CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 For a long time, the island of Malta, one of the main entry points for those crossing the Mediterranean (see Table 1), has been a paradigmatic case of the dynamics of exclusion and rejection of exiles in Europe (Rodier and Teule, 2005). Recent events clearly show that hostility towards immigration still guides Maltese policies today, as illustrated by what the press referred to as the “secret agreements” between the Maltese government and the Libyan authorities to organise the refoulement of boats, including from waters where Malta has a duty to assist vessels in distress; [1] or, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, by the closure of ports and the detention of hundreds of people in civilian ships off the coast. [2] The fight against so-called “irregular” migration in this area takes the shape of a “borderline” policy (the term used by Hibou, 2003): a policy deployed at the margins of Europe, which also often appears to be at the margins of international law and conventions.

2 According to the local authorities, Malta already bears more than its fair share of the “migration burden”. Indeed, the rhetoric of burden, always linked to discourse on the small size of the micro-state, presented as incapable of assuming the expensive duty of asylum on its own - an argument that can be found on many islands (Bernardie-Tahir and Schmoll, 2014a: 95-96) — has been the constant feature of Maltese policy over the last two decades, regardless of the government in power (Lutterbeck, 2009; Falzon, 2012). For example, after the Council of Europe questioned the treatment of asylum seekers during the spring 2020 health crisis, the Prime Minister of Malta replied in a public letter that his country already had to face “unprecedented migratory pressure” and concluded, with irritation, that he was “eagerly await[ing] (…) feedback [from the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights] on an effective concrete plan of action to ensure proper burden-sharing by all Council of Europe member states”. [3] A few days later, the leader of the opposition agreed, unsurprisingly, on the need to keep up pressure on other member states “until they understand that Malta could not shoulder the [migration] burden on its own”. [4]

3 However, the familiar cliché of the “burden” is no longer universally accepted. The local Chamber of Commerce, a dissenting voice during the most recent Maltese general elections, stood out by asserting, in a document designed to influence the public debate, that:


“The Malta Chamber [of Commerce] believes that migrants and foreign workers are not a burden to society but rather a valuable resource that must be mobilised in the most effective way possible.” [5]

5 That the Maltese Chamber of Commerce appears as the unexpected ally of the migrants’ cause is not unrelated to the context of rapid economic development of the island, which from 2014 to 2019 recorded annual growth ranging between 6 and 11% of gross domestic product. With the consequent growing need for labour, the presence of hundreds of exiles on the island eventually began to arouse the interests of several employers. Indeed, behind enthusiastic celebrations of the economic boom, “3-D jobs” (dirty, dangerous, demanding), known to be primarily performed by foreigners, have persisted and even multiplied (Castles, 2002).

6 Traditionally, this foreign workforce in Malta was of European origin, as the accession of the island to the European Union in 2004 facilitated the regionalisation of its labour pool. However, the European salaried workforce, in particular from Italy, is no longer sufficient to meet the growing demand for cheap workers. Low wages in factories (especially those manufacturing electronic components) have been maintained, the hotel industry and related services have significantly developed, and the building sector has experienced such a dramatic and evident boom in recent years that Malta is often described, according to an expression that is now popular among the aggrieved inhabitants, as a “construction site island”. This acceleration of economic development around labour-intensive sectors has thus led local employers to suddenly see migration not as the perennial “burden” but instead as a “valuable resource”, which, as the Chamber of Commerce asserts, ought to be urgently “mobilised”. Like other southern European economies where the need for low-paid and seasonal workers has long been met by migrant labour (Mingione, 1995), many Maltese employers in the above-mentioned economic sectors have recently turned to the large-scale formal or informal recruitment of foreigners. As a result, the number of non-EU nationals in employment has grown steadily: formal employment alone has been multiplied by three in the space of just ten years. [6] Indeed, a minister recently stated that among the 11,000 (formal) jobs created on the island in 2019, only 4,000 were held by Maltese nationals. [7] What could be termed the “centrality of the marginalised” within Maltese capitalism invites us to shift our focus away from the questions that migration usually raises in European public spaces. The issue is no longer that of the integration of people in exile in an inhospitable “host” country (Nimführ et al., 2020), but rather the relationship between the criticism of the “burden” that people in exile are alleged to represent for Maltese society and the burden that in fact is imposed on such exiles in the realm of production: the tension between the policies of exclusion on the one hand, and the development of a labour force composed of asylum seekers on the other.

7 To explore this issue, the article firstly describes the efforts made to exclude people in exile and confine them to camps. Encampment, however, does not mean their removal from the island’s productive and social spheres: the rationale of providing minimal assistance and the attempt to control the flow of entries and exits lead camp personnel to push exiles into work, sometimes even becoming recruiters for local companies themselves. In addition to the direct matching of exiles to employers by camp personnel, the sheer repulsion that the camps exert on their residents, as well as the prospect of probable eviction, compels them to seek work on their own. Every morning, many of them wait for a possible day’s work in the building industry. The last part of the article looks at the role of this imposed waiting in the formation of an exiled labour force.

