Turn off your TV and step out of your comfort zone

With every passing year, the number of new age emigrants on the plane leaving Ljubljana for London after the Christmas break increases. I frequently meet both familiar and new faces and hear their life stories, every one unique, yet similar nonetheless. The similarity lies in what we all usually agree on: Slovenes are insufficiently aware of their own value.

These remarks are usually directed at those leading or influencing the leading of the country, who—it seems—instead of raising its value, strive to devalue the country’s sovereignty and property, as well as the value of its citizens and residents. This could be described as neoliberal (self-) colonisation of sorts, which in the service of the Troika and with the help of international financial institutions, agencies and corporations sets conditions for and the “price” of Slovenia and its citizens. The effects of this (self-) colonial policy can be seen in increased social stratification and in emigration from Slovenia and other countries on Europe’s periphery.

I have pointed this out publicly many times, in particular by comparing Polish and Slovene labour migrations to Britain, which are the subject of my PhD thesis. The comparison showed clearly how emigration is affected by structural changes in the country of origin, which stem from neoliberal (self-) colonisation. In Poland, it was implemented in the Nineties with the help of foreign advisors through “shock therapy”, which primarily aimed for market deregulation, privatisation and the contraction of the public sector. The social costs of these structural changes were high unemployment and social stratification, which affected a whole generation of Poles and caused one of the largest migrations in the country’s history.

Not only was a whole generation of young people affected by the stress of job seeking, but the jobs themselves frequently failed to provide the basic necessities, which created enormous class differences, decreased social security and poorer quality of life.

Despite improving macroeconomic indicators, for Poles emigration remains a strategy for survival or at least a strategy for temporary accumulation of economic capital. It is therefore not unusual for Poles with a master’s or a doctorate to work in British call centres or for older workers to go to Britain as seasonal workers, striving to make a better life for themselves or their children. Slovenes, on the other hand, were—at least until the current crisis—primarily motivated by the desire for new knowledge and work experience, as well as the smallness of their home country. This kind of emigration has in recent years been joined by the kind reminiscent of the Polish scenario and which is the result of structural changes, manifested as worsening working conditions and social transfers, growing unemployment and the prevalence of precarious forms of employment. This is why a surge in emigration from Slovenia should be understood and treated as a structural problem resulting from a decrease in living and working standards for the majority of the Slovene population.

In my research I have found that many young people prolong their studies or emigrate to finally get a chance to participate in the labour market. This participation in the labour market is precarious both in Slovenia and in Britain. Because Slovene workers come from Europe’s periphery, which is seen as poorer and less developed, they are assigned a certain value in Britain, which is expressed in downgrading and various forms of discrimination.

In other words, employers and employment agencies frequently treat workers from Slovenia and other Eastern European countries as suitable for low-paid, low-skilled, physically and mentally exhausting work.

Due to the poor conditions in their country of origin and/or the self-colonial logic, which erroneously tends to see the Western market as necessarily better, less discriminatory and more professional, workers are prepared to accept these jobs. That is why, despite their education and experience, these workers are, at least immediately after they have emigrated, often forced to work in low-skilled and low-paid jobs or unpaid internships. At the same time, Slovene students and other young people are increasingly left with no options other than precarious forms of employment, which instead of enabling them to gain work experience pertaining to their field of study, prolong their dependence and lower their value. This social reality enables dual exploitation – both by employers and employment intermediaries and other services that profit from the ever more lost and devalued workers at home and abroad. This transition from production to exploitation has been progressively undermining permanent employment and creating new and unregulated forms of underpaid or unpaid work, increasing dependency, lowering the value of the current and future generations of young and other workers, and forcing them to emigrate. This is less evident from official data, as new emigrants rarely officially deregister their permanent residency in Slovenia because their precarious situation makes it hard for them to plan their future either at home or abroad. These trends can be more clearly observed from the modern migrants’ social networks, which bear witness to a surge in emigration, particularly in 2012 and 2013. In this way, Poland serves as a warning to Slovenia of where continuous concessions to capital with disregard for the welfare of the people can lead.

