The use of identity politics in Belgium’s labour market

The use of identity politics in Belgium’s labour market
The definition and use of the word allochtoon (“emerging form another soil”) has been banned in The Netherlands since 2016, but is still part of official vocabulary in Belgium.

In December of 2018, Belgium’s government collapsed over ideological disagreements between the ruling parties with regards to the Marrakesh Pact, a non-binding UN migration pact drafted in July last year. The Pact put forth a list of 23 common objectives that governments should make good faith efforts to work towards. It was the type of toothless posturing the UN has become known for, lacking enforcement provisions and protecting the notion of national sovereignty above all else.

Much like the Paris Climate Accords, it became a talking point across the world. The Marrakech Pact became one of those viral political issues that inspires people to announce which side they’re on Facebook. In this instance, right-wing people reacted by rejecting it as a globalist neutering of national identities, and the left wing denounced it as an example of populism and fear of “social inclusion”.

Belgium has been at a political crossroads since the October municipal elections which failed to deliver any clear political mandate to any party or region. Times of indecision are flint and firewood for fringe politics, and the extreme right leapt into action.

Their Facebook page, counting 290,000 followers in late November (more than twice as many as any other party in the country), was peppered with poorly photoshopped memes railing against the Marrakesh Pact and rising diesel prices (a reference to the then nascent Yellow Vest movement), demanding sympathisers to like and/or follow. The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), Belgium’s moderate right-wing nationalist party followed suit with a social media campaign of its own. They had lost ground to their more extreme counterparts and were trying to placate the most nationalist elements of their base.

Just two weeks later, Belgium’s government fell apart. The N-VA stepped out of the government when Prime Minister Charles Michel opted to sign the agreement and put Belgium on “the right side of history”. The battle lines had been drawn along questions of national identity, and the established political order refused to budge.

The Marrakesh Pact red herring was Belgium’s analogue to America’s border wall, and the dissolution of the government was our federal government shutdown. The result showed the hidden power of the extreme right, whose anti-immigration rhetoric has consistently attracted 20% of the electorate in some regions since a first breakthrough in the early 90s.

As of this writing, their followers on Facebook has increased by 30,000 since the end of November. By putting pressure on other parties, they shifted the dialogue and the issue to one of “national integrity”. To the nationalist right, as in other EU member states, the nation is a fixed concept that needs “protecting”.

Those same municipal elections delivered two striking symbols of change. Pierre Kompany became Belgium’s first black mayor in Ganshoren, and Mohammed Ridouani, a Belgian with a Moroccan background succeeded the popular Louis Tobback as mayor in Leuven, shockingly receiving more preference votes than Tobback ever had in any previous election. They were less symbolic of changing hearts and minds but rather the conspicuous absence of people of colour from policy-making positions in almost every aspect of Belgian life.

Striving for social inclusion

It is difficult to discuss these subjects without the risk of creeping into meaningless identity politics. The initial attempts to solve the problem of discrimination were driven by actual outcomes. They presupposed that if one could govern outcomes, these outcomes would somehow work backwards and undo the mechanisms of systematic discrimination.

Those assertions are being challenged now. The benefits of hiring or appointing people to positions by virtue of their ethnicity are vague. UNIA, a federal government agency aiming to ensure people have equal opportunities, just published an article taking a nuanced stance against ‘positive discrimination’.

Belgium has been reprimanded by the EU for the lack of integration of its non-native population.

Narratives of “social inclusion” are often driven by elites responding to democratic pressure. But technocratic solutions to identity problems is a new normal. The situation is dire, and perhaps indicative of a deeper problem. Belgium ranks last in the developed world for labour market integration of its non-native population.

Since the launch of the EU´s 10-year strategy for growth, Europe 2020, the EU has explicitly recommended that Belgium’s governments align their policies in order to alleviate this discrepancy, going so far as to reprimand Belgium verbally in 2017 for not making enough progress. To Belgium’s credit, a lot of resources are used to provide lower-skilled individuals, a category with a disproportionate number of people of colour, with high quality training and help them match those skills to available jobs.

These training sessions are conducted in the national languages of Belgium, which is critical because knowledge of the Dutch language is one of the biggest impediments for recent immigrants. In spite of these efforts, there has been little improvement and even a worsening for some immigrant groups with regards to labour market penetration.

There is a catch though. These statistics and technocratic recommendations are not oriented towards immigrants, but rather to ethnic groups to which immigrants may or may not belong. As a matter of fact, the ethnic groups most heavily affected by systemic inequality represent around half of Belgium’s immigrant population and a further chunk of its own naturalized population.

Who are the allochtones?

The words “allochtoon” (Dutch word meaning “emerging from another soil”) as well as “Western” and “non-Western” were removed from the governmental vocabulary of the Netherlands in 2016. Opponents to these designations pointed out that a Dutch born person with a background from Suriname was recorded as “non-Western” while a Japanese immigrant was not.

