Temp work at General Motors Opel Bochum, 2007

Prol-Position on casualisation and agency working at General Motors in Germany in 2007.

Submitted by Steven. on January 11, 2010

The Company
Since the wildcat strike in 2004 about 3,000 workers have left the plant in Bochum, nearly all of them 'voluntarily', cashing in up to 180,000 Euros severance pay. In August 2006 there are 6,799 permanent workers still employed. The strike managed to prevent a radical re-structuring process, since then this process continued, but at a slower pace and targeting only one department at a time.

The complete plant 3 (storage and logistics for spare-parts) was outsourced to Caterpillar, the production department for exhausts and axles was sub-contracted to the US company Magna. GM refuses to give permanent contracts to its apprentices in the manufacturing departments. Once they finish their apprenticeship they have to accept a contract with the temp agency Adecco; they get the basic wage of 13,50 Euros before tax and a guarantee of staying in the plant for half a year. After that they are only 'normal' temp workers at Adecco, their wage is reduced to 10 Euros and they can be sent anywhere in Germany.

In addition to that the management threatens with various smaller outsourcing measures, such as the security service. The following report describes the situation in plant 1 (final assembly of the models Astra and Zafira) in summer 2006. All GM plants in Europe are supposed to compete for the order to produce the Astra follower model (Delta II). In addition to the closure of the plant in Portugal and the cut of the entire night-shift in England, the outcome of the decision about Delta II would be another plant closing. In plant 1 of GM in Bochum the management demands severe wage cuts and the outsourcing of the entire internal logistic department (which employs about 550 people), a crucial department which delivers the assembly lines with parts. In 1999 the workers prevented the outsourcing by going on wildcat strike. In 2004 the plant in Bochum was cursed as too expensive, in summer 2006 it is hailed as one of the most productive in Europe. The atmosphere inside the plant is rather bad. The collective feeling of workers' power was weakened by the way the strike ended and fades further due to the individual poker-game around leaving pay ('people are being bought out') and the daily announcements of undermining the remaining collectivity by outsourcing.

The temp workers in the final assembly department are hired by an already outsourced company, called SCB (Sils Center Bochum GmbH). SCB is a subsidiary of Ferrostaal, which in turn is a subsidiary of the truck manufacturer MAN. In the GM plant in Bochum SCB has the order to pre-assemble certain parts (the inner lining, the glove compartment, parts of the dash board etc.) and to supply the assembly line just-in-time. In Cologne SCK assembles the front and rear bumper for Ford and SCR in the GM plant in Russelsheim pre-assembles engine parts. The pre-assembly department which SCB took-over in Bochum used to be a so-called convalescent department, meaning that it used to comprise easier work for people who were not able to work directly on the assembly line anymore or not yet, e.g. after recovering from an illness. People were blackmailed with the closure of the convalescent department and told that their only chance to keep their job was to shift to the outsourced company SCB. When they shifted to SCB those people kept the conditions inscribed in their GM contracts. This has the result that at SCB there are three different legal conditions for the same work: old GM contracts, SCB contracts and temp work. Even the hourly wage before tax differs considerably: according to GM contract it is about 16.50 Euro, SCB 13.50 Euro and temp contract 7.00 Euro. Along with the outsourcing of SCB the conditions of Adecco temp workers who were previously working in the department deteriorated drastically: GM used to pay a bonus for all temp workers, so that their hourly wage was topped up to 13.50 Euros, the lowest hourly wage a permanent worker would get. With the take-over in April 2006 SCB scrapped this bonus and 150 Adecco workers saw their wage cut by 50 per cent, resulting in 149 workers leaving the job or being kicked out after taking collective sick-leave. The huge wage differences between GM and temp workers become even more blatant if we take holiday pay, various bonuses and extra paid breaks for assembly line work into account, extra payments which the temps do not receive. The annual total wage of a temp amounts to about one third of a permanent workers wage. In the period from the second world war to the present day such an extreme wage difference only seemed to be enforceable along of racial or gender lines. In the main industries the struggles of the 60s and 70s washed these severe differences away, now they have returned and they are imposed by 'merely' legal divisions. In addition to the wage gap there are further disadvantages the temp workers have to face, e.g. during the three weeks of company holiday the temp workers were dismissed and had to apply for unemployment benefit; after the holiday not all temps got their job back. Or another small example: if people do not turn up for their shift it is the temp workers of the previous shift who have to stay until the management finds replacement, for up to two hours. Another disadvantage and difficulty on a daily level is the fact that the temps can be kicked out from GM immediately, from one minute to the other. At the moment there are only about 400 temps working in the plant, including, for example, canteen staff.

