Waiting in Pain: Migrant's Case Highlights Modern Slavery in Germany
By Matthias Bartsch and Özlem Gezer
Injured on the job, a Bulgarian migrant worker desperately needs surgery, but his official status as an independent contractor has allowed the companies involved to shirk responsibility. His case exposes a troubling gray area in Germany's labor market.
Before Biser Rusev left to live his own German dream, he took his goats out every morning to graze in the fields of Vetovo, in northeastern Bulgaria. Rusev was a good goatherd, never losing a single animal. The livestock dealers were pleased with his work. They paid him with anise liqueur, potatoes or bread, only a few paid in cash. Rusev rarely left his village in northern Bulgaria, near the Danube River. He felt safe in Vetovo, never locked his door. Most of all, his work was in demand there.
Since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, many Vetovo residents left for the West, most of them going to Germany. When they returned, they drove German cars, renovated their houses, bought land and wore gold around their wrists. "A lot of gold," says Rusev. He became curious about this faraway country, this place where money grew on trees, at least according to the rumors coming from those returning to his village. That was in the late summer of 2011.
Today, 18 months later, Rusev is lying in a decommissioned hospital bed in Room 35 of a hostel for the homeless near Ostpark, a park in Frankfurt, sorting out the wreckage of his life. His body is emaciated, there are dark rings around his eyes and his cheeks are sunken. The plaster is crumbling from the ceiling, fluorescent lights illuminate the cracked walls and trains rattle by outside. A blonde anchorwoman smiles from the TV set, but Rusev can't understand what she is saying. This is the new world of a goatherd from Vetovo: eight square meters (86 square feet) of Germany, in a place next to a freight yard that represents the end of the line for the homeless.
A plastic tube is taped to Rusev's stomach. One end leads to a catheter in his penis, while the other end is attached to a urine bag in a blue bucket. "I no longer dream about German gold," he says. "I just want to get rid of this tube."
Rusev, 36, is wearing an adult diaper. His wound is infected. He contorts his thin face into a smile. He is in pain, as has often been the case in recent weeks, since his urethra was torn in a serious work accident in January at a Frankfurt chemical plant.
He was working as a laborer and had no health insurance. For weeks, it has remained unclear who would pay for the surgery Rusev needed. The companies he was working for at the chemical plant didn't even report the accident.
The 2,000-Kilometer Trip to Prosperity
Rusev is one of the so-called "pseudo self-employed" in the German labor market -- one of tens of thousands who are formally registered as small business owners, but who in reality are modern slaves. He is stranded in Germany, lured there by the promise of prosperity, exploited by companies to do dirty work for starvation wages, and now abandoned because he can no longer perform as desired. The gray area of the laws governing Europe's nomadic work force has no provisions for cases like Rusev's.
"Things didn't go well," says Rusev. He seems cautious, not wishing to sound ungrateful. Most of all, he doesn't want to abandon the hopes that prompted him to leave Vetovo in the first place. His only knowledge of Germany, 2,000 kilometers away, came from Bulgarian television, where he had seen images of tall buildings and clean streets. The returnees said that Germany had job centers and an intact social welfare state. He decided it was time to follow their lead and seek his own fortune in Germany.
Modern-day slave traders have divided up the villages among themselves in the region where Rusev comes from. Since Bulgaria joined the EU, they have been supplying the German market with day laborers. Their vans make the trip to Germany three times a week. Rusev also bought a ticket from the traffickers. With five kilos of luggage, Rusev set out to start his new life. The trip took one night and the rest of the next day.
He ended up in Offenbach, a city near Frankfurt, where he had relatives who had moved to Germany earlier. Together they would collect scrap metal, earning between €50 () and €100 a day. But the money was divided up among eight people, and Rusev rarely got his fair share. He was angry, and it made him wonder why he had left his wife and two children behind in their village.
Rusev decided to set out on his own. For three months, he slept on a mattress in an abandoned and condemned building. There were 15 Bulgarians living there, without running water or electricity, and only a small gas stove for cooking. But Rusev wasn't paying any rent, and he was satisfied with his situation.
The men explained the rules of his new world to Rusev. They told him about Germany's policy of "limited freedom of movement" for Bulgarians, which will last until 2014. He would be allowed to remain in Germany for no longer than three months, unless he registered a business.