This article is based on fieldwork carried out in 2019 and 2020.In addition to press articles and documentation from Maltese administrations, it draws on three main types of material. Firstly, semi-structured interviews, which were recorded and transcribed for analysis. These interviews, which lasted one hour on average, were conducted with members of the Ministry for Home Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of migration issues (n=5); personnel in the “open centres” that accommodate people in exile on a temporary basis (n=7); members of the national employment agency in charge of distributing work permits to foreigners (n=4); representatives of employers’ organisations (n=3); as well as company directors and human resources managers in the hotel or construction industries (n=7). Interviews of a more informative nature, which will not be used directly in this paper, but which contributed greatly to these reflections, were also conducted with NGO representatives (n=5), trade union leaders (n=6), and UNHCR officials in Malta (n=2).
The article also draws on a total of approximately twenty-five hours of field observation conducted over a period of several days at the main informal hiring site in Malta, where local employers recruit people in exile, primarily in the building industry. Finally, supplementing this field observation, the article draws on unrecorded discussions lasting from twenty to fifty minutes conducted with twenty-six people who were waiting to be recruited at this informal hiring site (see Table 2). Some of the interviewees agreed to meet again to participate in a recorded semi-structured interview (n=5), which lasted an average of one and a half hours.
By focusing our analysis on the building industry, the main industry employing people in exile in Malta, our study inevitably concentrates on the employment of exiled men. While men are by far the majority of the population concerned, this article does not include in its analysis the specific processes through which women in exile are put to work, an issue that will need to be investigated in further research.

Migration Bureaucracy or the Rejection of Refugees: Undeportable Migrants and the Rationale of Encampment

8 Virtually all those crossing the Mediterranean by sea apply for asylum, introduced formally in Malta in 2000 [8] in anticipation of its accession to the European Union. While the number of crossings varies greatly from year to year, depending in particular on the border policies implemented by Malta, Italy and the Libyan authorities (Bernadie-Tahir and Schmoll, 2018: 57-59), between 2014 and 2019 Malta recorded an annual average of 2,200 asylum applications — a figure to be considered in proportion to the demography of the island, as the local authorities often emphasise. With a national population of only 510,000, Malta has one of the highest numbers of asylum applications per capita in Europe. [9]

9 Thus, the Maltese institution granting asylum categorises migrants after a lengthy process and in practice, more often excludes new arrivals than recognises individuals’ right to refuge. Refugee status under the Geneva Convention is allocated in much more limited proportions than in most European countries: it was granted to only 12% of applicants in 2014-2019, compared to an average of 28% in the European Union over the same period. [10] A larger proportion of asylum seekers were granted subsidiary protection each year (one third of applicants in 2019), a status which confers a precarious renewable one-year right of residence, but which, in Malta, prohibits any family reunification, thereby restricting long-term settlement on the island. [11] Table 1 shows the official statistical data on the management of people in exile over the last five years.

Table 1: Irregular Arrivals, Asylum Decisions and Residents in “Open Centres” in Malta per Year (2014-2019)

Figure 0

Table 1: Irregular Arrivals, Asylum Decisions and Residents in “Open Centres” in Malta per Year (2014-2019)

Sources: AWAS and Office of the Refugee Commissioner.

10 Asylum procedures thus correspond above all to people being kept waiting for long periods, exceeding an entire year, a waiting process that in many cases is doomed to an unhappy conclusion. The status of refugee, which is the only status that grants rights equivalent to those enjoyed by national citizens, in particular the freedom to sell one’s labour on the employment market without prior authorisation, is only granted to a small proportion of those who applied for asylum.

11 This ultimately banal reality of the power of the categories affixed to migratory pathways (Lendaro, 2011) therefore leads to a situation in Malta in which a large number of people are deportable, although very few are actually deported (De Genova, 2002). In practice, the diplomatic weakness of the microstate and the difficulty of compelling the States of origin to accept repatriation leads more than elsewhere to undesired populations being kept on the island. A significant proportion do eventually leave Malta and reach the mainland via legal or illegal means, depending on their rights to move within the Schengen area. However, others who are unable or unwilling to continue their journey to western or northern European countries, and who cannot be repatriated by the Maltese authorities to their country of origin, inevitably “end up staying here”, as a senior official from the Ministry for Home Affairs deplored. Members of the immigration police interviewed admitted that they simply issue orders to leave the territory to individuals of certain nationalities and tolerate the presence of those designated as “undeportable”, in other words renouncing implementation of a rigorous border regime that would be doomed to fail.

12 Confronted with a population that is de jure deportable but de facto irremovable, state authorities have created centres designed to manage these undesirables and to ensure their exclusion (Agier, 2010). In the long European history of putting foreigners in camps (Clochard et al., 2004) and in the generalisation of this solution over recent decades (Agier, 2011), Malta appears as a paradigmatic case: from 2006 to 2016, the budget allocated to the detention of exiles was multiplied by seven, [12] a financial effort that, until recently, made it possible to confine people for up to eighteen months (Debono, 2013). However, systematic detention for extremely long periods was formally abandoned in 2015 and replaced by the placement of asylum seekers in “open centres”, [13] i.e. facilities allowing people to go in and out. The number of residents in these centres, which averaged 1,400 between 2008 and 2018 according to official statistics, has continued to increase since then, reaching more than 3,000 at the end of 2020. It should be noted, however, that “open centres”, to name these places by their bureaucratic euphemism, are far from representing a break with the policy of encampment: institutions with a prison-like appearance, surrounded by walls, guarded, controlled and situated far from urban centres (Lemaire, 2014; Bernardie-Tahir and Schmoll, 2014b: 48), they are just one of the possible configurations among the vast continuum of infrastructure for confinement of exiles that exists in the Mediterranean region, a form of “para-imprisonment” rather than a clear alternative to detention (Migreurop, 2016). The blurred boundary between “open” and “closed” centres is further demonstrated by frequent decisions to abruptly suspend the free movement of residents in certain centres or to authorise the movement of a limited number of people, [14] or, more recently, by putting “open centres” under quarantine for several weeks in order to prevent the propagation of the COVID-19 virus between exiles and the local population.

