Justice for Refat! The Uprising of Bulgarian Migrant Workers in Duisburg-Marxloh

The Uprising of Bulgarian Migrant Workers in Duisburg-Marxloh

In the last five decades the economy of the Ruhr region in West Germany had undergone massive restructuring, from a hub of coal and steel production to a lower-productivity, lower-margin service sector employment site. Rounds of cost-cutting strategies and excess capacity restructuring in steel production have resulted in thousands of job losses, as well as in the neoliberalisation of employment relations and the mass spread of temp work and other flexible contract arrangements. These changes had been paralleled by the mass exodus of the native workforce and the liberalisation of EU-ropean migration policies, substituting former ‘gastarbeiter’ cohorts with  re-newed flows of low-cost and precarised labour from the East. It is mostly workers from marginalised minorities in Bulgaria and Romania who have been made to bear the brunt of higher operating costs, volatile global  markets and the expansion of the logistics sector through which Duisburg plans to re-assert a central space in the global economy. The majority of migrant workers are subjected to the imperatives of grey labour, minimum pay rates exist only on paper, benefit and insurance payments are often avoided by employers, at the same time unlawful deductions draw many into a cycle of debt. Duisburg had been the site of some of the largest workers’ mobilizations in West German’s industrial history. It recently became the site of the most numerous collective uprising of precarious migrant workers from the East in Germany.

On October 14th, 2022 the Turkish Bulgarian community in Duisburg, Germany, was shaken by the news of the disappearance of Refat Süleyman, a 26-year-old migrant worker from Stolipinovo, an ethnically segregated residential district in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Refat had been working for Eleman Ltd., a work leasing agency specialising in industrial cleaning and production. It was Refat’s third week as a temp cleaner and only his third day in ThyssenKrupp Steel, Germany’s largest steel producer when he was sent on a break from which he never returned. 

Refat’s body was found three days later, on October 17th by one of his co-workers who noticed a white nylon re-surfacing as a slag pond had been refilled. The fact that Refat was found kilometres away from his assigned workstation, in a designated safety zone servicing toxic waste, did not surprise the cleaners. The practice of sub-leasing workers between contractors on site and re-assigning newcomers to hazardous work that others shunned, was common in their line of work.

This case brings in focus the highly precariatised conditions under which large ethnic minority populations from Bulgaria and Romania had been compelled to sell their labour in post-industrial Western metropolises whose economies had been fundamentally reconfigured around the principles of subcontracting, irregularity and flexibilisation. In public debates and dominant political agendas such labour practices and the specific spatialised and racialised technologies of governance that render them possible had been largely invisiblised in favour of the moralizing and securitizing undertones that define the historical reproduction of ‘problematic’ Roma and Muslim mobilities (Van Baar et al. 2019). On the level of urban politics, where the conflicting realms of mobility, labour, and welfare intermesh, the precariousness of the ‘Southeast European Roma’ had been scandalised as a threat to social peace, as placing additional burden on already ‘overstretched’ provisional capacities and as leading to the further devaluation of structurally weak urban territories.

Historically, urban zones of segregation, such as Duisburg’s Marxloh and Bruckhausen where the majority of migrant populations from Bulgaria and Romania concentrate, have always operated according to a relation of asymmetric dependency (Wacquant 2009).  At once reproducing the violence of power and at the same time breeding the conditions that can lead to its ultimate subversion. The global emergence of ‘abject’ places (Isin & Rygel 2007) is closely intertwined with the prevention of rights-claiming and the systematic denial of human agency. In turn, the solidarity and community-building that isolation often helps cultivate has been feared for its subversive potential. The death of Refat Süleyman signalled such a moment of rupture, in which the deeply sedimented and not always visible structures of domination that sustain the unequal status of some groups are brought to the surface and recognized as part of a process of injustice, exploitation and racialization. 

