Syndicalist union protests migrant worker exploitation in Berlin

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 3, 2015

Evidently, a construction site is nothing for wet blankets. But besides the hard physical work, exploitation and inhuman treatment of migrant workers from the European Union (EU) seems to be the current practice on many German construction sites. What is new now is that cheated workers are fighting back! In the autumn of 2014, Polish colleagues found support from the Freie Arbeiterinnenund Arbeiter-Union (FAU) Freiburg. By the end of the year and continuing into 2015, Romanian workers—unionized with the FAU since November 2014—are fighting for unpaid wages totaling in 60,000 euros ($67,000).

From July until mid-October 2014, the comrades worked in the center of Germany’s capital to construct the “Mall of Berlin.” For constructing this shopping and apartment complex, which opened solemnly (despite unfinished construction sites and defects in fire safety) at Potsdamer Platz in autumn 2014, hundreds of workers from Romania slaved away for 10 hours a day and received only 6 euros per hour (or approximately $6). Due to problems with the pay and a lack of promised accommodation, workers staged protests and crossed their arms. Finally, in hope for betterment, the workers switched from one subcontractor (Openmallmaster) to another (Metatec). In the end, none of the two subcontractors even paid the agreed-upon wage completely, which—being below the industry’s minimum wage of 11.15 euros ($11.92) per hour—is illegally low.

“They didn’t only not pay our wages,” a comrade explained, “several times, we were treated arbitrarily and menaced (with violence, too). They did withhold written contracts from us, and they gave us no or completely rotten accommodations.” Another comrade stated: “I had two goals when staging the protest: first, I wanted to fight for our dignity and, secondly, for the money.”

“The first goal, we already achieved,” he added.

Before joining FAU Berlin, the comrades had already gone to the publiclyfunded counseling office for posted workers sent to Berlin, situated in the house of the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (German Confederation of Trade Unions, or DGB). The DGB has confirmed the mounting number of workers from Romania and Bulgaria seeking counseling, as does the intercultural association Amaro Foro. Therefore, the comrades’ cases might be considered symptomatic of the increased exploitation and cheating inflicted on workers from EU countries who are hired for the lowest possible wages and, then, are not even fully paid. Still, legal advice and written claims’ assertions do not adequately replace union action.

The latter has been provided quickly and resolutely by FAU Berlin, particularly by its section for migrant workers called the Foreigners Section, as well as by a dedicated FAU working group. Right before Christmas 2014, by means of daily rallies and a noisy demonstration of some 300 people, the grassroots union and its new comrades made the “Mall of Shame” (as they call it), a symbol for the exploitation of migrant workers. By the end of January 2015 a Brandenburg newspaper stated it was “a subject of reporting of all Berlin press.” They’ve been wholeheartedly supported by FAU members from all over the country.

In the meantime, the bosses try to avoid their responsibility and take distance from one another. Customerinvestor Harald Huth (HGHI) told the press: “We have nothing to do with these workers. This is an issue for FCL [Fettchenhauer Controlling & Logistic], which we’ve paid completely for all provided services.” But the executing FCL declared bankruptcy by mid-December, which neither hinders ex-general manager Andreas Fettchenhauer to be continually active in the construction industry with half a dozen other companies nor attempts to silence FAU Berlin by the legal means of a temporary injunction. In the meantime, the subcontractors’ representatives declared they “have never employed Romanian workers” (Metatec) and that they had not gotten any money from FCL (Openmallmaster). The first assertion is refuted by so called “renunciations” that some individual workers signed in order to get at least part of their wages. The latter assertion is vehemently refuted by Fettchenhauer himself. And despite Huth’s claim in mid-December to have broken with Fettchenhauer, an “FCL Fettchenhauer Construction GmbH” is right now working briskly on the renovation site of a new shopping center in Berlin-Lichterfelde—a project of Huth’ian HGHI.

As for FAU Berlin, the union continues its protests in 2015, by leafleting, for example, or hold a rally at the subcontractors’ offices. Additionally, the grassroots union supported its comrades in filing lawsuits against the subcontractors. And the FAU continues to fight back against the use of “temporary injunction” and the restrictions of union liberty. So, this struggle will remain thrilling.

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Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2015)