Let the Dead Speak: Forgotten Workers

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM, Sweden, May 28 2024 – Immigration policies are among the most hotly debated topics in Europe. Xenophobia, combined with curbing immigration, have become the main reason to why ever-increasing large crowds of voters are supporting populist parties.

A visit to World War I French war cemeteries might provide a different perspective on import and exploitation of labourers from poor countries in the South, indicating what their suffering have meant to European wellbeing. For hundreds, even thousands of years, Europe has been dependent on a forced and often badly treated labour force – slaves, serfs, indentured labourers, prisoners of war – people who have been captured, or hired, and then transported from areas outside Europe, a practise especially evident during World War I.

In Noyelles-Sur-Mernot, we find a Chinese cemetery, not far from the blood-soaked battlefield of Somme, where in 1916 approximately one million soldiers, during less than four months, lost their lives, or went missing. Here rests some of the 100,000 coolies who in China and Vietnam had been contracted by British and French armies to work, fight and die in the mud of the trenches.

Coolies, in Chinese written as 苦力, meaning ”bitter labour” or “bitter strength”, went everywhere, from the Arctic to the southern ends of the world. They built railways in the USA, in Alaska, in the jungles of Amazonia, in the Middle East and Siberia. They worked in Peruvian silver mines and the diamond mines of Natal (South Africa), in guano fields in Peru and on sugar plantations in Trinidad, Cuba, and the German Samoa.

Chinese workers were hired for pitiful amounts by professional contractors, obtaining advances from their customers and assuming the responsibility for discipline, travel, control, and supervision. After being sprayed head to foot with disinfectants and having their characteristic ponytails cut of, Chinese coolies were shipped off towards harsh work and/or battlefields. A long sea voyage, that could last more than four months, with diseases and insufficient food, killed many of them. Since Westerners found it difficult to distinguish one worker from another and to learn Chinese and Vietnamese names, coolies were deprived of their names and assigned numbers instead. Outside working hours coolies were not allowed into military canteens, or to mix with civilians, most of them lived in guarded and wired camps.

Coolies were generally considered to be replaceable and often treated in an inhuman manner. In the 1890’s, a Swedish foreign legionnaire, Bertil Nelsson, described a crossing of a mountain range in Tonkin (Vietnam):

    “During these campaigns, a coolie’s life was valued only if he was able to carry his burden, otherwise he was finished off. If he fell down, a European soon came forward with stick in hand and whipped him until he rose up again. It was a repugnant spectacle to witness how poor blood-whipped wretches were trudging forward under heavy loads. Finally, the weaker of them stumbled and fell, again and again. It was harder and harder for them to get up on their feet again. Finally, their lifeless bodies lied there without a cry under the hard blows of a cane, without a tremor of the eyelids, not even when their noses had been crushed by brutal Europeans, or when a revolver was raised and fired into their skulls. Thus, it was demonstrated to the others that only death could free them.”

Not far from the cemetery of Noyelles-Sur-Mernot we find the cemetery of Chapellete, one of six Indian War cemeteries around Somme and Amiens. The British considered the Indian continent as an integrated part of their empire, recruiting 800,000 Indian soldiers and 500,000 coolies, bringing them to various war zones of World War I, at least 73,000 of them died.

This was not only a wartime procedure. Between 1896 and 1901, some 32,000 Indian, indentured labourers constructed a railway linking Uganda to the sea port of Mombasa, 2,500 labourers died during its construction. In the British colony of Natal approximately 200,000 Indians arrived as indentured labourers to work in mines and plantations. Between 1838 and 1920, 230,000 indentured Indian labourers arrived in British Guyana, mainly to toil in the plantations. During the same period more than 135,000 Indians arrived in Trinidad-Tobago. At the same time, the French contracted 30,000 Indians for work in Martinique, 20,000 to work in French Guyana, and no less than 500,000 were destined to Mauritius, whose descendants now constitute more than 65 % of the island’s population.

These were just a few examples to indicate how the colonial powers of France and Great Britain spread Indian and Chinese workers around the globe. The great majority of this generally harshly treated labour force remained where they had been brought, in spite of the fact that contracts and enforcement had stipulated they were supposed to be transported back to China and India.