Leaving the Camps: Dynamics of the Obligation to Work

13 The spaces in which exiles are confined have often been viewed through the prism of exception (Agamben, 1997), as spaces in which individuals, reduced to their “bare lives”, are relegated to a state of limbo with little more than the exhibition of their suffering to elicit humanitarian compassion (Fassin, 2005). The rationale of assistance is clearly present in Malta, often expressed in the mode of Christian charity. Residents of “open centres” receive basic support: meals are distributed, accommodation — under conditions of extreme overcrowding — is free of charge, asylum seekers receive a financial allowance of € 130 per month and rejected asylum seekers receive € 100. However, it would be wrong to conclude that camps remove people, depriving them of any connection with the society in which they find themselves. The “humanitarian reason” (Fassin, 2010), if it exists, is limited: it is neither intended to last nor to apply to everyone. The aid granted to exiles is conditional on the individual’s unproductivity and is considered as exceptional relief for those who, unfit to work, are condemned to destitution. For those who are able to work, however, compassion is not an option. Payment of the financial allowance is thus conditional on signing in at the centres three times a week, a measure specifically designed to exclude exiles who work in the formal or informal economy. Failure to sign for several weeks can expose the absent resident to the risk of being expelled from the centre.

14 For camp management personnel, whose main responsibility is to ensure that places in the centres are made available and therefore that residents leave, in other words, to ensure the temporary nature of humanitarian assistance (Kobelinski, 2008), putting the residents to work appears to be their main goal. A former social worker in an “open centre” explained that he was always trying to prevent stays lasting too long for fear that “people would become institutionalised”, i.e. that they would become too accustomed to depending on assistance structures and, at the same time, lose their autonomous will to earn their own income. Constraints imposed by the management of flows, as well as the camp personnel’s understanding of their mission, have turned moving out into the priority objective to be achieved: moving out understood both in its spatial sense — leaving the centres — and in the sense of departing from a state of being, that of being “on benefits” and dependent on public structures for survival.

15 The pressure to move out, and with it the obligation to work, is particularly strong after the first few months in the camp. Officially, residents are only entitled to stay in “open centres” for nine months, and so, to nine months of financial allowance. In practice, this period is usually extended to a full year. The limited time frame of the stay in the “open centre” and the discretionary power of those in charge to decide who can stay longer and who must leave, becomes a lever for forcing those considered recalcitrant to work. As a result, only those considered to be “vulnerable”, mainly people with disabilities or single women with dependent children, are granted case-by-case exemptions that allow them to remain in the humanitarian assistance net. “Vulnerability”, another word for unproductivity, is therefore the only condition that can preserve humanitarian compassion and prevent people from being put to work. As the former director of an “open centre” explained:


If you stayed for a year you had to explain why and the reason had to be: you’ve got health problems, mental health for example, you can’t work, so you stay longer.

17 Humanitarian relief is not a measure to which everyone can lay claim but presupposes operating a distinction between those who cannot work and those who do not want to work. For the overwhelming majority of exiles, and in particular for young men [15] who appear as the perfect figures of workers, the obligation of working prevails.

18 Incentives to join the local labour market arise, therefore, from the time-limited nature of the humanitarian aid granted, and are sometimes expressed verbally by camp personnel. The latter even occasionally assume the role of recruiters on behalf of employers. It is indeed common for employers to ask directors of “open centres” or ordinary officials, based on a networking approach, to put them in touch with people available for (usually short-term) work assignments, in light industry, harvesting in the fields, occasional handling needs, finishing work in private homes or building assignments. Claiming that local “labour shortage” forces them to look for alternative sources of workers, many employers expressed satisfaction during interviews with the continued presence of idlers in the camps who can be mobilised in case of lack of personal during the high season. As the director of human resources at a large hotel on the coast pointed out, not only do the people in the camps accept the low wages offered, but above all, thanks to personnel at the centres, they can easily be recruited at the last minute, depending on the influx of customers, in order to ensure the smooth running of kitchens, laundries or to contribute to the almost daily cleaning of the 250 rooms that accommodate holidaymakers. Hence, a former manager of an “open centre” stated that he made a list of available residents in order to match those who could be “trusted” to hiring employers, a system which, according to him, led to the employment of 70-80% of the residents during the summer period when the demand for unskilled casual work is particularly high. The criterion of “trust” applied to the selection of individuals, i.e. the search of a docile and subordinate attitude among exiles for difficult and low-paid jobs, is described in more detail by a former social worker at an “open centre”:


Sometimes employers called us and said: we need people to work for us. And we would try to find people for the job, to look for the right people. Usually it was in a factory, that kind of job. And when I say the right people, really we were looking for people who were responsible and wanted to work. It wasn't a question of skills, but more a question of attitude to work, commitment to work. Because unfortunately, there are people you can’t really rely on: sometimes they go to work, sometimes they don’t.” (staff member at the Hal Far Hangar Centre from 2010 to 2014)

20 The principle underlying the matching of exiles to local employers by camp personnel is therefore not related to skills, as exiles are only eligible for unskilled jobs, but only to the imperative of total availability and unfailing dedication to work.

21 Theoretically, obtaining employment should be authorised by a work permit issued by the administration, indicating the identity of the employer. Government authorities authorise asylum seekers to take up employment upon arrival on the island, thus surpassing the requirement imposed by European regulations, which stipulate that people should “have access to the labour market no later than nine months” from the date when their application was lodged. [16] These “liberal” provisions reflect the willingness to integrate exiles into Malta’s productive spheres as soon as possible. More surprisingly, and in contrast to standard practice in the European Union, the same right to work is granted to asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected on appeal and who are therefore deportable, paradoxically granting them the right to work without the right to reside.

