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How migrant workers helped rebuild Belgium after World War Two

In a previous post, I outlined a brief history of Belgium. One of the sections described the growth of the Belgian economy in the aftermath of the Second World War. I mentioned “judicious government policies, monetary reforms, and aid from the United States through the Marshall Plan” and how these helped the nation achieve a remarkable resurgence.

One of my long-standing readers, Guido (whose own blog is a treasure trove for anyone interested in hiking in Belgium), pointed out that I had missed the importance of migrant workers from Italy, Morocco and Turkey in the growth of the mining and steel industry in Belgium.

This was a serious omission that I am happy to correct. This article therefore focuses on migrant workers: the unsung heroes of Belgium’s post-war prosperity.

The Men for Coal agreement

The first and most significant agreement that Belgium signed to recruit migrant workers for its coal mines was the “Men for Coal” agreement with Italy in June 1946. As Europe struggled to recover from the impact of the war, Italy agreed to send its surplus manpower to the mines of southern Belgium, in return for 2-3 million tonnes of coal a year at preferential rates. This agreement was motivated by both economic and political reasons. For Italy, it was a way to reduce unemployment, poverty, and social unrest, as well as to secure energy supplies for its reconstruction. For Belgium, it was a way to boost its coal production, which had declined by 40% during the war, and to strengthen its ties with Italy, which was seen as a potential ally against the communist threat.

Italian migrant workers in Charleroi
Italian migrant workers down a coal mine in Charleroi

The “Men for Coal” agreement was initially planned for five years, but it was extended several times until 1956. During this period, more than 200,000 Italian workers came to Belgium, mostly from the rural and impoverished regions of southern Italy. They were mainly young and unskilled men, who had to undergo medical examinations and sign contracts before leaving their homeland. They were assigned to different coal mines, where they received training, housing, and social services. They were also paid according to their productivity and seniority, but they earned less than their Belgian counterparts.

Dangers, below and above ground

The Italian workers faced harsh and dangerous working conditions in the coal mines, where they had to endure long hours, low temperatures, dust, noise, and the risk of accidents and diseases. They also faced discrimination and hostility from some of the local population, who resented their presence and perceived them as competitors for jobs and resources. Moreover, they suffered from isolation and nostalgia, as they were separated from their families and culture. Many of them hoped to return to Italy as soon as possible, but some of them decided to stay in Belgium, either permanently or temporarily, and to bring their wives and children over. This led to the formation of the first Italian communities in Belgium, which contributed to the cultural and social diversity of the country.

The “Men for Coal” agreement with Italy came to an end in 1956, after the Marcinelle mining disaster, which killed 262 workers, including 136 Italians.

Memorial at the Bois du Cazier mine commemorating the Italian victims of the Marcinelle disaster
Memorial at the Bois du Cazier mine commemorating the Italian victims of the Marcinelle disaster. Photo by Agrillo Mario

This tragedy shocked both countries and prompted many Italian workers to leave Belgium or to look for other jobs. At the same time, the demand for coal declined due to the emergence of new energy sources, such as oil and gas, and the competition from other countries. As a result, Belgium had to find new sources of labour for its coal mines, which were still essential for its economy and security.

The recruitment of Moroccan and Turkish workers

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Belgium signed bilateral agreements with several countries, such as Spain, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Portugal, to recruit migrant workers for its coal mines. However, the most significant agreements were those with Morocco and Turkey, which were signed in 1964 and 1965 respectively. These agreements were similar to the one with Italy, as they involved the exchange of workers for coal, but they also differed in some aspects. For instance, they were more flexible and less regulated, as they allowed the workers to change jobs and employers, and to benefit from social security and family reunification. They also involved more intermediaries, such as labour contractors, trade unions, and religious organizations, who facilitated the recruitment and integration of the workers.

Migrant workers were key at the Winterslag mine
The Winterslag mine near Genk

The Moroccan and Turkish workers who came to Belgium under these agreements were mostly young and unskilled men, who came from rural and underdeveloped areas of their countries. They were motivated by economic and social reasons, such as improving their living standards, supporting their families, and escaping poverty, oppression, or conflict. They worked in various coal mines as well as steel plants, and received training, housing, and social services.

