Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

Trapped in the lockdown

Zoran B., whose real name is actually different, had worked in Germany for 11 years. Eleven years for the same boss, the owner of a nursery.

B. had worked for the man as a gardener and landscaper during the day, and lived in accommodations provided by his employer at night. Years passed. Then came corona.

Back in early March his employer called Zoran B. in for a talk. The economic situation was bad, he said. He no longer had work for Zoran B. Under the circumstances, he did not want to keep paying for B.'s board and lodging. The boss asked B. to travel back to Romania until the economic situation eased. B. agreed.

He applied for his annual leave and travelled to Romania, hoping to return soon. But just a few days after his arrival a state of emergency was declared in Romania. The country went into lockdown; the borders were closed. Zoran B. could not return. When his employer contacted him and told him that he now had work for him again and that he should come back, the borders were still closed. Entering Germany was no longer an option. What should he do?

Zoran B. told his boss that he could not leave Romania at the moment. He promised, however, that he would come back as soon as the lockdown was over. A few weeks passed. And then he received a notice of dismissal.

His employer, who himself had asked Zoran B. to spend some time in Romania, had dismissed him. And not only that: he also withheld his wages for the last weeks Zoran B. had worked for him.

So Zoran B. was now in Romania, a country in lockdown. He couldn’t find another job – neither in Romania, where the lockdown, combined with high unemployment, made the search for work hopeless, nor in Germany, where he could not return. What now?

Zoran B. contacted the advisory centre of Blocul National Sindical (BNS), a Romanian trade union. BNS is involved in the EU Fair Working Conditions project, in which various trade union advisory centres in EU countries work together to deal with cross-border cases. The German partners of BNS are the DGB (German Trade Union Confederation) Fair Mobility Advisory Centres.

This cooperation, says Mirela Caravan, is particularly helpful because it makes it possible to help people who are seeking advice regarding legal difficulties in Germany, for example, but are currently living in other EU countries – like Zoran B. in Romania – or do not speak German. The knowledge possessed by counsellors in the different countries about the labour laws of their respective countries enables them to provide support even in cases in which the legal situations of multiple countries have to be taken into account.

"I consulted with my colleague from Fair Mobility on how best to proceed," says Mirela Caravan. "And we advised Zoran B. to ask his employer to apply for short-time work." But his boss did not want that. He insisted on dismissal. It was difficult to find a legal basis for a suit. Zoran B. had no documents pertaining to his employment relationship. His contract was based on an oral agreement.

"So I first wrote a letter to the employer, asking him to pay Zoran B. his outstanding wages immediately," says Mirela Caravan. "Otherwise we would take legal action."

A short time later a payment for the outstanding wages was made to Zoran B's account. Fear of legal action had led his former employer to give in. Thus Zoran B. at least had sufficient funds to survive the lockdown in Romania. "Sometimes," says Mirela Caravan, "unofficial channels are the most effective after all.”