22 Several staff members at the centres admit, however, that they help to get residents into the many informal and temporary jobs offered by the local economy. Few employers are prepared to take the administrative steps necessary to obtain work permits, especially for assignments of a few days or even a few hours. From the perspective of people in exile, formal work also remains unattractive: it implies paying social security contributions without consolidating the possibility of a more durable settlement on the island, unlike, for example, in neighbouring Italy, where the “merit” derived from employment can increase the exiles’ chances of obtaining a more permanent status (Tuckett, 2018). Thus, Maltese trade unions, who vainly attempt to “educate”, in their own words, people in exile on the virtues of formal employment, deplore a situation that leaves the trade unions powerless to influence the employment conditions of those working without a permit. Yet, while informal employment of exiles is criminalised in discourses, it has not developed independently of the State and its policies (Hibou, 2012: 646-647): the organised administrative precarity of exiles translates, indirectly or not so indirectly, into a precarious position within production (Anderson, 2010).

“Waiting for the Boss” on Informal Hiring Sites: the Destitute in Search of Work

23 The intercession of the personnel of the “open centres” described above is not, however, the main modality by which people in exile obtain employment. It is primarily on informal hiring sites, where building subcontractors in particular source their operational labour force, that exiles try to demonstrate to the employers of casual and unskilled labour their full availability.

24 Every morning, on the edge of a roundabout in Marsa, a town in the centre of the island, dozens of exiles gather and wait for pick-ups and vans which stop briefly before transporting them to the various building sites in operation. This mode of reunion of local employers and migrant labour is far from being unique to Malta. Informal labour markets located on the street are age-old institutions in Europe and elsewhere which, with the increase in migrant populations in many advanced economies, have recently grown in number and importance, for example in the United States (Valenzuela, 2003; Herrera, 2010) and Italy (Hazard, 2007). The fact that the informal labour market is mainly organised at the Marsa roundabout is not surprising: the site is a nodal point in the road network, situated a few dozen metres from a former “open centre”, which in 2015 became the Initial Reception Centre, receiving asylum seekers on their arrival for registration. Today, the Initial Reception Centre is a hybrid facility, halfway between a detention centre and a reception centre, where some of residents are confined while others are allowed to come and go pending their placement in Malta’s main “open centre”, the Hal Far Tent Village, located in a remote industrial area in the south of the island. Another roundabout next to the Hal Far Tent Village also serves as an informal hiring site, although on a much smaller scale, probably because of its remoteness. Most people in exile in search of daily jobs prefer to make the hour-long bus journey each morning to Marsa before, if recruited, being transported in employers’ vehicles to scattered locations on the island where their work is required (see Map 1). The organisation of the informal labour market thus suggests, not least in its location, a close link between places of exclusion of exiles and their inclusion as a labour force, with the informal hiring sites combining the dual features of relative proximity to the infrastructure of the camps and strong connectivity, through the road network, with the various workplaces. In other words, it demonstrates what Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson call the “differential inclusion” (2013: 159) of those who, far from being figures discarded to the margins of society, as is commonly believed, are in fact at the core of local capitalist development.

Map 1: The Organisation of the Informal Labour Market, Daily Movements of Camp Residents

Figure 1

Map 1: The Organisation of the Informal Labour Market, Daily Movements of Camp Residents

Credit: L. Puygrenier, 2020.

25 The high visibility implied by the concentration of stationary black men and the comings and goings of vehicles led the space to be frequently decried, prompting the former Prime Minister to refer to it as the “slave market at the Marsa roundabout.” [17] Although the government of Malta made an attempt to formalise the informal sector by setting up an office near the roundabout in 2017 to connect people in exile with companies, few employers switched to this new channel to fulfil their casual labour needs. With an estimated half of Maltese employers hiring at least one person without the required permits, according to the national employment agency, [18] the dynamism of the informal hiring site remains undiminished. To the extent that in recent years it has also been attracting asylum seekers and refugees registered in neighbouring Italy (see Table 2), who stay on the island for a few months to accumulate savings in the Maltese informal labour market before returning. The following table presents the profile of twenty-six people met at the roundabout, thus providing a better understanding of the use of the informal hiring site. The nationalities of those present, and to a lesser extent, of their age groups are diverse, although the younger generations are over-represented (the average age of respondents is twenty-eight).

Table 2: Age, Nationality, Status and Camp Residency of Respondents met at the Informal Hiring Site

Figure 2

Table 2: Age, Nationality, Status and Camp Residency of Respondents met at the Informal Hiring Site

26 Thus, competition is stiff among those who, as one of them put it, “wait for the boss” every morning. Since practice requires that each individual should stand a few metres apart from others and remain static at their post throughout the morning, many make a habit of coming as early as 6 am, before the arrival of employers, in order to place themselves at one of the strategic locations to approach the vehicles that stop. For at least half of them, the wait will be in vain, and the same operation will have to be repeated the following day. A thirty-one-year-old Ivorian asylum seeker who had left the “open centre” early to stand at the roundabout and whom I questioned about his chances of success replied, giving a forced laugh:


It’s two for one I would say: you work for two weeks, you don’t work for one week, and then the other way round, you work for one week and then for two weeks you look for work.

28 Confronted with the uncertainty of employment, they all try to signal their availability to employers who approach and to highlight their readiness and willingness to work. Commitment to work is not proven by words, through standard recruitment interviews based on traditional business codes, but by body language aimed at indicating the availability of the labour force in the most corporeal, physical sense of the term (Sayad, 2014: 532). Most of them stand upright despite the hours of waiting, and all of them are alert, watching for the cars that come along, and positioning themselves as close as possible to the road. Some go so far as to gesture at every passing utility vehicle, in the manner of hitchhikers. The availability and compatibility of individuals with daily work is also asserted through clothing (Chauvin, 2015: 19-20): despite the uncertainty of recruitment, many already wear building site clothes, displaying paint-stained outfits as if to make more obvious their status as workers and their belonging to the world of “dirty work” (Hughes, 1951). A 27-year-old Beninese man explained to me that he travelled by bus every morning dressed in ordinary clothes, changed at the roundabout into worn-out work clothes and then, when the search for work proved fruitless, changed back again a few hours later to return to where he came from; behaviour that might be considered irrational if dirty clothes did not act as a strategic marker to attract a potential employer.

