Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

Fired because of corona

The two construction workers had come to Germany from Serbia to perform electrical installation work at a construction site in Nuremberg. It was June 2020, and the restrictions imposed in order to contain the corona pandemic had only been relaxed for a few weeks. The infection rate in Germany was down to several hundred a day; public life had just resumed again. On 5 July, just under a month after they had started work, the two men were diagnosed with the corona virus.

The letter from their boss came only a few days later. They had been dismissed without notice, it said. As soon as the quarantine ended, they were to leave the living quarters their employer had provided for them for the duration of their stay.

"Just imagine," says Sunčica Brnardić, "the two were sick and isolated and then suddenly the news came: they were no longer welcome at the construction site and would have no accommodations from that point on.”

Sunčica Brnardić works for the Croatian Savez Samostalnih Sindikata Hrvatske (SSSH) trade union as an advisor on matters involving labour and social legislation. Within the framework of the EU "Fair Working Conditions" project she assists people who have become victims of labour law offences in cross-border cases – like the two construction workers who came from Serbia to work in Germany for a Croatian company. In order to take effective action in such cases, familiarity with the laws of a single country is not enough. Croatian law plays just as important a role here as German regulations. And it is precisely in such cases that employers show a strong tendency to undermine applicable labour laws.

Even the boss of the two construction workers was not content merely to dismiss his employees due to illness. The two men soon discovered that he had also cut back their wages. Although they had been paid their wages for June, they did not receive any money for the days on which they had worked in July, nor for either the quarantine or notice periods. "I tried for days to contact the company's managing director," says Brnardić, "It took forever to reach even his secretary.”

The sudden disappearance of employers from such countries as Croatia whose companies operate abroad is not a rare phenomenon, explains Brnadić. "Croatia has extensively privatised the entire labour market in accordance with EU guidelines," she says, "This has prompted entrepreneurs who are threatened by legal disputes, for example, to simply declare their companies insolvent and start new ones.”

This trick works particularly well because litigation takes a long time. "In such cases it often takes years to conduct a lawsuit", says Brnadić. That makes these loopholes attractive for entrepreneurs.

In the case of the two construction workers, however, she was still able to report success in the end: "I called dozens of times," she says, "and wrote various e-mails threatening to sue – which we would of course have done if the employer had not been willing to negotiate.”

In the end, the company's managing director agreed to pay his workers 500 euros each, thus compensating them at least for their lost wages. "In addition, I was able to receive – at least symbolic – compensation from the Croatian health insurance provider for the days during which the men were in quarantine," says Brnadić.

Nevertheless, she believes that this case reveals once again the political problems associated with the issue of labour rights in cross-border labour relations. "Far too few control measures are taken in cases involving foreign subcontractors in Germany," she says. "Even the question of whether subcontractors pay money into the pension funds in their respective countries is rarely verified". And as long as this doesn’t change, there is still a lot of work to be done by Brnadić and her colleagues from the Fair Mobility Advisory Centre.