Hong Kongers at the borders of ‘Global Britain’

By Michaela Benson.

Since it opened on 31 January 2021, the designated route for Hong Kongers to settle in the UK—the Hong Kong BN(O) visa (HK BN(O))—has received 64,900 applications. The presentation of this route to settlement in the UK as ‘bespoke’ indicates that this is an exception to ordinary immigration controls. In what follows, I argue that the presentation of the HK BN(O) visa as the poster child for current Conservative Government’s self-proclaimed ‘fair and generous’ approach to immigration—an apparent exception to the ‘Hostile Environment’—functions discursively to demonstrate that ‘Global Britain’ has fulfilled the Brexit mantra of ‘taking back control’ of its borders. However, my analysis extends beyond this to consider how these provisions relate to the ambiguous status of the Hong Kongers in Britain’s nationality law, and the longer history through which they were transformed from citizens to migrants. In this way, I explore how the UK’s contemporary citizenship-migration nexus reproduces the logics and legacies of colonialism to offer new sightlines on the coloniality of ‘Global Britain’. 

Exceptional circumstances, bespoke visas

The bespoke provisions for the Hong Kongers were introduced as part of a package of exceptional measures that the UK Government had taken in light of their perception that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ solution had been breached by the imposition of national security law in Hong Kong SAR (special administrative region). Presented as offering a safe haven to some of the residents of Britain’s so-called ‘last colony’ and receiving a remarkable level of cross-party and cross-house support, the exceptions to ordinary immigration controls to a named population in light of political oppression and instabilities seems laudable.

Citizens take to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against the breach of the One Country, Two Systems solution (image: Jonathan van Smit on Flickr)

Available to those with a continuing tie to the UK through their status as British Nationals (Overseas), the HK BN(O) visa has relatively favourable terms of settlement in contrast to standard visa routes. For those applying to enter the UK through this route there is no requirement for a minimum or guaranteed income; funds have been set aside to establish ‘Welcome hubs’ intended to support the integration of Hong Kongers; and there are concessions in place to allow those on a low income to apply for benefits to meet housing need, essential living costs and child well-being.

This is the first ‘bespoke’ scheme launched since the end of the Brexit transition period, pre-empting the UK’s New Plan for Immigration in March 2021. It is likely that there will be more to follow. Notable is the way that this has been narrated, signposting the removal of freedoms from the Hong Kongers as driving the UK’s response. In other words, this is a moral commitment to providing humanitarian support. Indeed, at the time of writing Home Secretary Priti Patel MP was using similar narratives to justify the government’s proposal to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. And while there are urgent questions to be asked about the deterioration of human rights since the imposition of National Security Law in Hong Kong, within which the emergence of the HK BN(O) visa is caught up, it is also important that we consider the significance of this bespoke visa in the emerging context of ‘Global Britain’ and its borders.

‘Global Britain’ and its borders

The HK BN(O) visa emerged in the context of far-reaching immigration reform introduced in the wake of Brexit. Legislation that repealed EU Freedom of Movement Directives and extended immigration controls to EU citizens seeking to enter the EU after 31 December 2020 was additionally used as a vehicle to shepherd in a new plan for immigration. This plan foregrounded the benefits of controlled and circumscribed immigration to the British state and economy. It privileged an image of the ‘good migrant’ who, whether through skill—narrowly defined by level of education—or income, might contribute to the success of ‘Global Britain’.

Home Secretary Priti Patel MP has repeatedly claimed that the provisions offered to the Hong Kongers are evidence of the current Conservative Government’s ‘fair and generous’ approach to immigration and a longstanding commitment to offering sanctuary for those who have had their liberty and freedoms curtailed. In the context of Brexit, framed around ending freedom of movement and Britain ‘taking back control’ of its borders, offering this bespoke route is an outward demonstration that ‘Global Britain’ can now pick and choose which migrants it wants, offering them special conditions as it deems fit. Understood in this way, the bespoke visa may reinforce a politics of migration that pitches the ‘deserving’ or ‘good migrant’ against those judged as undeserving, as fraudulent, as no good for Britain.

The work of exception

In what follows, I provide further context to the emergence of the bespoke visa reflecting on earlier transformations in the status and rights of the Hong Kongers in British legislation, notably their shift from full imperial citizens to the ambiguous legal status on which the current visa rests. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act first introduced restrictions on their rights to migrate and settle in the UK. Nominally citizens, at the UK’s borders they were remade as migrants. In 1981 their rights – diminished through immigration legislation – were institutionalised in nationality law, with their new status as British Dependent Territories citizens (BDTC) naming them as belonging to Britain but not part of it. Hong Kong—remaining a colony until 1997—and its people were anachronistic in the context of a state prematurely claiming its post-imperial credentials and building a national polity. Following the conclusion of the Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong, their status was given a new, unique moniker: British Nationals (Overseas).

Ambiguity has long been a characteristic of Britain’s migration-citizenship nexus and has been institutionalised into its legal forms. But centring these exceptional statuses in our analyses and locating them in their longer histories shows that the production of exception has long been part of the system. The already-exceptional BN(O) status, an afterlife of empire, has been re-infused with meaning and made fit for purpose in this political moment. The continuity of exception—albeit to different ends—speaks to a longer political project of bordering that stretches from Britain’s decolonisation to the present day. The continuing differentiation at the heart of Britain’s nationality legislation is a reminder that colonial logics and legacies structure the contemporary citizenship-migration nexus.

