Prol-Position on agency work at catering firm Gate Gourmet in Germany in 2007, following the strike of 2005-6.
A lot has been written about the six months of strike at the airline catering company Gate Gourmet at Duesseldorf airport in 2005-2006 , therefore only a brief introduction. The following report from a temp worker is based on a very short work experience inside the plant, about three months after the end of the strike. A strike which was mainly defeated because of the scab-work of temp workers.
Gate Gourmet is one of the world's biggest airline catering companies. In Germany Gate Gourmet took over the catering branch of the airline LTU. Temp workers had been employed at Düsseldorf airport before the strike, but mainly on the basis of actually temporary employment, e.g. students during holidays or on part-time. During the strike, temp work was drastically increased and due to a lot of permanents leaving after the dispute, now most of the workers in the logistics department and the kitchen are temps. There are three different temp agencies, the local agency Avci mainly recruits Turkish workers, whose conditions are even worse than the other temps. It was a challenge for the management to join ex-strikers, scabs and new temp workers in the production process.
The Hiring Process
Apart from the usual hiring ceremony Gate Gourmet demands that the agencies ask the civil aeronautics security board to check possible candidates and their addresses of the last ten years. After the short interview all three candidates who took part got the job, two of them were older than 45 years. The manager of the temp agency Mumme announced that Gate Gourmet plans on establishing a 'permanent team' of temporary workers. Like the manager at Wico/GM he seems to think that the prospect of a permanently temporary status is an incentive to take the job. They don't even need to promise a possible permanent contract anymore.
The work at Gate Gourmet is divided into four different departments: kitchen (about 30 people), storage for customs warehouse (about 20 people), general warehouse (about 25 people) and the lorry drivers (about 10 people). The kitchen and the customs warehouse are separated units, and mainly Turkish workers from Avci temp agency are employed in the customs warehouse. They have the worst conditions; they don't get bonuses for night-shift work and unlike all the others they have to pay for the food (it is not allowed to bring one's own food). The supervisors in the warehouse are permanents, mainly former scabs. The 'organic' informal foremen are either permanents who have been shifted from LTU during the strike or temp workers who worked as scabs. The permanents at LTU used to only get short contracts and often there was not enough work, so somehow only the scab-job seemed to provide safe full-time employment. All the drivers are permanents.
The management offered a lorry driver's job to a temp worker, but although it would have paid better, about 10 Euros before tax instead of 6.50 Euros, he refused the job after dong it for one day, due to the higher stress-level. Before the strike the drivers used to help loading the trucks, now they are only supposed to drive. The assembling of the load (magazines, newspapers, bog-rolls, drinks, meals etc.) and the actual loading of the trucks is now done by temp workers, most of them hired after the strike. The result of this restructuring is that now more than half of the work-force at Gate Gourmet are temps, most of them earning about 6.50 Euros per hour. If we take all annual extra-payments into account, the temps earn about 40 percent less than the permanents. However, the main motivation for Gate Gourmet is not the immediate wage costs, but the more flexible employment of the temps: particularly after the strike and during the phase of re-structuring they wanted people that they could get rid of more easily. In addition to that the ups and downs on the catering market intensified, demanding a more adjustable total workforce. The other side of the flexible coin is the high turnover amongst the temps. People often quit after a week or less. Especially for the work in the warehouse you need experience of at least two to three weeks. You have to know a lot of minor details: How many tabloids are provided on an inter-European flight? On which side of the lorry do you have to put the trolleys with uneven numbers? How many puke-bags for a trip to the US? The management and the supervisors complain about an increase of delays and wrongly packed trolleys. They blame fresh temps or pissed-off ex-strikers. On the noticeboard they condemn the 'sabotage'. The delays are a real problem, the time-schedule is tight, if a truck leaves the warehouse ten minutes late it might cost Gate Gourmet thousands of Euros of penalty.
After the Strike
There are no visual remnants of the strike, therefore it is interesting to see how a newly hired temp worker would get to know about a six months long dispute about three months after it finished, without asking about it. As early as during the first day at work another temp worker answers the unintentional question of how long he already works at Gate Gourmet: 'I have been working here since February. I am one of the strike-breakers'. Two days later in the canteen some permanents talk about the time 'before the strike', the harassments and the cost-cutting threats. Apart from that the atmosphere is neither tense nor relaxed, you cannot 'feel' an underlying tension, which might be due to the strike; there are no open disputes between ex-strikers and ex-scabs, at least not during the six working days of this report.
If you ask the temps openly about the strike, most of them will tell you that they didn't feel that it addressed them; that the aim and organisation had nothing to do with them. Three guys say independently from each other that the demands of the strike were on a different league: even if the wage-cuts would have been enforced, the income of the permanents would still have been considerably higher, their workplace still much safer. Practically, the strike was not able to build a bridge to the temps, nor to build up enough force to prevent scabs from working. The current problems at work are more pressing than the history of the strike. A lot of the temps come from the rural areas in the north-west, close to the Dutch border, they have to travel up to 80 kilometres to work. The shift-times are murderous, e.g. six days from 3am to 12am (early shift), then two days off, then six days from 7pm to 4am (night-shift). If not enough people turn up for their shift, workers have to stay longer, up to two hours, which is particularly tiresome after night-shifts. The management announces extra shifts, only giving very short notice.
Facing these kind of working-times and the low wages people often quit spontaneously, e.g. the two older guys from the job interview disappeared after three days. Some people have to stay, e.g. an African guy, who obviously has a bad conscience for having done scab-work, who arrived illegally in Spain, worked in the harvest, made his way working through France and now ended up at Düsseldorf airport loading trucks. The management watches the whole scene with a kind of paranoiac mistrust. After some leaflets with the title 'Against the Exploitation of the Temp Workers' appeared in trolleys, under meal trays, in water crates and Playboy magazines, they got nervous. Even more so after some leaflets actually made their way to the passengers in the aeroplanes. The management called the criminal investigation department and created a big fuss. The enormous stamina of the strikers, who occupied the strike-tent during six cold German winter-months, the spontaneous piqueteros, who blocked the lorries, the alleged acts of sabotage inside the plant, the destruction of a temp agencies' office during the dispute… must have fucked up their nerves considerably.
[prol-position news #8 | 4/2007] www.prol-position.net