Prol-Position on casualisation and agency work on a German building site in 2007.
The City-Palais is a major construction project in the inner city of Duisburg, comprising of a shopping mall, a concert hall, a conference centre and a casino. Right in front of the City Palais another construction is about to be started, the Forum, another shopping mall. Germany's biggest inner city shopping mall is in the process of being built in Essen, which is only 25 kilometers away. In the late 90s the CentrO was opened in Oberhausen, situated between Duisburg and Essen. It is a huge shopping complex where about 4,000 people are employed. It was the biggest single investment in the whole Ruhrarea since the GM plant in Bochum. The decision to build the City Palais triggered the usual (petty) bourgeois critique lamenting about the consequences of for the small shop-owners and about the obvious links of corruption between the planning commission, construction companies and the local political class. More interesting is the question of why there is so much liquid capital flowing in such kind of rather prestigious projects and of the conditions under which workers build and run such new palaces.
The initial estimation for the total investment sum was 160 Million Euros, of which the LEG (Landesentwicklungsgesellschaft, Development Society of North-Rhine Westfalia, a kind of development and housing association) paid 90 Million. The remaining costs for the completion are supposed to be paid by the future tenants of the City Palais. The LEG is one of German biggest real estate companies. It owns about 110,000 flats in North-Rhine Westfalia and 1,200 acres of commercial land. In October 2005 the LEG announced privatisation of all flats, to put them on the market for international investment funds, a current trend in Germany, where thousands of flats are bought by mainly US hedge funds. This decision triggered some verbal protest by tenant unions. In October 2006 the LEG found a buyer for the City Palais, which was still a construction site at his point. The investment fund Hannover Leasing paid 100 Million Euro. Hannover Leasing invests in the international real estate market, in major infrastructure projects, the aviation, rail and shipping industries and in the movies. The fund has an investment pool of about 7.5 Billion Euros and it manages investment projects worth 11.5 Billion Euros. At this point LEG announced that about 85 percent of the total 35,400 square meters commercial area had already been rented out. The biggest tenant is Germany's biggest casino operator, West-Spiel.
The main construction company is Bilfinger and Berger, they also build the shopping mall in Essen, and the main local company is Hitzbleck. During the early stages about 200 workers were on the site, during the completion phase up to 700. After the police organised a raid on the site during summer 2006 the newspapers reported that some companies employ workers illegally and pay less than the minimum wage. In October 2006, half a year after the construction started, the project lagged four weeks behind the schedule, and the town administrations agreed to extend the working shifts. It also became clear that the costs for the concert hall and the congress centre covered by the City Council would be considerably higher than expected. The town parliament voted for a 3.6 Million Euros top-up in addition to the already allotted 35 Million Euros. The PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) explained the rather swift decision by the fact that the SPD (Social-Democratic Party) town director Brand is at the same time the City Palais project-manager in charge of the completion work. The following report describes the working condition during the completion phase of the project. [http://www.citypalais.de/index.php?typ=html&content=Story&sub=1]
Tremonia, a German-wide operating temp agency, looks for electricians to wire fire-alarm systems, video cameras and door-contact systems on the City Palais site. You can start working the next day. Tremonia has a collective contract with the small Christian union (see first part of article), which pays 9,80 Euro per hour before tax. They don't pay any money for travel costs, no other extras. Tremonia employs five temps on the site.
The Composition of the (Temp) Workers
Three of the Tremonia workers are in their mid-40s, experienced electricians. They have been unemployed for about a year before they took the job at Tremonia, mainly because the benefit office started to hassle them and the Hartz IV unemployment benefit was too low an income in the long run. One of them has been working for temp agencies for a long time, he worked as a maintenance electrician in coal mines, in the automobile industry, he loaded trucks for supermarkets, he renovated shops in Spain and wired up the lion cage in the zoo of Wuppertal. He is the typical hooligan-type from Essen, a full-monty Ruhrarea prole. The second story he tells you is about his worries: it is his first trip to Nigeria next January, his wife and he will celebrate their marriage ceremony in her Nigerian village and he is a bit concerned about the dancing. This is one of the great things about the Ruhrarea, where unlike in a lot of more metropolitan areas people tend to mix more. The two other workers are in their early thirties. Since the start of the construction work four months ago, five Tremonia workers have already left the site, two because of the long working-hours, the others were sent back home because the client (hiring) company was not happy with them.
The client company is called Heinrich, a bigger handicraft company specialising in electrical installations. The company is from Leipzig, a bigger town in the east of Germany, about 500 kilometers from Duisburg. There are five permanent workers from Heinrich on the City Palais site, although the number varies given that Heinrich has more people employed on a hospital building site ten kilometres away, people sometimes have to work there, others are coming over.
There are two more Tremonia people on the hospital site, one of them used to work as a temp worker in the famous BenQ mobile phone plant near Duisburg, but was kicked out after the dismissals started [see prol-position news no. 3/2005]. The ten workers from Leipzig share two small flats in an empty nurses' dormitory on the hospital premises. They drive back to Leipzig on Thursday night or, which is normally the case, on Friday afternoon. They have to return to Duisburg on Sunday early afternoon. According to traffic they need about six to nine hours for their journey back home. They say that there isn't much work for electricians around Leipzig.
