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Slave labor

Juliane Olbricht / nkOctober 29, 2012

In Germany, many migrant laborers end up working degrading and badly paid jobs. Often they don't know their rights, a fact that's exploited by some companies. Now Germany's trade union federation has taken up the fight.

Copyright: dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The promise of a better life and hard cash in Germany attracts workers from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland or Lithuania – but more often than not they are surprised by what they find here: backbreaking work and degrading conditions with bad or even no pay.

They tend to end up in the construction, transport, cleaning, gastronomy and hotel sectors, Dominique John told DW. He's in charge of the project "Fair Mobility," which maintains info centers in some major German cities. The aim of the project, which is run by the German trade union federation (DGB), is to help exploited workers from Eastern Europe.

A recent study shows that many migrants from the east have the same working conditions as their German colleagues. "However, we also believe that some companies systematically abuse foreign laborers to reduce wages and downgrade working conditions," said John.

One euro per hour

Such was the case with 13 Romanian workers who labored away for two months on a large building site in Frankfurt am Main. The company offered them a safe job and a basic salary of 1,200 euros ($1,550).

Copyright: Patrick Pleul, dpa
Many migrant workers don't know their market valueImage: picture alliance/dpa

"When they arrived here, the employer kept their papers and passports for two days," explains John. "Then they had to sign some papers. And it turns out that they are working as freelancers for a subcontractor." This means that in the event of an accident or sickness they had no insurance protection from their employer.

Moreover, their boss only paid them a couple of hundred euros cash in hand, just about enough to lure them back to work the next day. "In total they earned a little more than one euro per hour," says John. The DGB and the construction union IG Bau are exerting pressure on the main contractor to pay the workers their full wage.

Six Poles in Cologne had a similar experience, and Horst Küsters is helping them on behalf of the Verdi trade union which has tasked him to look into cases of extreme exploitation. The men used to work for a scaffolding company, six to seven days per week, 10 to twelve hours per day. Instead of the agreed wage, they only received 50-70 euros per month.

Copyright: Gero Breloer (zu dpa-Korr.
Cleaning personnel often work for peanutsImage: picture alliance/dpa

"They were put off repeatedly with promises that they would get more the next time," Küsters told DW. "Then the weather deteriorated in November and December and the scaffolding company's workload plummeted. The employer decided to cut even the food money, and the workers went hungry. So I ended up asking local charity organizations for supplies to feed them."

When the men turned to the trade union for help, their former employer even threatened them. "The subcontractor turned up with a sort of raiding party consisting of four heavies. They tried to force their way into the flat."

The Pole inside was so terrified that he didn't even realize at that moment that he could have called the police, said Küsters. Meanwhile, the subcontractor is facing charges. And the claimants - with the help of the union - are suing for payment in Cologne labor courts.

Solidarity and self-interest

The workers from Eastern Europe are not members of the union, and do not pay any membership fees. So why is the workers' representation supporting them?

Copyright: Daniel Maurer, dapd
Germany's powerful DGB has changed its tuneImage: dapd

"It's about solidarity with people who have been cheated out of their wages, and of course it's about justice, too," stressed Küsters. "Solidarity and justice are historic trade union values."

But self-interest also plays a role, admitted DGB'S John. "Employees organized in German trade unions have a vested interest here. We support the foreign workers because it's important to us that they are integrated properly so as to avoid wage undercutting." Therefore the DGB is planning to expand its support network for foreign workers.

Migrants are colleagues, not competitors

The trade union's approach is rather new. For a long time it viewed the affected laborers as illegal immigrants who were moonlighting to the detriment of the local workforce. Now they consider migrants colleagues rather than competitors, says Norbert Cyrus of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research.

Tasked by the German government, he has been examining the best methods to help victims of extreme exploitation. He says the support network has to be markedly expanded, and charity and migration organizations must be included. "The main aim is to help those affected and push through their labor and social rights irrespective of their residence permit status," said Cyrus.

The trade unions would like to see more public awareness for this topic. Currently most is done by word-of-mouth propaganda which makes it more difficult for the support network to reach those in need of help.