We Guest Workers…


“Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In books you will find the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?” In the poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads,” Bertolt Brecht laments the erasure of key actors in historical accounts.

Isn’t the part played by the men and women who come to Switzerland from abroad to work also hidden away? In Biel and elsewhere, tens of thousands of guest workers in the second half of the twentieth century made enormous contributions to the construction of infrastructure and buildings, from the Convention Center to Expo.02’s Arteplage, the development of the hospitality industry with hotels and restaurants, and finally the expansion of agriculture in Seeland.

The exhibition Nous, saisonniers, saisonnières… (We Guest Workers, Women and Men…) pays tribute to these men and women. In a confluence of historiography, remembrance and art, this exhibition bears witness to the difficult living and working conditions that Switzerland reserved for people with temporary work permits. It revisits a controversial moment in this country’s history and reconsiders the issues involved.

In order to reconfigure the modes of shared remembrance, the show deploys several ways of conveying narratives, using historical documents, personal archives, artworks and documentary films specially produced for this occasion. Through them we hear the voices of the seasonal workers of yesterday and today’s migrant workers.

The retrospective look at all of these stories is all the more important in that the issues they raise are still relevant, as can be seen in the conflicts surrounding the relationship between the European Union and Switzerland, just like the living conditions of illegal aliens, among other at-risk groups. The closed border during the Covid-19 pandemic brought to light Switzerland’s dependence on foreign workers for vital jobs in agriculture or home care while revealing these individuals’ legal and financial insecurity.

To bring up the history of guest workers and the situations echoing that story is to try to develop another outlook on immigration of yesterday and today. The outcome of a collaboration between the Collège du Travail, Archives contestataires, and Rosa Brux, Nous saisonniers, saisonnières… was first mounted in Geneva at the initiative of city officials in 2019. It has been remounted and expanded at the NMB Nouveau Musée Bienne to show the significant impact of guest workers in Biel and throughout Switzerland.