Odd Jobs: The Informal Economies Sustaining Large Parts of the Global Workforce - Pacific Standard
How a 50-acre migrant camp known as "the Jungle" mirrors the reality of commerce in liminal zones and borderlands the world over.

For as long as he could remember, Sikander Norestani had wanted to own a restaurant. He knew how to run a kitchen. And no one could match his devotion at the stove. The makeshift version he eventually constructed in the middle of a slapdash migrant encampment—patched together from salvaged planks and recycled plastic sheeting and outfitted with a few borrowed pots—wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind. But it was a start, the realization of his long-held dream, and just about the only constant he had carried with him after he fled his native Afghanistan and roved for the next 12 years across mainland Europe, trying to build a new life.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

In 2003, caught between the Taliban and corrupt local authorities, Sikander had followed a sister to Norway. After seven years and two failed attempts at seeking legal asylum, he gave up and decided to try his luck back home. A close friend went ahead to set up a business near Kabul. Within three months, he owned a car and two shops. Commuting home one evening, before Sikander had arrived, he stumbled into a Taliban ambush and was killed. Unwilling to risk his friend's fate, Sikander resolved to stay in Europe, taking odd jobs where and when he could. He tried Germany and Italy, which eventually granted him residency papers. At last he could work officially, but only within the borders of a country where opportunities eluded him and he couldn't speak the language.

One more time he bundled his few belongings into a single bag. With what little money he'd saved and the smattering of English he'd picked up in his travels, he headed for the United Kingdom, lured like thousands of migrants before him by tales of better prospects. All he had to do was stow away on a ferry across the English Channel or smuggle himself aboard a truck or a train bound for the Channel Tunnel. Boarding a bus from Paris, he hoped to emerge in London. He made it as far as the border at Calais, in Western France, continental Europe's closest point to the U.K. Checked for his passport, he was ordered off the bus, briefly detained, and, having committed no offense under French or European law except to lack the right papers, released back into the world. His best option, his only option, was to make his way to "the Jungle"—a roughly 50-acre parcel of land that the French government had set aside to gather migrants besetting the coastal town.

An aerial picture taken in Calais, France, shows "the Jungle."

An aerial picture taken in Calais, France, shows "the Jungle."

Since before the turn of this century, French authorities in Calais had been torn between the humanitarian imperative of accommodating waves of migrants, many of them fleeing countries savaged by war and disaster, and coping with the disruption to local life that came of their desperate, sometimes violent bids to reach England. In the first half of 2001, Eurotunnel, the private company that owns and operates the Channel Tunnel, registered the attempted smuggling of 18,500 people—more than 100 per night. Bowing to pressure, the French government had allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to convert a warehouse into a shelter on the outskirts of Sangatte, a community just outside Calais, but the facility was shut down in 2002, when migrants filled it to more than twice its capacity. For a time, the human tide slowed. But people never stopped coming—from Afghanistan, from Sudan, from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, and, by 2015, just about every place in the Middle East and Africa then bleeding citizens by the millions into continental Europe.

Establishing the Jungle, at the height of the world's greatest mass migration since World War II, was an overdue acknowledgement that something had to be done for destitute new arrivals while keeping conditions sufficiently unwelcoming to discourage the entrenchment of a permanent shantytown. Built atop a derelict former landfill within officially declared hazardous reach of two chemical factories, the Jungle lacked running water and electricity, and it had a tendency to take head-on frigid winds blowing in from the sea. "Sleeping in the tent, it's very noisy," Sikander told me. "All night you listen to the shout of the tent with the wind." Like most of his campmates, Sikander had meant to stay only long enough to plot his escape to London. But a second failed attempt at crossing the channel, by leaping aboard a moving train, had left him with badly injured legs—and few remaining illusions. Better to find a legal way to England, he decided as he limped out of the hospital. Meanwhile, he would stay in the Jungle, find a way to eke out a living, and do what he could in service of his new community of campmates.

He could see the need everywhere. For all their transience, or because of it, inhabitants strove for normalcy, which created opportunities for anyone with a hair of entrepreneurship. First to go up were mosques and churches. Then came the grocery stores: just a few wooden shelves in a tent, but enough that people no longer had to make the long journey to town to buy a bottle of milk or a packet of biscuits. "It provided a real service," says Maya Konforti, who has been working for nearly four years among the migrants of Calais with a local non-profit. In a population divided according to ethnicity or country of origin, there were varying tendencies. Afghans and Pakistanis, Konforti says, were particularly impatient with handouts and lines, and the quickest to innovate. Among them, Sikander was a veritable pioneer. In the back of a hut that he'd built near the Jungle's entrance, he added a space large enough to accommodate a half-dozen sleeping bags, as a hostel for newcomers arriving in the dead of the night, hours too early to be met by an aid worker and with no idea where else to go.