From a family and community tragedy that many empathized with, Refat’s death escalated into a cause for justice, mobilizing the discontent of thousands of migrants whose truths have been suffocated from the German public debate and who have been subjected to the pitfalls of political interventionism and media extractivism. Within eight months, from October 2022 to May 2023, protesters raised demands for end of exploitative work arrangements in industrial cleaning and the other work-intensive sectors within which migrants predominate; against racism and structural discrimination in welfare, housing and healthcare; and for justice to be done for all those falling prey to predatory policing and institutional brutality. In numerous meetings, info events and get-togethers, issues of working rights enforcement, bargaining, collective organizing, enforcement of rights, and access to social protection were discussed. Migrant workers were particularly disillusioned with the position of local trade unions who not only failed to stand behind their demands but continued to back up the company’s line of argumentation, either explicitly, or by deliberate disengagement. At the same time, their efforts were successful in making conditions of migrant workers’ disposability visible on a local level and in revitalizing some rusty solidarity networks that criss-cross this historical locus of labour struggle. Most importantly, the efforts of local communities transpired the formation of a self-organized, collective political subject that could successfully transform processes of exploitation and disciplining into a source of struggle and self-emancipation.
On October 23rd, 2022 more than three thousand people marched in front of the gates of ThyssenKrupp Steel, Bruckhausen, to demand ‘Adalet!’ (“Justice!”) for the death of Refat Süleyman. Their calls gathered the support of the local communities of former ‘gastarbeiter’ workers, along with compatriots arriving from the Netherlands, France and Belgium. This came as a backlash against an initial police statement that indicated suicide as a possible cause of death. The fiasco of the officially organized police search operation and the sluggish police work raised fears of another cover up that workers were determined to prevent.
Personnel recruitment companies are a common sight in the neighbourhood. The labor market niche in which migrant workers in Duisburg are forced to exist is almost entirely dominated by subcontractors, be it in cleaning, delivery, construction, or production. Subcontracting enables companies to increase their competitive advantage by outsourcing labour-intensive tasks to domestic or external contractors, creating a chain of intransparency and diluted responsibility. It unties the hands of employers who can easily circumvent protective legislation and administer business models that facilitate exploitation by fragmenting worker statuses, disregarding collective bargaining agreements and preventing mass organizing.
The skeleton of TKS production facilities looms over the district of Duisburg-Marxloh, a historic strategic node for the tensions between modes of capitalist accumulation on a global scale and the fixture of labour populations to territorial borderlands, ever since the wake of industrialization in the beginning of the 19th century. Unlike the complete abandonment characteristic of other heavy production districts in the region, Marxloh retained some of its former ‘black giant’ glory as production facilities of TKS – two blast furnaces (the second opened only in 1993), a coking plant and several smaller industrial sites – continued to operate in full despite drastic downsizing. Consecutive waves of (forced) redundancies caused by rationalisations and restructuring resulted in 90, 000 job losses. Currently the steel factory employs more than 17, 000 workers, half of them labour on temporary contracts.
Most workers keep their own timesheets to track working hours. A common practice by employers is the manipulation of overtime hours. Despite being hired for 60 to 80 hours per week, workers are frequently required to double that amount as overtime, which employers undercount or refuse to compensate. Overtime is also used as an arm-twisting strategy to discourage workers from asserting their rights, with employers threatening to repay outstanding hours in full, exceeding the monthly income limit and automatically terminating supplementary in-work payments.
To the external observer, a regular day in the district evokes Loïc Wacquant’s concept of the ghetto as a ‘carceral-assistential complex’ (2009). The presence of stationed police buses, circulating patrol cars, groups of police officers monitoring passers-by, public servants photographing street waste, mobile surveillance cameras, and prohibitory signs contribute to the pervasive policing atmosphere in the so-called ‘Detroit of the Ruhr’. Nearly every migrant in the area has a story to share about unjustified fines, arbitrary seizure of property, harassment, raids, and unwarranted violence by law enforcement authorities.
In the wake of EU labour market liberalisation in 2014, the arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians fell under the ‘poverty migration’ framing which ranged from criminalizing the newcomers as benefit abusers, to their victimization as easy prey for gang criminality and their problematisation as an unprecedented threat to the public order and social peace in an urban context. This re-activated historical tropes of mobile Roma populations as a menace to Western ‘civilization’ which served as the rhetorical basis for the assembling of a complex and mutli-scaled apparatus of control. Sören Link, the mayor of Duisburg has been at the forefront of such reactionary urban interventions since 2013. His calls for ‘emergency aid’ to tackle the imminent burden of ‘Roma’ migration, culminated in the following statement: ‘I have to deal with people here who litter entire streets and exacerbate the rat problem. That upsets the citizens.’
In March 2022 Turkish-Bulgarian migrants in Marxloh founded ‘Stolipinovo in Europa’, a grassroots migrant support initiative carrying the name of another ethnically segregated neighbourhood in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Activists’ efforts consisted in bringing critical awareness to conditions of multiple exploitation and precarity for a racialized group of East European migrants. They organized organization demonstrations, carried debates and informal meetings with workers, as well as developed strategies of resistance through the forging of solidarity among migrants from different ethnic/religious/nationality groups and transnational networks of interested actors. From October 2022 onwards, the efforts of the initiative were directed towards scandalizing the death of Refat Süleyman as a symptom for the erosion of labour rights and the broader conditions of racialized violence and disciplining that constitute migrants’ vulnerability in such marginal spaces.
A protest in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Duisburg in March 2023. The first stage of the police investigation of Refat Süleyman’s death, carried under the pressure of the community’s demand for justice and truth came to a close in June 2023. According to unofficial sources, the conclusion of the authorities suggests that health and safety violations on part of ThyssenKrupp Steel could have played a role in Refat Süleyman’s death. Photos by Polina Manolova (1 and 3-9) and Ferdinand Yordanov from ‘Stolipinovo in Europa’ (2).

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