In this way, the coloniality of ‘Global Britain’ and its borders becomes all the more visible as we think about the bespoke HK BN(O) visa in the context of Britain’s new immigration plan, its longer history of legal relationship to the people of Hong Kong (and the erosion of their rights) and the exception and ambiguity of its political projects of bordering, past and present.

Michaela Benson is Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University and Co-I on the ESRC-funded project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN). She works on migration, citizenship and belonging and most recently has been focussing on Britain’s relationship to its emigrants and overseas citizens at moments of major political transformation including Brexit and decolonisation. 

This blogpost draws on her article Hong Kongers and the coloniality of British citizenship from decolonisation to ‘Global Britain’, published in the journal Current Sociology and draws on research supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship (MD19\190055).

MMB looks back over 2020-21

By Bridget Anderson, Emma Newcombe and Emily Walmsley

It’s that time of year again… the MMB AGM! We will be meeting on 20th October and do hope that many of you can come along. We try and make it an engaging event with a chance to meet people even if, like last year, it’s going to be online. We now have more than 260 members within the University of Bristol, representing almost every School, and nearly 200 more outside. The AGM will be a chance to reflect on our work over the past year – as shown in our latest Annual Report.

We miss seeing our members in 3D and there’s no doubt that something is lost by not having serendipitous encounters, chats when you’re packing up or hearing a stray comment that intrigues. But there are some benefits to being online too. In the past year we’ve developed our web offering with more regular blogs, including a special blog series on Race, Nation and Migration that aimed to renew the debate on how (im)mobilities, race and the national are interrelated. We also now offer more audio-visual content. If you haven’t yet explored it, take a look at our new section On the Record. It features MMB Insights and Sounds, our ongoing series of recorded interviews with colleagues around the world working on different areas of migration and mobilities, along with videos of MMB webinars and events that MMB members have taken part in.

Over the past year MMB has developed two online courses aimed at graduate students and those interested in knowing more about migration and mobilities. We set up ‘Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship: Essential Learning from Research and Practice – a free introduction to migration that takes approximately six hours to complete, based on the Future Learn platform. More than 1,000 people have registered for this course, which features many University of Bristol projects. It has received an overwhelmingly positive response, so do give it a go and pass on the details.

We also ran ‘Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship: The MMB Online Academy 2021– an interactive course taught over six weeks with live lectures, interactive debate and panel discussions. We had participants from all over the world including Colombia, Germany and even one in New Zealand who got up at 3am to attend sessions!

Still, we are keen to get back to in-person activities. On 11th September a band of MMB members gathered face to face for the first time in 18 months to walk together along the banks of the River Severn. The walk was co-organised with the Centre for Environmental Humanities and we learned about the journeys of eels, cargo ships and other non-human movement up and down the estuary. We loved it – and are planning to make an early Autumn walk an annual event.

COVID has encouraged us to think more about outdoor events, and we now have a regular outdoor venue. If you are in Bristol, do try and visit our (de)Bordering project in Royal Fort Gardens. These two plots are a space for reflection, learning, argument, making connections and debordering disciplines and methodologies. We want to think about the research on mobility and environment together, and this is a fantastic place to do that.

There is nothing more natural than movement, but what kind of movement, its histories, how it is both constrained and enabled is inevitably a political (with a small p) conversation. We need to think about natural worlds and social worlds together, and this is a tricky, political endeavour – one that needs the space of the university, and spaces like the (de)Bordering plots, to do so. We’ve gone for cosy events too and had our first Film Group showing at the University cinema in early October. We’re planning for regular film evenings followed by discussions in the Balloon Bar.

Lastly, remember that MMB is here to support you. If you have an idea you want to talk through or a question about impact or you are in search of contacts, do get in touch. We are also happy to publicise new and ongoing research projects you’re involved in, even if they are only loosely connected to migration or mobilities. The easiest way to do this is by completing our online form. We look forward to hearing from you.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship and Director of MMB, Emma Newcombe is MMB Manager and Emily Walmsley is MMB Administrative Officer.

Bilateral agreements as a tool to facilitate movement of people after Brexit

By Diego Acosta.

With the conclusion of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, the free movement of people between the UK and the 27 member states of the EU and Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland came to an end. Some of the millions of EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in the EU are already suffering the consequences of this drastic curtailment of rights. The present moment is propitious to explore ways to govern and facilitate migration between the two parties. Although an EU-wide agreement with the UK that ensures free movement remains the ideal solution, it is currently unrealistic. This calls for an evaluation of possible alternatives.

Bilateral agreements on the free movement of people represent such an alternative. Bilateral agreements on free movement of people are defined as those adopted by two countries – or a regional organization and a country – that widely regulate several aspects of entry, stay, rights during residence and protection from expulsion for nationals of each party in the territory of the other. Social security, recognition of qualifications or avoidance of double taxation might be integrated into these agreements or may constitute separate acts, the same as political rights.

Image by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Bilateral agreements are a regular occurrence at the global level. Numerous examples can be mentioned such as the agreements between Australia and New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil, Russia and Belarus, or India and Nepal to mention a few. At European level they are also common and, most importantly, legal under EU norms. For example, the UK and Ireland have the Common Travel Area (CTA). Indeed, in light of Brexit, a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding reaffirms the status that British and Irish citizens enjoy in each other´s territory. This comprises the possibility to move freely, reside, work and vote in local and national elections, as well as equal treatment on education, social protection, housing and healthcare. In turn, Andorra has signed bilateral agreements with France, Portugal and Spain. These grant Andorrans a very similar treatment to EU citizens, while French, Spanish and Portuguese nationals are offered a privileged status in Andorra.