And how has the Slovene government been dealing with this problem? Instead of creating sustainable jobs, the government has been creating new exploitation strategies that will enable the accumulation of privatised profits at the expense of this and future generations. Exploitation takes place and will continue to do so in the form of student debt, in multirelational and transnational employment relations, along with the erosion of social and economic rights, as well as new taxes. Alongside a proposal to introduce university tuition fees, the New Year also brings additional taxation of freelance professionals paid on a contractual basis, which means another blow to professionals who are already struggling due to a decline in demand caused by the current crisis. It seems cynical to burden with higher taxes those whose work is increasingly irregular and badly paid. Due to the fear of what the New Year and its new taxes will bring, there is a need for cooperation and the search for survival strategies and ways to oppose these irrational measures. Dual taxation of cross-border commuters and other emigrants, who are treated within a rigid and outdated framework that does not reflect modern forms of emigration, seems just as irrational. Instead of seriously dealing with emigration policy and trying to win back the lost human capital, the government’s actions are forcing people into permanent emigration. With that in mind, it should also be noted that the new emigrants exhibit a strong desire and readiness to collaborate with, maintain and form new business or other ties with Slovenia. This is where Slovene representative offices abroad can play an important role in connecting Slovenes and consequently raising the actual value of Slovenia and Slovenes both at home and abroad.

If Slovenia’s Prime Minister is serious about her widely reported we-will-do-it-our-way slogan, she should stop acting as an executioner in the service of neoliberalism, operating against education, the young, freelance professionals and emigrants, all of whom are the driving force of society and of rebellion against the neocolonial spread of neoliberalism on the global, regional and local levels, as well as being harbingers of change and of creative new our-way solutions.

At this point I would like to return to Slovenes’ lack of awareness of their own value. In my comparative study, there was also a difference between Slovene and Polish emigrants in their resistance to neoliberal practices, which have had enormous influence on Britain for decades and manifest themselves in a life completely focused on work and consumerism. Unlike Poland and Britain, Slovenia has until recently guaranteed more workers’ rights and a better work-life balance which, despite lower wages (compared to Britain), meant a higher quality of life. It is precisely these structural differences that make some Slovene emigrants in Britain oppose their employers’ demands to do “regular overtime” or unpaid work. My colleagues and I have also raised concerns about unpaid work and wage theft in British higher education. Slovene emigrants, particularly women, also see this normalised culture of giving preference to work over life as detrimental to planning a family. The collective memory of the quality of life and its non-commodified forms, which began vanishing as early as the 80s in Britain and the 90s in Poland is, because the neoliberal transition has only recently taken place, still very much alive for Slovenes. This collective memory is a notable value for Slovenia and Slovenes. It has been expressed in mass protests against corruption and neoliberal measures, which erode not only social, economic and political rights but also common values and opportunities to form alternative socio-economic models. Slovenia, currently one of the vital points of resistance against neoliberalism, thus has a very important value, transcending its borders. This is shown in the emergence of new social movements, the beginnings of self-governing enterprises and fresh ideas for the development of Europe’s periphery. These ideas and initiatives stem from the unique socio-economic history of Slovenia as a socialist republic and later an independent state, coupled with the collective memory of a higher quality of life and a society with a stronger sense of solidarity and equality. When we take this value into consideration, it seems utterly baffling why Slovenia has geared itself towards exploitation instead of production and the recapitalisation of all the workers being suppressed and driven out of the country. In light of this, it is unclear why no investments are being made in the production that makes use of Slovene natural resources and was quite successful in the past, why investments are not being made in renowned retro brands that were already being exported in the 80s, why Slovene companies prefer to promote themselves in the West as European and not Slovene, and why we stand idly by when workers are leaving the country.

Historical revisionism, which aims to do away with this history and the collective memory in order to implement neoliberal ideology, has never posed a graver threat of devaluing Slovenia and Slovenes than today. The our-way strategy, which continues the neoliberal (self-) colonisation policy of previous governments, threatens not only to impoverish the country and its population, but also to strip it of its fundamental values and to cause the disintegration of various groups, generations and those staying in or leaving the country, while silencing those offering alternative solutions. It is therefore even more important that we use this year to collaborate at all levels and points, to draw attention to the effects of the government’s new measures and suggest changes that will, instead of paving the way for new our-way exploitation strategies, enable a shift towards production, towards cooperation, increased participation and giving a voice to individuals and groups that promote real sustainable our-way solutions. These solutions need to originate from Slovenia’s unique historical and socio-economic context that is therefore all the more valuable at home, as well as internationally.

Allow me to use this occasion to hope that in 2014, you will turn off your TV, step out of your comfort zone, collaborate, rummage through our common history, overcome binary ideological frameworks and rediscover our common social values. May this wish also serve as an invitation to all of you that, like me, live and study the social effects of marketisation in Slovenia or in Europe, and who are searching for alternatives to fatal (self-) colonial neoliberalism.

 

Author: Barbara Samaluk. Tireless advocate of human rights, anti-discrimination and nonconformist forms of life and work. She studies the social effects of marketisation, transnational migrations and cultural political economy. Currently works as researcher at the University of Greenwich.

 

Title photo: Ryan McGuire, Bells Design.

 

Translated by: Peter Mesarič.

 

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