People on the Move

Land of opportunity

Migrant workers

For many centuries and on all continents, migrant labour has offered solutions for agricultural employment, which is season-bound and unpredictable.

Migrant workers move along with harvest cycles, mostly carrying out manual, repetitive and easy-to-learn tasks. From the mid-20th century, other forms of migration gained importance because of rapid industrial growth. Certain economic fields provided work to thousands of migrants, which in turn proved to be a vital source of skills and labour: a mutually beneficial situation, which has often been stimulated by state support and organised recruitment.

The people depicted here in 1949 were soon to start working in the British textile industry. 55 Italian women embarked upon a train from London to Lancashire, where they would be trained as weavers within the scope of the ‘Westward Ho’ scheme. Proposed by the British Minister of Labour, this scheme was directed toward European Voluntary Workers: continental Europeans invited to come work in the UK after World War II.

In western European countries, the mining sector was one of the most important employers of migrant labour from the late 19th century onward. As early as the 1920s, national governments installed organized labour programs to help deal with the increasing demand for produce. A possible underlying motive for attracting workers from abroad might have been to avoid agreeing to the protests of local labourers, who campaigned for better working circumstances.

A specific issue in the Dutch region of Limburg in the 1950s led to the need for foreign employees: young local workers had lost trust in the sector and sought lighter, better-paid jobs. Those remaining were becoming too old for the heavy labour.

Four large mining companies decided to jointly organize international recruitment, first in Italy, later in Spain, Yugoslavia and Morocco. Miners were screened and interviewed locally, then transported to the north, where they received mining instructions and were housed for the duration of their contract.

The arrival of migrant workers – in particular, the thousands of miners, gathered in relatively small areas rich in sources – generated local housing shortages. In the Netherlands, migrant miners were often single men with a temporary contract, in need of cheap and practical accommodation. Initially, many of them boarded with local families. But when space grew short, they were obliged to sleep in shifts, as their rooms were rented out to several workers simultaneously. Mining companies, therefore, erected 'woonoorden' (chalets or barracks) and 'gezellenhuizen': large buildings where men could sleep, cook and socialize - as seen in this picture of Italian miners in Leyenbroek-Sittard. Even decades after the closure of the mines, migrant communities are still concentrated in these areas.

In countries such as France, Belgium and The Netherlands, the growth of the migrant workers' population led to the construction of ‘cités ouvrières’: groups of working-class houses, often with collective facilities. Seen here is the cité built on the premises of Regout: a modern, mechanized earthenware factory in Maastricht. Apart from factories and houses, a big red structure can be seen (bottom left of the image) where many families were living together.

In Banat, a historical region in southeastern Europe, migration resulted in the building of a complete city.

After the area moved from Turkish to Austrian rule by the peace-treaty of Passarowitz, three waves of organized resettlement (or 'Schwabenzuege') ensued. Charlottenburg (1771) was built during the second wave following the will of the Earl of Clary and Aldringen, President of Banat. 32 colonist families totalling 131 people were handed over 412 cadastral acre for their circular shaped village, allowing for the establishment of a church, cemetery, pub, slaughterhouse and hay warehouse. Historical maps - such as the one depicted below - are valuable witnesses to the history of Charlottenburg, as they contain the names of owners and tenants, as well as information about the properties and cultivation.