Spain should be the first candidate for a post-Brexit bilateral treaty concluded between the UK and an EU member state. Spain is the most important EU destination for British emigrants and the fourth most important globally after Australia, the US and Canada. As of 31 December 2020, 381,448 British were migrants residing in Spain, making it the third-largest migrant population after Romanian and Moroccan nationals. According to some estimates, if short-term British migrants are included (e.g. those who only spend a number of months in Spain each year), the total could reach a million. In turn, the UK is the most important migrant destination globally for Spanish nationals. Roughly 185,000 Spanish nationals were living in the UK in 2020, making it the fifth-largest migrant group from the EU, excluding Ireland. In addition to these numbers there are many more living between both countries. Moreover, Spain and the UK have already signed a reciprocal agreement to secure the right of their respective citizens to vote and stand in local elections.

As for the content of such possible agreement, I would suggest that the status quo established in the Withdrawal Agreement represents the departing point for any future bilateral engagement. This would allow an easier transition from the pre-Brexit situation and reinstatement of the former rights in terms of entry, residence, work and study. At the same time, an agreement between both Spain and the UK should provide the same rights to both parties and establish perfect reciprocity. That said, bilateral negotiations could be flexible to, for example, recognise the high number of UK retirees in Spain, or the significant number of Spanish nationals who move to the UK to work. This could lead to rules granting a privileged treatment when it comes to access to the labour market by, for example, removing the requirement of employment sponsorship and the general salary threshold that now applies in the UK, or to special rules for gaining residence for retirees.

The UK withdrawal from the EU has led to a drastic loss of rights for millions of EU and British citizens, including free movement. While politically difficult in the present scenario, multiple bilateral agreements between the UK and individual member states could offer a realistic solution to those EU countries with large migration flows to and from the UK. European institutions should acknowledge that bilateral agreements on the free movement of people are currently in use, both in Europe and elsewhere, and are aligned with EU law. They should also respect member states’ competence in this sensitive area. Spain and the UK could be the first states to explore this alternative, which is already in place in any case between Ireland and the UK.

Diego Acosta is Professor of European and Migration Law at the University of Bristol. He recently published the report ‘After Brexit: Could bilateral agreements facilitate the free movement of persons?‘ with the European Policy Centre.

This post was first published by Encompass in September 2021.

Ordinary: a new approach to work in migration research

By Dora-Olivia Vicol.

In the world of mobility research, scholars have long cast a critical look at work. In most immigration regimes in the Global North, worker status is what is used to distinguish between those who are allowed to migrate and those who are forced into immobility or nudged into the arms of smugglers. Save for the niche investor visas, most visas are open to migrants who have secured, or are willing to take up, particular forms of employment, often in shortage occupations or in occupations clustered at the low paid end of the labour market. Relatedly, hard work in everyday discourse is often stereotypically depicted as the quality of the ideal migrant – conscientious, undemanding, accepting of tough jobs and routinely juxtaposed against the caricature of the lazy native, as illustrated in current debates about labour shortages in the fruit picking sector.

But what if there was another way to look at work, beyond its deployment in the management of mobility? What if we shifted focus away from the macro study of labour markets, with their binaries of decent and precarious jobs, and observed work in the everyday, through the eyes of people who find in it a source of individual self-making, relationship building and critical imagination?

This is what a dozen ethnographers have come together to explore in the new edited collection Beyond the Wage: Ordinary Work in Diverse Economies (Bristol University Press 2021). We start from the premise that work is too often examined through the lens of absence. Take Marxian accounts. Work in capitalist economies is described as the absence of individual autonomy; one has no choice but to sell one’s labour, and with it one’s agency. Or take the vast literature on precariousness. At its core, precarious work is defined as poorly paid, insecure and devoid of the most basic requisites of a decent life. Both accounts mount formidable critiques against political economies premised on inequality and provide a rallying cry for activists. But they also leave much unsaid about how workers themselves practice, imagine and politicise their work, beyond a focus on material conditions.

Firmly rooted in the tradition of participant observation, contributors to the book challenge readers to examine work in its everyday diversity. The complex world of work, we argue, cannot be understood by looking only at what it is lacking. Waged employment, that standard of a fulfilling, well-paying job against which work has generally been measured, is more an ideal than a contemporary reality. Most people in the Global South, and an increasing number of people in the Global North, work in arrangements that differ wildly from it, as ILO reports show. Focusing only on how they measure against this standard of waged employment imposes a concept developed in industrialised economies, overlooking the diverse ways in which work around the world intersects with relations of kinship, patronage, social reproduction or self-fashioning. More worryingly, it reproduces the definition of a deserving life as a waged life, used by hostile immigration regimes to exclude migrants from the Global South.

To capture this diversity, the book proposes to examine ordinary work – the act of provisioning for material wants and needs that encompasses a range of practices from hustling to contract-bound employment, beyond the familiar binaries of formal and informal, or precarious and decent.

What, then, can the lens of ordinary work bring to the study of mobility? First, the richness of ethnographic work. When our craft is the study of migration, it is easy to turn from researcher into activist. Concepts like precarity offer a powerful rallying cry and a target for policy interventions. Doesn’t everyone deserve better jobs in the formal economy? And yet, history is replete with examples where policies faltered because they failed to understand the worlds of the people they were affecting. Think, for instance, of the UK labour standards authorities’ calls on workers to report exploitation and unmask their bosses – when so many of them are exploited by people they trust, or who wield significant power over them and their families. Studying work in its ordinary form foregrounds workers and their own means of inhabiting their conditions, bringing to the fore the tensions and contradictions in contemporary policy agendas.