Home-cooked food came next. Thanks to an early donation, the camp had piles of raw potatoes. But without electricity or gas stoves, the potatoes were simply taking up space. With a few logs for a fire, a saucepan borrowed from a camp volunteer, a drop of oil and some flour, Sikander and his partners started frying boulani, a traditional potato flatbread. Though it was a simple Afghan dish, it became, he said, an instant hit. With the pennies they accumulated, they bought beans from a shop in town, then more flour, then some meat, and eventually they could claim a functional restaurant. Before long, the Kabul Café had become something of an institution, busy from morning to past midnight. With enough money to buy better ingredients, Sikander soon offered a full menu, including dishes of spinach and chickpeas and meat kebabs cooked by a staff of Afghan refugees.

Competition grew fast. Up and down the mud path through the Jungle's southern district, the arrival of gas stoves for cooking and boiling water gave rise to other restaurants, bakeries, even a bar. A few people began hauling in generators, eliminating reliance on candlelight and permitting activity, hours into darkness. Eventually, according to Konforti, nearly every restaurant could claim a flat-screen television. People came to charge their phones or to warm up from the bone-chilling North Sea winds. The Jungle's self-appointed community leaders made the Kabul Café their unofficial headquarters for biweekly meetings with volunteers and aid workers. On occasion, a musician would pull out an oud and play a tune. Day by day, pot by pot, a semblance of complex social life began to flicker into being. But all the while, Sikander had a sense that, by French standards, his popular establishment might not be strictly legal.

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Though nestled in the heart of the Western hemisphere, in a country that holds labor protections and the rule of law sacrosanct, the Jungle's commerce mirrored the reality of working life in liminal zones and borderlands the world over. In those transiently populated and thinly governed places, informal trade—the kind that functions "off the books"—is almost universally the only means of buying essential goods and services. Most often, such transactions are so necessary to basic societal order that they can be carried out in plain view, on dusty roadsides or in ramshackle huts, frequently with the winking assent of roving customs officials or border guards in exchange for a bribe, sexual favors, or a cut of the profits. Absent outside accountability, those local satraps create situations of dependence and patronage that are as stable as the winds. On a whim, authorities can crack down, demonizing traders as smugglers or migrants as illegal laborers, even as their goods and labor prop up the local economy. But while newcomers can be readily marginalized, they cannot be easily hidden.

"It is how much of the world survives, and how many people thrive," writes Robert Neuwirth in Stealth of Nations, a pan-continental exploration of the world's vast informal economy. Walk down any city sidewalk in the developing world and you'll stumble onto its participants, selling everything from pirated DVDs and luxury-knockoff eyewear to single cigarettes. A 2009 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that 1.8 billion people, or more than half of the global workforce, operate in an informal economy, a proportion projected to rise to two-thirds of the workforce by 2020. With that trend come risks of deepened poverty and the insecurity that arises from the absence of legal protections and social contracts that attend above-board work.

Yet even defining the terms of what is or is not part of the informal economy is remarkably slippery. "Informal" is a mindset more than an economic category, premised on adaptation, improvisation, and nimble thinking. In a bare-bones migrant camp, or in a remote border post, that scrappy survivalism can seem a tribute to human ingenuity. Often, though, people simply have no choice. Adam Smith described the informal economy less charitably in The Wealth of Nations as the "peddlar principle of turning a penny wherever a penny was to be got." Put another way, wherever man treads, he peddles. And wherever the state is weak—socially, geographically, legally—informal methods of exchange will come rushing in. Black markets, like nature, will always abhor vacuums.

A Pakistani migrant looks out of his shop set-up at "the Jungle" in the French port city of Calais.

A Pakistani migrant looks out of his shop set-up at "the Jungle" in the French port city of Calais.

Several years ago, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I discovered an economic system deep in the jungle that had flourished around an "artisanal" tin-ore mine. The illegality of the militia-run operation was no secret, least of all to the South African company that had acquired exploration rights but had been denied access by a renegade Congolese army brigade. But legality, like corruption, is a relative measure: Just to get to the mine required 17 stamps of approval. Along the lone 26-mile dirt path through the jungle, I saw the graves of tin ore porters who had dropped dead under the weight of the burdens they hauled. Miners, reliant on hand tools to pick at the dirt, suffocated or disappeared in collapsing tunnels that grew ever more precarious as they tapped deeper into the mountain's veins. They were exposed to chemical contamination and malnutrition and disease, earned only what the usurious rates of piecework and wage theft would allow, and spent most of what they made on tents and food and equipment they were forced to buy for themselves. To attend them were prostitutes and barbers, cooks and water haulers. Some nurtured the hope, or the delusion, that a fortune in the jungle could be made—and kept. But more often, they came because it was better to work for a pittance than not to work at all. "We're not all illiterate, you know," a tin porter called Adolphe said one morning, as we were trudging toward the mine. "Some of us have diplomas."