Compared to, e.g. the new plant of BMW in Leipzig in the east of Germany, this is not very many. At BMW 1,000 of the 3,400 employees are temps, many them have been working as temps at BMW for three years. Due to the combative history of the GM workers there are only a few temps at Bochum, but they are highly concentrated, e.g. in the assembly department nearly half of all fork-lift drivers on night-shift are temps. In contrast to GM the 150 outsourced companies that operate on the GM premises do not have legal constrictions as to how many temp workers they are allowed to employ. As part of the competition for the Delta II the GM management demands that GM itself should be allowed to increase the share of temps from five to fifteen percent.

The temp agency Wico employs about 35 people per shift, only for SCB in the pre-assembly department. After a lot of Adecco people quit, Wico got a big chunk of the order, so most of the Wico temps have only been in the plant since May 2006. Compared to Adecco it is a minor agency with about 150 employees in total, most of them are hired to companies of the automobile sector. Wico temps work at GM, at Ford in Cologne, at Tower Automotive in Duisburg (doors for Mercedes Sprinter and VW T5) and for Nobel in Essen (breaking-systems). During the job interview the Wico manager tells you that you might be hired to any of the above companies.

Hiring Process
GM and Ford demand that the temp agency subjects the job candidate to a German test, a second hurdle for immigrants. Apart from that no other formal qualification is required, although the agency prefers people who have assembly work experience. The job interview took about two minutes and ended with the manager saying: 'You are now on the list, please be available, we might phone you in the afternoon and ask you to do the next night-shift'. And this is more or less how it happened. During the interview the manager emphasized that SCB wants to recruit 'a permanent pool of temporary workers'. He said that it could be a long stay at GM, but did not promise a permanent contract with SCB, did not even mentioned the prospect. He also warned about the bad influence of the old GM workers in the department who do not accept the new work standards and quality measures of SCB. He made clear that they can get away with it, but that we would not. The temp agency Wico has their own office on the GM premises, a supervisor who visits the temps before or after shift, who takes care of complaints of either side. If you are five minutes late, at 5:50 am this is, he would phone you and inquire about your whereabouts.

The Composition of the (Temp-) Workers
Most of the temps are young, half of them from migrant families, about three quarters are male. Most of them have a formal qualification in an unfashionable profession, such as mechanic in the mining industry or building fitter. They are younger than the average GM worker by about ten years, but apart from that their composition is almost identical (in terms of qualification, migrant background, gender etc.). In the small department that pre-assembles the inner lining we are eight workers, four temps and four permanents. Apart from the foreman only temps do the night shift. A female work-mate used to work at GM with a permanent contract. She did an apprenticeship at GM, her mother had a corner-shop on the premises and knew the works councils, which helped her to get the job. She was then dismissed due to down-sizing of the paint-shop, worked at the counter of a bakery for a while, was unemployed and then got back to GM, this time as a temp, earning half her previous wage. A Turkish and an Albanian temp worked at Nokia mobile-phone plant before and were both kicked out because of problems with the foreman. The permanents at GM radiate a certain coolness, a certain tired self-confidence. Towards the temps they are friendly, mixed with pity. The temps who just started to work at GM are impressed by the dimensions of the plant, the masses of people, the huge locker-rooms, the info-board of the workers' motorcycle-club. There are remnants of the old political workers' fortress, which the plant used to be. Displayed in the plant there are quite a lot of union info-boards, shop-steward news, calls for demonstrations and meetings by the MLPD (Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany). People rant a lot against 'them up there', but at the same time most of them think that the plant will be down-sized bit by bit and close at some point.

We work five meters away from the line, preparing the inner lining for the assembly. We can see if the line is moving and we can hear if there are any problems. If there is any problem at any section of the line people can press a button and then a tune is played from loudspeakers positioned at the line. There are different tunes for different sections, so the department manager or the maintenance crew know where to go. Most of the time these tunes play at the same time, badly composed electronic versions of old-fashioned children songs. Psycho. The work is simple; it takes about two hours to learn it and probably four days to find your rhythm. The temp workers are trained by temp workers. Once you got the rhythm the work is not too stressful, unless there are problems with the supply of parts or with the transport to the line. This is often the case. Meaning that you work more or less constantly. You take the inner lining for the roof, make sure that it is the right one (there are six different types), then you take cables, the spot-lights, foamy positioners and the electronic-parking-aid and stick it all on with masking tape. If you are stressed, the masking tape can get you into a comical fuck-up, a sticky situation, so to speak. You normally need three minutes per inner lining. Every fifteen minutes a work mate with an electric lorry will drive a wagon with ten inner linings to the assembly line, about 200 meters upstream. We are supposed to have two wagons full of inner linings prepared at any given moment, in order to be on the safe side. Because if no wagon reaches the line for ten minutes, the line would stop. This should not happen. There shouldn't be a wrong inner lining model on the wagon neither, nor parts missing, because things get pear-shaped otherwise, people have to run or cycle through the plant and supply the line with the correct item. This is why one person in the team is always supposed to check the wagon and sign for the correct content.