Second, taking the everydayness of work seriously can carve out further space for agency in conversation about migrant jobs. A wealth of research has pointed to the ways in which migrants are relegated to the low paid end of the labour market. Scholars have documented how immigration controls, the lopsided relation of power between worker and employer, and employers’ own raced and gendered expectations of their staff cumulate to normalise exploitation. And yet, as my informants recounted time and again, the unscrupulous employers who were paying them at half the minimum wage were also ‘family men’, ‘good people from my village’, and people who ‘helped me make something out of myself’. I had started my PhD research looking to expose precarity among Romanian migrant networks. I concluded it reflecting on the ways in which friendship and patronage can coexist in tension. In the everyday, exploitation does not preclude migrants’ own personal ambition, tactics of resistance, humour and self-care. 

Third, thinking about ordinary work allows for different politics. The literature on the future of work is often driven by concepts developed in the Global North. Calls to formalise or even end work altogether have a distinctive genealogy in the lecture theatres of industrialised economies. But as the final section of our book illustrates, a world without work can be puzzling for Romanian migrants to London, who have built their sense of self upon their ability to provide, or for residents of a Namibian village who suspected Universal Basic Income of cultivating poor morals. Without a predetermined hierarchy of good and bad employment, the study of ordinary work encourages sensibilities and practices observed in the Global South to cast new theoretical inspiration upon the study of work in the Global North, as well as those who move between and unsettle these domains. 

Dora-Olivia Vicol is an anthropologist with a long-standing interest in mobility. She is CEO of the Work Rights Centre charity and post-doctoral affiliate at COMPAS, University of Oxford. Beyond the Wage: Ordinary Work in Diverse Economies (2021) is available from Bristol University Press.

Will Brexit and COVID-19 mean we see more local workers in UK fields?

By Sam Scott and Karen O’Reilly.

In the context of Brexit and COVID-19 the UK is experiencing severe low-wage labour shortages – in particular, in the horticultural sector. Our research looks at the potential for horticultural employers to deal with this situation by swapping migrants for local British-based workers.

Horticultural employers have long argued for the need for migrants to do the low-wage work on their farms, claiming that they have a stronger ‘work ethic’ than local labour. For its part, local labour has eschewed farm work in recent decades. However, given the events of recent years (especially Brexit from 2016-2021 and COVID-19 from 2020 onwards) there appears to have been some rapprochement between low-wage employers and local labour.

The role of local British-based workers in horticulture has generated considerable discussion for many years. Since at least the turn of the century much of the seasonal labour for harvesting has come from Poland (after the ‘A8’ EU enlargement in 2004), then from Bulgaria and Romania (after the ‘A2’ enlargement in 2007). However, following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic there have been fears of mass labour shortages due to a fall in EU immigration. This has been regularly reflected in a range of UK newspaper headlines such as: ‘Winnowing EU migrants means rotting crops’ (Financial Times, 2017), ‘UK crops left to rot’ (Independent 2018), ‘Tonnes of crops left to rot’ (The Guardian, 2019), ‘Millions of lettuces left to rot’ (i News, 2020) and ‘Britain’s vegetables are rotting in the fields’ (The Times, 2021).

No wonder, then, that the UK saw the launch of the ‘Feed the Nation’ and ‘Pick for Britain’ campaigns in 2020 to encourage local British-based workers into horticulture. Our ongoing research project has examined these campaigns (though they only lasted for one year) and has so far collected 21 in-depth narrative interviews, with a mix of employers and local British-based workers.

Farm workers in Lincolnshire (image: Mat Fascione)

Prior to our 2021 research, academics noted how low-wage employers tended to favour migrants for their strong ‘work ethic’ whilst relegating local labour to a source of ‘last resort’ (Friberg and Midtbøen, 2018; MacKenzie and Forde, 2009; Scott, 2013; Scott and Rye, 2021; Tannock, 2015). Within these employer hierarchies, or ‘hiring queues’ (Waldinger and Lichter, 2003), the preference for certain nationalities of workers has often changed over time.

The harvest sector and horticultural employment more generally has experienced workplace ‘intensification’ (Rogaly, 2008) as a consequence of cost pressures and associated moves to increase efficiency. Pay and working conditions, as a result, tend to look relatively unfavourable when compared with other sectors of the economy.

Over recent decades, local British-based workers have avoided horticultural employment and horticultural employers have avoided local workers. However, Brexit and COVID-19 appear to have challenged this, at least to some degree. Our research has found successful examples of local British-based workers entering seasonal horticultural employment and softening their views with respect to the nature and value of this work. Alongside this, horticultural employers, when they encounter local workers who last the season, appear to be softening their views too.

In our worker interviews, we noted both negative and positive perceptions of harvest work. These were related to the everyday experience, which were referred to as ‘back breaking’ but enjoyable, especially because of the attractive outdoor environment, the physical benefits and even the camaraderie. Indeed, the benefits of harvest work, especially around bringing people closer to nature, were stressed by many of the local workers we interviewed. As one told us, it can be very rewarding work at a number of levels:

‘At the minute I’m in an office and I would say [harvest work] was more enjoyable because I was outside more than I am at the minute… I think it was definitely a lot less stressful than a lot of other jobs I’ve had. It was quite nice being outside… Like, it’s a very heavy job and it could break people’s backs, but I’d say in terms of pay it was no worse than I’m getting paid at the minute in an office for 12-hour shifts, so the pay and everything was good and I had decent breaks, so I’d say the news reports are not really fair… It wasn’t a bad job in my opinion’ (seasonal fruit picker, early 20s).

