Migrant Labour in Germany w/ Elmar and Sergiu [EN]
In which we speak with Elmar and Sergiu about the conditions faced by migrant labourers in Germany, especially those working in slaughterhouses and in the cleaning sector.
In today’s episode we speak with Elmar Wigand from Arbeitsunrecht and Sergiu Zorger from FAU (Free Workers’ Union), about the conditions faced by migrant labourers in Germany, with a focus on Romanian workers in the meat industry and care workers. In the first part of the episode we talk more broadly about the labour laws and workers’ organizations in Germany. We learn about the multiple levels of exploitation experienced by migrant workers who work and live in various kinds of precarious arrangements. In the second part, we focus on the particular conditions faced by Eastern European labourers working in mega-meat processing plants, like Tönnies, and in the cleaning industry. The episode ends with a list of suggestions and practical advice for workers who find themselves in similar situations.
- Migration counselors (they run good information campaigns)
- Faire Mobilität
- Their hotline: https://secure.dgb.de/www.faire-mobilitaet.de/informationen/++co++d0d24b5e-6e58-11ea-8f86-52540088cada
- A short instructional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6ukKVxvwTk
- A longer, bilingual (RO/DE) video about the state of labour negatiations in the industry:
- Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union (FAU) [Free Workers’ Union]
- DREPT pentru îngrijire
- România -- Țara Muncii Ieftine (ROTMI)
- Examples and cases discussed during the intermezzo segment
- The 2020 Bornheim protests mentioned in the episode:
- Artwork by Cristian Grecu (check out more of his art at the link below or try to find him hidden in various places all over the Internet)
- Intro/outro song: Which Side Are You On?, by Intellectual Dark Wave (check out the full Labor Songs EP and all the other stuff)
NPC: [00:00:01] [Which Side Are You On?, song rendition by Intellectual Dark Wave]
robi: [00:00:18] Welcome to a new episode of Leneșx Radio. Today, we have here myself, Robi ...
ioni: [00:00:24] And this is Ioni ...
robi: [00:00:26] And today we are going to talk with comrades Elmar Wigand and Sergiu Zorger about the conditions faced by migrant labourers in Germany.
ioni: [00:00:34] Elmar is a member of the German organization Arbeitsunrecht, while Sergiu is part of the FAU, the Freie Arbeiter Union, the German anarcho-syndicalist union. The two tell us how their respective organizations work, often together, to organize migrant workers inside slaughterhouses in Germany and how they managed to build intersectional networks with animal rights activists and climate activists. After the halfway point, we'll take a short break and discuss strategies and tactics for fighting the meat industry or organizing within the meat industry. For this segment, we'll be joined by the newest member of the sloth bucket, Călin.
călin: [00:01:17] Hi. Glad to be here and looking forward to it.
robi: [00:01:21] For those listening to us while relaxing and recovering on this day off or for essential workers listening at the end of the workday -- or at the end of a day of protest -- we wish you a great May Day and we hope you enjoy this episode.
NPC: [00:01:44] [Intro collage]
sergiu: [00:01:59] Hi, my name is Sergiu, I'm from Romania. I've lived in Romania until I was 20 years old and then I came to Germany to study. In Germany I became more political and I am now a member of the FAU, and was involved in the FAU-Bonn in the Bornheim protests and in different other small cases that the FAU was doing in Bonn. And, also, I know Elmar through work with Arbeitsunrecht.
elmar: [00:02:19] Yeah. Hello, my name is Elmar. I'm working in Cologne, Germany, for an NGO called Aktion Gegen Arbeitsunrecht, which means action against injustice at work. And we focus on supporting workers' councils and also industries and people at jobs where no or less labour rights can be found, and where there is no work council and stuff like that. For example, the people in the slaughter industry or cleaners.
elmar: [00:02:53] There's a huge part of German economics where labour rights are only guaranteed on paper, and the real situation is quite different. So what we are doing is research, documentation, criticism, and we have a blog called arbeitunrecht.de and we are doing social media work and all that stuff. Campaigning. We also have a day of action where we focus on one evil company, which we try to punish for mistreating workers and acting against labour rights. Next Friday 13th, in November, will be Starbucks, by the way. And Tönnies, the biggest meat production company in Europe was our target on September 13th of 2019. I work as a spokesman for this NGO, which is still rather small. But we have allies in different German cities and also in small cities. This is quite nice with our NGO.
ioni: [00:03:53] As more of a joke question, you mentioned that they happen on Fridays. Do you have conflicts or do you co-opt Fridays for Futures for your activities as well?
elmar: [00:04:05] Yeah, well, we started earlier than Fridays for futures.
sergiu: [00:04:09] You were the true hipsters.
elmar: [00:04:11] We started in 2015. But yes, as we were campaigning against Tönnies, we had a coalition with animal rights and environmental activists as well, and at some cities also with Fridays for Future. I mean, they have a problem. They became stars. Like, anybody who wanted to work with them, and they were appearing in TV shows and radio shows and everybody was, I don't know, bothering those young kids and trying to pull them on their side. So at a certain point, they said, well, we don't do any extra and we do our own stuff. It's not such a strong connection in Cologne, but, yes, sometimes we act together. Of course.
robi: [00:04:55] I just wanted to ask as a follow up, maybe say a bit what are works councils. Because you mentioned this phrase and I think it's not entirely clear for all of us what you mean by it. And if you want, maybe say what this action last year against Tönnies was. How did you quote unquote punish them?
sergiu: [00:05:16] To be honest, I only know about workers' councils, actually, since last year, since I started to learn a little bit about FAU and Arbeitsunrecht. Before then it really was not necessarily a concept for me. I really do think it's one thing that needs to be disseminated more.
elmar: [00:05:32] I'm not surprised that you don't know it. Because works councils are some kind of a German and Austrian specialty. Invention, maybe. It's the remains of the revolution in 1918, when there was the council movement -- which is in Russian the Soviets; but the Russian Communist government abolished all those Soviets, in the way they existed from 1905, I think, in Russia. It means that at a shop level, workers vote for a body of representatives who take decisions concerning the factory. And somehow in Germany and Austria, this kind of invention after the revolution was becoming a labour law. There were big struggles in 1920 when this ... The German word is Betriebsrat. Betrieb is the shop or the factory, and Rat is council or soviet.
elmar: [00:06:30] This Betriebsrat laws made by the German parliament, there was a big struggle against it, because some workers -- the more radical ones -- wanted more rights. And they wanted to take over the factory, so that the workers decided everything at one factory. And in the German version, you just have some rights where the workers council can decide or has to be asked or the factory owner cannot do some things without consulting or without talking to the works council. And somehow the works council can also block decisions. You can not do, for example, extra overtime without the works council to agree. Or if you want to throw out people or want to hire people, they have a decision. And so this is blocking somehow the neoliberal companies.
elmar: [00:07:19] The flexibility and all that stuff is blocked by workers’ councils. And so they are very much against this kind of institution. Although you have a right to form a works council, if there are five employees or more. But there's a certain process when this works council is founded and this process, those elections and candidates are very often attacked. There are specialized union-busting lawyers and agencies who are specialized in putting pressure on all the workers or individuals, so that they collapse and are afraid, intimidated to vote.
elmar: [00:07:57] In reality, there's only a small percentage of companies where you have a workers' council. The bigger the company is and the older the company is, the more workers’ councils you have. And the more you are on the outskirts, like a subcontractor or if you have a firm who is just making parts for the auto industry... You have a works council at VW and Audi. But the companies who deliver parts for the cars, the further you go outside of the center of production, the less workers’ councils can be found.
elmar: [00:08:31] And for immigrant workers and all this service industry, which is in the third level of production, somehow, there's almost no work council to be found. And it's part of the neoliberal strategy to not only suppress unions, but also workers’ councils. I would even say the works council is more dangerous to them than the union. If you are elected in a workers’ council, they cannot fire you. And the only companies where the union members are officially walking through the factory, talking about the union and all that stuff, is when you have a workers’ council and you are protected against firing. This is maybe the most important thing.
sergiu: [00:09:15] It does have a lot of small nice features. For example, that you also get paid for your time working in the works council, and things like this. It is one of those things, again, that there has been a long fight to get these rights and then people forget and don't use these rights.
elmar: [00:09:30] Yes, they do not only forget it ...
sergiu: [00:09:33] They don't even know about it, yeah.
elmar: [00:09:34] If you want to form a workers’ council, you really have to be clear that you are going to be fired. Or harassed in a way that you have a nervous breakdown. They have different kinds of techniques to make you crack down. Yeah, and we are trying to do lobby work to force the state and the political parties to better protect workers’ councils. But somehow even the Social Democrats and all those who somehow are dependent on this kind of democratic structure, they don't really support workers who are under fire from union-busters. Yeah, this is really strange.
ioni: [00:10:13] So basically, you support these workers councils. But let's say a group of workers need some help. If they don't know about Arbeitsunrecht and they would go, for instance, to one of the bigger unions in Germany, would they get support? Or did the unions, as well, avoid getting involved in these situations?
elmar: [00:10:35] Yes, the unions give you support, but only if you are a member of the union. Of course, this is a point I can understand. Quite often they want to solve or settle the problem on a low level. You get some money and so you shut up. This is the problem. For a long time, they only see the tree, but not the woods. They just think it's singular cases, but not a severe problem behind it. For example, the way Eastern Europe migrant workers are treated in the slaughter industry.