Such sacrifices of ambition to circumstance or material necessity rarely, if ever, crush the will of the displaced—even if their efforts to retain a measure of personal control are ultimately self-destructive. Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller in Tunisia, had suffered a series of accreting humiliations, culminating with a literal slap in the face from a municipal inspector and the confiscation of his apples, before he finally set himself aflame, sparking the spread of protests that came to be called the Arab Spring. Reports at the time were hard-pressed to establish whether Bouazizi's small business was or was not legal. They also indicated that the street vendor, at 26, had been just about able to support his mother, an uncle, and five siblings. If he had a wish, it might have been for greater respect—a desire that spoke to many who poured out into the streets in the ensuing months. Among the demands shouted over and over again, in Tunisia as across the Arab world, was a call for dignity. "This is actually a cry for freedom," Neuwirth told me. "For being able to live. And being able to be respected for what you do—even if you don't have a license."

The definition of what is or is not a part of a shadow economy is a matter of politics and power. It shifts with time and circumstance.

The vagueness of the terms employed to describe the sort of work Adolphe, Bouazizi, and Sikander do—shadow economy, parallel economy, black market—can create a widespread sense of injustice about the lack of security that comes of working hard, and working honestly, but unpermitted and entirely at the whims of the state. In Myanmar, where I spent years reporting on the repressive and economically predatory rule of the military junta, analysts estimated that at least half to two-thirds of the country's economy functioned entirely off the books, and most everyone I knew took those for conservative assessments. Never were the fortunes to be made more visible than in the border areas, sites of overlapping jurisdiction that inevitably lured smugglers and traffickers alongside foreign aid workers, members of ethnic minority groups then fighting the Myanmar army, and dissidents come for clandestine training or to escape arrest. Mostly, though, the place drew countless migrant laborers, looking for work in textile factories that had sprouted on the Thai border after Western sanctions had crushed the industry in Myanmar. They sloshed from one country to the other across the Moei River, floating on giant inner tubes, in broad daylight and full view of customs officials positioned on either end of the official Myanmar-Thai Friendship Bridge.

One morning, a dissident friend drove me a few minutes south of the bridge to show me a dock on the Thai side where half-naked workers were loading at a furious pace onto flatboats—powdered milk, brake fluid, snakes of piping, car parts, cans of soda, all the unmet needs of a country that had been pushed into the economy of shadows by a handful of top generals and their cronies. Meanwhile, on the other shore, teak, rosewood, and precious gems—Myanmar's most valuable resources—began the trip to Thailand, and from there global, official trade. Separately went heroin, methamphetamine, and opium. But there were also everyday items going back and forth: rice, dried fish, off-brand hair creams, and five-a-penny trinkets. To treat it all as part of a single informal economy, a catchall "black market," would hopelessly fuzz the line between outright criminal enterprise and the life of the street.

As Peter Andreas points out in Smuggler Nation, the history of the United States itself can be rewritten as a long exercise in enrichment, or freewheeling individualism, premised on evading laws and rules that at various points defined as contraband everything from tea to booze to pornography. By extension, the definition of what is or is not a part of a shadow economy is a matter of politics and power. It shifts with time and circumstance. It evolves according to who decides what is or is not legal.

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Sikander Norestani lost the Kabul Café when it burned to the ground, along with the entire main drag of the southern Jungle district, in February of 2016. Hours later bulldozers arrived to demolish the area. Sikander suspects the fire and razing was a coordinated campaign by French authorities. Long wary of the potential legal ambiguity of his establishment, he had been careful from the start to respect French law as he understood it. It was largely the lack of law that had forced him to flee his beloved Afghanistan. To a documentary filmmaker who had, some weeks before the fire, come to report on the Jungle's development, Sikander had explained that he kept a stack of receipts for the restaurant's supplies under the checkout counter. Pulling out a long one, he presented it to the camera to show that he bought it all—light cream that morning and tomato sauce—from any of four local brand-name supermarkets. Ergo, none of it was wholesale. Ergo, he was paying value-added tax. This was no rip-off of the state. Figuring his daily purchases at anywhere between €200 and €400, his stock cost him at least €10,000 a month—all of it registered and taxed by the French government. Where, he implied, was anything illicit in that? How could his business be seen to detract from or undercut the local economy when he was contributing so much to it?