Just as local British-based workers had mixed, rather than entirely negative views with respect to harvest work, so employers were softening their views with respect to would-be local labour. Most still felt that the work ethic was strongest amongst migrants, but they were also pleasantly surprised by the successes amongst local harvest workers who did last the season. As the chief marketing manager of a large fruit farm told us, with respect to a recent recruit: ‘He stuck with us, and he actually rose through the ranks. He became a Quality Control role, and then a supervisor role, and then went on to being offered a full time [position] within the company.’

Despite the ongoing negativity and disappointment directed towards local labour by employers, they also (through recent experience) now recognised that it was possible to find, recruit and retain horticultural workers domestically; and then to promote these workers once they had proven themselves.

There seems to have been some rapprochement, therefore, between local British-based workers and horticultural employers in the UK. Employers’ ‘lazy local’ stereotype has been challenged by recent successful recruitment, due to the necessities of Brexit and COVID-19, while some British-based workers have re-evaluated the negativity that surrounds harvest work.

As Lydia Medland has argued in an earlier MMB blog, many people are very interested in producing food and, given the right employment conditions, would choose horticultural jobs. However, the extent to which local labour will, in practice, address seasonal worker requirements – given the current ‘intensified’ employment regime within horticulture – is questionable for now. More likely, locals will be used in certain circumstances as ‘niche’ labour to complement the continued mass recruitment of international migrants and to help, together with migrants, to stop the crops rotting in the fields.

Sam Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Gloucestershire, where he teaches and researches labour migration. He is currently working on the Picking for Britain research project and is looking for more local British-based horticultural workers to interview (contact: sscott@glos.ac.uk).

Karen O’Reilly is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Loughborough University. Her work focuses primarily on international migration and social research methods and she is currently leading the Picking for Britain research project.

To read more about farmworkers and labour migration on the MMB blog see: Does it matter that the UK relies on migrant workers to harvest food?‘ by Lydia Medland and Disposable workers, essential work: migrant farmworkers during the COVID pandemic‘ by Manoj Dias-Abey.

Creating hospitable environments – growth on the (de)Bordering plots

By Paul Hurley and Charli Clark.

Over the past six months, we’ve been working on (de)Bordering, a project exploring the languages of environmentalism and migration. It is a project quite unlike any we’ve done before! As the artists in the project, we’ve been collaborating with academics and having conversations with students, gardeners and third sector organisations to explore what it means to create hostile and hospitable environments – for migratory humans and nonhumans. The result is the establishment of two plots and structures in Royal Fort Gardens at the University of Bristol, which officially launches on 22nd September. 

It’s been an interesting moment to begin such a project. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic many people have found a renewed appreciation of gardens, parks and ‘nature’, and at the same time we’ve seen increasing efforts in universities and in horticulture to decolonise the ways in which knowledge, education and engagement are practiced. As we write this blog, the news is filled with images of thousands of people attempting to leave Afghanistan as it reels from the destabilising departure of US troops and return of Taliban rule, and world leaders are preparing for COP26, where decisions about climate change will impact on global ecosystems for generations. That our lives are entangled with those of other humans and nonhumans has never felt more important.

We’ve both been involved in collaborative projects before with other artists, communities and academics. And as well as working as artists, we both have other hats to wear – Charli as a professional gardener and Paul as a cultural geographer. We came to the project with curiosity and a keenness to explore the process of collaboration as well as its product. Our work with the academic team from MMB – Bridget AndersonKatharine Charsley and Nariman Massoumi – began towards the end of the winter 2021 lockdown, initially via video calls and in time via convivial in-person conversations at the plot. We discussed their research in the field of (human) migration and mobilities and their instigation of the (de)Bordering project, which has been funded and supported by the Brigstow Institute. Into the mix we brought our own ideas from participatory art and performance, ecological thinking and more-than-human geographies, and together we started to dig over the ground on which the project was to grow.  

Collaboration can work in many different ways – through processes of exchange, of synthesis, of partnership or of negotiation. And while our collective creation of (de)Bordering has involved all these things, it’s also taken on a life of its own – akin to that of Green’s (2001) ‘third hand’ of collaboration, in which the identities and authorship of the artists become (intentionally) marginalised. Given that the two plots – the Hearth, a living studio/ outdoor classroom and events space, and the Hide, a space for observation and contemplation – are designed in part for nonhuman users, the decentring of the human artists is perhaps unsurprising.  

Our designs for the Hearth and the Hide and the planting around them take into account not only the aesthetics and practicalities of human hospitality, but their capacity to be attractive and useful for migratory birds and insects (see more about these species in Bridget’s blog about the plots). And as with all best laid plans, ours have had to be adapted to circumstances beyond our control. Reduced availability (and increased prices) of plants and timber – due to Brexit- and COVID-related border and labour issues – have forced certain substitutions and modifications. While for us such impacts are an inconvenience, they bring into focus our connection with those who might experience them much more deeply – through lives disrupted, families separated, habitats damaged and businesses lost.

In the few months since the plots have been installed, we have already seen them develop as ecosystems, as communities of humans and nonhumans. While most of the hundreds of plants we planted have survived, a couple have not. We have noticed some growing bigger than others (some will undoubtedly outgrow the plot) and, in some places, weeds (‘a plant in the wrong place’) returning or proliferating. We have witnessed international students helping to construct the Hearth and sharing poetry around the firepit, and we have seen pollinators around the Hide being observed by microbiology researchers.  

