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Balkan caregiver recruitment akin to 'human trafficking'

Nemanja Rujevic | Sanja Kljajic | Ajdin Kamber
January 14, 2020

German clinics pay a finder's fee of up to €15,000 for the provision of caregivers from the Western Balkans. A thriving business — which critics say sometimes borders on human trafficking.

Caregiver in a hospital in Belgrade, Serbia
Image: A. Kamber

It was a well-paid if rather unusual job which Nevena Pejic* took on two years ago in the Hotel "Slavija," located in the center of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Rooms were in greater demand than usual, and some of them had been hastily converted into tuition facilities. From morning to afternoon, more than a hundred people were sitting behind heavy curtains and learning German. Nevena was their teacher.

"Those people had been promised employment in Germany as soon as they had sufficient command of the German language. Their accommodation at the hotel had been paid for, their meals as well, and they'd even received some extra money," Pejic remembered.

An intermediary agency called "Artigum Management" had been touting itself, claiming it belonged to a "German employer." This also drew many people from neighboring Balkan countries, such as North Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Serbia. The aim was to reach the intermediary fluency (level B2 on the CEFR scale), which is usually required for those who wish to find a job in Germany — within four months. A nearly impossible mission, said the teacher.

"Many students dropped out early, because reaching that goal was very difficult," she said. "Some complained that they had been conned by the agency, that they'd left behind their families and pinned all their hopes on this course."

This is just one of countless examples from the "emigration industry" — a line of business that has its roots in misery in the Balkans on the one hand and Germany's great demand for health professionals on the other. For years, intermediary agencies and their middlemen have been soliciting personnel from the Western Balkans and courting German clinics and care homes, which offer generous payments in return for provision of employees.

Read more: Germany looks to Balkans for care workers

Desperately seeking caregivers

In March 2019, Germany's Federal Employment Agency counted a total of over 50,000 nationals from six Western Balkan countries (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro) who worked in the medical sector — their number had increased by over 6,500, compared to the previous year.

Infographic on Balkan healthcare professionals in Germany
Healthcare professionals from Western Balkans in Germany (as of March 2019)

They are intended to alleviate massive demand, which according to forecasts, indicates Germany will be short of approximately 200,000 caregivers five years from now. A personnel manager of a major nursing home chain, which accommodates more than 7,000 elderly people, said they were prepared to pay some €10,000 ($11,100) per caregiver to intermediaries. Although the chain had granted DW an official interview, it was canceled at short notice — and they're not the only ones who are unwilling to discuss the topic publicly.

Read more: "Enormous increase' in German work visas for Balkan citizens

Several intermediaries say they received up to €15,000 for a female caregiver brought over to Germany from the Balkans, however those amounts could not be verified. That amount is shared with language schools and local recruiters. It is estimated that the industry has a turnover of several hundred million euros annually, and it isn't usually bound by any rules.

Germany faces a care crisis

'Human trafficking'

Kay Simon, who has a small office on the outskirts of Cologne, smiled wearily when he was confronted with those figures. Simon is the head of the IPP Health intermediary agency, one of the bigger agencies that recruit personnel in the Balkans. "Starting a life in Germany is tough enough. If an agency promises people the moon, it becomes even worse."

According to Simon, potential recruits are usually attracted by promises of high wages, with recruiters purposefully confusing gross and net wage. Or recruiters spread the rumor that employees are allowed to take their entire families with them. "Then they're arriving in Germany … it's cold, it's raining, they're far away from their families, the money is less than expected. Those people are wasted," Simon said. "It is not proper to uproot those people with false promises and lure them to Germany. I consider this human trafficking."

Another intermediary, who doesn't want his name mentioned by the media, admits that he is headhunting personnel in clinics in the Balkans. An essential part of the procedure is his collaboration with a number of local nurses: "They call me on the phone and say they have, for example, three colleagues who want to come to Germany. If it all works out, I pay them €300 each."

Read more: Medical professionals' exodus leaves Romania, Bulgaria in pain

Tough contracts

Intermediaries know exactly what could ruin their scheme: if they recruit and pay for a candidate's language education or other arrangements, and the candidate does not, for some reason, sign a contract with an employer in Germany.

That's why "Pro Sert," an agency based in the central Serbian town of Kragujevac, has applicants sign a contract which stipulates that a fine of €3,000 is due if they jump ship. In Serbia, this amounts to an average semi-annual wage. Some contracts made available to DW indicate that applicants must pay that fine if they quit, if their move to Germany is facilitated by a different agency, or if they reject the first two job offers submitted to them by "Pro Sert."

Caregiver training at Dekra Akademie in Kragujevac, Serbia
Caregiver training at Dekra Akademie in Kragujevac, Serbia Image: A. Kamber

This agency cooperates with the "Dekra-Akademie," a renowned private training institution which has 150 branches across Germany. Dekra has people trained abroad as well. The head of the Dekra branch in Serbia is Aleksandra Talic, who was in charge of the controversial "Pro Sert" agency until April 2019. This completes the circle: Dekra trains applicants in five branches across Serbia, "Pro Sert" brings them to Germany and pockets the money.

"The applicants are to learn German and pass their exams," Talic said. Asked about impending fines for those who quit early, she said: "If there are no good reasons behind an applicant's complaints, we have to draw a line and force the applicant … or more precisely, we must help them to make the decision to stay."

Read more: Eastern brain drain threatens all of EU

Berlin hospital gets new nursing staff from Albania

A playing field for fraudsters

Mario Reljanovic often deals with such contracts. The Belgrade-based lawyer said that there was no basis for drastic penalty payments, but other contracts were even worse: "There are contracts in circulation which are obviously fraudulent. They contain hidden costs for applicants, or rather unfavorable working conditions, for example up to 12 hours per day, seven days per week," the lawyer said: "This constitutes a violation of both Serbian and German labor law."

Demand, however, is rising. Each year, some 200,000 people are leaving six Balkan countries — this amounts to 1% of the population. The emigration industry is thriving, even if some intermediaries flounder in the competitive market.

In the meantime, things have settled down again in the Hotel "Slavija." The unusual clientele, the emigrants, are no longer there, and the "Artigum Management" agency has ceased to exist. Its former manager disconnected all phone numbers. Did her business model collapse?

German teacher Nevena Pejic has only heard that the agency continues to work under a different name. She and other teachers lost their jobs; they never received their remaining monthly wages. Nevena offers private tuition now, and she gets paid in cash.

*Name changed by editor

Research for this article was facilitated by the "Reporters in the Field" scholarship program, a project of the Robert Bosch Foundation and the NGO n-ost.