29 As the morning progresses, the hope of employment diminishes and the attention of those waiting for work gradually wanes; although a few diehards, refusing to go home empty-handed, continue to gesture their availability to passing vehicles. After 10 am, some leave, while others move away from their isolated spot and, more relaxed, gather with others for a chat. As midday approaches, the Marsa roundabout and the surrounding alleys are once again almost deserted.

30 In the meantime, however, a few lucky ones have managed to leave in a car that stopped beside them. According to standard practice, a few words are exchanged with the employer to set the hourly wage before climbing into the vehicle. However, it would be wrong to see in these short “one-to-one” negotiations the signs of the liberalisation of labour, as described by Cottereau (2002) in relation to 19th century Parisian employment sites, where anyone could, without intermediation, offer their services for the wage they considered adequate. Rather than being spaces of anomie, informal hiring sites appear to be partly organised and regulated. First, because those present are not there by chance or fate: the camp and the rationale of minimal and time-limited State aid contribute to throwing dozens of men in search of income onto the roundabout and into the informal economy that is organised there every day. Secondly, because despite vague attempts to negotiate, the price of labour is almost always set at five euros an hour. And while some of the people I spoke to said in a dignified tone that they would refuse a lower hourly wage, others admitted that they would sometimes settle for four euros an hour, though this income was never described as genuinely compensating the effort of waiting and doing the job: I was told that, even though it did not represent a fair wage, it could encourage the employer to offer additional days of work. In these brief hiring interactions, where the experience and skills of each individual are usually ignored and where making oneself available is the only quality that is valued, everyone is replaceable. Waiting for work at the edge of the road creates a levelling out: it aligns individuals, bringing them brutally back to the same status and the same unit of experience and making them seemingly interchangeable to those who come for them; masking, at the same time, the relatively varied social classes of origin and professional experience between the exiles. For example, Hussein, a thirty-three-year-old asylum seeker, used to work as a veterinarian in Sudan. Forced to leave his native country before obtaining his degree, he struggled to resume his interrupted university studies in Malta due to lack of resources and was therefore compelled to go regularly to the Marsa roundabout. A social downgrading experienced as particularly painful by this man who, seeking to re-establish his social distinction, claimed not to be as “stupid” as his peers who were waiting on the same pavement. In this space of anonymisation and disregard for individuals’ social background, most give up claims to a trade or profession (an element also found in informal hiring sites in the United States, Theodore et al., 2006: 410), with the exception of a few people who define themselves as a gardener or a construction painter. All of them say they are prepared to do any task required, from construction to various handling jobs or catering. The lack of training for the tasks performed, combined with many employers’ neglect of protective equipment and safety regulations, explain why the building industry in Malta is particularly deadly for migrant day labourers - the extreme scarcity of labour inspections on the island does little to reduce the dangerousness of the jobs. [19]

Exile or the Inter-jobs Condition

31 The correlation between migration and precarious forms of employment has often rightly been emphasised (Terray, 1999; Ambrosini, 2010; Anderson, 2010), according to the model of the duality of the labour market in which the least valued, lowest paid and least sustainable jobs are relegated to newcomers (Piore, 1979). This long-standing connection between migration and contingent employment is all the more evident today as we have seen a proliferation of so-called “atypical” forms of work in advanced capitalist economies (Supiot, 2011) which are poorly regulated, and appear to be largely performed by migrants (Marie, 1997; Jounin, 2008). However, the observation of the daily routine of the Maltese informal hiring site, the antechamber of informal employment in Malta, suggests a departure from these conclusions. Jobs occupied by exiles when the wait proves successful are certainly precarious, i.e. characterised by uncertain duration due to a transfer of risks and market hazards from the employer to the worker (Kalleberg, 2009). Yet, focusing on precarious employment means reducing the analysis of migrant labour to that of jobs; that is, to those moments in which people, already in employment, are directly involved in the creation of value. And it should be clear, at this stage of the analysis, that employment is actually only an isolated moment within a larger temporal sequence. Therefore, what characterises the relationship of people in exile to work is not so much the holding of jobs, whatever they may be, or the participation in production as such, but rather the waiting time that surrounds those brief moments. As a result, exiles cannot be classified based on a familiar dichotomy separating, on the one hand, those who are “in employment” and, on the other, those who are “unemployed”, categories which presuppose the description of states that are sufficiently durable to be relevant. By shifting the analysis of migrant labour from the experience in employment to the more general experience before and after employment, I contend that exiles seeking work at the Marsa roundabout instead evoke a category of eternal in-betweens: those who might be said to be “inter-jobs”. [20] By this term, I do not seek to designate only the temporal interval separating the end of one job and the beginning of another, an interval that sometimes takes up most of the exile’s week. Rather, the aim is to understand the original relationship to work of people who are constantly waiting for the next.

32 This conceptual shift has theoretical implications. Extending the understanding of migrant labour to its interstices, to the phases of waiting and to exiles’ expression of their availability, presupposes first of all making a distinction between the wait for work and idleness. Instead, just as traders on a market lay out their goods on a stall while waiting for their customers, the long hours that precede and follow the sale of labour-power at the informal hiring site correspond to a work-related temporality. “Waiting for the boss” is not, as has been shown, a stage of idleness, but that of an active approach and self-presentation that requires continuous efforts. Waiting at an appointed location constitutes, as Sébastien Chauvin showed in relation to Chicago day labour, a form of unpaid labour whereby a “stored” labour force is made available to whoever comes looking for it (2013: 148). Rather than the standard distinction between working time in employment and free time outside employment, the relationship of exiles to work should be understood more in terms of a distinction between time sold, that of daily jobs which give rise to remuneration, and time selling, which is unpaid, and which corresponds to the time spent making oneself available at the informal hiring site. Putting people in exile to work means first of all putting them in line. And it is this docile patience that allows the local employer, in just a few minutes, to fill a sudden need for additional workers and, in so doing, to reap the benefits of the intense flexibility of just-in-time production.

