Immigration: Work in Germany – a nightmare for Bulgarians

25 April 2012
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Frankfurt

With the promise of jobs and income, more and more Bulgarians are being lured to Germany. There, however, they run into race-to-the-bottom wages and illegal accommodation. Frankfurt has become the centre of the so-called “Bulgarian industry”.

Perhaps it was the car. It had been there for weeks, a grey model from twenty years back with rust spots on the hood, looking somewhat lost among the neatly parked limousines, and the only one with a Bulgarian license plate in the whole neighbourhood. And there were the signboards on the mailbox with ever changing names, which eventually roused suspicion among the residents of the street.

The two-family house stands in the leafy middle-class suburb of Sachsenhausen in the south of Frankfurt. The front door of the house stands open. Stale heated air smelling of mildew wafts through the door of the flat and into the stairwell. Inside the musty flat, the Petrova family (their name has been changed) sits on mattresses in front of a small table in a room where the first thing that leaps to the eye is a huge mould stain in the corner.

About three weeks ago the family packed up and left their house in a village near the Bulgarian city of Varna. Father, mother and the three children got in their car and drove through almost the whole night. A man had called them up and said he had work and a place to live for them if they could make it to Frankfurt.

On arriving, after nearly twenty hours in the car, they had just to pick up the key. Since then, every month a kind of caretaker comes to the flat and collects the €600 in rent in cash. Sometimes, the Petrovas say, another man they know as “Micki” comes and takes the father and son to work on a construction site. With no contract. With no insurance. With no prospects of work the next day.

Most Bulgarians are not willing to testify

The Petrovas are one of thousands of Bulgarian families lured to Germany to work. Agents, especially in the construction industry, are looking specifically for young men from eastern Europe, either through the internet or through acquaintances. The middlemen usually work for subcontractors. They set the workers up as (falsified) “self-employed”, then offer them around as cheap labour in the construction or cleaning industries, paying them just a fraction of what they would normally be entitled to. Germans call it “wage dumping”.

Although the practice is found in all big German cities, Frankfurt is now considered the capital of the “Bulgarian industry”, which is squeezing out those companies that do insure their workers and pay their taxes. The enlargement of the European Union made it very easy to abuse the system, and on such a scale that, according to customs investigators, it’s hard to get an overview of it. So advanced has the “Bulgarian industry” become that even the customs officials find it difficult to detect the bogus “self-employed” papers. They know they are almost all falsified, but lack the personnel and the resources to prove it.

One case of abuse was revealed in Frankfurt by the Migrant Counselling Centre of the German Trade Union Confederation when Ali S. and D. Hyusein, two Bulgarians of Turkish descent, stepped forward. They had worked for six weeks at a construction site, they reported, and part of their salary was still being withheld. From early March to mid-April, each of them had worked 349.5 hours. They should have received €4,526.03 gross, but were paid only €1,200.

Only rarely, though, are such cases ever fought in the Labour Court or even pursued by police and prosecutors. Most Bulgarians are not willing to testify against those who give them work – out of fear.

How advanced the market in Bulgarian workers has become has also been noted by the municipal housing authorities. Several years ago the Frankfurt Housing Agency observed that landlords were renting more and more rooms in flats to Romanians and Bulgarians. The often substandard dwellings were rented out at lucrative rates, exploiting the vulnerable south-eastern Europeans in need.

The prosecution in Frankfurt is currently investigating whether this doesn’t also involve larger-scale fraud. At the end of January about a hundred police officers visited an entire block of flats in a raid that went on until dawn. In the end, suspicions were confirmed that a 48-year-old German-Turk had collected nearly a million euros over the years from illegally housing Bulgarian workers in 39 apartments where social welfare claimants were supposed to be living.

Intermediaries and behind-the-scenes organisers

For a  fee, those claimants had been persuaded by Duran Ö. to move out and stay with friends. Their flats, paid for by the Job Centre, Duran Ö. then rented out to the workers from south-eastern Europe for €210 monthly each. Into the two-bedroom apartments he packed up to eight and, in some cases, 14 tenants.

Duran Ö. acquired business registration forms for the Bulgarians that let them work as pseudo-self-employed workers in the construction or cleaning industries. In one of the apartments Duran Ö. set up an office, from which he controlled his lucrative enterprise. Because of their poor knowledge of German, the Bulgarians also paid him for other services.

Right afterwards the authorities also began to look into the Petrova family. So far, they have no specific information on intermediaries and behind-the-scenes organisers. The Petrovas are staying quiet about the people who gave them work. “We’re living well here,” says the eldest son. “We do everything. Everything that comes along.” The municipal regulatory agency and the housing agency will be inspecting the dwelling soon.

If the Petrovas are in luck, by order of the city the landlord will have to remove the mildew stain in the corner of the room where the Petrovas sleep. Outside the door stand the muddy work boots of the father and son. Tomorrow morning they’ll be heading back to the building site.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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