One work-mate from Leipzig used to work in an automobile supplier. (There is a booming Porsche and BMW factory in Leipzig. In the whole of East Germany there are three German car manufacturing plants, and two of them are in Leipzig.) But the supplier demanded CNC skills from him, and although he was employed as an unskilled worker, they wanted him to work Saturday and Sunday shifts without extra-pay. The stress-level was high. This fifty-year-old worker quit the job and as a result the unemployment office cut his benefit money for eight weeks. Another work-mate became unemployed after the small handicraft workshop went bankrupt. He still fights a legal case for unpaid wages. All the workers have been unemployed for a while, half of them for longer than a year, long enough to get your benefit reduced to the Hartz IV minimum. The company Heinrich got a sub-contract from the company Imtech. Imtech in turn got the contract from Siemens. Siemens now only supplies the engineers who manage the technical coordination between the various sub-contractors. The fire-alarm system is installed by several smaller companies, which got individual contracts, e.g. to wire the parking garage.
The minority of workers on the site are from West Germany. The west Germans tend to be the managers, engineers or foremen from the main construction company; managers of the Turkish cleaning gang; temps like us; or some specialists crane drivers or maintenance crew for the machinery. The big chunk of people come from East-Germany, Poland, Bulgaria. Most of the companies are very small, often self-employed gangs, so you might find four or five companies working on the installation of the video cameras, or a dozen companies putting up plasterboard-walls.
There is a turnstile at the entrance of the site, which you can only pass with a special ID-card. There is a lot of valuable stuff on site, and things do get stolen. Sometimes this is rather uncool, given that a lot of the tools and material belong to the self-employed workers. On the site you are supposed to wear your helmet and the ID-card with a digital-picture of yourself, otherwise they fine you 50 Euros. As a temp worker you get this ID-card too, but no tools to work with. We asked Tremonia several times to give us some smaller basic hand-tools, screw-drivers and stuff, but they found all kind of excuses.
Finally some of us bring their own tools, something that becomes negatively trendy for wage-workers. Others refuse to do that and use tools of the Heinrich company, meaning that they have to uselessly run around a lot. After the shell has been completed the main building company only does little supervising and coordinating work, they organise the site control, the transport of material, the cranes, they allot porter cabins and hassle the thirty Turkish cleaners who have to sweep the site twelve hours a day. The coordination of the different crafts is divided up, e.g. the Siemens engineers command all the smaller companies and work gangs doing electrical work, often mediated by the direct contractors, in our case Imtech. They also pass the installation plans on to Heinrich and the Heinrich coordinating worker hands them out to us. Usually a Heinrich worker and a temp then leave together and start working, at least the big boss in Leipzig wants that the temp is always with a permanent, but he is in Leipzig and often people prefer to choose their immediate workmates. The main work is to install cables for the fire-system and the cameras, to put them into an already fixed rail if possible, or to drill and hammer in new rails. There are literally thousands of kilometres of cable running through the site, and most of them run at seven metres high. The site is huge, three football fields plus three major sub-terrain garages for about 700 cars.
So most of the time you run around or wobble on mobile scaffolding, banging steel anchors for the rails into the concrete over your head. The time pressure, the hierarchical work organisation and the divisions into dozens of single companies not only creates stress, but unnecessary extra-work and delays, as well. For example often the guys who build the structure for the double ceiling start their work before we manage to get to the cable-rail. It is a real bugger, because you then have to kind of snake-dance yourself and the 500 metres long cable through the metal frames. Or you drive the hired mobile scaffolding to the other end of site, which takes about 40 minutes, destroys various cables on the floor and the already started marble work only to find out that there are already five unused scaffoldings waiting. But they belong to other companies and some people take that fact very seriously.
The main engineers wanted to change two walls in the car garage, which had the domino effect of changing the entire fire-safety zones, which annoyed the Siemens engineers, but they passed the changes and costs on to Heinrich and we then had to rip out cables which took two men one and a half months to install. All this creates the typical construction-site quarrels, mainly between Prussians (big lads from East Berlin) and Saxons (rather skinny moustached guys from Leipzig), which might still be some kind of conflict from times of socialism. But disputes can be settled in comradely manners, even with Albanian marble-stone masons, once you start cursing the general building project's management. There is no arrogance or rivalry between temps and permanents, mainly because the conditions for the east-German permanent workers is equally shitty or even relatively worse and because the building trade is somehow temporary anyway, meaning that the Leipzig guys cannot be sure if there is work after the project is finished.
Wage and Working Time
Compared to the permanents, from Leipzig the temps from the Ruhrarea earn more and work less. We get about 10 Euros per hour while the east-German get about 8 Euros, we work about 40 hours per week, they work up to sixty. They have to be away from home during the week, they don't get any extra money for that, they often arrive home late Friday night and half of the Sunday they spend on the Autobahn. An experienced electrician and proper family father, a work-mate from Leipzig tells us that since 1992 he has never earned more than 7.50 Euros an hour before tax and that he is therefore trying to keep this bloody job he has.
He even puts up with the other guys drinking and gambling half the night while he tries to get some sleep on the living room sofa. He also puts up with delays of the wage payment; in October the Heinrich workers had to wait two weeks. A workmate from the Ruhr area slips the collective contract for building workers to the guys from Leipzig. If their company had been in the employer's association they would have got a nice 40 per cent wage rise, or the sack. All in all there are only few discussions about the possibility of improving the situation. The conditions and relationships seem somehow temporary.
Rien ne va plus
The work ends with an accident, the scaffolding collapsed, it belonged to an unknown work-gang, no one to sue, the wrist collapsed, as well. The doctor, who is in charge of the site says that he gets quite regular visits from injured workers from the City Palais. Broken bones for Starbucks and the roulette. One month later all the temps got fired, Heinrich could not pay Tremonia anymore, the City Palais chaos busted their budged. Tremonia had no other jobs for the temps, so we all got laid off. We don't know what happened to the permanents from Leipzig.
[prol-position news #8 | 4/2007] www.prol-position.net