Many Chinese, Indian and African coolies, as well as some Europeans, were “indentured labourers”. Since the sixteenth century an indentured servant was usually a labourer contracted to work, without pay, three to seven years in exchange for the cost of transportation, food, clothing, and a place to live. Indentures were quite common in Colonial America and different from slaves in the sense that their captivity was temporary and could be ended if they paid off the debts incurred for food and housing. An indenture could be sold. After arriving at their destination indentures were generally sold to the highest bidder. Like prices of slaves, their price went up or down depending on supply and demand. Indentured labour could also by authorities be used as a punishment, something that befell many European “vagrants” and minor criminals, who were sent off to the “colonies”.

Another French cemetery, this one from World War II, situated just outside Lyon, might also remind us of sacrifices endured by people subdued under colonialism. Two days after Marshal Pétain had announced France’s surrender to the Nazis, the 25th regiment of Tiralleurs Sénégalais tried in the small town of Chasselay to hinder the German army from entering Lyon. Tiralleurs Sénégalais was the all-encompassing denomination of sub-Saharan recruits, of whom most came from Senegal. During the days that followed, the Germans experienced heavy losses, before the French and Africans surrendered. Prisoners were divided into two: The French on one side, the Africans on the other. The latter were machine-gunned.

During World War I, 200,000 African troops were recruited by the French Army of whom 135,000 were deployed to Europe, where 30,000 were killed. During World War II, approximately the same number of Africans were recruited by France, of whom 40,000 were deployed to Europe.

During World Wars I and II, approximately, 4,500,000 African soldiers and military labourers were mobilized by the Brits and French, about 2,000,000 of them died. Inside Africa, during and before these wars several hundreds of thousands of porters were used to transport goods through an often roadless terrain. These porters were often recruited by force and compelled to carry their burdens far from home, harassed by diseases, the cruelty of their leaders and an unhospitable terrain. Furthermore, they were often infected by diseases, previously unknown to them, while spreading sickness themselves. During World War I, 95,000 African porters died while in British service, 15,650 under the Belgians, and 7,000 under the Germans. French and Portuguese porter deaths are unaccounted for, but assumed to be at least 20,000. Also unaccounted for are deaths among “civilians” caused by the spread of diseases and mass migration.

A work force similar to indentured labour made its appearance after World War II. During its aftermath several countries were in dire need of a numerous and effective labour force. As an example, in West Germany foreigners were allowed to work for a period of one or two years, before returning to their home country, making room for other migrants. For Turks, Tunisians and Moroccans, special rules applied – only unmarried persons could be recruited; family reunification was not allowed, a health check, and an aptitude test had to be passed. A Gastarbeiter, guest worker, could after two years not be allowed any extension. These harsh rules were mitigated over time and now more than 4 million persons with a recent Turkish migrant background live in Germany.

Communist East Germany also had a Gastarbeiter system, with workers arriving from Poland, Vietnam and Cuba. Contact between guest workers and East German citizens was extremely limited. After work, Gastarbeiter were usually restricted to their dormitories, or an area of the city which Germans were not allowed to enter. Furthermore, sexual relations with a German led to deportation. Women Gastarbeiter were not allowed to become pregnant during their stay. If they did, they were forced to have an abortion.

Similar systems have been used in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Workers from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan generally pay agents in their own countries, for travel and sponsorship during a limited time period. However, the receiving governments have currently begun to implement reforms to increase labour protection and remove elements of the Kafala (sponsorship) system, although these reforms have so far been insufficient to dismantle the system entirely. Currently, approximately 88% of the UAE population consist of expatriates, most of them migrant workers.

Not all migrant workers, i.e. persons engaged in remunerated activities in a state of which they are not nationals, have been recruited through systems similar to the Kafala, some are undocumented workers, but many continue to suffer from uncertainty and an overhanging threat of being expelled from work and livelihood. The number of international migrant workers is currently totalling 170 million. They constitute 4.9 % of the labour force of destination countries with the highest rate at 42 % in the UAE. Among international migrant workers, women constitute 41.5 % and men 58.5 %.

Whatever European anti-immigration parties may claim, the immigration of non-European labour is far from a new phenomenon. European war cemeteries, might serve as just one example testifying to the fact that Europeans have a lot to thank such “foreigners” for. Furthermore, Europeans also have reason to be ashamed of the misery their ancestors have caused such “alien workers”, as well as the fact that some are still exploiting and devaluing their contribution to the host countries’ economy and wellbeing.

IPS UN Bureau


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