What’s up in Duisburg? Part 2 – Marxloh`s hidden Economy

Jess Palka & Sarah Y. Kanatli

Marxloh’s “Hidden” Economy

Students gained a theoretical introduction to the socioeconomic issues surrounding migrant workers in the hidden economic arrangements, and how CBPR approaches might be applied in response to the research needs of local community partners.  What is often referred to as the shadow, hidden, informal, undeclared or underground economy (to name just a few of the many, largely interchangeable terms) is that segment of the formal economy which is somehow unobserved, unrecognised, unregulated or illegitimate, but not illegal per se (Williams & Windebank, 2004). Due to this hidden nature, it is often difficult if not – logistically and/or ethically – impossible to observe such economic activities directly and for public sector and social workers to effectively improve the welfare of workers and their families.

Such informal economic activity and the socioeconomic marginalisation of migrant workers within the European Union (EU) have become major topics of academic, policy and public interest in recent years. Germany and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia especially has recently attracted attention given outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus in communities of Roma, Bulgarian and Romanian working in the meat industry, bringing previously hidden pictures of poor living and working conditions, as well as accusations of “systemic exploitation” (BBC News, 2021) and “modern slavery” (Deutsche Welle, 2020) into public view (although these terms are not used without criticism: Birke, 2022). Recently-arrived or mobile migrant workers in Marxloh, some of which have limited rights, access to or knowledge of their socio-legal protections, are living and working within a socioeconomic context that is generally detached and obscured from the mainstream.

Students learnt from practitioners that although Marxloh has a long history of attracting migrant workers, there has been an extreme increase in Marxloh’s population since 2009 (+20%) with Bulgarian and Romanian migrants now comprising about 26% of the total population (Open Data Duisburg, 2019). Often with low levels of education and income, as well as varied experiences of discrimination, economic opportunity and integration, this sudden growth has led to various tensions between long-established and newly-arrived residents (Böckler et al., 2018). The complicated socioeconomic picture has resulted in controversies surrounding dilapidated housing and forced evictions (RP Online, 2019), excessive rubbish (Der Westen, 2018) and unethical if not illegal rental arrangements (Wochen Anzeiger, 2020) in the “shadow” housing market being divisive topics in the media, politics (CDU-Ratsfraktion Duisburg, 2019; DIE LINKE, 2021; GRÜNE Duisburg, 2021) and public debate.

With low levels of employment subject to social security contributions in Duisburg and other neighbouring Ruhr cities such as Gelsenkirchen, Dortmund and Bochum (Wenderlich, 2017), many Bulgarian and Romanian migrants likely have informal work situations (across the region and beyond) in industries such as cleaning, logistics, building and urban production (Stadt Dortmund, 2021).

With precarious living and working conditions (and the suspected additional complication of dual employer-landlord relationships as well as multiple dependencies for transportation, deployment locations, residency status, etc.), many people survive on poverty wages that are lower than unemployment benefits, poor working conditions, lacking health insurance and services, difficulties securing kindergarten and school places, disrupted or limited support to integrate, and little-to-no awareness of their legal rights or how to assert them

Despite the numerous challenges, there are many people actively engaged in improving the long-term prospects for migrants’ economic opportunity, social cohesion and sustainable community development in Marxloh. Principally, engaged local people who run initiatives like Exchange Education for Housing, Culture Bunker Bruckhausen and the Round Table Marxloh. Furthermore, there are city government coordinated and co-financed projects aimed towards both children and adults, such as the new Campus Marxloh that is currently in construction and will provide a centralised space for cultural integration, social support and advice services, learning, education and training opportunities.

The European Aid Fund for the Most Disadvantaged (Europäischen Hilfsfonds für die am stärksten benachteiligten Personen; EHAP) is an EU, federal and municipal funded project jointly implemented between the Duisburger Werkkiste, the Community Integration Centre (Kommunales Integrationszentrum; KIZ) Duisburg and the Non-Profit Association for Employment Promotion (Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft für Beschäftigungsförderung; GfB) supporting the social integration of newly immigrated EU citizens, including providing advice in Romanian for those facing homelessness. The Community Integration Management’s (Kommunales Integrationsmanagement; KIM) Regional Support Centre (Regionale-Support-Center) provides expert legal advice to migrants in order to assist their local integration. This is only a few of the many diverse programmes, organisations and partners that are geared towards facilitating better lives for both the newly arrived migrants and long-established residents of Marxloh.

Campus Marxloh (Stadt Duisburg, 2022)

While practitioners openly acknowledge the neighbourhood’s challenges, they also emphasise that such positive efforts and outcomes are rarely if ever communicated externally. Marxloh is more often than not depicted as only a place of “Müll und Migration” (garbage and migration), especially by external politicians, media or other actors who use these representations for their own purposes and rarely take the time to learn or talk about the good that exists in the area. The incessant reproduction of such negative stereotypes further perpetuates the stigma and struggle that people in Marxloh face. It also overlooks Marxloh’s long history of successful social integration, the current progress of residents and practitioners alike, as well as the potential that such an active and diverse community possesses.

Looking forward

Much of the knowledge and facts that we gleaned during this seminar came from external researchers, public sector organisations and the experiences of professional experts working in Marxloh. This is clearly far from the ideal of community-based participatory research – to directly enter into dialogue as partners with those people who are otherwise the objects of research. While still operating as outsider researchers, speaking with practitioners and personally visiting Marxloh gave students the opportunity to step out from behind a computer and gain a more direct view of the challenges vulnerable people face and what is being done to meet them.

The ideal participatory research involves community participation if not control in all phases of the research, something that is rarely realisable and potentially damaging to already vulnerable or overworked people. To date this has not been possible, and the uncertainties and challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic have made the participation of citizens in the initial brainstorming and formulation of research questions and design not only logistically difficult but also ethically questionable. It is however still hoped that as this community-research partnership continues to evolve, a wider group of people in Marxloh will be able to actively participate in the development and implementation of a community-based research project.

It is however unlikely that such a ready-made or homogenous “community” group of people with the interest, time and capacity to engage in research exists. Such a group takes time to form, based on a shared issue or experience that requires collective reflection, understanding and eventually action towards achieving social change.

If you are someone who is interested in forming such a group in Marxloh, or if you have any other questions about the project, please reach out to jessica.palka@uni-due.de for more information or read “What`s up in Duisburg? Part 1” here.


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[1] Opinions of the practioners.

Photos were taken during an exploring walk through Marxloh.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

Autorinnen: Jess Palka & Sarah Y. Kanatli