Unpaid Workers of the World Unite
In contemplation of solidarity and unpaid state labour
I’ve been working in solidarity with refugees in Greece for the last two years. I work for free, but I work harder than I have ever done before. I love it even when it drives me crazy through lack of sleep. I love the people I have met and am lucky enough to work with every day. I love feeling involved in a movement. But traditional work it is not.
The most I have received in return financially is a roof over my head for a year and 400 euros a month for 6 months for living costs. Both of these support structures are now gone. But both seem massive in comparison to what some of my colleagues endure. I feel grateful to have received anything.
I’ve sold everything of worth I own and feel lighter for it. Yet, to have things to sell is a privilege in itself. As is the knowledge that my country has free health care. If I am broken I can be fixed. As long as I can afford to get there.
I definitely don’t use my PhD in the way I intended, but I do use it, in signing off the reference letters of volunteers and filling in acceptance forms for young academics who come to do their research with us, while we take it in turns to mop the stairs and clean the toilets.
This is not a piece about how I am exceptionally good person, I am not. I am trying to stay sane in a world which is trying to drive us all crazy. I do not believe in altruism. The ability to work for free is its own strange privilege.
‘How did I get here?’, my friends and I often ask ourselves. Well, we met on Lesvos outside the Moria refugee camp. I worked in the kitchen, some of us worked with the buses of people arriving wet and dripping from the sea, still more worked in clothes distribution, some of us arrived as refugees and got straight to work so as not to think about the past, and about the journey.
After a long struggle to find a place and a lot of arguments we opened a community centre in Athens called Khora.
We believe in freedom of movement for all. Especially, but not only, for the people we love, the people we work with every day - those we stir the pots for lunch with, or stare at accounting figures with, until our eyes cry out in protest. We must stand in solidarity with displaced people, because some of us are displaced people.
Everyone has the right to choice, autonomy, dignity, community and the ability to access the basic means to live. I think. We think. We had a meeting about it. A consensus based one. To prove the point.
We have come together to facilitate a space where people can learn, create, socialise, relax and have access to a range of resources. We are not supposed to work a 7 day week, but often we do. We have recreated a work/life balance which is untenable, unsustainable, and out-right bad for us. We definitely wouldn’t do it for money, so why are we doing it for free?
And is it entirely of our own free will? The services we provide – legal support, a dentistry (for a time), child care, education, food, clothes, all the basics – have all already been paid for. They were paid for by the EU, who handed the money to large organisations like Praxis. The Government of Greece, who also gave a lot on money to the army, to provide food, which is a strange job for the army to do, decided they didn’t need to account for it, no notes were taken, no spreadsheets filled in, but the money was still spend and people lived on pasta that looked like it was covered in a thin layer of spittle. The army don’t cook well, at least not in Greece.
Are we merely covering for the Government and the EU? Mopping up their mess. Hiding their disgrace under the carpet.
The current EU system is inherently violent towards particular groups. Something else we agreed on in a meeting (we have a lot of meetings). The people that die at sea are not white people, they are black and brown people, and Europe is scared of them. So they built fences. So they fired water cannon at boats in the open sea. So they returned them to die in the countries they’d escaped. So they said if you were gay and that was a problem you just shouldn’t talk about it. So they watched as people were tortured in Libya. So they watched as the modern slave trade blossomed.
Even as you write the words, you can’t believe they’re real.
Somebody, somewhere should be held to account, but I’m sorry, I can’t do it right now, I’m too busy cleaning this toilet.
What I do with my daily life does not directly confront the systems that have created the situation with which we are dealing. There’s no getting away from it. And yet, I get the sense that being and creating in a space were community is possible despite all the laws, social constraints and language differences, is in its own way a radical act. To work non-hierarchically challenges the power structures that govern us and should allow for equal and honest discussion that breaks down borders between individuals regardless of their background. We are not an NGO, a charity or associated with government bodies.
But are we enough?
And, interestingly, many of us are women. The traditional carers, we are supposed to work silently in the background mopping brows and cleaning, we are not supposed to be paid for our work. And guess what, we’re not. Am I conditioned to work for free?
And this is not all we do for free. I am a writer and I write for free. I write the news but I also write stories. I write stories because I love stories, but stories are art, and I must feel grateful when they are published for free. Especially if those publishing them make money from their website, blog, newsletter, or advertising. Among us there are photographers, carpenters, electricians and engineers. And although it is not possible to build bridges for free, I know a few friends who would try.
The most peculiar thing of all, is that we are, by and large, happy to work together. And now we have the opportunity to support some people who cannot give their time for free, but it will never be everyone, and it will never be much. And people continue to give us their time. We continue to give our time to each other. And other than the fact that this will not buy cigarettes, it is also enough, and I should probably quit anyway.
Emma Musty is an editor and writer with Are You Syrious? an independent daily news digest which covers news from the ground regarding the situation for refugees throughout Europe. Her work, both fiction and non-fiction, has been published in print and online, most recently in the Exposition Review. Her novel, A Short History of Lines, was longlisted in the Mslexia and Cinnamon Press Novel Awards. She was awarded her PhD in 2016 and has taught a variety of creative writing and literary modules and workshops both at Aberystwyth University and in the community. She currently lives in Greece having set up Khora, a community centre run for and by the refugee and Greek community along with international volunteers.