Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund


The last link in the chain

Katarina Pejic

Katarina Pejic

By Jörg Meyer

Foreign workers are essential in virtually all areas of the German labour market. An above-average number of foreign employees work in low-wage jobs that are important for the functioning of our society. On the one side they are important, because the fill gaps in the workforce. But on the other side they often work for low wages under precarious working conditions e.g. in the medical sector, logistics or construction work. This was the conclusion of a research project carried our by the german government’s Expert Council on Integration and Migration in 2023. According to this, foreign workers are overrepresented in the low-wage sector, they have inadequate social security and are vulnerable to exploitation and fraud by employers.

The study also came to the conclusion, that in the already poor situation the employees, who are hired by foreign agencies or subcontractors, are especially subject to long working hours, a high work load, and low pay. In contrast the workers often have little or no knowledge of the German language, and they do not have knowledge about their rights. And the agencies and subcontractors often systematically circumvent work law and social law provisions.

30 workers cheated out of pay

The case described here is an example of some of the shortcomings investigated by the Expert Council and reports on a positive experience – despite a less than satisfactory outcome.

The workers union IG BAU had called out for nationwide action week on construction sites. The press release was headlined: „No more exploitation of migrant construction workers!“, which could have been the motto of the action week itself. In almost all German states the IG BAU, advisors of Fair Mobility and the European Migrant Workers Union (EVW), and other counseling organisations visited construction sites, talked to workers from more than a dozen different nations, informed them about possibilities to get council, and advertised for a union membership.

Asked about the role especially of eastern European workers during the ongoing boom in the German construction branch, Carsten Burkhardt, member of the IG BAU Executive Board, said, more experienced collones could improve their situation, because the know, that they are needed by the employers to master the many orders. But improvements reached by the IG BAU over the last years are still often counteracted by bad temporary housing for the workers, unpaid wages or withheld social benefits.

During a visit to a construction site in the city of Nuremberg, a Romanian worker told the advisors about a case from then about a year ago: 30 posted workers form Romania were not paid during several months, especially in October and November of 2021. Instead of payslips they were given the information, that the company, that had hired them and sent them to Germany had filed for bankruptcy.

Not sued for wages

The Fair Mobility staff, took contact data from the workers and contacted the Romanian parent organisation: the union association BNS. Mirela Caravan works for the project Fair European Labour Mobility (FELM) at the BNS. „When we heard, that the Romanian agency had filed for bankruptcy, we did not know about any German subsidiary company yet“, she says.

But a research conducted by Fair Mobility and BNS showed, that the company had founded an subsidiary in Germany – which had also filed for bankruptcy. But the workers could not apply for insolvency money in Germany, because the bankupt mother company had to serve the creditors in Romania first.

Unfortunately it was also not possible to make the Romanian company responsible for paying the wages via corporate liability laws, says Iulia Lavric from Fair Mobility. Moreover the workers had not documented their working hours, which made the case even more difficult.

But there was a possibility for the colleagues: They could have filed a claim for their money with a court in Romania. „We found an attorney for them and gave them the number, but they never called him“, says Mirela Caravan. „There was a good chance for them to get their money.“ Unfortunately they did not take up on the offer. „That happens more than once“, says Caravan. Workers often forgo a part of their wages and just take another job, „because they are scared to be blacklisted and after that not find a job at all. But I have never heard, that this list really exists.“ Caravan does not know what happened to the 30 workers.

For Benjamin Luig it is a typical case. He works at EVW and Fair Mobility as a coordinator for the construction branch and the agricultural sector. „It is systematic for companies to set up subcontractors – in whichever country –, and let them file for bankruptcy“, says Luig. „It is a way for them to employ workers undeclared, and they save on workers pay and social insurance contributions.“

FELM is expertise across the borders

When asked how she perceived the case, Iulia Lavric, says: „Cases like this one with groups of employees are always time-consuming.“ A communication channel has to be established, and data has to be collected. Employees from eastern Europe form an important part of the construction industry. But they are the last link in the chain, and that make them vulnerable – also because they often do not know their rights, and  rather take a new job, than resist. „This makes it all the more important, that we provide outreach advice“, say Lavric.

Despite the non-satisfactory outcome, this case is a good example in the context of the FELM project, which is especially important for cross-border cases, say Lavric. When two legal systems meet, the advisory expertise from both countries is needed. Under the umbrella of the FELM project, it is easier to get in touch with the authorities or obtain information e.g. on the legislation of the country in question through the local partners.

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