33 But more important than this function of stockpiling labour, the inter-jobs situation and the wait that characterises it are deployed as a mode of government, becoming a condition of the making of consent to intense, often dangerous and very poorly paid jobs, such as carrying heavy loads, often unprotected and sometimes several metres above the ground. Working, in particular in this type of task, is never a natural and inevitable activity, as Burawoy (1979) highlighted in his famous Manufacturing Consent, but presupposes the production of minimum consent to the participation in production according to unfair labour relations. However, Burawoy argues that consent derives only from the immediate experience of production “independent of schooling, family life, mass media, the state and so forth.” (1979: xvii). The routine at the Maltese informal hiring site shows on the contrary that consent is forged in those waiting times that surround one-off jobs. Despite the intensity of exploitation, few people are forthcoming when asked about the difficulties and abuses encountered in their careers as day labourers. With the exception of experiences of wage theft, few of those waiting at the Marsa roundabout express grievances against their employers. Several of my interviewees, conversely, explained that working hard, without complaint, is advisable in the hope that the employer will revisit the initial agreement and pay the deserving worker over and above what was agreed. Unpaid work hours are also and above all seen as a necessary evil to stand a chance that the ultra-temporary job will continue when a satisfied employer decides to grant additional work days. For example, Moïse, an eighteen-year-old Guinean man, lost his financial allowance as an asylum seeker due to too many absences from the “open centre” in search of employment at the Marsa roundabout, even though the few jobs he obtained, mainly loading and unloading bags of flour, did not compensate for the loss of state aid. But forced to choose between two situations of waiting, on the one hand the certain wait for a small income after hours of queuing in the “open centre” to sign in, and on the other the uncertain wait for a daily job, Moses, like others, proudly stands by his decision to opt for this second option. Remaining idle in places of seclusion and participating in the obligatory sign-in sessions is often scorned by persons in exile stationed at the site of the informal labour market, as an attitude contrary to that of the willing, brave individual ready to do anything to work and to eventually get out of day labour and its indissociable waiting time. With a freshly obtained one-year contract as an assistant in the kitchens of a large hotel, Moïse thus claimed, enthusiastically, that it was thanks to his perseverance at the Marsa roundabout that he eventually managed to get “spotted” and to secure a more stable and better paid job. Concerned with the wait for the next job that may drag on and on, working obediently and enthusiastically is for the exiles the best way to increase the chances of retaining the job and of seeing the day’s work repeated. Thus, the step that all day labourers know to be the most important when they get a job is to give their mobile number to the employer at the end of the working day in the hope of being called back. However, getting the job that everyone dreams of, precarious perhaps, but which lasts, is never an irreversible situation and the spectre of inter-jobs always looms large. An example of this among many others was a thirty-one-year-old Ivorian man I met with rejected asylum status and who, after three months as a vendor in a Starbucks café, was dismissed and forced again, dejected, to wait on the Marsa roundabout.

34 The major effect of the obligation to wait at the informal hiring site is that everyone perceives the employers as the ones offering work and the exiles as the ones asking for it. Hence day labourers tend to consider that one should be grateful for getting a job, even for a few hours. By exceeding employers’ expectations, for example by willingly working a few unpaid hours, one can hope to shift the moral debt to the employer so that the latter, dislodged from the position of generous donor, becomes indebted to his worker and grants further days of work. In other words, while the routine of the Marsa roundabout can be perceived by the hasty observer as an extreme commodification of labour, the situation of inter-jobs is in truth more complicated than a mere economic exchange. Rather than a crude trade in labour-power, it is a trade in hopes that operates there: individuals are incited by the waiting and the condition of uncertainty to consent to arduous and underpaid work in the expectation of getting more and finding, in the end, a job that lasts.


35 In spite of relentless discourse about the unbearable burden that exiles are said to represent for Malta, expressed by both political leaders and state officials in charge of migration control, this close study of the daily experience of exiles in this border area of the European Union reveals the central position that they occupy in local production. Behind the rhetoric of the “migration burden” and the logic of minimal assistance appears the burden that migrants, as tractable workers for the rise of the Maltese economy, must bear. And while some representatives of employers’ organisations call for the exiled population to be considered as a “resource”, such a plea should be understood less as a sign of opposition than as a logical development to the principle of the “migration burden”: it is precisely because the presence of exiles is seen as a suffocating burden for the island state that, summoned to make themselves useful, they are required to become workers to carry out the most exhausting, dangerous and hazardous jobs.

36 The experience of exiled labour cannot be separated from the experience of the border, because, although the border has not prevented the passage of individuals, it has in a way transformed them by giving them a specific status that translates into an equally specific role in local production (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013). People in exile, placed in camps and receiving limited and fixed-term financial support, are compelled to work. Yet, deprived of any recognised competence other than their availability they constitute not so much the figures of precarious employment as those trapped in what should more accurately be called the situation of inter-jobs: filling the interstices formed by a capitalist system in which erratic and casual labour needs presuppose a waiting population continuously at its disposal, lined up, a labour force that can be endlessly mobilised and de-mobilised. In turn, the imposed, long and unpredictable wait for jobs extorts the exiles’ consent to the jobs assigned to them. The situation of waiting is therefore at the heart of the experience of these new “floating populations” formed by exiles, as Bayart (2004: 405-431) showed. It is also, I argue, a productive force that ensures the conversion of exiles into a singular labour force that fits the contemporary needs of economic accumulation so well.

