Slave-like conditions and the threat of force is how Dimitru Cubylyass describes what he has experienced in Berlin. But the tale of the Romanian migrant worker is no isolated case. DW's Carmen Meyer reports.
A two-room apartment for 1,700 euros ($1,917) a month shared among 18 men - that's what Berlin was to Dimitru Cubylyass. His cousin had told him about good job opportunities and decent wages, which prompted Cubylyass to travel around 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) to Germany, leaving his Romanian home behind.
Everything went smoothly in the beginning. The 36-year-old carried bags of cement or parquet flooring at a building site of the Mall of Berlin shopping center. During the first few weeks, he regularly received his wage of five to six euros per hour. But soon wage payments became sporadic and petered out completely for him and 30 other Romanian workers. Furthermore, the work contract that had been promised to him did not materialize.
Exploiting people's insecurity
That's a typical case of systematic exploitation, says Dominique John. The trade unionist is in charge of a project called "Faire Mobilität" (fair mobility). He argues that eastern European workers are the hardest hit. Private job placement agencies take advantage of insufficient language skills and poor knowledge of legal stipulations.
"On top of that, those agencies often link job and accommodation contracts. When affected workers get sick or are no longer willing to stomach adverse conditions, they may well become homeless," John says.
And that happened to most of Cubylyass' colleagues. No one really knew that on Berlin's building sites they were entitled to a tariff-based wage of roughly 11 euros per hour. When wages were no longer paid, many just returned home empty-handed without putting up a fight.
But Cubylyass just didn't want to come home to his family that way. Together with a handful of other workers, he plucked up courage and started a regular protest action in front of the shopping center. They'd camp there for days amid frosty temperatures.
Court backs wage claims
The small Free Workers' Union (FAU) got involved and took seven cases to a labor court in Berlin. Three Romanians already got what they had asked for. One of them is Nicolae Molcoasa. The trained metal worker fought for outstanding wage payments of 112 hundred euros. When the ruling came, he wasn't in Germany anymore. He had to go back to Romania as he'd been without a fixed abode, losing his right of free movement within the EU.
Construction industry in focus
But it's not only eastern Europeans working in richer countries who are affected by exploitation. According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), labor migrants from non-EU nations experience pretty much the same across the continent.
While the exploitation of workers in Germany mostly takes place in the building and meat processing industries as well as in the nursing sector because of dubious subcontractors, FRA says such violations are also much in evidence in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries across Europe. But concrete figures documenting such exploitation are not available.
"Those crimes occur in the dark, and there's obviously a high number of unreported cases," says the FRA's Katya Andrusz. "We've come to pay much attention to fair-trade labels, a 'Fair Work' label could also give us more transparency on the labor market," she stressed.
Spreading the facts
Dominique John believes a big step forward could be to start informing potential labor migrants about their rights even before they leave their home countries. Only people who are aware of their rights can actually fight for them, he argues, adding that in the six advice centers of his Fair Mobility project 6,000 cases of exploitation were looked into last year alone.
Dimitru Cubylyass intends to continue his protest action until his case is being dealt with in court. He's fighting to get some 4,000 euros in unpaid wages and doesn't want other Romanians to share the same kind of experience as he did.
"I'm a European, too, although people in Germany seem to ignore that - otherwise I wouldn't have had to go through all that misery in the first place."