elmar: [00:11:09] It's just settled on an individual basis, but there's no analysis and public outrage. There are many criminal things going on, some people should go to jail for what is happening there, but it doesn't happen. You just get some money for individuals who can get a lot of money sometimes. For example, a cleaner from Brazil got six thousand Euros because of Wage robbery. He had to pay it back to her. But of course, she was fired and he could go on like before with hundreds of other workers whose situation didn't change at all. The company and the owner are not punished and not prosecuted.
sergiu: [00:11:49] Basically, they're not solving it at the systemic level. They're just looking at the local concrete cases. That's also kind of a hindering public attention at the systemic causes of the problem.
ioni: [00:12:01] I think you described it very well, yeah. Because many workers -- German and migrant ones as well -- when they look at the groups and the unions, they basically see counselling or short term help. They don't look at them in the bigger picture, in the organizational way of actually doing a long term fight. Which is understandable to a degree, because they have other urgent needs. Maybe we can now focus a bit more on migrant labour in Germany, especially the meat production industry, which you mentioned. So maybe we can also discuss the struggle you had for years with Tönnies and how it evolved. And also how it was influenced by the pandemic.
elmar: [00:12:43] We came in contact with migrant workers' struggle by cleaners. First in one of the most expensive hotels in Düsseldorf, which is the federal capital of the biggest German federal state, North Rhine-Westphalia. It was the InterContinental hotel, in the Königsallee in inner Düsseldorf. We supported one cleaner who was robbed of her wage. And the scheme is always the same. They bring you to Germany and provide you with housing, and then you have to pay too much money for the place you are sleeping and living in. But in other parts, for example for cleaners, is like they tell you, you have to do this whole floor in one shift, maybe eight hours. And if you don't make it, you have to work as long as you need, but they only pay you eight hours.
elmar: [00:13:33] We even found out that they faked the papers. People have to sign in at a hotel when they get in, to get keys, and sign out if they leave. And we could prove very precisely how long they stayed there and how long they worked there. But they made fake transcriptions and fake stuff just to betray them from their money. If you go to court, I think it's three years back you can enforce the wage you have been stolen. You have to somehow prove it or make your own notes about it and present it. Yeah, and there we came in touch with Romanian cleaners, which is a major group.
elmar: [00:14:15] And the special thing about migrant workers is they do any job which is offered. It's a wide range from public health care to cleaning to prostitution and working in the slaughterhouses, and construction workers for men. But somehow it doesn't matter. You don't identify really with the job and you're not very much trained. So this is part of the problem to organize these people, by the way. One day they work in a hotel as a cleaner, then in the hospital, and next time you work in a canteen for food services or in the restaurant. They change quite a lot, you don't stay very long in these kinds of jobs.
elmar: [00:15:00] But the scheme is always the same. You have a guaranteed job or guaranteed payment -- of a minimum wage or industrial minimum wage -- and somehow they try to rob you. Sometimes they put a fake punishment on you. They say you have done this wrong, and so we cut off money. They are very inventive with stealing the money that they should give you. And the point is, if there is no works council and no union, there's nobody who enforces your rights.
elmar: [00:15:32] This is maybe the structure. And the other structure is that you have this kind of core production with good, decent jobs and then you have a supplier, and you have a supplier of a supplier. And then you have some kind of mafia-like organization, labour sharks who just get workers to do these shit jobs. And the less you are on the outside, the less rights you can realize, you can enforce. Basically, it's the same rights for anybody in Germany, but in reality it's quite different.
sergiu: [00:16:08] And this structure also permits that the main companies don't take responsibility for what is happening. They can always deflect to the loan sharks. It's them who are doing this, we cannot control them, we're just paying the labour.
elmar: [00:16:20] Yeah, it's like in the Bible, Pontius Pilatus. It's not my fault. It's the Jews or Herodes, who crucified Jesus. Ich wasche meine Hände mit Unschuld. What is it in English? I'm washing my hands in ...
sergiu: [00:16:35] In non-guiltiness?
elmar: [00:16:36] Unguiltiness?! No.
sergiu: [00:16:38] Innocence.
elmar: [00:16:38] Innocence. Yeah, in innocence. I'm washing my hands in innocence. But they are lying. You know exactly that the hotel manager, for example, is not only knowing what is going on, but he's commanding directly on those workers. Officially, they are contract workers or service workers and they have officially to be just separated from the regime of the hotel or the meat production. But in reality, they really command them, and in reality it's all fake or bullshit. It's just kind of legal tricks and a whole system with high paid lawyers and counselors and so on. It can make you sick and very angry.
sergiu: [00:17:24] And just to specify a little bit of context. They are called in German these Werkverträge. How are they in English, Elmar, did you check?
elmar: [00:17:31] Yeah, it's a work and service contract. It's kind of a modified temporary employment. But it's not temporary employment, but another kind of trick they build up. It's some kind of work and service contract. Strange to explain because it's really, in reality, strange.
sergiu: [00:17:49] In Germany, they do have some laws to limit fake employment, you know. You cannot be like a freelancer and work for the same person constantly. You cannot be working under this type of contract and being commanded by the boss of the place you're working at. You have to get your orders from the people at the firm that is giving you the contract. And this is what Elmar is saying. This is a complete fake because these people always get their orders from people at the slaughterhouse. And it's even that the slaughterhouses know in advance when people are coming to inspect. So in those days, everybody's put in their groups and everybody gets their orders from who they should legally get their orders from. But in the rest of the time it's actually an illegal work contract or illegal work form.
elmar: [00:18:30] Yeah, it's the exact same thing with construction workers, of course. I mean, when they know the inspections from the state are supposed to come, everything's perfect. The people who shouldn't be there aren't there, because they're announced in advance. So the inspectors come, they do their work and everything looks perfect on paper. I also wanted to add here, like you pointed out, it's hard for them to unionize. And also after the fact, after they already lost their money, it's really, really hard to still do anything. So, yeah, the trials take a long, long time. The people are often fired, and especially if Romanian and Eastern -- and foreign workers in general, because some come from Asia, for instance -- they don't know the laws. And if I understand correctly, many of the laws are also contradictory.
ioni: [00:19:15] There was this tragic case a few years ago of some Romanian workers who were so hungry that they went to a petting zoo and killed one of the goats because they were hungry. In theory, there's a law from after the war that no people should be homeless on the street. But at the same time, if you don't have an Anmeldung -- a registration -- in Germany for four months, although you're an EU worker, they can ask you to leave the country. And you can't get unemployment benefits from the job center unless you are there for six years. So it's a whole mess of a system with many contradictory laws, with people in the town halls who don't want to assume any responsibility, any actions. So it's basically impossible for the people to handle it themselves. They can barely handle it with the help from the FAU or the syndicates.
sergiu: [00:20:00] And they rely on the fact that these people don't live here. Even in petty criminality a lot of thieves stay at the Bahnhof -- at the train stations -- because tourists, they are here for a few days and even if something gets stolen, they cannot follow it through legally. Because they have to go back to their own country and following a legal process from your own country is much more difficult. It's the same that they are using on a bigger scale against migrant workers. They know that these are the people who are least probable to go to court, least probable to ask for their rights.
ioni: [00:20:32] Maybe you would want to tell us a bit more specifically about the Tönnies case; how it started, how you got involved, how you pressured them, and what are the plans from now on.
elmar: [00:20:43] In the case of Tönnies, the coronavirus really was good luck for us. Although it sounds strange and cynical, maybe. But because of Corona, all the stuff we already criticized and made public and brought to the attention of journalists, it became for some time the biggest theme in Germany. It was on the top position of the news, of Tagesschau, because this meat production site was a super spreader for the coronavirus. The hotspots were in slaughterhouses -- not only Tönnies, but first it was some minor sized slaughterhouse near Stuttgart, I think. And then it was Westfleisch and Vion, and somehow the biggest one and the most evil one -- Tönnies -- managed even to not being tested. And we still don't know how he did that. And I suspect that there was some criminal stuff going on. Maybe that he sent positive tested workers for several times through the same testing or something. I don't know.
elmar: [00:21:46] But then it hit him very hard and the whole region was under lockdown. One big factory is in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, in the Gütersloh region. Thirty thousand pigs are slaughtered there per day. The numbers are almost unbelievable. And the second biggest pig slaughterhouse is in Sachsen-Anhalt, in Weissenfels. It's about twenty thousand pigs that are killed there.
elmar: [00:22:07] Yeah, the communities are also under big stress because of these kinds of slaughterhouses. You have those trucks with pigs running through the streets. The water system is collapsing because they have to wash out all the stuff there. The rivers are polluted by all the stuff coming from the slaughterhouses and so on. So there's initiatives of people who live there against the slaughterhouses and they get bigger and bigger all the time. And so there's opposition as well. Also, there's opposition against the opposition, on the other hand, because there are many people profiteering from the slaughterhouses and the housing of migrant workers, and all that stuff.
