Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

The missing subcontractor

"The worst thing of all is the lack of respect", says Paul K. "That my boss thinks he can get away with anything because we won't fight back no matter what he does – that just shows incredible disregard for our work".

After all, Paul K. worked hard – ten hours a day, in a foreign country, living in a container. K. comes from Romania. The company to which he applied there had sent him to Germany to work. He was to help out on various building sites and work as a tiler and in interior design. But after the first month he noticed that something was wrong with the amount of his wages. The money transferred to his account was less than he had originally agreed to with his boss.

K. complained. And he wasn't alone. Several of the workers from the construction site had received too little money; and none of them wanted to accept that.

Their employer was not happy. When the men complained, he fired them on the spot. And he threw them out of the living quarters in which the workers had been accommodated for the duration of their stay in Germany. He also withheld their wages.

"I called him and wanted to ask when he was going to transfer the money", says K., "but he just said, 'We’re not a credit company' – and hung up.”

From that point on, K. was no longer able reach his former employer. He had blocked his number, and he withheld the outstanding wages.

Paul K. and his colleagues had no choice. They returned to Romania – without the money they were actually owed.

Back in Romania the workers contacted the advisory centre of the Romanian trade union BNS. BNS is part of the cross-border EU Fair Working Conditions project, in which trade union advisory centres in various European countries cooperate in joint efforts to resolve cases of labour law violations. The centres exchange information on the legal situation in the various countries in order to be able to deal more effectively with situations like those experienced by K., who worked in Germany for a Romanian subcontractor. According to Mirela Caravan, who works for BNS and supported Paul K. in his case, "We immediately filed a lawsuit against the company – but the man had disappeared; it was impossible to find him and hold him accountable". This was not an isolated case, she explains. It often happens that directors of subcontractors simply disappear when their workers make demands on them.

It is particularly helpful in such situations if advisors are familiar with the legal situations in several different countries. As is Mirela Caravan. "Under the German law on the posting of workers, the general contractor is liable as a guarantor if a subcontractor fails to pay the minimum wage," she explains. This meant that her first point of contact was the German general contractor.

Mirela Caravan advised Paul K. to recalculate the number of hours he and his colleagues had worked up till that point. "We are now helping the workers send payment demands to the general contractor within the framework of the Fair Working Conditions project," she says, "because the men are legally entitled to at least the minimum wage,”

And that alone is a great help for Paul K.: he does not have to accept his employer's behaviour and the disrespect it implies.

"Overall, however, the legal situation in this area is a very difficult one," says Mirela Caravan. She thinks that a fundamental change in the law governing the role of subcontractors is needed. After all, the reason why so many German companies outsource work to subcontractors is that they expect to cut costs by doing so. "I think they should finally change the law so that companies can be held responsible in such cases," says Caravan. "Works agreements must be revised in order to ensure that companies can no longer outsource work to unreliable subcontractors.