The sound of the voiceless: Danish art installation shines a light on the plight of refugee bottle collectors

The sound of the voiceless: Danish art installation shines a light on the plight of refugee bottle collectors

The Economy of Migrant Labor exhibition depicts the struggle for migrant and refugee rights in Denmark.

(Mads Holm/Center for Art on Migration Politics)

They are known by a range of derogatory terms: “the scavengers”, “the professionals” or the “flaskesamlere”, meaning “bottle collectors” in Danish. Simply put, they are the people who do their best to earn a living through collecting empty cans and bottles from the streets of Denmark, a country that is widely celebrated for its social welfare.

Bottle collectors can be seen digging into trash bins all over Denmark. Along Strøget, the chic pedestrianised shopping street in Copenhagen, they work hurriedly, searching for empty beverage containers in front of designer boutiques. Collectors can return empties for a deposit refund of one to three Danish krone (about €0.13 to €0.40), making about €8 to €12 working a 12-hour day.

This is one of the few legal means by which migrants, specifically refugees who have claimed asylum in another European country other than Denmark, can survive under Danish residence and work permit rules. There are also bottle collectors from Denmark but they are usually dealing with addiction and homelessness.

Despite being present on every corner, bottle collectors are treated as if they are invisible. As a result, a group of activists and artists have organised exhibitions, art projects and panel discussions to break the silence, particularly around the condition of refugees from outside Europe who end up sleeping rough in Denmark and collecting empty bottles for survival.

“We see them every day and we know they are there,” says Tone Olaf Nielsen, one of the co-founders of Trampoline House, a Copenhagen community centre that provides services to refugees. “But [Danish] people presume they are homeless and in Denmark illegally.”

She continues: “There is a lot of prejudice and stereotyping about this group who live on collecting bottles. They experience a lot of racial profiling. All this keeps them marginalised in Danish society.”

In an attempt to draw attention to their plight, the art centre of Trampoline House is currently hosting a sound installation, titled Economy of Migrant Labor – For the Right to Work. First shown during the world-famous Roskilde music festival last year, it will be on display until May 19 before moving to Roskilde University until the end of June.

“I can work, I’m 100 per cent fit to work,” Kingsley, an African migrant from an unnamed country now collecting empty cans in Denmark, explains in this sound installation. “I’m collecting bottles because this is what the government of your country has pushed me into doing. Don’t look down on me. We are all human beings.”

Ready to work but not permitted to

Kingsley is one of the 12 African migrants who collaborated with The Bridge Radio to create the Economy of Migrant Labor. Each migrant has been granted asylum in a southern European country, but due to the economic crisis in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal they have moved north to find work.

“We are all capable of working, to pay tax and to pay rent,” says another migrant, Seco, in the installation. “If only they [the Danish government] would give us the opportunity and a work permit.” In Denmark, unlike many other European countries, refugees that have been granted asylum in another European country are not allowed to work.

Denmark – which has some of western Europe’s toughest migration laws – is a perfect example of how countries in the Global North are increasingly closing their doors to refugees. Since 2015, the Danish government has tightened its migration laws 67 times, while confiscating valuables from asylum-seekers, and publishing adverts in Lebanese newspapers to warn off potential refugees. It is against this background that the Economy of Migrant Labor project was created.

“The idea of this art project began with a radio programme we made [in October 2016] about the situation of can collectors in Folkets Park in central Copenhagen, and the police attacking their community,” explains Barly Tshibos Lhirba, a member of The Bridge Radio.

“However, while our focus group in this project was the migrants who collect bottles in Denmark, we had a bigger goal to attract attention to the situation of economic workers in Denmark,” Lhirba tells Equal Times.

“We also wanted to make a comparison between Denmark and other European countries and to learn from the experiences of migrant workers and the ways they organise and mobilise themselves.”

There are no official figures on the number of bottle collectors in Denmark, and it is a demographic that is quite varied in terms of background and social status. Some bottle collectors are low-income and homeless Danes, while others are migrants and refugees. Some are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, and others have been granted asylum but have no work. What they all share is the common experience of being exploited, marginalised and excluded from Danish society.

“We showed the project first in Roskilde because it was important for us to go to a place with a high level of racism against people of colour,” says Nanna Katrine Hansen, an artist and activist who also works for The Bridge Radio. “I was surprised to see how harsh the staff and festivalgoers were to people who collected bottles. So it was important to act politically in such place and fight against the invisibility of those who collect bottles.”

Neo-colonialism and new flows of migrants

However, Economy of Migrant Labor is not only about the people who collect bottles and their living conditions in Denmark. “This exhibition shows the struggle of these people for their rights,” Nielsen explains. “But it is also about how the Global North is dependent on migrant workers for their cheap, exploitable and non-unionised labour.”

“This difficult situation is not only limited to bottle collectors. People who pick fruits, and those who work in the construction and cleaning industries, for example, also work under horrible, slave-like conditions,” Nielsen adds.

Jose Arce is a Colombian migrant currently studying for a master’s in global refugee studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. His research scrutinises the link between global migration flows and neo-colonialism.

In Arce’s view, unjust policies implemented in Mexico by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), overfishing by European vessels in west African waters, western military occupations and interventions in the Middle East, and land grabs in Latin America by countries such as Denmark, are just a few examples of the mechanisms by which the Global North is fuelling the current refugee and migration crisis.

“There is a lot of talk in Europe about how many migrants each country should take and how they should be treated, but they don’t talk about the root causes of migration to Europe,” he says.

But Arce does not spend all of his time conducting academic research, isolated from the realities of Danish society. He is also a chef and an activist who fights for the rights of migrants to work. His experiences in Denmark have provided him with a deep analysis of the situation facing migrants in the Global North.

“Migrants in the Global North live a dual reality, because on one hand they are considered as lazy people who don’t want to work and integrate, and at the same time, they are accused of stealing jobs from native workers,” he explains.

“In a society like Denmark, in which [native] workers have always had priority [in terms of employment] you cannot ‘steal’ a job. Migrant workers are not taking people’s jobs; they do the jobs that white Danes are not willing to do.”