elmar: [00:22:54] So there is a big struggle around these slaughterhouses. And we got in contact with those people. Also very active are the vegans, the animal rights movement. And this is maybe our biggest effort to bring those struggles together and to teach them that the Romanian and Bulgarian workers are not their enemies. Although they are the ones who kill the pigs and do all the work there, they are also victims of the system. You have to criticize the whole system of industrial meat production and the humans are part of it, part of the exploitation.
elmar: [00:23:34] And yeah, those people are quite active. So we could mobilize on this Friday 13th people in 20 cities. And our major point is to hit the company where it hurts. And this is the point of sale. So, supermarkets where they sell sausages and so on. For example, we attacked the major labels of Tönnies, which is Gutfried and Böklunder. But most of the meat he is selling without his personal label, but it's the cheap meat at Aldi, for example, and many other supermarkets.
elmar: [00:24:08] Most of the cheap meat, or major part of the cheap meat, is by Tönnies and you don't really know it. He also sells his meat to other factories who produce sausage from it. He's so effective, and the labour is so cheap, and it's so hyper industrialized that all the other slaughterhouses are going bankrupt and collapse. And he's buying slaughterhouses all the time in Europe and closing them down, so that his main factories could become bigger and bigger.
sergiu: [00:24:39] How did you attack the supermarkets and the distribution firms?
elmar: [00:24:43] Yeah, it's quite easy. By spreading leaflets to customers and by doing stickers on the product. We don't want dumping flesh, raus! Dumping meat, get off. It's disgusting. We don't want to eat that shit. And we are against this kind of work’s labour. One strategic point for us was also not to make this kind of pity argumentation -- all those poor workers or those poor animals -- but to find a point where anybody who is employed in Germany can agree and has the same problem. Because this kind of temporary work and service contract work -- Werkvertrag -- is not only a problem for migrant workers, but German workers have the same problem in any kind of industry. It's also spreading like a virus.
elmar: [00:25:31] As a young person, you don't get a decent job instantly. You have to do contract work, part time work and all that stuff. Anybody has this problem and anybody hates it. And this was the point we made. In these slaughterhouses it's the worst kind of version, but other people have the same problems as well. Even in the supermarkets, the people who fill in the shelves are contracted or service work contract people. Anybody knows that and anybody hates it. And somehow even the labour minister of the Social Democrat Party has found out that this could be a good point to make his party more popular. So they started to change the law at that point.It was part of our pressure and our effort. Even he found out that this kind of temporary work shit, nobody wants these kinds of contracts.
elmar: [00:26:25] Bad thing for the Social Democrat Party is that they invented and generalised this kind of temporary work in Germany in 2005. They were the ones who opened the doors for destroying decent, normal, unionised work in Germany. They now are trying to change the conditions in the slaughter industry -- and we are demanding it should not only be the slaughter industry, but of course, the construction industry, the cleaning industry. All that stuff I was talking about before, should be changed the same way. Of course.
sergiu: [00:27:01] From what I know -- and correct me if this is wrong -- the change that they are doing is actually to ban this type of contracts, starting 2021, right?
elmar: [00:27:09] They want to somehow prohibit temporary employment and work and service employment in the whole industry. This is quite strange because you can change just the surface and behind the surface you can somehow run it the same way. This is one thing. How do they want to prevent it from just being hidden or masked with other illegal constructions? And the other question is why only in the slaughter industry. But yeah, they want to prohibit it. You should only work in the slaughter industry if you are directly contracted by the company. There are some loopholes, but it's not clear. The law is not already passed, not voted on. It's in the process right now.
elmar: [00:27:57] This is also a special feature of the Social Democrat Party in Germany. They have good ideas, but they always put in loopholes. And then they say, oh, it's not our fault, it's the companies who are using these loopholes. But they, right from the beginning, put in those loopholes and everybody can see that. One loophole is that you have to be contracted directly by the company. But this company can also give you just a three month contract.
sergiu: [00:28:24] Yeah, temporarily limited contracts.
elmar: [00:28:26] It's also an evil thing. Because somebody who has a temporary limited contract will not vote for a works council, because the contract will not be renewed after it ends. So it's a very easy point to prevent people from unionizing.
sergiu: [00:28:42] I think the worst loophole that you told me about, Elmar, is the implementation of these laws.
elmar: [00:28:47] Yeah, of course, controlling [i.e. verifying] is sometimes as important as the law itself. Of course. Controlling and enforcing. And the most important institution is the workers’ council. So it's a freely voted body of independent workers who know what is going on inside the factory and control labour law and the times and correct wage payment. This is much more efficient than some state controllers who come from the outside and who don't really know what is going on. So the most important thing would be to form works councils, but the new law doesn't speak of them in any point. They don't mention works councils at all. It's strange. But nevertheless we made some effort there.
ioni: [00:29:37] In these cases these are more or less legal loopholes. Did you also face cases of people who are basically black collar workers? Because I know in restaurants, for instance, lots of migrants work without even having these contracts, even the fake ones. What do you do in this situation if you faced it?
elmar: [00:29:58] What do you mean by black?
robi: [00:29:59] Informal.
ioni: [00:30:01] Informal work, yeah.
elmar: [00:30:02] Ah, OK.
sergiu: [00:30:03] Black market work.
elmar: [00:30:04] Illegal. Illegal or without documentation. There certainly is some kind of percentage, but I don't know it.
elmar: [00:30:11] And there was a big raid against labour sharks in the slaughter industry in September, partly also because of the public pressure we and many others put up. And it was against illegal immigration. And they found out that they provide people from Moldova, from Kosovo, Georgia, Belarus with false documents. So they were disguised Romanians somehow. But they had to fake passports and papers. So it doesn't stop at the EU borders, but they always need new human resources, new material, putting pressure on those who work there by those who are even poorer and have less rights.
sergiu: [00:30:55] There are a lot of people working with basically no contracts. And I had a little bit of contact with them doing a little bit of social work before. I found that you do have some rights even working without a contract.
ioni: [00:31:07] Yeah, of course.
sergiu: [00:31:08] If you have one colleague that can say, yes, he was there from eight to five and the boss didn't tell him to go away, he let him work, then you are allowed to get paid. And you get at least the minimum wage or the wage of the general people that are working there. You do have less rights in that case, and it's much harder to kind of do anything. We even have one colleague at the FAU who has been here four more years and his sister -- they are also migrants -- she came and she found a job taking care of some people and they didn't give her a contract. And he insisted multiple times, to get at least this basis of safety in a contract, to have at least some rights. And she was 'sorry, I will not risk them telling me I cannot work here if I insist on getting a contract. I still prefer to have the money that they give me.'.
sergiu: [00:31:54] It does boil down to that for so many people. And, also, what Elmar also told me is the thing is that they steal just a small proportion from everyone. And they know how much to steal so that the workers do not get enraged, you know. They know that they can take from each worker about one hundred fifty euros or two hundred euros on extra housing costs. They cannot take another 50 euros on extra transportation costs, that they don't have to pay, that they would normally have to pay. They can take a little bit by paying the cheaper insurance. And I talked to the workers, and they know a little bit is being taken by their boss. “Ia un pic de aici, ia un pic de acolo[Take a bit from here, a bit from there]”. They all know this, but it's like they still get twice as much as in Romania. And if the boss takes about one quarter of that, they still get paid one third more or two thirds more than they would get paid in Romania.
ioni: [00:32:40] Yeah, exactly. It's just the same with a lot of construction workers. For instance, in the bigger cities -- you know, Berlin has the big housing crisis -- and sometimes they pay like three hundred euro, which is a lot to live like seven or eight workers in a small container somewhere near the construction site in Berlin. And they know it's a rip off, but they still accept that because it's more than they would earn in Romania. So it's worth it for them in the end. But things often go wrong because the company disappears, the money doesn't arrive on time, et cetera, et cetera.
sergiu: [00:33:11] And for a lot of these workers, what they're also relying on ... Like you have to understand, is also these people are also not necessarily our generation, ioni and robi. There are people who are there, who are 40, 50, maybe even 60 and are still working, for whom the rent is not enough in Romania or something like this. And they don't know how to use technology. And some of them didn't know they were in Germany, they knew the name of the village, but that's all.
sergiu: [00:33:32] We were talking to Bornheim and we were getting the possibility to contact them when the legal case develops and there were people who didn't have a telephone number and they only had one person there -- who was not even a family member, who was just a friend -- who had the telephone number. So that was their only contact to the rest of the world. They didn't know where they were. They didn't speak the language, didn't have any way to contact anyone. So, of course they feel completely trapped. They feel there is no option for them. If he says to me, OK, he gives me this apartment and it costs three hundred euros, I know it's a rip-off, but I make my calculation and I still make more money than I did in Romania. So I can bring something home. Then the small things that we also take for granted that we find the cheapest way of getting there, that we fly with Wizzair or you go through this. A lot of them something like 250 or 300 euros to get there with a car, you know. Because this is the only way they know how to get there. So they get some money from relatives or friends or people that they loan money from. They come here and they see, ok, the situation is shitty, but they cannot go back home because they have to pay the debts that they got to get here.
ioni: [00:34:36] A small anecdote, maybe then to move on. There was this Romanian worker ... Or was he Moldovian? I can't remember exactly. He ended up on the streets because the company who supplied him a contract wasn't paid. And we were talking, OK, maybe you'd want to talk to the syndicate. Maybe we could help. Maybe you could give us some details. He was very skeptical. But he asked us to write on a piece of paper for him when he begs, something in French. And we were like, why in French? He went 'aren't we in Paris?' No, you didn't work in France. You work in Germany.