37 This observation is of course not unique to Malta. The highly seasonal nature of large segments of Maltese production and the urgent and occasional needs for additional labour, especially in the building sector, certainly shape the exiled population’s relation to work. It is therefore not surprising to find similar dynamics in other southern European economies (King and Thomson 2008), where there is a significant presence of exiles and a strong demand from employers for casual workers — although, in the case of Spain and Italy in particular, these demands are concentrated in the field of agriculture, an economic sector which remains very limited in Malta. The island is at most the magnifying glass, the “place of condensation” of wider migratory dynamics (Bernardie-Tahir and Schmoll, 2014a: 94). The “refugeeisation” of segments of the labour force (Dines and Rigo, 2015), the ever-increasing presence of migrant workers who do not correspond to the traditional figure of the “guestworker”, subject to a temporary permit, is certainly to be found in many other places (Rea, 2010).

38 Yet, according to the doctrine of states and migration control, economic migration and asylum routes should never be confused. One might then be tempted to think that the enrolment of exiles in the local labour force, especially as it is essentially carried out in informal employment, constitutes a failure of the government of migration, the evidence of fugitive practices circumventing state efforts to govern and categorise populations. This article has shown that this is not the case: not only is the informal labour market, from the experience of waiting to that of hiring, at the foundation of the formal and legitimate economy (Morice and Potot, 2010: 13), but the daily circulations between the infrastructures where people in exile are relegated and the sites of informal work invalidate such an interpretation. The informal employment of people in exile, under the particular conditions that characterise it, is largely permitted and encouraged by the state or at least by its specific representatives.

39 Confronted with a state that excludes and criminalises “irregular migrants”, but which at the same time authorises and encourages their conversion into a workforce for ultra-temporary work, we are called upon to assess the gap that separates governing authorities’ discourse on migration from migration in practice, should we conclude that state authorities are in the service of industry, simulating and dissimulating their true intention?

40 Many of the critical contributions on migrant labour have adopted this analytical bias more or less explicitly, making the state, law-makers and bureaucrats the hidden protagonists in the exploitation of foreigners (e.g. Moulier-Boutang, 1998; Terray, 1999).Nothing corroborates, however, such a hypothesis. Instead, all the evidence indicates that, rather than a pretence by the authorities, political and administrative leaders, in Malta as elsewhere, sincerely believe in the thesis of the “migration burden” and in the virtues of the fight against “irregular migration”. There is no machination nor mystification and it is not a matter of “lifting the veil of words”, in Veyne’s terms (1995: 39), in order to find hidden there, waiting to be discovered, the coherent and univocal strategy that the local authorities are secretly pursuing (Hibou, 2006: 25). By rejecting the instrumentalist reasoning that too often leads social scientists to imagine “a world where lying, a conscious procedure for the perversion of information, is the main means of exercising power” (Bertrand, 2007: 95), the ambivalence of the treatment of exiles carries with it a more profound lesson about the ordinariness of domination in contemporary societies and their productive spaces. People in exile are simultaneously set aside and put to work, undesirable and useful. And it is in the coincidence of contradictory rationales, economic and security motives, and in the windfall effects that the border and migratory control generate, that the condition of exile, a condition of inter-jobs, emerges in the context of capitalist exploitation.


  • [1]
    The “secret agreements” affair broke out following the revelations of a man working closely with the Prime Minister in office until January 2020. He claimed to have negotiated cooperation agreements between the Maltese army and Tripoli, on behalf of the Maltese government, in order to organise the pushback of boats leaving the Libyan coast.
  • [2]
    Following the closure of the ports in March 2020, more than 400 people were detained at sea, some for five weeks, before the Maltese government, fearing revolts, agreed to their disembarkation.
  • [3]
    Robert Abela, Prime Minister of Malta, Letter to Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights, 8 May 2020, [online] accessed on 19/06/2020. URL:
  • [4]
    Adrian Delia, leader of the opposition, quoted in Carabott Sarah, “Pushback is never the solution” — Adrian Delia, Times of Malta, 23 May 2020.
  • [5]
    Malta Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Pre-election proposals: Policy proposals by the Malta Chamber of Commerce and Industry for a competitiveness-centered electoral manifesto, May 2017, p. 20.
  • [6]
    Furthermore, according to official statistics provided by JobsPlus, the number of non-EU nationals holding a work permit rose from 11,528 in 2008 to 33,991 in 2019.
  • [7]
    Repatriation of foreign workers who lost jobs due to COVID-19 to continue over coming days, The Independent, 24 May 2020.
  • [8]
    Refugees Act of 25 July 2000.
  • [9]
    According to Eurostat figures, in 2019, Malta had 304 asylum seekers per 100,000 inhabitants. In comparison, Italy had 159 asylum seekers per 100,000 inhabitants, France 172 per 100,000 inhabitants and Germany 216 per 100,000 inhabitants.
  • [10]
    Aggregate Eurostat data on first instance decisions on asylum applications for the twenty-eight EU Member States (including the UK), for the period 2014-2019.
  • [11]
    Article 14 (1) (b) of Legal Notice 243 of 2008.
  • [12]
    According to Budget records, in 2006 Malta spent € 720,000 on detention services, a figure that reached more than € five million in 2016 (excluding EU funding which contributes significantly to the costs of detention facilities). Since then, the national budget allocated to detention services for exiles has fallen slightly, to € four million in 2019.
  • [13]
    Ministry of Home Affairs and National Security, Strategy for the Reception of Asylum Seekers and Irregular Migrants, 9 September 2015, La Valette.
  • [14]
    When it was established in 2015, the Initial Reception Centre in Marsa, which registers asylum seekers before their assignment to an “open centre”, was supposed to allow free entry and exit. However, the site is regularly converted into a de facto detention facility, officially for health reasons, while granting exceptions to some residents on a case-by-case basis. At the time of the most recent survey conducted at the end of 2020, residents on the ground floor were free to move around, while their neighbours on the first floor of the building were detained.
  • [15]
    Men are over-represented among asylum seekers and thus among the population in “open centres,” accounting for 85% of residents in 2019. The eighteen-thirty-four age group is by far the largest among asylum seekers in Malta (they represented 71% of applicants in Malta in 2019 according to the Office of the Refugee Commissioner).
  • [16]
    Article 15 of Directive 2013/33 of the European Parliament and Council laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection. Transposed into Maltese law by Legal Notice 417 of 2015.
  • [17]
    Muscat warns of “instability” if electricity, fuel prices reflect oil market value, MaltaToday, 8 October 2015.
  • [18]
    Workers risk abuse with watered-down jobs scheme, MaltaToday, 7 February 2017.
  • [19]
    With only five health and safety inspectors for the whole country at the end of 2019, the number of inspections in Malta is extremely low (371 in 2019 according to figures from the Direction of Industrial and Employment Relations). Fatal accidents at work show that migrants are the first victims of the dearth of inspections. Indeed, while until recently recorded work-related fatalities affected almost exclusively Maltese citizens, since 2014 they have caused the death of migrant and national workers in roughly equal numbers, despite the fact that the former are far less numerous than the latter. Construction is by far the leading sector for fatalities (National Statistics Office, Fatalities at Work, 2019, Valletta).
  • [20]
    This conceptualisation, which seeks to go beyond that of employment versus lack of employment, is very loosely based on the work of Debos (2013) and her questioning of an entirely different distinction, that of war and peace, and her reflections on what she calls “inter-wars”.