We have also staged a number of human encounters in these shared environments, in the form of curated conversations between academic and non-academic specialists. Bringing our attention to common ground or otherwise around migration-related issues, these dialogues have been recorded and linked to QR codes located around the plots. It is our hope that these conversations – be they they excited, difficult, moving, provocative or impassioned – will be the beginning of many around (de)Bordering.  

You are warmly invited to visit the Hearth and the Hide and we encourage you to start your own conversations about human and nonhuman migration, and to reflect on your place within it.  

Paul Hurley is an artist and academic interested in encounters between the agencies of human and nonhuman beings, be they dogs, farmed animals, viruses or bacteria. He often works in collaboration with other artists, researchers and communities, producing participatory projects, engaged research, videos and installations.

Charli Clark is an environmental artist, gardener and beekeeper, working to increase reverence and understanding of the natural world through socially engaged projects. She is currently researching the relationship between insects, plants and pollen in a changing climate.  

Forced labour in supply chains: missing links between industrial and sexual labour

By Rutvica Andrijasevic.

I was in the midst of fieldwork researching the working conditions of migrant workers in the electronics industry in Central and Eastern Europe when the press ran the story about Serbian workers working and living in slavery-like conditions in Slovakia. Various articles in Serbian press, culminating with the report of a journalist who worked undercover in the Samsung Slovak factory, denounced the latter for treating workers like slaves without any rights. These reports were corroborated by the Belgrade-based NGO Anti Trafficking Action (ASTRA), which explained that the exploitation and violation of rights of Serbian workers in Slovakia is widespread not only in electronics but also in automobile and food industries.

Despite being in possession of formal contracts issued by temporary work agencies that recruited them in Serbia, workers were the subject of fraud and deception with respect to pay, working time, health insurance and social security contributions. They were locked into contracts whereby they were liable to pay damages to the employer if they left or switched employers during the probation period. If workers did not work or were fired, they had to pay for the accommodation themselves and were required to leave the dormitory immediately. In case of irregularities, workers were unclear whom to contact as they worked at plant in Slovakia but were recruited by a Serbian agency, signed a contract with a Hungarian agency and then were paid by a Slovak agency.

Overall, as Tonia Novitz and myself discussed in a recent article, this is a workforce trapped within a labour engagement that they have entered voluntarily but found difficult to exit, tied into a contract with a particular employer, under the threat of a financial penalty and/or non-payment of wages, subject to illicit deductions from pay, vulnerable to deportation, risking homelessness because of tied accommodation, isolated by geography and language, and distant from any meaningful legal protection. The case of Serbian workers in Slovakia exemplifies, as we have argued elsewhere, a regulatory failure of the current legal and corporate regulatory matrix to protect workers and prevent the conditions in which unfree labour can thrive.

What struck me in the Serbian-Slovak case was the similarity between Serbian workers’ working and living conditions and those of migrant women in the sex industry that I have researched in the past. Tellingly, it was the NGO ASTRA, with expertise in assisting the ‘victims’ of human trafficking, that took upon themselves the task of drawing policy makers’ attention and demanding that the government protects the rights of Serbian workers.

Yet, while on the ground there seems to be quite strong parallels between exploitation of migrant workers in the electronics assembly and those in the sex industry, academic literature draws strong lines of demarcation between the two groups of migrants. In fact, the scholarship on unfree labour in supply chains that studies industrial labour and that on human trafficking that examines sexual exploitation are separate and distinct bodies of research.

I suggest that what links the sectors of industrial and sexual labour is not only similarities of forms of control over migrant workers but also legal classification of their work. As I explain in my recent article ‘Forced labour in supply chains: Rolling back the debate on gender, migration and sexual commerce’, the separate treatment of sexual and industrial labour exploitation both by researchers and in law and policy has inadvertently posited sexual labour as the ‘other’ of industrial labour. Consequently, this separation has obfuscated how the legal blurring of boundaries between industrial and service labour is engendering new modalities of the erosion of workers’ rights that are increasingly resembling those typical of sex work.

It is perhaps understandable that scholars of unfree labour in supply chains discount debates on human trafficking, as they do not want to get caught up in vehement discussions over whether sexual labour constitutes economic activity or violence against women. Yet, to do so is to overlook the large body of work on human trafficking by migration, post-colonial and transnational feminist scholars who have shown the interdependency between sexual labour, industrial labour and broader economic development. It is also to overlook the fact that unfree labour pivots on forms of control and exploitation, whether by employers or the states, that are embedded in normative assumptions about gender and sexuality.

This is the image at the back of the business card of a workers’ dormitory in Slovakia, where some of the migrant workers mentioned in the opening paragraph were housed. The image is striking for its overtly sexualised overtones. The shape and the colour of the dress and the inviting and provocative bodily position bring up an immediate association with women working in a strip club rather than in an assembly plant. Dormitories, located in the proximity of assembly plants, merge the productive and reproductive spheres in order to enable employers to extend control from the factory floor to workers’ sleeping and living quarters, thus extracting additional value from workers’ ‘private’ lives. The overtly sexualised overtones of the image remind us, time and time again, that gender and sexuality shape both production arrangements and social relations of reproduction so as to enable labour’s enrolment into regimes of capital accumulation.

It is my suggestion that researchers concerned with understanding and eradicating forced labour from supply chains should look at the critical literature on trafficking for sexual exploitation to understand both the mechanisms that employers use to confine workers and the ways in which capital mobilizes difference to extract value from labour. Sexualizing of labouring bodies is, after all, the very condition for the expansion of transnational capital.

Rutvica Andrijasevic is Associate Professor in International Migration and Business at the University of Bristol. Her current research investigates the globalisation of Chinese firms and how ‘Chinese’ modes of production and management are engendering new migration flows in Europe.