His arguments went unheeded. In July of 2016, agents from French law enforcement launched a three-day raid on the Jungle. They were hunting for what a Calais plaintiff later described as commerces sauvages, "wild businesses"—a black market of sorts that had, along with tides of new arrivals in previous months, grown from the Kabul Café and a few supporting businesses into a flourishing local economy of 72 restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, public showers, and barbershops. By that time, Sikander had replaced his charred restaurant with a new venture, the Kid's Café, a non-profit that supplied food, books, and guidance from community leaders to hundreds of unaccompanied minors, including dozens of adolescent boys whom law enforcement had fingered as prime troublemakers within the camp and in Calais proper. Sikander had evolved from a small-time entrepreneur into a full-time camp sage. How could local officials object to an economy that supported not illegal trafficking, but rather migrants' self-identified needs, plugging gaps left unfilled by the French government?

For Calais law enforcement, that wasn't the point. To them, the existence of an off-books economy threatened the norms of a state they were sworn to defend. So when February's bulldozers failed to discourage informal transactions and trade, the July raid swept up a handful of camp entrepreneurs and sent them before a tribunal. Their establishments were charged with risking fires, explosions, or collapse. They were accused of operating under dubious sanitary conditions and without benefit of government health inspections. The prosecution additionally contended that allowing the businesses to operate would encourage a situation of permanency in a dangerously restive shantytown meant only as a transient solution for migrants until they could be resettled elsewhere in France or in the U.K. Underlying the case against the Jungle was the fear that its businesses had grown too successful. (Of 101 French departments—akin to city-states—Calais was one of only two to vote in the 2017 presidential elections for Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who ran on a strongly anti-immigrant platform.)

A young Afghan migrant films with his phone a fire burning shacks and a placard reading "living space" in the southern part of "the Jungle" migrant camp.

A young Afghan migrant films with his phone a fire burning shacks and a placard reading "living space" in the southern part of "the Jungle" migrant camp.

Within a month, a judge in the nearby city of Lille ruled in favor of the migrants, concluding, to paraphrase the ruling, that life was miserable enough for camp inhabitants without additionally denying them the bare-bones comforts of rare, spontaneously generated social safe spots. The businesses, outside their minor for-profit function, provided services that the state could or would not. State supplies of essentials, including food, showers, and shelter, were grossly inadequate to meet demand, forcing migrants to stand outside in inclement weather, including the camp's hundreds of minors and other vulnerable inhabitants. The situation was aggravated by a grave discrepancy between the government's estimates of the population and those of aid workers, who counted nearly twice as many people. The anxiety that the businesses would encourage creeping permanency did not outweigh the "extreme precariousness" in which its proprietors lived, much like everyone in the camp.

In defining the rights of an informal economy, the judge might have added: Context matters. In more than a decade of reporting from Central Africa to Southeast Asia, I've encountered the worst of black market economies: human smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal mining, wildlife poaching. It's understandable that governments should try to establish legal limits on trade and commerce. But the court case surrounding the Jungle raised brute questions about how affluent communities and countries across Europe—and around the world—ought best to cope with thousands of new arrivals, in order to allow them the dignity of work while simultaneously affording them the chance to adapt to the customs and laws of their new homes. My experience is that the immigrants in the Jungle, like most of the world's workers, do not wish to operate outside the law. Far from it. They aspire to the protections of a country whose laws governing business practices reflect the long evolution of legal and political battles fought in the name of protecting workers. Beyond that, they also know that theirs is a precarious future, and that all their earnings and property hinge on the mercy of local power brokers.

In the end, the Jungle's commercial heart was bulldozed, but forcing informal economies into compliance with the world of the permissible and the licit, will take more than fires or bulldozers or legal judgments. The businesses in the Jungle may be leveled for now, but the businessmen who founded them have not vanished. Many of them will inevitably build anew, even the hundreds forced again to squat and skulk in unofficial migrant camps around Calais. To try to contain their efforts is a fool's errand. "The informal economy is a relationship, and everything is on a gradation between formal and informal," Neuwirth told me. Instead of "black market" or "informal economy," he prefers to use the term "System D," a shorthand he derives from the French-Caribbean word for debrouillardise, or resourcefulness. "This is the way the world works, but we've stuck it in these silos where we can say: That's them and this is us. And if we stop doing that then we can see things just as they are," he said. "The same way that shantytowns are essentially normal urban neighborhoods. They are where a huge percentage of the urban population lives. And until we start treating them that way, instead of some giant unwashed 'other,' then we're only replicating the problem."

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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