robi: [00:35:06] Wow.
ioni: [00:35:09] So you did mention previously that there are labour laws and they have loopholes and problems, but maybe especially relating to migrant workers, what laws do you think can be used to help them, or that you have used, with Arbeitsunrecht, to help them so far?
elmar: [00:35:27] As long as you are part of the European Union, you have basically the same rights as anybody else here. There are some restrictions which Sergiu mentioned, about unemployment and housing stuff and so on. But basically you have the same rights as a German person as well. So, this is a strong position. And also many German workers don't know their rights and are treated the same way. So there might not be that big difference legally.
elmar: [00:35:58] The point is, if the boss or the labour shark is giving you housing, they don't only fire you, but you also are losing your home then and live on the streets. So this is a different situation, but the rights are basically the same. Most important advice is to write down the hours that you work every day, in a diary. This can be used and is often used at Labour Court. They accept those kind of writings and protocols as official things, although you just put it down with a pencil every day. But they believe you and you can talk about it. They accept this as a kind of proof.
elmar: [00:36:39] So write it down every day. And you can enforce the money they owe you and that they robbed you of, three years later, retrospective or subsequently by labour court. And it can be a lot of money, you know. Three years of wage robbery can be ten thousand euros sometimes. And you can even put your employer to jail. For example, wage robbery is not really persecuted in Germany, but rent usury or rent profiteering is a criminal offense. And if you do it professionally and in an organized manner, it can bring you to jail.
elmar: [00:37:17] This is a leading decision from 1978 and it was Italian workers then in a city called Mannheim in midwest Germany. The judge found there is no special housing market for immigrants. The rent should be on the average amount of the normal German housing market and anything else would be racism or something like that. Segregation. There is no special market for immigrants. So this is rent usury, rent profiteering. And you will go to jail if you do it professionally and for a long time.
elmar: [00:37:56] And I'm thinking many of those labour sharks and Tönnies people and even Tönnies himself could go to jail. So you have to be clear about it. This is maybe the most important thing, to not behave like a slave or like people without rights, second or third class person, but behave like a European citizen. Zou have rights and your ancestors have fought for those rights.
elmar: [00:38:22] This is the first point to get some kind of consciousness about what is going on and what are your rights. And then you have to develop some kind of anger as well, I would say yes. Who am I to tell somebody, but it's important for me, I would say. And I have those feelings quite strongly if I see this kind of bullshit going on at court, and all that stuff I told you. It would make me really angry because it's all a big lie, what is going on there. Those are my most important pieces of advice.
elmar: [00:38:50] And what we really would need is some more immigrant workers who develop some kind of socialist activist consciousness. Yeah, it's the same with German workers as well. But you need some people who wake up and struggle for a longer time then only for their case. This is maybe the biggest problem. Many people come and need help, and this is OK. And you help them and then they say thank you and they go away and you never hear anything again. We need some people who stay there, and even if they move to another place in another country, they carry on the struggle and carry on the connection. And this is very difficult.
elmar: [00:39:29] But yeah, it's maybe the most important thing. And maybe this is the role a left wing organization could provide us, some native speakers who have made this experience or have relatives who made this experience, who can speak in their language and carry on the struggle. So that we as supporters have some people we can work with for a longer time than only just the case. This is maybe the core problem. I would say
sergiu: [00:40:01] You do have all the rights of a European and German citizen in Germany and that means that we can use basically any German working law. In some contracts I saw that there was no vacation clause included. How many vacation days you have unpaid. Which is illegal in Germany. If you work full time, you have at least 20 days of vacation a year that has to be paid by your employer, and stuff like this. And usually when you are in a kind of precarious work condition like this, where you are feeling, you know ... As we have said, these people are not stupid. They know they are being ripped off, but they accept it because it's still better than what they get back home. But this thing, if you know you're getting ripped off ... Or for one of your colleagues. Because I had also people call me and tell me, OK, it's not my problem, someone next to me is really being ripped off. Can you help, can you do something?
sergiu: [00:40:46] So in that case, you don't have to really go to court -- and this is also one thing which would be helpful and could be a little bit motivating for people -- you don't directly have to get a lawyer and pay a lawyer 1000 euro to get your own 500 euro back. In Germany, this is the first step. If you have a work problem, go to a Gütetermin [when the court tries to convince the two parties to agree of their own good will on a solution]. If you have a German friend who knows a little bit of law, or if you get a little bit of support from one of these unions.. Like Elmar said, you have the DGB or the Faire Mobilität. And it does have this problem that it doesn't treat the problem systematically, but it does help you in treating some local problem. And you go with them to a Gütetermin. You just tell the judge, OK, these are the things in my contract that are not respected and I know that these are things that should be included. I want my money.
sergiu: [00:41:27] And usually at that point the judge already kind of finds a compromise between you and your boss and you can take it. Usually it's actually pretty good. Usually in these types of contracts, because their model is to rip you off, you will usually find something. Making you work too much, or not putting in your work hours or not giving you correct insurance. Stuff like this. It is not that difficult. I've known people who have gone just by themselves to the Gütetermin. Just by reading some laws and saying, OK, these are the laws that have not been respected in my contract. I want my payment for that.
sergiu: [00:42:00] If you feel the rent is too high, you can also attack on that. Usually they do it because they also own the houses that you're living in. And this is how they are making money off of it, of course. That's what I wanted to add. And going at it together also helps a lot.
elmar: [00:42:14] Yes. The Labour Court is a special invention by the French, by the way, by Napoleon. When he invaded parts of Germany, he also brought this kind of institution from France, which comes from the French Revolution, or after the French Revolution. The Labour Court was new then. But at a very early stage they had all the same problems. It costs money to pay a lawyer, and you have a legal application office so you can go there -- without a lawyer -- and you just tell the case and they write it down and make a complaint. They always say, oh, we cannot give you legal advice, but in the end they do it anyway. They know which kind of paragraph it is and what it is.
elmar: [00:42:54] At the first level, you don't even need a lawyer. Only if it goes to the next level. But of course, there's the language problem and you need some advice and some person who goes there with you. This is a point that many German workers even don't know. The idea is quite OK, I think. Of these kinds of labour courts. The problem is, they only solve or treat these problems individually. And if two hundred other workers have the same problem, there's no kind of collective bargaining, or like in the US collective action, that you can combine those cases and make a big part of it. For example, Starbucks was fined for, I think, three billion dollars -- a very high amount -- because they stole the tip of the workers. When the workers were tipped, it didn’t go to the workers, but was put in the pockets of the Starbucks managers. They made a collective action there and they found out it was the practice for over some years and thousands of workers. So they had to pay back some billions of dollars. Although, in the single case, it was just tips, like maybe one hundred of two hundred dollars in a year or even more. I don't know.
elmar: [00:44:02] This kind of collective action is not really existing in Germany. It's one of the weaknesses of the German law. It's not only in labour law, but in other parts as well. It's always treated as an individual problem between you and the employer. This is the liberal basic thought that you are a free person who makes free contracts with the employer, who is also free to hire and fire you. This is, of course, bullshit. Because nobody works at a Tönnies slaughterhouse as a free decision, but you only work there if you don't find anything else. This is the crucial point. And it's not a minor problem, but a major problem. That those kind of NGOs, like Faire Mobilität, they don't do any public outrage.
elmar: [00:44:49] And even if you ask them to get in contact with those workers, they don't give you the information, they don't give you the contacts. We had cases where we sent people, we advised them to go there and they will help you. And then we ask them to give us the contacts. What is going on, when is the court decision? We want to make it public. They didn't give us back the information from people we sent there. So they are really actively sabotaging sometimes this kind of political public aspect of the conflict.
elmar: [00:45:23] If you make public protests and if you put it in the press and newspapers and journalists and so on, only in this kind of case, the court knows it's important, there's public opinion and maybe I'm quoted in a blog like Arbeitsunrecht. They say, oh, judge so-and-so made a mistake and so on. They are afraid of it. Normally, nobody cares what is going on there. If you put public pressure on it, your chances go up. You get more money and you get a better decision. You should not be afraid of going on the street. And I have to say, we had a good experience, especially with Romanian people in Germany; to mobilize on the street, to protest everything.
sergiu: [00:46:09] I have the sensation that it could even be a little bit from the fact that Romania, since 2012, there was a new flowering of protest culture in Romania. And for a lot of people it became a kind of legitimate way of reacting, you know. Since 2013, we've had each year at least one big national protest event. I don't know if you guys agree, but I think it's also disseminating in the rest of the country, not only in the big cities.
ioni: [00:46:33] I agree, partially, because indeed you mentioned the anti-austerity protests. And I was talking to some workers and although they didn't directly connect it, most of them remembered very fondly participating. And these are, like you said, older people in their 50s, 40s, even 60s. So then they were late 30s or so, when they took part in that protest. But it's also a bit of this sentiment that it's kind of a dead end. Because they work these jobs, they couldn't learn any German -- because they worked 10 hours a day or sometimes even more than that -- they go to the court, those who do it, and what happens after that? They either go back home or they have dead, sick relatives, no opportunities, or go for another dead end job with these weird contracts in Germany or France, or somewhere where they feel they'll be screwed again. And they'll have to go through all of this again. So I imagine it's also like that euphoria to at least get something out of this. Because you don't really want to think of what's going to happen tomorrow, because it's not a positive outlook.