Specific cultural and religious challenges

The Moroccan and Turkish workers faced similar challenges and difficulties as the Italian migrant workers, such as harsh and dangerous working conditions, discrimination and hostility, isolation and nostalgia. They also faced some specific problems, such as language and cultural barriers, religious and ethnic differences, and political and legal uncertainties. For instance, they had to deal with the linguistic diversity of Belgium, where French, Dutch, and German are spoken, and to learn the basics of one or more of these languages. They also had to cope with the cultural and religious diversity of Belgium, where Catholicism, Protestantism, and secularism coexist, and to preserve their own identity and values. Moreover, they had to face the political and legal changes that affected their status and rights, such as the end of the coal agreements in the early 1970s, the closure of many coal mines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the introduction of new immigration and integration policies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Making Belgium their homeland

Despite these challenges and difficulties, many Moroccan and Turkish migrant workers decided to stay in Belgium, either permanently or temporarily, and to bring their families over. This led to the formation of the largest and most visible immigrant communities in Belgium, which account for about 4% and 2% of the total population respectively. These communities have contributed to the economic and social development of the country, but they have also faced some problems and conflicts, such as unemployment, poverty, and discrimination.

Celebrating Turkish Day at the Yunus Emre Mosque in Genk, photo by Adelbrecht82

The long-term benefits of migration

The migration of Italian, Moroccan, and Turkish workers to the Belgian coal mines has had a significant impact on the economic and social history of Belgium. It greatly helped to rebuild the country after World War Two, by providing the necessary labour force for its coal industry, which was the backbone of its economy and security. At the same time, it enriched the country with new cultures and identities, by creating diverse and dynamic immigrant communities, which have added to the linguistic and religious diversity of the country.

The benefits of migration are not only for Belgium, but also for the countries of origin and for the migrants themselves. For the countries of origin, migration has provided a source of income, as well as a channel of communication and cooperation with Belgium and Europe. For the migrant workers, migration has provided an opportunity for personal and professional growth, as well as a chance to improve their living conditions and to achieve their aspirations.

The scourge of racism remains

However, the benefits of migration are not automatic or guaranteed, but depend on the policies and practices of everyone involved.

Racism is still a prevalent issue in Belgium. In my day job I am privileged to attend and report on a number of European Commission events on anti-discrimination, anti-Islamophobia and antisemitism, and am appalled at the increasing number of reported cases of racism and xenophobia, particularly since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on 7 October. And the statistics do not reflect the actual extent of the problem, as many victims are not filing complaints.

The Belgian government has taken measures to combat racism and discrimination, such as ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopting the Inter-Federal Action Plan against Racism, and implementing a legal framework that punishes certain acts of racism and xenophobia. On a broader level, the European Commission is committed to remove any form of racism. However, some experts and civil society groups are calling for more concrete actions and resources to address the root causes and consequences of racism in Belgium and other Member States.

In the light of the undoubted benefits that Italian, Moroccan and Turkish migrant workers have historically brought to Belgium – and are still currently bringing – we all need to continue to uphold the principles of solidarity, respect, and dialogue which have characterized the history of migration between Belgium and its partner countries, and which can still inspire and enhance society today.

Top image created by Dalle-3 AI

6 thoughts on “How migrant workers helped rebuild Belgium after World War Two”

  1. An interesting and informative post, Denzil. Thanks for highlighting the role of migrants in reconstruction after the war, so often ignored. Sadly, racism and discrimination towards immigrants continue to plague our societies today, including here in the USA.

    1. Thanks for your appreciation Rosaliene. Yes, it is grievous that the world is becoming ever more polarized, with many individuals and groups increasingly fighting their own cause at the expense of “the other”. I also find it interesting that in so many conflicts around the world, religion is not named as the cause, but politics, social differences, race, … Yet when so many conflicts around the world boil down to differences in religion.

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