Confronted with a “migration burden” deemed unbearable by the authorities, Malta is seen as one of the emblematic spaces of exclusion of exiles in Europe. However, the relegation of undesirables, isolated in the island’s “open centres”, does not equate to their removal from the local economy and society. By looking at circulation between state institutions designed to exclude exiles and the routine organisation of informal labour on the island, this article explores the ambivalence between the distancing and the workforce mobilisation of “undesirables”, between the doctrine of the “migration burden” and the burden on exiles in Maltese production. It shows how exiles are called upon to join the ranks of what I call “inter-jobs”, filling the interstices formed by a capitalist system whose erratic, casual and ephemeral labour needs presuppose a waiting population continuously at its disposal, a labour force that can be endlessly mobilised and de-mobilised.

  • employment
  • exile
  • exclusion
  • camps
  • informal economy
  • Malta
  • labour formation

Du « fardeau migratoire » au fardeau des migrants. L’exil à Malte ou la condition d’entre-emplois

Confronté à un « fardeau migratoire » jugé insoutenable par les autorités, Malte apparaît comme l’un des espaces emblématiques de l’exclusion des exilés en Europe. La relégation des indésirables, reclus dans les « centres ouverts » de l’île, ne se résume pas pour autant à leur retrait pur et simple de l’économie et de la société locale. En étudiant les circulations entre les institutions d’État destinées à exclure les exilés et l’organisation routinière du travail informel sur l’île, l’article explore les ambivalences entre la mise à l’écart et la mise au travail des personnes « indésirables », entre la doctrine du « fardeau migratoire » et le fardeau qui incombe aux personnes en exil dans le monde productif maltais. Il s’agit alors de montrer comment les exilés sont appelés à rejoindre les rangs de ce que l’on appellera l’« entre-emplois » : remplissant les interstices que forme un capitalisme dont les besoins de travail erratiques, ponctuels et éphémères supposent de trouver continuellement à sa disposition une population en attente, force de travail sans cesse mobilisable et démobilisable.

  • économie informelle
  • exil
  • exclusion
  • camps
  • travail précaire
  • mise au travail
  • Malte

De la «carga migratoria» a la carga de los migrantes. Los solicitantes de asilo en Malta o la condición de entre-empleos

Enfrentándose con una «carga migratoria» calificada como inaceptable por las autoridades, Malta aparece como uno de los espacios emblemáticos de la exclusión de migrantes en Europa. Sin embargo, la relegación de los indeseados, recluidos en los «centros abiertos» de la isla, no se limita a su desaparición de la economía y de la sociedad local. Estudiando las circulaciones entre las instituciones estatales concebidas para excluir los migrantes, por un lado, y la organización rutinaria del trabajo informal sobre la isla, por otro lado, el artículo indaga las ambivalencias entre la marginación y la explotación laboral de los migrantes, entre la doctrina de la «carga migratoria» y la carga que cargan los solicitantes de asilo en el mundo productivo maltés. Se trata entonces de mostrar como los solicitantes de asilo son convertidos en mano de obra de lo que llamamos el «entre-empleos»: ocupando los intersticios creados por el capitalismo cuyas necesidades de trabajo erráticas, puntuales y efímeras suponen disponer siempre de una población en espera, una fuerza de trabajo siempre movilizable y demovilizable.

  • solicitantes de asilo
  • exclusión
  • campos
  • precariedad laboral
  • economía informal
  • explotación
  • Malta
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Lucas Puygrenier
Doctoral student in political science, Centre for International Studies (CERI-Sciences Po), 56 rue Jacob, 75006, Paris; (ORCID No.: 0000-0002-1275-2360)
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
Katherine Booth
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 23/09/2022
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