robi: [00:47:35] So let's talk a bit about whether there are any unionizing or collectivist efforts -- like, for example, forming these works councils or just generally protesting or something -- especially in the meat industry and other industries that rely heavily on migrant work. And if you know, what are the main vectors of organizing? Is it workplace-based? Is it based around ethnicity or community-based? If the workers' identities influence the way they organize. And also maybe touch a bit about union busting, if you know more related to this context of migrant work, if that is the case.
sergiu: [00:48:15] I would even ask, as a follow-up to this. Elmar, besides the NGG and DGB or Verdi, is there anyone else who is unionizing on a big scale in the meat industry. Do you know about this? And how effective do you think the NGG is, or what do they do, actually?
elmar: [00:48:31] The union which is in charge is the NGG. The mainstream unions in Germany are separated. Any union has its own sector and normally they don't get into conflict with each other. There are some cases where two unions are trying to organize the same sector and they have some struggle, but it's solved. They have their own courtrooms somehow. For example, the teachers can be in the teachers’ union, but also in the service union, in Verdi. Or some truck drivers in the car industry were in the metal workers union and they tried to organize truck drivers in the car industry. But normally truck drivers are organized in the service workers union.
elmar: [00:49:12] So there is no other union than the NGG, which is the restaurant workers’ and food production workers in Germany. And the NGG is one of the smallest unions of this whole union federation. Many people said since years they have no money and they may be taken over by another bigger union, because they are lacking money. Still, they are alive, but they are very weak in some parts. They have strongholds in the beer industry, for example, or other industries. But in the slaughterhouse industry, the situation is not really positive.
elmar: [00:49:54] And they are very much concentrated, like maybe any other union on the core production. Because these are the decent jobs. Maybe there you have collective bargaining and good contracts and, of course, the union lives by its membership fees. And it's one percent of the wages. So the more the workers earn, the more money the union gets out of it. This sounds really capitalistic, but there's a real problem. Of course, if you work for a thousand euros a month and should pay 10 euros, it means at the end of the month more to you than if you earn 4000 euros and pay one percent. It doesn't hurt you that much.
elmar: [00:50:38] On the one hand. On the other end, the problem is that it is really hard to run a union from membership fees by those underpaid workers. So it does not really account for them. They have problems in organizing because they don't have the time. You need much time to go there and talk to people. And, as I said, the conflicts come up and then people are gone. It's a real problem to organize because there is no stable identification with the job in the factory. You don't want to be a cleaner and you don't want to be a slaughterhouse worker at Tönnies. You are not proud to do that, but you are just exploited. And if you get something better, you leave. So this is not a good playground for traditional unions. And we can criticize those unions, and we should do it, but we would have problems of developing an alternative model which is really working for a mid-term perspective. It's really hard to organize.
elmar: [00:51:35] So, yeah, there is no other union than the NGG, and they are focused on core workers. And even the NGG, they have some strongholds in other companies, but I think at Tönnies they don't have any strongholds. It's under-organized, as in many parts of Germany. For example, retail workers in supermarkets, they are under-organized quite a lot. Or restaurant workers. The workers expect some kind of professional organization with a high paid apparatus, so if you as an independent union want to organize there, you have big problems. Because you cannot play that role they expect of you.
elmar: [00:52:17] And on the other hand, as soon as you try to organize in one sector, the other professional unions would come and make competition with you. It can happen that they didn't show up for years, but if you show up there and try to do something, they will show up too. This is the other difficult thing. In France or in Spain, for example, or even in England, it's different. You have a kind of a landscape with different unions, even not only socialist or communist unions. I know, for example, that in England you have three different teachers unions, by history. I don't know why. But this is not the case in Germany, and it makes it somehow more difficult.
sergiu: [00:52:59] Maybe that's a way to get them to actually do more work. To start organizing there. Give them a little bit of competition and maybe they will do something. Maybe also trying to get into contact with more of not only the Tönnies' workers, but generally workers in the sector. It's very difficult. Because it's really the question, that you have to take multiple routes to the city to try and kind of spot someone who is Romanian, or is from another country. To try to spot these places where they work and kind of try to talk to them. And even when you talk to them, like a lot of them are scared of talking badly about the job.
sergiu: [00:53:33] So one of the only alternatives that remain is to actually start working in the sector and start to organize from there from inside. This is something I think that you will find very few people who are open to do this. To really take a few months of their life and start working in a slaughterhouse and do all that shitty work just to help organize people. You need to talk to someone who is starting that job, who has a kind of an activist or a social mentality and who knows that he can do that, knows that he can make a Betriebsrat, knows that he can put contact to a union. And then kind of help his colleagues from inside. Even there he is like pretty strongly surveyed by his bosses and could be easily fired.
sergiu: [00:54:17] So, it is an environment where it's extremely difficult to organize. As you said, you don't have it on an identity level with your job, You don't have it on the level that you know how to contact a union. You don't have it on the level that it is something that is continuous for you, that if you improve it, you might improve it for your whole life. Because you only want to work here for a few months.
sergiu: [00:54:37] Elmar, you mentioned to me that in England, a lot of Latin American workers don't organize on their job, but do unions based on their nationality or their culture. And that, I think, would be an interesting option because there are a lot of Romanian diaspora in Germany, that through this, could really get into contact for the first time in their life with people who are working these types of jobs. That would be actually kind of a stronghold that I, to be honest, before I talked to you about it, Elmar, I never considered this until now. The possibility of organizing on that vector.
elmar: [00:55:09] Yes, and there's another continuity. This is the place where you live. Those people have different jobs and the jobs change, but they live in special parts of the city. Like Duisburg Marxloh and so on. The strength is in the area you live in, the community you built there.
elmar: [00:55:29] This was quite interesting in London. Most of them were cleaners, but some worked for Deliveroo as courier workers and any other jobs. Many of them were cleaners, but yeah. It was started from Colombian workers. Then Ecuadorian workers came, Spanish speaking workers even from Spain. And even Brazilian workers who speak Portuguese joined them. Although normally in Latin America, they don't understand each other and so on. But in London, they were all strangers. This was interesting.
elmar: [00:56:01] And the kind of organization was like they were meeting every Saturday in one university where they managed to get a stronghold as cleaners. Some kind of a representation, also, union representation. They built a union somehow. So they were allowed to meet there every Saturday. Because another problem with immigrant workers is they have different shifts and schedules and some work at daytime very early before the company opens, you have to clean all the offices. And after work; mixed schedules. But everybody had free on Saturday.
elmar: [00:56:36] And they were doing meetings not only with legal stuff and so on, but also somehow teaching English or cooking, dancing. It was also a social club somehow. And of course, they were doing protests and public stuff. And they had support by some left wing people from England. And it was growing. They had also their struggles and split ups with Trotskyists and anarchists. At a certain level there were three different organizations. But nevertheless, when there was a protest they were supporting each other.
elmar: [00:57:12] And it was not a short time bushfire. They still exist and it developed over some ten years or so on. It was quite interesting. I mean, the English society is more segregated than the German. I think even Germany is bad, but I think England is worse. They somehow invented this kind of segregation. You also see it in the United States. It's not that bad in Germany, I would say. But if you go to Duisburg Marxloh, it can be strange as well.
elmar: [00:57:48] So I think this could be an idea. It definitely will disappear in the second or third generation. Even in the second generation, I would say, when the children learn German and so on, you are integrated here it will somehow disappear. But for this first generation workers who stay here, it could be quite a good idea. And I even found in my research a historic example. There was a Polish workers’ union in the Ruhr region, which was quite strong in 1890. They were a strong part in the general strike of 1892, which was there in the coal industry in Germany. And they had offices in Poznan, in Poland and in, I think, Essen or somewhere in the Ruhr region. So it was a kind of a mixed Polish workers’ union. So Polish workers in Germany and in Poland were organizing somehow together. They disappeared in the 20th century. But maybe it could work. I don't know. For me, it would be worth trying, I think.
sergiu: [00:58:51] This would be an interesting thing for us to think, actually, guys. That one of the things that is very specific about Romania is that we do have the biggest diaspora in Europe. And I think it is even top in the world. One of six Romanians is working abroad. And Italy and Germany, and I think England, are one of the main hotspots. And of course, most of the people who are coming here don't necessarily have leftist values. At the same time they do have this kind of patriotism. But it's not necessarily the negative, nationalistic, absurd kind, but it's just kind of 'OK, he's one person who has the same kind of problems as me; who has left home for the same reason that I did. He just has it worse off. And I could help him with something.'.
sergiu: [00:59:31] Like, for example, there is this phenomenon of these Facebook groups per city, you know. Romanians in Köln, Romanians in every city you have in Germany. People are trying to organize, like sending stuff back home or selling stuff between each other. But a lot of them are just like asking questions. I really saw a lot of this, kind of like 'my boss told me, this. Is it true?' You know. And someone tells him 'I know that by this law, no'.
