Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund

Labour rights: buried in bureaucracy

Alexandru Popa* had actually planned to stay in Germany for several months. A seasonal worker in the strawberry fields, he is one of tens of thousands of harvest workers who come to Germany from other EU countries every year. But the Romanian stumbled over something while working during his very first month, and broke his hand – a work-related accident. The German doctors he visited after his fall put two screws in his hand; a complex fracture. It was impossible for him to continue working. What now?

Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and its citizens have also enjoyed freedom of movement since 2014. Working abroad for a few months, in Germany for example, has become very easy. But what if a worker suffers an accident?

"It would all have been very simple in theory," says Helga Zichner from the Fair Mobility Advisory Centre sponsored by the Executive Committee of the German Trade Union Confederation DGB. "In cases involving work-related accidents like this, the employers' liability insurance steps in and pays compensation for the injury – 80 per cent of wages, until the individual is able to work again – for a maximum of 72 weeks. That’s the theory, at least. In actual practice, things became complicated for Alexandru Popa. For now bureaucracy got in the way.

After his initial medical treatment, Popa went back home to Romania. He could no longer stay in the container dormitory where he was accommodated during his work stay in Germany. Why rent an expensive flat in Germany when work is over for the summer, anyway? The doctors in Germany had put Popa on sick leave for a month, and now sick leave was to be extended in Romania until he could use his hand again. The German employer's liability insurance issues a specific form that needs to be completed in such cases – a certificate of incapacity to work. This certificate must be regularly renewed as long as the individual remains incapable of working. The doctors in Popa's home town were unfamiliar with this form, however.

"Nobody wanted to fill out the form and indicate how long he would remain unfit to work," explains Mirela Caravan from the BNS, the Romanian Blocul National Sindical Advisory Centre established through the DGB’s EU “Fair Working Conditions” project. Adding that "It is impossible to understand why.”

Caravan and Zichner have been working together on Popa's case for months. And every month they learn of a new reason why the money cannot be paid out. "At first, the problem was that private doctors cannot issue certificates," explains Zichner. So Popa drove from his home town of Targu Mures to a public hospital in Bucharest. However, nobody there wanted to issue him the required certificate either.

"The doctors argued that he didn't have a job at the time and therefore didn't need a certificate of illness," explains Caravan. "They documented that his hand was broken, but they refused to include that in the requisite form, and they didn’t want to indicate how long his inability to work was likely to continue.”

However, it is precisely this piece of information that the employer's liability insurance needs in order to process the application.

Then there was the problem with the screws. Apparently, the German doctors had made a mistake when inserting the screws in Popa's arm. The first doctor Popa saw in Targu Mures noticed that right away. He did not want to correct the mistake, though. "The doctors were not familiar with the documents, and were unsure whether the operation would be paid for – and if so by whom," Caravan explains and thinks aloud: "Maybe there was also a certain fear that if they treated him now, they would be held liable for the mistakes made by their German colleagues.

Months went by and no money came; nor was the second operation required to correct the mistakes made by the German doctors performed. Caravan and Zichner called everyone they could think of. They spoke with doctors and politicians – and with the employer’s liability insurance provider again and again.

"The legal entitlement to compensation is there,” Zichner said in September. She sounded frustrated. "The problem is that we cannot enforce it.”

Initial success came in November, six months after Popa's fall. The employer’s liability insurer expressed willingness to pursue a different path. A German doctor was now engaged to review his Romanian colleagues' documents regarding the condition of Popa's hand and, based on the description of his injuries, to estimate how long he would remain unable to work. The "certificate of illness" issued by the Romanian doctors was therefore no longer needed, and the money could be paid out. The way was clear to perform the necessary surgery and correct the treatment error.

All’s well that ends well? No, says Caravan. Somewhere in the process of translating the Romanian documents into German, a few "inaccuracies" seem to have slipped in. There was suddenly talk of a "Polish" patient – and the treatment errors made by the German doctors were no longer mentioned. Thus the German employer’s liability insurer is of the opinion that Popa will be fit to work again beginning in December. No mention is made of the fact that the corrective surgery is scheduled for the end of November and that Popa will probably not be able to move his hand immediately after the operation.

But at least Popa will now receive compensation for his injury for the last six months. And what about the months to come? There are still more phone calls waiting for the two women from the advisory centres...


*Name changed by the editors