Sgolacchia / Housing Migrant Workers

Housing Migrant Workers An exploration of the Rotterdam-Venlo logistic corridor

Author: Renzo Sgolacchia, University of Venice

Supervisor: Pippo Ciorra, University of Camerino; University of Venice

Research stage: Intermediate doctoral stage

Category: Extended abstract

In this period of global health emergency, the flow within the endless trajectories of global logistic corridors has become the main worldwide concern to continuously sort essential goods to the urban population and provide materials to the industrial production. Within the corridors’ space, millions of people live and work.

According to Clare Lyster in her book Learning from Logistics, the space of circulation has generated “new urban fields” at transnational scale and extended beyond the oceans 1. Similarly, Rem Koolhaas in the article The Cut, focused on the “new forms of urbanisation” that have particularly emerged in the worldwide countryside with an “immense proliferation of boxes,” referring to the large-scale buildings of warehouses and data centres 2.
Especially during the interwar period, the space of circulation played a crucial role shaping the modern cities. In particular, the Socialist City was organised according to the alignment of functions within a unique infrastructural network, what one could define a logistic corridor ante litteram. Theorised by Nikolay A. Milyutin in his book Socgorod (Socialist City), the functional-assembly-line system aimed optimising the plan of the industrial cities, and connecting these hubs at territorial and national scale 3. This plan was configured according to an unrestricted linear growth, linking various industrial poles along major lines of transportation and communication, facilitating the flow of goods from distant regions, reducing to a minimum the movements, and accommodating workers in a linearly developed residential zone parallel to the productive zone.

Since the 1970s production and labour have become fragmented along international networks, supply of goods and mobility of people became both crucial. Contemporary global logistic corridors have a dual nature, as infrastructural connections and also “operational processes.” According to Giorgio Grappi, a “corridor is a political entity” that facilitates for instance customs practices across several national borders to move goods and workers, but also contributes to the formation of new borders along transportation lines and nodes of global flows 4. Productive zones and residential zones of workers are mainly dispersed, clustered and confined within frontier zones along corridors.

Despite the interest on how logistics is urbanising the world with mere productive spaces and distribution of commodities, and how the workforce is exploited to maintain this perpetual flow, it remains unobserved how logistics workers move from abroad and where they are accommodated within corridors.

Due to its size, development, and the presence of more than six hundred employment agencies, the Rotterdam-Venlo logistic corridor can be considered an emblematic case to study the nature of the residential zones of logistics. The Dutch Government defines “EU migrant workers” as a large community of four hundred thousand people arriving in the Netherlands from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe 5. Recruited directly from abroad and through online platforms, this workforce seems to live in a parallel society. Migrant workers mainly reside segregated in remote sites such as specifically-designed labour camps and hotels, or former holiday parks and military bases, mostly located next to highways.

The organisation of production exceeds the strict confinement of productive and management sites and regulates the mobility and housing of flexible migrant workers. Rather than temporary and spontaneous solutions or the result of uncoordinated strategies, workers’ recruitment and workers’ housing are accurately and logistically structured by a network of companies external to production, the international employment agencies. Analogously to the companies that worldwide ships and distributes goods, these logistical actors optimise the use of spaces of existing infrastructures and vacant sites.
The centralised control practised by logistical actors organises the dispersed activities along corridors. Echoing the military origin of logistics, the residential zones are comparable with military camps. The employment agencies do not only operate to move workers from abroad and store them in corridors, but also provide the transportation to the workplaces, and discipline this flexible workforce by the strict regulations of labour camps and labour hotels. Playing the dual role of landlord and recruiter, the employment agencies usually convert workers into debtors, for instance when the rent expenses exceeds the wage, or can evict them at the expiration of the working contract. Migrant workers are a representative case of the twofold character of the “borderlands” that they inhabit, working and living at the same time in cross-border networks and within communities that reflect the countries of origin.

The research aims to investigate workers’ housing with the concept of “analytic borderlands” in mind. Coined by Saskia Sassen (1999) this concept understands the “spaces of intersection” as overlapped global and local strategies and where operations of power and logics of domination take place 6. Embodying the reformulated military principles of logistics such as the optimisation and control of spaces and performances, workers’ housing has the function of reproducing and organizing labour, aiming to attenuate conflicts and obstacles that could interfere with the productive capacity of the corridor. In this sense, workers’ housing reveals the concrete materialisation of different forces that can be summarised with the De Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategies 7.

Rereading the vast literature of the so-called “architecture of logistics” that focuses on corporate strategies and insurgent tactics, including law and social studies on migrant workers, but also drawing, mapping, and providing data of unexplored residential sites of the corridor, filming and interviewing NGOs members, unionists and migrant workers, I intend to deconstruct and interpret this phenomenon that is becoming a vector of contemporary urban developments.

Collage The Control Room of Logistics, by Renzo Sgolacchia

Figure 1: Collage The Control Room of Logistics, by Renzo Sgolacchia

Photo of a labour camp in North Brabant, by Renzo Sgolacchia

Figure 2: Photo of a labour camp in North Brabant, by Renzo Sgolacchia

  1. Lyster, Clare (2016): Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities, Basel, Berlin: Birkhäuser.
  2. Koolhaas, Rem (2016): “The Cut,” in: Flaunt Magazine, January 2016, available at this link:
  3. Milyutin, Nikolay Alexandrovich (1978): Sotsgorod. The Problem of Building Socialist Cities [1930], Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  4. Grappi, Giorgio (2020): “Logistica e Stato nel presente globale. Sovranità, corridoi, confini,” in: Teoria politica. Nuova serie, Annali, 10 | 2020, pp. 247-262.
  6. Sassen, Saskia (2012): “Analytic Borderlands: Economy and Culture in the Global City,” in: Gary Bridge, Sophie Watson (Ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to the City, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 210-220.
  7. Certeau, Michel de (1984): The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.