This job rotates with each wagon. After this worker the driver will check the wagon again and then an older GM worker stands at the line and triple checks it. They want to get rid off this worker, but that will be a tough job. There are rumours that the old bugger rejected a 150,000 Euros leaving package. SCB gets in trouble with GM for any mistakes, this is why they increase the pressure on the team; we are held responsible for the quality. To give the wagon a good check and to assemble new linings at the same time is stressful. But it is even more stressful if you don't notice that a work mate in the team forgot to stick on a foamy positioner, because he will be screwed by the foreman and then screw you. The SCB foreman tries to threaten us with the sheer mass of capital involved: 'We are supposed to assemble 370 cars per shift, so if you guys cause the line to stop for a minute, it will cost us 15,000 Euros. You don't really want to deal with that, do you?!'. Answer of a temp worker: 'If I actually have such a responsible position in this company you'd better pay me more than seven Euros before tax'. Even a straightforward inner lining, whose production price will hardly amount to more than ten Euros, is the product of an extended international cooperation. The actual lining has left the factory (supplier: Faurecia Sia), in Poland one week ago, the spotlights were supplied by a manufacturer from the South of France and the cable is from the Czech Republic. Interestingly enough Faurecia has a plant in Leipzig, as well, supplying the BMW plant. There the union officially states that it was able to make 20 temp workers permanent and to convert all short-term contracts into permanent ones.

SCB plans to train all temp workers to drive the electric lorries, to organise the supply for the assembly line. The job is dull and you rarely have time to chat with anyone. The workers on the assembly line (who are all permanent workers) are not really up for chatting, which might be due to the work load, but also because the e-lorry drivers change every other day. And what kind of conversation can you have during one minute of handing-over the parts and fetching the empty wagon?! The temps are also supposed to go to an unpaid one-day training for fork-lift driving. May be once the internal logistics is outsourced they will want the temps to take over these jobs. We have to sign a paper that we have to pay back the costs of the training, about 150 Euros, if we leave the job within the next three months. The high turnover is a problem and this may be a way of trying to tackle the problem.

The fact of producing cars, an alleged mass-product, without being able to afford to buy one, is strange in itself. The temps' wages are so low that probably even a ten years credit would not be enough to pay for a new car. This fact becomes even more absurd if you know that the automobile giants have to struggle with huge overcapacities; they produce too many cars.

At the same time we are supposed to work extra-shifts on Saturday twice a month and 30 minutes overtime every day. And for January 2007 the management announces reducing the working week to four days, which would mean the sack for some of the temps. Most of us are gutted: the job is shit, but you can count yourself lucky if you have one. It is surreal that grown up (wo)men who keep the biggest industrial giant of the world running have to be scared of these daft foamy positioners. In our team six people assemble inner linings for the roof-part. The new model needs four foamy positioners less. The older GM workers are seriously worried; they know where it's at. Four foamy cubes less means 30 seconds time saved per inner lining. If we assume a daily output of 400 cars, it would add up to about three and a half hours per working day.

For some Mc Kinsey bastard this would be enough to kick one of us out. As if the alienation of the work process wouldn't be enough, the management invents extra-alienations. Right next to the assembly line there is a 'wounded car', it is bandaged and a huge sign says 'mutilation parcour'. You first think that it is a kind of health and safety measure or a warning for future street accidents, but it is actually about the car and in which parts you might hurt it. Every day an old fork-lift driver rattles past this bloody 'mutilation parcour', his neck and spine full of metal screws, he literally broke his neck at work and is still waiting for compensation from GM.

