Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

Working in a corona hotspot

Alexandru S. had been working as a harvest worker for a long time and liked his job. In the past he had always travelled to Portugal for a few months to help with the harvest. He recalled later that the working conditions were fine and the working atmosphere was pleasant. The farmer he worked for had dinner with his workers in the evening and they got along very well. During the pandemic, however, travelling to Portugal was not possible.

A neighbour advised him to go to Germany. Unlike Portugal, Germany had concluded an agreement with the Romanian government that allowed harvest workers to enter the country – in spite of the pandemic. So this last June, Alexandru S. travelled to the Bavarian town of Mamming, Germany for the cucumber harvest.

He soon realised that the working conditions were completely different from those to which he was accustomed. The accommodations he and his colleagues were to stay in were small and dirty. Social distancing was impossible there – just as it was at work. The men and women were taken to the fields each morning in crowded buses. Immediately after their arrival, their identity cards were taken from them without explanation. Nor did they receive an employment contract.

Then the infections began.

When Alexandru S. called DGB’s Fair Mobility Advisory Centre for the first time, several people on the farm were already infected with the corona virus. But they were forced to work nonetheless, as S. told the advisors.

Shortly thereafter, the newspaper headlines read "Corona-Hotspot Mamming". Nearly half of the harvest workers on the farm were infected with the virus.

His boss refused to accept responsibility, but blamed Alexandru S. instead, claiming that he had incited the workers, stirred up their dissatisfaction with the working conditions, and violated the terms of his employment contract by reporting the situation to the Fair Mobility Advisory Centre. He called S. a "troublemaker". When the Fair Mobility Advisors visited the farm in response to his report, they, too, were insulted by the farmer. Trade unions are obviously unwelcome there.

"The work of Fair Mobility is important in such cases because of the language barrier alone," says Mirela Caravan, who works with the Advisory Centre within the framework of the EU "Fair Working Conditions" project. "The harvest workers that come from Romania to work in Germany for a couple of months often have very poor language skills and little knowledge of the country’s labour laws. Thus it is important to have contacts who also speak Romanian.”

The Advisory Centre provided Alexandru S. and his colleagues with information. The counsellors advised them to keep time sheets, and told them which minimum wage applies to them in Germany.

When the harvest workers finally left, the situation came to a head. While the buses for the return trip to Romania were parked outside, the farmer called the workers into his office one by one. There they were given their passports and their wages – at least in part. The farmer pays no overtime, which brings the hourly wage of many workers down to as little as 5.30 euros. In addition, he keeps several hundred euros, allegedly for accommodation and final cleaning. Only those workers who accepted the wage cuts were given their identity cards back, as several of them would report later.  Alexandru S. was the last to be called to the office. The farmer suddenly went berserk, as Alexandru later told the Fair Mobility advisors. He repeatedly called S. a troublemaker, and finally struck out at him. Alexandru bumped his head against the wall and fainted briefly. Only when his colleagues, who heard the argument from outside, started knocking on the door did the situation de-escalate. Alexandru got his identity card back. In spite of his injury, he was put on the bus with no chance to go to hospital. Never again, he told a newspaper reporter afterwards, would he go to Germany to work.

The Advisory Centre has filed a complaint against the vegetable farm for withholding ID cards, and informed Customs about the failure to pay the minimum wage. Charges have also been filed against the farmer because of the attack on Alexandru.

Mirala Caravan is glad that Alexandru contacted the Advisory Centre. "Only if workers defend themselves can we take action against such conditions in the industry in the long term," she says, "People need to know that they have rights, and the ability to enforce them – through the Advisory Centres of Fair Mobility and the Fair Working Conditions project, for example.”