EXPLOITATION OF MIGRANT WORKERS: THE HIDDEN FACE OF GERMANY’S CONSTRUCTION SITES
In autumn 2014, the German capital opened, with great pomp, the “Mall of Berlin”, a giant new shopping centre right in the heart of the city, just a stone’s throw away from the Brandenburg Gate.
A few weeks later, the scandal broke out: around thirty Romanians who had worked on the mall’s construction were still owed several months’ wages. Ovidiu is one of them.
He has been living in Berlin for a number of years. In summer 2014, one of the site managers persuaded him to go and work on the construction of the future shopping mall.
“We were promised between €8 and €9 (US$8.50-US$9.50) an hour. We were, in fact, paid €6 (US$6.4) an hour,” explains Ovidiu.
This is far below the hourly minimum wage of €10.75 (US$11.4) applicable in Germany’s building and public works sector. The workers, moreover, were never given a contract, despite their repeated demands. “We worked for two months like that, being paid every two weeks. But then the payments stopped.”
The workers, unable to pay for their lodgings, soon found themselves out on the street.
After going for three months without pay, they finally stopped working and turned to the posted workers’ advice bureau of the German trade union confederation Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB).
“We have become very familiar with these little games over recent years. After three, four, five weeks, a new, similar company is established under a new name, and wants nothing do with any pending obligations,” denounced the Berlin spokesperson of the DBG, Dieter Pienkny, on a German public radio station. “The Romanian workers are now preparing a lawsuit to claim their unpaid wages.”
Migrant workers in Germany’s construction industry are increasingly faced with abusive practices of this kind.
In March 2014, the German union representing construction workers, Industriegewerkschaft Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt (IG-BAU), took on a similar case, defending 50 building workers in Frankfurt who had not been paid for months. The company was finally forced to pay the €100,000 (US$106,230) in wage arrears.
“More and more construction and public works companies are turning to labour subcontractors. As a result, a whole host of firms has sprung up specialising in the supply of cheap labour for construction projects,” explains Frank Schmidt-Hullmann, head of migrant workers’ affairs with IG-BAU.
“They are not genuine construction firms. They look like it on paper, but their only activity is, in fact, to supply labour at a low cost. They are brass plate companies that often only pay wages for the first few months. They then stop paying and expect the workers to keep going until the job is finished, in the hopes that they will be paid at the end of the contract.
"We are constantly coming across situations like this. And we only know about the cases that are presented to a union. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”