Above the mud, the oystercatchers wheel with their sharp cries

By Michael Malay.

A few years ago, during a dry period of life, when I felt severed from the places I knew as home, I began going to a place called Severn Beach. It’s a village ten miles north of Bristol, at the end of the local train line. At first I went every few months, but it wasn’t long before I began visiting every fortnight and then every week.

The place is a little hard to explain. Had you come a hundred years ago, you would have found hotels and tea gardens, fun fairs and donkey rides, as well as an outdoor swimming pool called The Blue Lagoon. Every summer, tourists visited in their thousands, to take in the sea air by the estuary or drink tea shipped in from Ceylon and India. But today an air of neglect hangs over the place. The hotels and tea gardens disappeared in the 1970s, the public pool was demolished in the 80s, and the last pub closed in 2002. Arriving at the train station, you’ll find the flowerbeds left untended and the platform littered with broken glass, beer cans and crisp packets. A clairvoyant practises her trade near the village centre, offering to read your spirit worlds, and just over a mile away, beyond a set of fields, are the distribution centres for Tesco, Next and B&M.

Still, it’s a quietly extraordinary place, and now, whenever I’m away for too long, I find myself growing grim about the mouth, deprived of something good and free.

The estuary at Severn Beach (image by Siavash Minoukadeh)

When you leave the station you’ll find a small ramp at the end of the street. Climb it. This is the sea wall of Severn Beach, and as you mount it you’re often scoured by wind, which sweeps past in short manic bursts or long relentless squalls. You are at one of the edges of England, meeting the winds as they arrive from the Atlantic, and before you is the rocky, muddy, salty, light-filled world of the Severn estuary. Big sky, big water. Miles of mud.

The climb is always worth the view, even in freezing winter winds, for nothing stays the same at Severn Beach. The birds are always coming and going, the mudflats emerging or receding, and the tides retrieving something new, from the Anthropocene detritus of fridges, plastic helmets and galvanised buckets, to the gifts of mermaid’s purses, polished driftwood and ravelled seagrass. It’s a reliably smelly place — the rotting seaweed and sulphurous mud get right up your nose — but it’s also full of glorious sleights of hand. When the sun burnishes the water with the right sheen — the sheen of hammered gold, or of mackerel shoals turning beneath the sun — the estuary can look strangely insubstantial, less estuary than a floating plane of light. Then it seems to levitate above the seafloor, as if, at this time of light-dazzle, water were exempt from the laws governing mass. The effect is particularly strong in the summer, when heat and light thicken the air, but I’ve also seen the same effect on bright winter days. Always, though, the estuary’s pong brings you back to earth, rubbing salt and mud into your visions of another world.  

I didn’t like it at first. Many years ago, when I first arrived in Britain, I visited Severn Beach on a whim, curious to see what lay at the end of the local train line. I came on a day of wind and rain and remember feeling disappointed by what I saw: mile upon mile of mudflats, the estuary’s sunken bones exposed by the ebbing of the tide. To the south was the port of Avonmouth, a series of cranes and squat buildings, while to the north were the imposing girders and towers of the Severn Bridge, with its constant heave of traffic. There was no place to swim, no sand to sift through your fingers, and nothing that you could recognise as ‘beach’. Or, rather, nothing I could recognise as beach. As a boy growing up in Indonesia, beaches meant the hot sands of Parangtritis, Kuta or Sambolo, and later, when my family moved to the Queensland, Australia, it meant the beaches of Surfers Paradise, South Stradbroke and Rainbow Bay. And while I had tempered my expectations upon visiting Severn Beach, I still wasn’t prepared for the sight of so much mud. I don’t think I stayed for very long.

M4 bridge over the Severn Estuary (image by Siavash Minoukadeh)

But if I didn’t care for this estuary when I first arrived, I now feel drawn to it. I like to see what happens here: the birds banking in the freedom of the air, the tides generating deep water-folds by the pylons of the bridge, and the island of Flat Holm glowing in late afternoon sun, a bar of gold laid across the estuary. Increasingly, I have also been coming for what I cannot see. Every spring, juvenile eels arrive here in their millions from the Atlantic Ocean, and, every autumn, adult eels depart in their thousands, leaving their river dwellings for the Sargasso Sea. And in between these comings and goings are certain yellow eels, who, having migrated here many years ago, and being content to go no further upstream, made this estuary their home. Somehow, despite the churn of forces passing through this place — billions of litres of water, carrying millions of tons of silt — the eels had found a way of staying put. They would be here right now, on the other side of the seawall, muscled cables lengthening in the dark.

‘There are tides in the body’, Virginia Woolf wrote, secret urgings and hidden gravitational forces. Not all of them make sense. Walking along Severn Beach, I sometimes wonder at the pull this place has on me, and how different things were when I first stood here. That younger self was homesick for the places he had left behind, for known customs and manners, but he was also excited by this place called England, by the world at his nose. Still, he thought of himself as a visitor, living here on borrowed time. So how odd to be drawn here week after week, walking along the seawall as oystercatchers wheel above the estuary; and how strange to be combing the shingle beach for bits of driftwood, or skipping rocks across the water, not as a boy in Indonesia, or a teenager in Australia, but as a grown man on the shores of the Severn. I have come to know this place over the years, perhaps even to love it, although ‘love’ may not be the right word, for the estuary is neither a sentimental nor a forgiving place. ‘You have to understand it inside out’, my friend Jessie told me once, ‘or you’ll be in trouble’. Having spent years sailing around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, she tells me that the estuary, with its formidable currents and tides, its concealed sandbars and rocky islands, is one of the most dangerous places she’s experienced. But that’s also part of the attraction. Though we come to its edges, to wonder at the bright flowing unstillness of it all, the estuary is its own place, with its own wild mind, and has no regard for what we think.

