When refugees in Germany are exploited by their fellow countrymen | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.03.2019
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When refugees in Germany are exploited by their fellow countrymen

Most bosses in Germany abide by employment regulations when they take on refugees. But there are exceptions — including some bosses with a similar cultural background.

Thirty-year-old Imad* fled his home country of Syria. He had already been living in Germany for two years when he started working for a cleaning company. The owner of the company was an Arab, like him. One of Imad's friends was working for her and suggested that he contact her. The linguistic and cultural connection created a sense of familiarity and security, and they soon came to an arrangement "between Arab compatriots": Half of Imad's work would be on the books, but the other half would not be declared for tax purposes. This meant his employer could avoid paying most of the social security contributions.

"The majority of people working there are Syrian refugees," Imad told DW. The company has around 200 employees. "Each of us has to clean 20 rooms on each shift. We can't leave until we've finished, even if it's late. It's hard work. We have no health insurance, and we have no other workers' rights, either."

The boss of the company has been employing mostly refugees for quite a while now. They usually haven't been in Germany for long, and aren't yet familiar with its laws and the way things work. In these circumstances, a sense of cultural familiarity carries all the more weight. However, Imad says that anyone who protests about the working conditions is fired. He asked his boss to give him a regular contract, but she refused. After three months of exploitation and drudgery, he felt he had no choice but to leave the job.

Refugees at a job center in Gelsenkirchen

Refugees with a low level of education are especially likely to have difficulty finding jobs

Even with help from the job center, Imad hadn't managed to find a position before this one. He thinks it's because he was an officer in the Syrian army. Right now, he's looking for work more appropriate to his training and is thinking of taking a job in the security sector. He doesn't think it's going to be easy, though. "There aren't many jobs like that where I live. And they're also badly paid."

Read moreGermany sees drop in asylum claims in 2018

Serious exploitation

Imad's case and those of other refugees who are employed irregularly may not be the rule, but they're not unusual, either. Success on the regular job market depends not only on language skills but also on education and training. According to a study by the Federal Labor Office, the educational level of refugees now living in Germany varies considerably. Forty percent of refugees went to secondary school, and 35 percent have sat a German school leaving certificate. However, around 12 percent of refugees only attended primary school. Another 13 percent have never been to school at all. 

People with a low level of education are especially likely to have difficulty finding jobs in Germany. Once they slip into doing irregular work, they can end up in a very difficult position, as we see from the annual report from the German Institute for Human Rights, which was published in December. "These people suffer from their highly precarious social and financial situation," it says. "Migrant workers are at particularly high risk. They are often employed in the construction industry, meat production, the care sector, or in agriculture … Those affected complain of wages far below the minimum wage, and that their employers do not pay their social security contributions."

Refugees learning German

German courses for refugees

The report goes on to say that, while migrants could potentially assert their rights, there are many reasons why it's often difficult for them to do so. Exploitative forms of employment can, in theory, have legal consequences for employers, but in practice, such cases seldom come to court. 

Read moreGermany knows 'alarmingly little' of missing child refugees

Dubious job adverts

One of Imad's friends has also had a depressing experience. He too asked us not to use his real name. Like all the migrants DW spoke to, he is a recognized refugee. And, like all the others, he took advantage of the help offered by the job center, but none of his efforts bore fruit. So he worked for 20 days for an employer in Düsseldorf — an Arab — but he wasn't paid.

He told DW he found out about the job from a Facebook post and went for an interview the following day. In his case, too, they quickly came to an agreement, and he was able to start shortly afterward.

Refugee from Eritrea

A refugee from Eritrea in training for a new job

The young Syrian told us that a few days later he asked to sign a contract, but his employer refused. Instead, he offered him a badly paid job with no security, which he declined. He then asked to be paid for the days he had worked, but the employer turned him away. The young man told us this boss was still deceiving and exploiting refugees in this way. News had got around, he said, and the employer was known in migrant circles as a "black sheep": "But he keeps changing his name on Facebook, and just puts up a new ad."

Read moreSaudi women refugees in Germany: Still living in fear

Second time lucky

Nonetheless, experts say the integration of refugees into the labor market is generally going well. In January 2019, according to the Federal Employment Agency, 455,000 refugees were registered as jobseekers. Around 187,000 of these were registered unemployed. All the same, a report by the agency says it isn't easy integrating them into the job market. "At 32.7 percent, the comparatively low employment figures for refugees from non-European countries of origin show that integration into the job market will require perseverance," it says. "The employment rate for all foreigners in November 2018 was 51.0 percent, while for Germans it was as high as 69.4 percent."

Watch video 02:07

Refugee workers in Germany

Samah,* a recognized refugee from Syria, is one of the ones who hasn't made it yet. She told DW it had taken her some time to decide to go public with her story because she was afraid of her employer. She too initially found a job with an employer of Arab descent — again, the sense of cultural connection with a "fellow Arab" made it easier. "But then he made me work until I dropped, and scolded me over every little thing. I worked in terrible conditions, so bad I can't describe them."

Samah is now working for a different employer. He too has Arab roots, but suddenly the cultural familiarity is an advantage. "He treats me respectfully and with dignity. He provides us with free meals." It's a completely different atmosphere to the one in her previous job, where her employer didn't allow them any time to eat or drink or take breaks.

Read moreA Syrian fairy tale in Germany

Vulnerable jobseekers

As human rights activists have pointed out, refugees are particularly vulnerable in the job market. A lack of language skills, in particular, often means it's difficult for them to get their bearings and defend themselves, if necessary. They are at high risk, as is highlighted in the report by the German Institute for Human Rights. "For people affected by labor exploitation, their employers' refusal to pay them has existential consequences which affect their human rights," it says. "Despite being in employment, they are forced to live under the poverty line; many "

*All the interviewees' names and identities are known to DW. They have been changed for security and privacy reasons.

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