sergiu: [00:59:59] If this kind of thing would be just a tiny bit more consequent and a little bit more organized, I think it would mean a lot. These people would not directly stop with a union, because in Romania the unions are still kind of seen as something pretty corrupt, because of the way it's been denatured by the neoliberal wave right now. They would just organize, as Elmar said, in a social association, you know. Helping each other, organize together. Start from those points and from those points to generate a little bit of kind of worker solidarity. But not in the sense of like for my job, but we're all workers, we are all diaspora workers.
robi: [01:00:34] Basically, these groups are a mutual aid 101, right?
sergiu: [01:00:38] Also using a little bit to kind of market towards each other stuff. But also mutual aid 101, also that. Yeah.
ioni: [01:00:51] We've talked so far about the ways in which Arbeitsunrecht managed to bring together labour, animal rights and climate activists, and we wanted to see just how common these intersectional tactics are. While doing our homework, we also found some other approaches, some more recent, some historical, not always intersectional, but very imaginative in the ways in which they took on the meat industry. A common occurrence, which we considered should be pointed out is that we found a lot of guides written by the people from the industry about how one should go about dealing with animal rights activists or how they interchangeably call them, quote unquote, extremists.
ioni: [01:01:33] And while we're not going to in any way shame the people working in the industry or those buying and consuming meat from one of these factories, since that was one of the essential points of this whole episode, one might have noticed the messianic complex that the higher-ups in the meat industry have when they talk about how they feed the nation; an attitude you never see from the equally, if not more so important, agricultural sector, for instance. Here's a few ideas of tactics and strategies, both recent and historical ones, besides the workers councils we've discussed in this episode.
robi: [01:02:16] One animal rights and environmental activist noticed that he resembled the new CEO of a South Dakota processing plant, the site of a major covid-19 outbreak earlier in 2020. So, he went on Fox News pretending to be the said CEO, explaining that the company farms are 'petri dishes for new diseases;, and noted that 'hog farming also causes immense damage to our airs and waterways'. He then claimed that Smithfield would attempt to mitigate the environmental impacts of his industry by spending half a billion dollar a year starting in 2021. The Fox News reporter didn't realize that they were getting punked.
călin: [01:02:56] On a more historical note, in 1932 a strike from the meat processing sector in Argentina. It was organized by the Federación Obrera de la Industria de la Carne, a union formed by socialists who were prohibited from protesting publicly. As they were unable to hold large public meetings, they contacted the workers and held a small, clandestine meetings with them. The meetings were camouflaged as picnics, festivals or other social gatherings. The strike began on May 20 and was then followed by two solidarity strikes, one from the train workers and another from the farmers. While the strike overall was a failure and led to violent repression, it led to a recognition of the increasing importance of women workers in the meatpacking industry and began to raise the demand for equal pay for equal work.
ioni: [01:03:51] Now it's time to check on what those wacky liberals are doing.
robi: [01:03:57] Now, a segment of dunking on libs. In the summer of last year in the United States, a few of the more progressive Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and one centrist, teamed up to take on factory farming for a more small business capitalist reasoning. As an article in Vox puts it, the farmers have been 'reduced from entrepreneurs to serfs' in areas where the industry consolidated and one factory bought all of the others, creating a de facto monopoly and forcing the farmers to sell their animals for the lowest possible price.
robi: [01:04:32] What the politicians sought was to introduce a bill that would, amongst others, impose the liabilities and costs of pollution, accidents and disasters on the agricultural conglomerates that control the market rather than on the independent farmers who contract with them. The bill is in limbo until the Senate decides to revive it. But this is a good example of what can be done through electoral politics. Which we do not support. The electoral politics, not necessarily to bill.
călin: [01:05:08] Leaving the radicals for last, Direct Action Everywhere, an animal liberation group is filming in VR [Virtual Reality] inside slaughterhouses. Sure, maybe it's a rehash of old tactics, showing people the gruesome conditions that animals live in -- a practice about the merits and effectiveness of which we can discuss quite a bit. Maybe this time with the added reality, it will succeed.
robi: [01:05:33] Success might be a bit overstating it because the end goal is total liberation. So...
călin: [01:05:40] Da da da da da da. It will leave an impact.
robi: [01:05:53] So, Elmar, you also mentioned this idea of industrial racism. Maybe talk a bit about that. And both on racial lines and also in the sense of racializing Eastern European workers and any other kinds of discrimination at the workplace or at the systemic level. Sexism, anti-Roma, etc., whatever experience you have to throw in here.
elmar: [01:06:16] Industrial racism means somehow there's, as I told you, first degree workers, second and third degree workers. And somehow those Eastern Europe workers are always found with the most shitty jobs. And this is not only the point. I mean, this is just exploitation. The racist part is that we know it, we could know it, but we don't care. We don't give a shit. It doesn't appear in the papers and it's somehow suppressed. Nobody gives a shit. So this kind of not wanting to talk about, not making it public, not publishing articles about it, somehow oppressing it, somehow not wanting to know what is going on. This is kind of racism, I think. Industrial racism.
elmar: [01:07:03] You are not discriminated because they would say I cannot stand Romanians or they are lazy or something like that. It's just bad luck. You are from this country which is going down the gutter and so you have to be happy to do this job. And we take your work, but we don't talk about it. It's just behind the surface. This is kind of racism, I think. Yeah. This mentality, that you are lucky to be allowed to work here in Germany. And look at your shitty country, It's all corruption and all that stuff. And you can be proud to work for us. And we are the Masters and we command you. But on the other hand, we would not do it publicly and we are not racists. Even Tönnies does this kind of PR stuff. 'Diversity' and we have workers from so many nations and we are proud of it and all that stuff. But behind the surface, people are just disregarded because they come from Eastern Europe.
elmar: [01:07:59] I would say the Germans have no real bad view against Romanians. Anybody knows they can play football and they had an industry and so on. And I wouldn't even say they are regarded as lazy or something like that. Most people cannot even distinguish the Romanians from Bulgarians and so on. The point is more, yeah, it's like a shadow army and they should stay in the shadows somehow. This is the way I would describe this kind of industrial racism in Germany.
elmar: [01:08:29] For me, it was interesting how difficult it was to raise attention to it. I'm a journalist as well, we have contact to newspapers. But somehow, yeah, it's difficult to break through with those kind of conflicts. They are telling about anything else. If one Romanian worker, for example, in this hospital in Duisburg, she was forced to make an abortion or else she would lose her job. And she made this abortion. But this case didn't go to the press. Because it's just a Romanian cleaner and not a film star or something like that.
robi: [01:09:03] Sergiu, did you also want to touch here a bit about the Bornheim protests?
sergiu: [01:09:08] I can say the fact that the way racism is used, as Elmar said also, basically is not racism because of some bad stereotype of Romanians or something like this. It's more racism because they know these people do enforce their rights less and they know they can be used as kind of second class or third class workers. And even as much as they're paid. They're paid by the countries they come from, by the subcontractors, You know.
sergiu: [01:09:34] In Bornheim, in the farm, two hundred workers protested. When we started working, we found out that they were organized, actually. Most Roma were in one group and ethnic Romanian were in another group. When these protests became even bigger, one group, which was led by one of the German workers -- those who had primarily Romanians, which are not the Roma -- they didn't participate in the protest. They kept working. These were, I think, forty people. And we talk to them. We asked them, like, I cannot believe you are not getting screwed by other people. And they told us, yes we are getting screwed by the living conditions. They were getting paid. So the farm decided, OK, to pay these people, to not upset them. And they also influenced them with this mentality that the other people were just lazy gypsies who didn't want to work, and this is why they didn't get paid well.
sergiu: [01:10:21] And I even showed them then like, OK, look at these documents. Look at this person, how many hours he worked, look how much he got paid. To see that it is not right, right? And they saw that it was not right, and they found another excuse for themselves. Which was a little bit ironic, I just want to add this, that one of these people actually did continue to work for the farm and he did call the FAU four months later, telling us that he is not getting paid. So it does come back around.
sergiu: [01:10:47] But at the same time, what was interesting, was that the farm owners -- who were not very smart -- used this kind of separation to divide and conquer. Used racism to be able to separate their workers. At the same time, even in those cases, when they had the common tedious problem -- and this was money not getting paid, not having something to feed and bring back home -- people disconsidered racism or sexism or gender roles. They were all on the same level. And those kinds of differences did not matter when they were at that point. When the knife is on the bone -- “când e cuțitul la os”.
robi: [01:11:21] Yeah.
sergiu: [01:11:22] When the employer does something that is that dangerous for them, that is that problematic, People will not care about these things. They're not that important anymore. And in that moment, you can organize beyond this level. You do have to take care that these things do not pop up. This is my experience with discrimination. The problem that it puts for organizing.
ioni: [01:11:42] So, the next question. We talked about the case of Tönnies, and mostly productive work. In the first part you also touched upon socially productive work, like the cleaning workers in the hotels, for instance. So maybe we can talk about those types of jobs. Or also if you know something about care workers and cooks and similar jobs. But I think the main one would be the cleaning workers.
elmar: [01:12:11] Well, for me, this is kind of an academic distinction. It does not really exist, I think, in reality. And even neoliberalism is making productive workers as being service workers. This is part of the neoliberal lie. They want to make the working class disappear. And even in numbers and in statistics. So if you consult German official statistics, you only have, for example, 30000 meat production workers, although it's 10 times more. Like 300000, maybe, estimated.