In Flanders, the word is still part of the official vocabulary, but barely has a specific meaning in any particular governmental context. It has become a sort of catchword that doesn’t catch anything. A recent study by the Flemish government examining enrolment and completion of advanced studies by different groups referred to “allochtoon” as groups from neighbouring countries, “the Islamic region”, Eastern Europe and other groups.

Racist definition

A 2012 paper by the study office of the public employment service (VDAB) in Flanders echoed a more disconcerting definition when trying to examine ways to improve labour market penetration of non-native Belgians. The definition appeared in the second paragraph of the study, which should emphasize just how awkwardly the government tiptoes around the issue at the heart of our “social inclusion” problem.

“The definition of the VESOC (The Flemish Economic and Social Deliberation Committee) determines that someone is an allochtoon when they do not hold citizenship in one of the countries in the European economic area (EEA), or when one of their parents or two of their grandparents hold citizenship in a country outside the EEA.”

This definition certainly departs from the concept of nationality, but is linked with the nationality of the parents and grandparents so that origin can, to a certain degree, be integrated in the definition.

It is important to note that this unorthodox and legalistic definition for a group of people, who by definition may possess Belgian citizenship, is eerily similar to the definition put forth by Nazis in the racist Nuremberg laws.

No region in Belgium is spared from this issue. The root of our “social inclusion” problem is most obvious in the rhetoric of social media campaigns of the extreme right. They stoke fear for one’s family, job, and natural habitat, and blame the government for diverting resources to the “allochtoon”. The government does the extreme right the favour by providing a precise legalistic definition of exactly who they should blame.

We know that people of colour (POC) in Belgium and Europe have fewer chances to find work, and, when they do, are paid less. We know that they are convicted of crimes more easily, and receive stricter prison sentences for the same crimes. We know the POCs leaving university take up to twice as long to find work as their native classmates. Study after study shows discrimination in selection procedures, both direct and indirect.

But these are generalizations based on numbers and hard to perceive in our day-to-day life. Vacuous words like “racist” or “bigot” are not robust enough to describe the complexity of these phenomena. Hate is an exhausting emotion, and these words allude to some unconquerable evil, when in reality these mechanisms are far more complex.

The absence of a voice

One of the most problematic elements of a government defining people for the purpose of improving outcomes is that this definition is not what we really want it to be. Allochtoon, as it is defined by the institutions looking to bridge gaps in labour market access, is an anti-identity.

Allochtoons are singled out because they do not look like they are from here. Allochtoons arriving in Belgium would never know that they are counted and measured as allochtoons. There isn’t a big allochtoon community, where people are united by their “non-Belgianness”.

On the one hand, the government’s attempts to manage outcomes for people of colour are guided by technocrats who treat them as amorphous others. On the other hand, POCs themselves have no reason to organize as POCs because it doesn’t have any advantages.

Activists work hard to shed light on the issues affecting people, but without institutional support, these attempts stay out of the mainstream. This is where the lack of POCs in policy making positions becomes particularly problematic. An excellent example of failures of such a system is the firing of Rachida Lambrabet, a Moroccan-Belgian lawyer and author who writes in Dutch on migration and identity.

In 2017, while working for UNIA, she directed a 5-minute film as part of an international theatre project in collaboration with the Goethe Institute in Washington DC, called Plurality of Privacy Project in Five-Minute Plays.

She created a piece entitled ‘Deburkanisation’, wherein a woman in a niqab (full face veil) types an open letter to lawmakers who have criminalized the Niqab. The piece is intentionally unclear about whether the performer is an actor, and no credits are provided for the script. It is simply the opinion of a woman within the context of privacy.

The backlash was swift and far reaching. The award-winning writer lost her job at UNIA and the general lack of public support from her peers outside Brussels City Theatre (KVS) worked to frame the burqa debate. The demarcation line was a woman in a niqab sharing her opinion.

Politicians with non-native backgrounds don’t run on identity platforms because that isn’t how you mobilize the electorate. But Europe’s most successful radical social movements do run on identity politics, aimed at creating a natural, unchanging identity. The acceptance of immigrants in those circles is conditional on giving up your identity and culture. A person’s value to society and right to stay in a country that isn’t their own from ancient times is measured by their ability to find work.

So, what then do the extreme right mean when they plead to “protect our jobs”? The aim is to baseline what is normal and acceptable and to silence the rest. The route of our inclusion problem begins and ends in its definition as an inclusion problem. It is doing the heavy lifting for an ideology that seeks to separate and measure disparate national groups.

In attempting to improve the quality of life for groups that governments decide are disparate, they only strengthen the institutions and mechanisms that created this systematic oppression in the first place. At the core of this management, is controlling how many voices are heard and prescribing solutions that are sold as one size fits all to a population that is experiencing a reduced quality of life. 

By Sarah Clerkin

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