embraces a discourse of cultural incompatibility, tradition and heritage.

Belgium, for its part, has one of the most liberal migration policies in Europe. Natural citizenship, for instance, takes three years as opposed to ten in the Netherlands or 15 in Germany. However, this more liberal policy may change as some Belgian politicians are vying to impose a ‘probation period’ of exemplary citizenship. The individual, under some sort of surveillance regime, would then be judged at the end of this six-month long scrutiny. The logic behind such a proposition is lost in the fear of the ‘other’ whereby rules and regulations meant to organise and secure society begin to spin off absurdities.

Caught in this turbulence are people simply attempting to carve out a better life for themselves and their children. Often excluded and marginalised, recently arrived migrants and third-country naturalised citizens tend to find themselves in a stratified labour market where employment is concentrated in sectors that are dirty, dangerous and difficult. Jobs that most Belgians simply do not want. Or as one Brussels’ night shop owner Mohammed Ashraf from Pakistan told me, “Why do you think you never see white Belgians running these shops? Because they have a choice!”


Night shop owner in Brussels

The distribution of migrants on the labour market in Brussels is influenced by conditions imposed by the admission regime, workforce demand in a particular sector, persistent ethnic and gender discrimination, cultural differences, and use of migrant networks for recruitment. In September last year, a Belgian television crew placed hidden cameras in eight interim agencies throughout Brussels. Six agencies were caught on camera stating they would not hire Belgian citizens with non-European backgrounds.

Because of these barriers, some simply choose to be self-employed as house cleaners, night shop owners, or any number of small, individually run businesses: jobs and sectors that contribute not only valuable services, but at prices that benefit the every day consumer. Sectors, like textiles, agriculture and construction, are outsourced onsite to non-EU nationals in order to lower labour costs and remain competitive.  These non-EU nationals are often undocumented workers who are easily exploited. Wages are  sometimes withheld and normal working conditions and standards disregarded. Jan Knockaert, coordinator of the Organization of Undocumented Workers (OR.C.A) based in Brussels says, “there probably isn't a building construction site in Brussels that hasn't employed an undocumented worker.” This includes current building sites by the EU institutions.

Lack of empirical data

While there is no empirical data to support this personal observation, in Brussels many night shop owners appear to be either from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh (or are Belgian citizens with these origins). Belgium at the federal level does not calculate or identify nationals of foreign origin in their labour market surveys.  Flanders does possess a statistical category called “allochtones” which identifies foreigners. But French-speaking institutions do not use any such category or terminology. Still, it would appear that construction workers at building sites are largely undocumented Brazilians or are Belgians who speak Portuguese with thick Brazilian accents. Halal butchers and vegetable shopkeepers appear predominately North African. And cleaning ladies are often Bulgarian or Polish.

Curiously, the ethnostratification and genderisation of the migrant labour market appears to differ in Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capitale Region. Perhaps this is because the Flemish and French speaking communities handle migrants differently. Polish and Bulgarian women in Flanders, for instance, predominately work in the agricultural sector – most likely as a fruit and vegetable pickers according to the IOM.

Ashraf, the same night shop owner in Brussels, says he had run 14 night shops with his uncle in Flanders. Life, he said, was easier for migrants in Flanders. “People here in Brussels have no respect,” he says though his comment is most likely biased by a recent spate of thefts from his shop. He now keeps the cigarettes behind the counter. But even then, he says, they don’t make him much money as he only gets a 6% profit for every packet sold. When asked why he left Lahore, he said poverty drove him out. He now has two sons, both born in Belgium.

Just a few shops down the same street, 25-year old Ashan (who would not give his last name), also from Lahore, runs a telephone and internet shop. He’s in Brussels just to work for a few weeks before returning to Lithuania where he studies engineering. “There is a lot racism here, especially from uneducated people,” he says. According to Ashan, a lot of people leave for Europe thinking they will somehow find paradise and fortune. Their families back home depend on them. When things turn bad in Europe, some are too ashamed to return and instead pretend that they have good paying jobs and nice apartments. “We have too much honour in our community,” he says.

The Algerian butcher

Now 43, Ali Meruuane fled Algeria for Belgium 17 years ago – two years after the conflict between government forces and Islamist rebels claimed over 100,000 mostly civilian, lives. Stout with broad shoulders and a quick smile, Ali has since then been working as a butcher. “It’s in my blood. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says.


Ali Meruuane, butcher

He arrived, undocumented, and quickly found work as a butcher with the aide of family and friends already established in Brussels. Over the years, his skills progressed. Eventually, he was given amnesty and was entitled to Belgian citizenship. Now he runs his own business and employs half a dozen butchers, many of whom are naturalised Belgians from the Congo:

“It’s crazy that I have to come here to work without any papers when my country has such enormous wealth,” he says citing its vast reserves of oil and gas. “But it has no social justice. We need a real democracy. If we had this there would be no need to migrate.”

His employee, Joseph Kitoko-Mpindi from the Congo has been working with Ali for the past five years. He too fled in the early 1990s. Trained as an accountant, Joseph is hoping to return to his home country one day: “Europe gave me a sense of life with the kind of business experience I hope to one day apply back home.”


Joseph Kitoko-Mpindi, butcher

That day will arrive, he says, when there is greater stability. When there is hope and a future for his family.

Photographs taken by Nikolaj Nielsen

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