elmar: [01:12:46] The numbers are unclear because all of them are temporary workers or part time workers or work and service contracts and all that shit we spoke about. They are not regarded as production workers, but as service workers because they are provided by a subcontractor who is a service industry. So if the Social Democrats and all those people tell you the working class is no longer existent or the industry jobs are no longer existent, this is based on false statistics, because of this kind of structure that I explained to you.
elmar: [01:13:22] But in the end, you know, it's a subcontractor who was working for the hotel and a subcontractor who was working in the kitchen and a subcontractor for Tönnies. I don't really know if there's a big difference. I would see rather the similarities in the kind of exploitation than the differences.
sergiu: [01:13:44] I also don't have much to add here. The only thing that I know which is different about the care workers is that they are much more isolated. Because most of the diaspora care workers don't find jobs in the institutions, where you do have to have studies and have to have worked in a way there. They usually get these kinds of jobs of taking care of old people here and working 24 hours per 7 jobs, basically. And these people are usually the most isolated and have the most difficulty also reaching out. They would also not find out about the FAU to come to us. It's very rarely that it does happen. So I would say that the difference for the Romanian diaspora care workers is the isolation to the rest of the community and to seeing that there are many more like them in this situation.
sergiu: [01:14:35] Because if you work in the factory, you see your colleagues, you can talk to them. You can even say, OK, let's go for a beer after work, you know. But in this case, you just see the people who you are working with and you basically live there.
robi: [01:14:47] Yeah, that's, I think, a pretty big impediment. But, you know, there is an organization, I think they are most active in Austria. We have a few comrades who are working within that organization. It is called DREPT [pentru Îngrijire] in Romanian. In English it would be RIGHT [FOR CARE] in the sense of rights. And basically they are an association of care workers -- Romanian care workers -- in Austria. And it's pretty big. I mean, they held the protest, I think two weeks ago or something like this. They are big enough that the mainstream media is starting to lash out at them for attacking the status quo too much.
ioni: [01:15:23] Yeah, that's pretty fantastic. You usually have the diaspora newspapers, which, like Sergiu said, if they hear somebody that somebody was a victim, they'd help. But if you have these cases where people are organizing and preparing, saying, OK, we might become victims of abuses, let's organize now. ‘That's horrible. You're destroying what we built in the diaspora. That's unacceptable.’ It's such a paradox.
sergiu: [01:15:45] And it is proof that what they're doing at DREPT is a really, really good job.
ioni: [01:15:49] Exactly.
sergiu: [01:15:50] Yeah. And at one point you mentioned to me that Werner Rügemer, who also co-founded Arbeitsunrecht with you, was writing a book on European policy and especially also considering migrant work. You told me a little bit about how even the EU -- not it's main reason, but one of its very big reasons for creating itself like this, was to be able to access cheap labour force. You told me that the book didn't come out, but I'm curious if you can tell anything more about this. Because it's actually a pretty strong thing to understand how systemic this kind of abuse is. I never got the chance to ask you more about it.
elmar: [01:16:26] Yes, in the center of all these problems is the European Union, of course. And it was quite from the beginning, founded for four reasons. It's the freedom of goods, capital, services and workforces. Even the core of the union in 1947 was founded for that. And there was always a struggle about the migrant workers. At some point, even conservative persons, conservative capitalists, feared those migrant workers because they were fearing communist workers coming to Germany. Which was at a certain point even true. Like, anarchists and socialists from Spain, because there was dictatorship, Franco and so on. In Portugal as well. Those were strongly communists. And even the Italian Workers. Those ones which I talked about earlier in 1978, who were going to court for profiteering of rent and so on. That might have been Italian left wing workers. There were even rent strikes in Frankfurt, for example, run by communist Italian migrant workers.
elmar: [01:17:31] Yeah, at a quite an early stage, they used those migrant workers to put pressure on wages and working conditions, and to have somebody who works for less and with less rights. And this is not only Germany, I mean, you find it in the US and Great Britain as well. It's a very old strategy, to undermine the force of the established workers union. And this is also always a key point for racism to spread and so on.
elmar: [01:18:02] Yeah, then the European Union got bigger. And so the situation right now is because Bulgaria and Romania were integrated parts in the European Union, Germany was importing meat all the time and now they are exporting meat, for example. Let's take just the meat industry. But it's a role model for the whole industry and the European Union. So as a rich country we were -- well not me, but the society -- consuming meat more like in other countries, and so they had to import it. But somehow it shifted. Now not only the workforce is coming from Eastern Europe, but also the cattle and the raw material is coming from there, and you have these big factories, these super industrialized factories. So, basically, the European Union destroys the industry and the living conditions at the periphery, and Romania definitely is at the periphery of the European Union.
elmar: [01:19:00] So there is a strong connection between slaughterhouses and local regional infrastructure closing down. And the turbo-factories getting bigger and bigger at the center of production in Germany. You can see this whole phenomenon maybe more clear in the United States -- clearer because it's abroad, you can look from the outside on it -- when NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] was taking place. And also it's a role model for the whole meat industry, the biggest meat industry is in the US. The assembly line was invented in the meat industry in Chicago, and it's still the role model for Tönnies and all those factories in the United States.
elmar: [01:19:41] But when the market with Mexico and Canada took place -- I think it was in 1992 -- what happened was that the local economy of Mexico crashed. Because, for example, corn -- maize, genetically engineered maize -- was so cheap in the US and those big agricultural firms made the market in Mexico collapse. And this was the reason why so many Mexicans went to the US doing this kind of job. You can compare Romanian workers to just equally like migrant workers in the United States, except that there still is a border. But you have this market, this NAFTA market.
elmar: [01:20:22] So the labour force is set free also because of collapsing economy and regional infrastructure. And back to Germany, Tönnies is so productive that all those other slaughterhouses collapse. Not only in Germany, but all over Europe. And he delivers cheap meat to not only Europe, but also to Russia and China, and makes because of this cheap meat, other markets collapse. So there's a big motor, a big machine, going on inside the European Union, which is also destroying economy and then rebuilding some parts of our economy by the money of the European Union. But what they build up is supplying industry. Like, um, the core industry is maybe in Germany or other parts of the European Union. But what they build up is supplying industry. Like in Hungaria, you have supply for the car industry, for example. I don't know what they are building up in Romania right now. Land grabbing, I know, is a big theme, like they buy land and you build up agricultural stuff or you slash all the woods or so on. But it's quite destructive.
elmar: [01:21:36] This is the mechanism and it should be described and researched more precisely, I would say. I don't have any alternative to the European Union as well, and I'm not one of those right wing Brexit and so on people. Of course not. But it doesn't mean we have to defend the European Union and not being able to describe clearly what kind of aggressive and destructive concept is behind the European Union. You have to be totally clear about it, I think.
sergiu: [01:22:08] It is a sensitive subject. I think we are at a point in history that we can talk maturely and can criticize the European Union maturely, without kind of destabilizing it. For some parties this was even their motto: 'let’s really paradigmatically change the European Union for the better, because this is the only way to survive'. If it keeps going like this and it keeps creating differences, it will dissolve itself.
sergiu: [01:22:30] But one thing I wanted to go back to related to the Union, which is that on one hand you do have this mechanism that when one industry is already very advanced -- because of that, because it has large profits -- it is the first one to also take advantage of new innovations. And because the German industry is using and exploiting and abusing cheap labour force, it is developing very fast. So it is increasingly becoming a monopoly compared to other countries in the periphery. And this is kind of this national policy that is happening through this exploitation, which is being allowed by the European Union. This is a mechanism which in itself is not being looked upon enough.
sergiu: [01:23:08] The other part -- and this is the most touchy subject -- what Werner was saying is that even strategically it is underfunding Romanian industry in order to achieve this. Some subventions are being granted either more to German industries and they are targeting strategic sectors to underfinance. A lot of European money is flowing in Romania. And Romania is developing because of European money. And I think it would be absurd to say that we did not see benefits from this. And most Romanians live only with this impression that the European Union is only a godsend. That it only does good for us, you know. To see they might even strategically underfund certain sectors and certain industries. So this is where I would like to read Rügemer's book when it comes out, to see what are the examples he is giving of this thing. Because that would be a very strong case.
elmar: [01:24:01] Yes, I don't know. You have to wait to my colleague to finish his work.
sergiu: [01:24:06] Yeah, I will wait.
elmar: [01:24:07] But it's, again, I think this kind of industrial racism. We decide which part you play and as long as you play your part as we decided and do the part where we put you, you have to be happy and we get along. But as soon as you demand a different part and to rise up, then we get problems.
ioni: [01:24:28] Sergiu said previously that we are mature enough to criticize the EU. The problem is that many of its defenders aren't mature enough and are not willing to take creative criticism. Because in the 90s, of course, you had an elite, mostly university intellectuals, right wing, ultra conservative, ultra Christian, who received fellowships in the West -- where schooled there and received money by various right wing think tanks. And of course, they'll go for the most savage description. I mean, some of them are even critical towards the EU because it's not conservative and right wing enough. They'll shout this, but then of course, they'll obey it when they go abroad and they shut down any type of criticism. You talk about the steel industry in Romania and how it should be a priority? Well, you're a filthy communist -- nostalgic for the national communist regime -- who doesn't understand how economy works. Shut up. Do as the EU says.