Michael Malay is a Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on poetry and environmental literature and he has published creative non-fiction on eels, migration and climate change.

This post is an extract from Michael’s chapter in Gifts of Gravity and Light: A Nature Almanac for the Twenty-first Century edited by P. Marland and A. Roy. It is republished here with kind permission of Hodder & Stoughton.

Addressing discomfort: the politics and ethics of representation in qualitative research

By the Critical Methodologies Collective.

The Politics and Ethics of Representation in Qualitative Research (2021), published in July by Routledge, draws on experiences from nine different PhD projects. These have been brought together by our Critical Methodologies Collective to offer insights into the politics and ethics of representation for researchers working on justice struggles. Moments of discomfort in the qualitative research process provide important sites of knowledge for exploring representational practices. We argue that these moments help us gain essential insights into the methodological, theoretical, ethical and political issues crucial for the fields with which we engage. While the moments of discomfort opened up in this book are specific to our particular research processes, we hope that they will resonate with similar dilemmas in other fields and contexts and disciplines.

Front cover design by Sarah Hirani

Grounded in empirical research, the book is relevant to students, postgraduates, researchers, practitioners, activists and others dealing with methodological dilemmas from a critical perspective. Instead of ignoring discomforts or describing them as solved, we stay with them, showing how such a reflective process provides new and ongoing insights. Working on this book has involved not only countless collective writing days and a collaborative editorial process but also workshops with some of the scholars who inspire us, namely: Bridget Anderson (June 2019); Yasmin Gunaratnam (August 2019); Johanna Esseveld (January 2020); and Diana Mulinari (June 2020).

All our studies are politically committed to different struggles for social justice: from queer recognition of non-binary sex characteristics, through asylum rights and migrants’ rights, to antiracist critique. In some chapters, ethical and political dilemmas related to representational practices are analysed as experienced in fieldwork. In others, the focus is on the production of representation at the stage of writing. Meanwhile others draw parallels between these stages. The book deals with questions such as: what does it mean to write about the lives of others? How are the ethics and politics of representation intertwined, and how are they distinct? How are the politics of representation linked to a practice of solidarity in research? What are the im/possibilities of hope and care in research?

These questions are considered in terms of accountability. Representational practices in research, like any other representational practices, always involve a process of translation. Such a process carries with it the inherent violence of transformation, reduction or obliteration. In so doing, it opens up the dilemmas of the ethics of representation. Such general questions of research ethics should, however, not be divorced from those concerning research politics. As we have learned from work on representation in the feminist, critical and postcolonial field, these processes are deeply implicated in the power relations of societies in which the research is taking place. In this sense, creating a representation is always a political endeavour – and likewise for critical research concerned with issues of justice.

Structuralist and semiotic traditions teach us how representational practices operate, while critical, feminist and postcolonial traditions encourage us to contextualise these practices in particular historical moments to explore how they impose, maintain or resist unjust social structures. Thus, accountability for us is about being accountable towards both individuals (research participants) and the justice project in which we are engaged. In many of the projects discussed in this book, this question is complicated by the fact that researchers often face competing or even conflicting accountabilities. Most importantly, tensions might occur between accountability towards the research participants and accountability towards political struggles in which the research project is situated.

Representation is also analysed in relation to solidarity and accountability. Some key questions that we pose to ourselves in this context are: what modes of representation are both ethically accountable to those represented in the study and politically accountable in the context of contentious struggles for justice? Furthermore, what if these two types of accountabilities not only diverge but even remain in tension? What stories are we to tell, how do we tell them, and how do we ‘get hold of them’? These questions are also related to the very production of this book. Signing the agreement with the publisher required us to reflect upon: how would we resolve the editorship with several members? Who should stand as editors? Furthermore, how could the ideals of working as a collective be translated into the legal language of copyrights and liabilities?

These questions required us to recollect the beginning and making of this group. The Collective started as a small group of doctoral students in 2012 who met regularly to read and discuss texts from queer, feminist, materialist and decolonial/postcolonial scholars that helped us situate, problematise and liberate our research practices and discomforts. This process helped us articulate what was necessary for the group and what visions we had in collective writing. However, it also showed that going against the norm in academic publishing requires not only inventiveness but also extra labour. Thus, we decided that the Collective stands as overall editor of the book and author of some individual chapters. To make this formally possible, we registered the Collective as a legal association.

The Critical Methodologies Collective consists of nine feminist researchers early in their careers with a shared interest in, and discomfort of, doing critical research. The members come from varied social, political and academic backgrounds, with roots and routes in Denmark, Finland, India, Iran, Poland, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. One of these researchers, Pankhuri Agarwal, is the MMB Early Career Representative.

The Politics and Ethics of Representation in Qualitative Research: Addressing Moments of Discomfort was published by Routledge in July and can be accessed free online here.

Why music matters for the study of human movement – with Florian Scheding

In July 2020, when we realised that COVID-19 was going to be around for a while, we had a go at recording a podcast remotely. Dr Florian Scheding, Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol and then-director of the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies, was brave enough to accept our invitation for an interview with MMB Director Professor Bridget Anderson. During the ensuing lockdowns Bridget went on to record interviews on Zoom for our Insights and Sounds series, but here, finally, you can listen to Florian’s inspired views on why music is central to an understanding of human movement.

The MMB Team.