The permanents and temps take their break together, we sit at the same table, there aren't any animosities, but our problems are of different kind of intensity. The main worry for the permanents is the future of the plant, the threat of dismissals and the question of the leaving pay. For the temps these conversations are a lesson in modern company management. They rarely talk about the wildcat strike of 2004, but when they mention it then they describe it as the main answer which they found to managements policy. The next sentence is usually about the fact that since the strike ended, about 3,000 workers left the plant, that therefore the situation today is different. The permanents have their coffee/fag-break together with their worst-case-scenario, with the next generation of industrial workers. The temps can tell them how life is on unemployment benefit, how the situation is on other shitty shop-floors and how to manage your life with 850 Euros per month when additionally to this problem you have a full-time shift-job in the German car industry. The permanents are estranged from the 'don't-give-a-toss'-attitude of the temps towards the company and the future of the plant. The main problem of the temps is of a straightforward financial nature, the low wages. At the moment there seems to be a kind of material and moral limit of about 10 Euros per hour before tax for young industrial workers. If the wage is lower, it becomes the main concern. If you earn 850 Euros per month like we do, you have only about 150 Euros more than on the dole, of which most is spent on petrol and increased drug consumption. And then the growing uncertainty of if and where you will actually work next month. The rumours about the enforced four-day working-week and unpaid holiday hit the temps harder than the permanents. And the management would not call the permanents at five o'clock in the morning on a personal holiday and ask them if they could come to the shift and replace an ill colleague, as does happen to the temps. And they don't phone the permanents early in the morning when they are five minutes late, which makes coming too late to GM feel like this…

…this sensation, still dozy in bed, the first attempt to open your eyes, still frazzled and able to into the soothing abyss when you realize that the time-keeper next to you is right, that shift will start in five minutes and you are a naked twenty minutes bike ride and three dream-lands far away from work, a lot of things happen at the same time, various pictures, sensations, thoughts, disbelieve, and then five seconds of panic: an industrial giant with scrap-metal edges gears up, comes ploughing through your puffy downy cosy world, through the scent and touch of the other, the picture of the cars' carcasses lining up to be filled with meat, the rattling chain and a tiny link missing which is you still in bed, a missing link with ripple effects, the debts of the worlds biggest car manufacturer surge to a menacing wave of dollar-bills, a black-hole of uncovered pension funds, the general motor starts to stutter and screech, asking for more human energy, for the missing link, sends the foreman to the department manager to the greasy temp agency amoeba who slobs towards the phone in order to sneak into the warmth of your blankets, naw! 'blow the job, man, get some sleep!', but behind him threatens the sack, the job centre, another dozen of job interviews with similar sticky personalities. Humiliation, silky muscles turning to sour flesh during the race to the plant, running through huge industrial halls, the assembly line moves in the opposite direction, nightmare sensation, you can run, but you will not get anywhere, mocking smiles of already working men, 'this time it's you, buddy', patronizing wagging finger from your foreman, acrid smell of mercy, the shrugging shoulders of your mates and your early morning knees shake for five euro an hour…

All this results in a really bad mood amongst the temps. The rumour that all Adecco temps are about to be kicked out is the last straw. The permanents, even the foreman, suggest that we should ask SCB for permanent contracts. Or at least ask about what is actually going on concerning the Adecco people.

Kick Out
Various factors lead to a rash action, which end in a temp guy being sacked. The atmosphere is bad, people talk about quitting the job, the same talk in the glove-compartment department. When the management sent us to the benefit office during the company holiday they promised that we would all be back on board in three weeks time. Actually a very sound work-mate is not on board now, he is still at home, the management says that he is not wanted because he comes late and sometimes drunk. So somehow they don’t give a shit about us and we don't about their jobs, or at least not at any cost.

Really, it is like having to pay for having a job. A common action seems to be more plausible than leaving or being made to leave. The idea crops up that we could all go to the SCB office during the fifteen minutes break and ask about the future of the Adeccos and for permanent contracts, at least a bit more money. We tell people in other departments about it, the electric lorry-job comes quite handy for that. Most of the people think it is a good idea, some of them go straight to others, spreading the word, some boast about bringing fourteen people to the date. It is two days before the date and the Wico supervisor snoops the thing out, starts to threaten people individually, saying that the action endangers all the temps jobs, suggests that we should talk to him and leave the Adecco guys alone. Because we work all quite spread out and are more or less chained to the workstation there is no way to get together quickly, to find some common answer. He asks for ringleaders, he really panics, and finally it is the electric-lorry driver who is on number one of his list. Although even the SCB foremen speak in his favour, the guy has to leave the plant and is not allowed to return. This result is even more demoralising because it confirms the opinion of the permanents that the temps are victims who can be kicked out in no time and who cannot stick together long enough in order to get something going. A successful action, however small, of temp workers who know about their position in the final assembly would have been an important answer against the general trend and a possible sign for others in less 'privileged' work situations.

[prol-position news #8 | 4/2007] www.prol-position.net