ioni: [01:25:19] I think it might be a bit naive, but I think that we could say that, basically, if we want to construct this, we need to do a sort of international solidarity. And of course, not in the old fashioned sense, but the modern one. Because we can't do this on our own. And of course, if people there want to organize, because even internally there are several Romanias. Like you mentioned, there are several problems in Germany, then we have Romanian exports to Germany, Romanian workers, etc. So maybe that's the only way to properly understand these problems.
robi: [01:25:52] Mhm.
elmar: [01:25:53] Yeah, this would be cool.
robi: [01:25:55] So to wrap up the discussion, let's just maybe reiterate. What do you suggest to migrant workers who are faced with situations that you have described, what do you suggest them to do? And how can they find your organization? Or what other organizations and unions can and should they contact? And maybe -- thinking that perhaps relatives of people who are working in Germany will listen to the podcast -- what useful information can you give to people who are either migrant workers or have relatives who are migrant workers?
elmar: [01:26:29] Yes, well, I must repeat what I said before, maybe. First of all, as a European citizen, you have the same legal rights as any German or somebody else here, basically. And even if you are not from the European Union, you have human rights and workers' rights, that are not only dependent on the legal situation of the country, but going far beyond that. So the first point is not to behave like a second or third class person.
robi: [01:27:03] Or rather to not accept being treated as.
elmar: [01:27:06] Yeah, not accept that. And the first most important point is to write down in a diary the hours you work. And the conditions and the money you get. Even if you don't have a contract, you still have a contract. Because if they pay you money and employ you for a certain time, in Germany and many other states as well, you have some kind of unwritten contract, which often might be even better than the written contract, because there are some standards. You can go to Labour Court and get help from organizations, if you need to.
elmar: [01:27:38] Our organization is mostly German language, but we know some people who could translate to Romanian. It's called arbeitsunrecht.de . It's important not only to struggle for your short time money and your problem right now, but to see the bigger picture and maybe organize with some colleagues on the job, or with some workers who have different problems, to build some kind of nucleus organization. Or, I don't know, even if you have three or four people who meet once a month in a pub and just talk about your situation, this is maybe the beginning of something. Or maybe it's already something. To talk about it and find help.
elmar: [01:28:22] And I would recommend maybe some left wing groups in Germany, like the FAU or even -- depends on the local situation, but -- the left wing party or anything. You have to look around a little bit and then you will find some people who are useful for you. Definitely, it's important to know somebody who speaks German and knows the German situation, because labour law is always complicated. This is the beginning, I would say. This is it.
sergiu: [01:28:52] Thank you for the shoutout for the FAU. I would say everything that Elmar talked about -- writing your stuff down, realizing that you have the same rights as any European citizen --- and I would add even extra more importance on the fact of getting to know your co-workers. Because actually getting to talk a little bit to your co-workers, it can even be useful if you're looking at the very pragmatic level. Like, if I do have a problem with my boss, he did not pay my last month. So I can call one of the people I work with to certify that I was there the whole month. Just in case you need that extra kind of help. It does help if you have a network of solidarity between you. This is one thing that they would recommend.
sergiu: [01:29:31] And I would even like to make for myself the difference between two types of workers. People who are planning to go back as soon as possible and just work for a few months to get some money to get through the year, or to get through this half a year that they can. For those people, the only recommendation that they have this is to keep their networks as much as possible. Because these people also live in a kind of community basis. And if they really don't have any connection to Germany and they're here and they don't know anyone who speaks the language, you can always even call a journalist. Like, go online, take a journalist who has been doing something on this subject. Call him and he might even be able to put you into contact with his newspaper. Or even -- we have criticized the DGB, but -- you can call the Faire Mobilität initiative and the DGB, and ask them about certain laws and ask them about certain groups. Because they even have connections to certain groups, maybe in your locality or somewhere around there.
sergiu: [01:30:21] And you don't even have to ask it from the beginning. If you're scared that your job might be put into risk if you ask for your rights right now at the beginning of your job, in Germany it's allowed that you can wait to the end and then at the end go, OK, but I don't want the rest of what I should normally get; that you have not given to me, that you have taken from me. In that moment that you have still some connections in Germany and you have maybe called once at the DBG and they wrote it down. Or I would recommend much more to come to the FAU, where I could and do have more interest to help you. Because the DGB is a little bit also interested in increasing their numbers. The FAU is a little bit more idealistic and they will help you just because they don't want to see your being taken down unfairly. These things spread pretty fast. So I think if more people would be doing this, it would already improve the conditions for the people who are there for only three months.
sergiu: [01:31:13] For the other type of people who are coming to work in Germany, who don't plan to come back anymore. For them I also recommend the same thing. To create these networks of solidarity between each other. Like, starting from a Facebook group, or like Elmar said, going to have a beer with other five Romanian people and talking about the problems that you have. When someone else will come to your city and have the same problem that you did, if they search for it, they will find you first -- coming to you and then coming then to the FAU and finding out about other unions -- that is my biggest recommendation for the people.
sergiu: [01:31:46] And give yourself some time also -- maybe, I don't know, one hour a month -- to read a little bit on your workers' rights. Because there are a lot of them and lately there are even not so boring Youtube courses on them. That you can learn a little bit of what you can get, you know. You don't have to go into the legislative books with that impossible language that not even German people can understand. You know, even just knowing, for example, the simple fact that in Germany if you earn too little to have money for a lawyer, you can apply for that the government releases your legal process costs. Because you know something like this, you're not so scared anymore to make the next step, you know.
sergiu: [01:32:26] The more inventive you are, the more you can really connect to other groups from Romania or Germany. You know, you might find, for example, Țara Muncii Ieftine, who is doing a lot of awesome work. Like, bringing different groups together and kind of working and trying to take care of problems which are happening in the diaspora and in Romania. And there is right now a solidarity among groups. Building these bridges, if you are a little bit more inventive, these are also huge things to do. So, yeah, that would be my advice next to Elmar’s.
robi: [01:32:55] Yeah, that was great. I think we can also add to the description of the episode some links if you have some resources. For example, if you have a YouTube channel -- even if it's in German -- that's talking about labour rights, that would be awesome.
sergiu: [01:33:10] Yeah, I'll try to find it.
ioni: [01:33:11] Yeah. We can also attach the FAU flyers on workers rights.
sergiu: [01:33:15] Yeah, exactly.
ioni: [01:33:15] Those are in English as well.
sergiu: [01:33:17] And I think they are even working on Romanian versions of them.
ioni: [01:33:20] Some are translated already. I think I'll have to check.
robi: [01:33:24] Do we have something else or is this...
sergiu: [01:33:26] No, I think It's already two hours, or three hours.
robi: [01:33:29] I think three hours, yeah. Thanks guys for participating in this episode, for offering your time and energy to talk with us.
elmar: [01:33:39] Yes, goodbye. And thank you for having me and greetings to anybody who is listening.
elmar: [01:33:46] [Outro collage]
călin: [01:33:48] Today's episode was recorded towards the end of last year. Since then, a union affiliated with the DGB Federation in Germany managed to pass a bill to the German Bundestag, which entered into effect on the 1st of January. The new law effectively prohibits subcontracting in the meat sector and allows companies to only employ temporary workers for a maximum of four months. Temporary workers can only account for a maximum of eight percent of the workforce, as long as this is regulated to a collective bargaining agreement. At the same time, a union in Germany reports that the negotiations for a new minimum wage in the sector have stopped, with their plans being effectively rejected by players in the market.
călin: [01:34:37] Clemens Tönnies, who holds a 45 percent stake in the company, has resigned from his position as chairman of the supervisory board of the FC Schalke 04 football club in Germany, after fan protests brought him down in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic in one of his slaughterhouses.
călin: [01:34:57] At the same time, the press focused on the industry reports in March that Tönnies is considering a sale for almost four billion dollars to other big players in the meat processing market. These would be the American company Tyson Foods, Brazil's JBS and China's WH group. While the rumors regarding the sale have not been confirmed either by Tönnies or the purported companies, the meat processing company insists on advertising its new slaughterhouse in the Aragón region of Spain. The town of Calamocha, with a little over 4000 inhabitants, will likely see a new plant in late 2023 or early 2024, after the regional environmental body approved the construction in April.
călin: [01:35:44] While the new bill has already entered into force in Germany, we don't know yet what its effects will be. We are close to the starting of the migrant workers season and will only see then what, if anything, has improved. So, stay tuned for our next episode on the subject.
ioni: [01:36:03] That's all for today's episode. The art for this episode was provided by the legendary Mr. Grecu. You can check some of his other collages in the links in the description below. We're incredibly grateful to Intellectual Dark Wave for allowing us to use their fantastic rendition of Which Side Are You On?, from their -- still somewhat recently -- released Labor Wave EP. Links to the song and the album in the description below, and please do give it a try. Like always, we've used some sound bites and tidbits from Kevin MacLeod's Incompetech website. Until next time, stay safe and take care and hope you have a nice day.
NPC: [01:37:09] [Which Side Are You On?, song rendition by Intellectual Dark Wave]