Some highly publicized cases of work-related deaths and unfair dismissals have shed light on loopholes that allow German firms to exploit temporary workers. Experts explain the problem.
One Romanian worker was employed at a German slaughterhouse for eight months, after which he was dismissed, allegedly because he tried to secure a job for his sister at the company. The man had bypassed the go-between recruitment agency, saving his sister 800 euros ($1,060) in referral fees. A short time later, however, he received a document in German from the slaughterhouse that he was asked to sign, and he did so, without understanding the content. He found out later that he had agreed to his own dismissal.
The man, who did not wish to be named in this report, is one of the workers being handled by Szabolcs Sepsi from the German Trade Union Federation (DGB). According to Sepsi, the Romanian man was by no means an isolated case. "We always tell people not to sign anything they do not understand," Sepsi told DW. The Romanian worker had been employed at the slaughterhouse on a temporary labor contract.
But, ever since an increase in wages for temporary workers was successfully negotiated by Germany's unions in the spring of 2012, an increasing number of companies have been avoiding this form of work agreement and opting instead for so-called 'house' contracts that contain conditions not approved by the unions. Employees with temporary work contracts are currently found in most German business sectors - from retail to automobile and mechanical engineering. The workforce consists of both foreigners and Germans.
The danger of wage dumping
A temporary-hire contract typically stipulates wages based on task completion and not the amount of hours worked. According to Christian Brunkhorst, head of operations and industry policy at the IG Metall metalworkers' union, while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this concept, "the problem is that companies are increasingly using temporary work contracts to lower the standard of working conditions, to weaken workers' rights and get away with wage dumping."
Some firms employ subcontractors that are paid per task - for example, per loaded storage unit. The subcontractors often sidestep wage agreements, which result in the workers receiving less money than they would have if they had been employed directly by the firm in question. The aspect of safety is also often glossed over in such arrangements, according to Brunkhorst.
For these reasons, temporary work contracts have been the focus of criticism for some time now. Slaughterhouses have received particular attention, as this "entire sector is out of balance," said Brunkhorst.
However, the debate only recently boiled over after the deaths of two Romanian workers, aged 32 and 45, in the north German town of Papenburg. They had been working for a subcontractor of the Meyer Werft shipyard, which employs over 2,500 people and builds cruise ships. According to reports in the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the men were paid a paltry wage of only 3.80 euros per hour ($4.95).
Fixing the situation
A few days after the incident, Meyer Werft issued a social charter. This self-obliging document focuses on combating wage dumping, discrimination and employment of minors, and advocates a minimum wage of 8.50 euros per hour. "We don't want to become something that we are not," commented Bernard Meyer, the shipyard's CEO.
A wage agreement is expected to be signed by Meyer Werft by September, regulating the working conditions of temporary employees. At the same time, the works council's participation rights are to be strengthened in regards to temporary labor contracts. This could mean that the works council would have the power to refuse employment of people on a temporary basis.
Roland Wolf, a labor law expert at the Confederation of German Employers' Associations, is not certain whether this new approach at Meyer Werft will have any influence on other companies. "Due to the sufficient amount of existing legal and wage provisions, this kind of contract is superfluous," he said, pointing out that the broader German labor laws already applied to temporary workers. Instead, he stressed, existing regulations needed to be applied consistently and monitored by bodies, such as the Federal Labor Office.