Small Business Owners, in Name Only
On Oct. 4, 2011, the City of Offenbach issued Rusev a business registration. He was now a self-employed "laborer in the field of construction." For unskilled laborers like Rusev, the business registration is the ticket to fictitious self-employment. The central customs office, which handles cases like his, estimates that in the Frankfurt area alone, there are well over 10,000 pseudo self-employed workers from Bulgaria and Romania, working on construction sites or in factories and restaurants. They are officially independent contractors, meaning they have more than one employer, are scarcely regulated and work as their own bosses. But the only responsibility Rusev had in the ensuing months was to show up at the market square on time so that employers could pick him up.
In the weeks that followed, the former goatherd worked 12-hour days on construction sites, earning €60 a day. He emptied out apartments for €50 a day and cleaned businesses for €30. On days when no one hired him, he collected recyclable bottles and returned them for the deposit. He kept his money in his pant pockets, and sometimes hid it in his underwear, depending on how full the abandoned building was at night. He managed to save some money -- not much, but enough to buy his first home in Germany: a sky-blue Golf III, which he bought from a Turkish man for €250.
Rusev, who doesn't have a driver's license, had the man drive the car onto a parking lot. He kept his clothes in the trunk, and he used a wool blanket to stay warm at night. Sometimes he allowed homeless Bulgarians to sleep in his car. Others would have charged €2 a night, says Rusev, but he never did that.
Then, on a cold winter morning, the engine wouldn't start. Two months after it became his temporary home, the Golf went to the junkyard and Rusev moved into the apartment of a welfare recipient, into a room shared by eight Bulgarians. Those who didn't pay the monthly rent of €150 on time were thrown out, Rusev recalls. Nevertheless, he says it was his happiest time in Germany. The shower worked, the door could be locked and business was going well.
One evening there was a dispute in the apartment, and the neighbors called the police. The overcrowded apartment was promptly cleared out, and Rusev was back on the streets. Someone in the market square told him there was work to be had, even for Bulgarians, in the vicinity of Frankfurt's main train station. So Rusev set out for Frankfurt.
Meeting the 'King of the Bulgarians'
When he arrived, he saw the city's skyline, the bank towers and the men in suits carrying leather briefcases. The first night he slept under a bridge, where he met a fellow Bulgarian who took him to the train station district and to a makeshift apartment complex in the courtyard behind an old building at Münchener Strasse 55. The Bulgarian kept Rusev's mobile phone as a deposit.
When Rusev moved into the building, more than 40 Bulgarians were living on the top floor. After a raid in October 2012, the tabloid press described the building as "Frankfurt's worst tenement."
That's exaggerated, says Rusev. He admits that there were cockroaches, and that they sometimes crawled into his ears at night. But cockroaches are far less dangerous than rats. He paid €155 a month to sleep in the kitchen.
In the next few days, some of the other Bulgarians in the apartment took him to Can 58, a combination Internet café, phone shop and Turkish export business. Rusev belongs to the Turkish-speaking minority in Bulgaria, and they spoke his language at the shop. For stranded migrants like Rusev, places like this serve as an employment office, real-estate agency, bank, social gathering place and a source of hope. The word "can" means "life" in Turkish.
According to its entry in Frankfurt's commercial register, one of the businesses Can 58 is involved in is "demolition work and construction services," followed by telephone services, kiosk operations, imports and exports. Across the street shines the bright red façade of a large brothel. In this neighborhood, sex is sold cheap and geared toward the masses, just like the labor provided by the pseudo self-employed.
The registered owner of Can 58 is a smartly dressed, 43-year-old man with a well-kept short haircut and stubble, a man everyone in the neighborhood knows simply as Aydin. He was Rusev's first point of contact in the neighborhood. Aydin lends money to the needy and has them work for him to pay off their debts. When he meets with someone in his office, he has an assistant serve Turkish tea, puts down his smartphone and asks one of his employees to leave the room before getting down to business. For desperate men like Rusev, Aydin is the King of the Bulgarians in this neighborhood.
Aydin is one of the profiteers of poverty-related migration. As employers, they save themselves the cost of social security contributions by hiring men like Rusev. This is unlikely to change after 2014, when Romanians and Bulgarians will be allowed to work jobs covered by social insurance in Germany without needing a work permit. "Many employers will still try to use this approach to circumvent the expense of payroll taxes and minimum wages," says a spokeswoman for the central customs office.
Aydin is upset with Rusev. He says that the Bulgarian begged him for a job so that he could pay his rent. And Aydin only wanted to help the man. Of course, says Aydin, he had no idea that Rusev didn't have any health insurance. He admits that it was his mistake for not checking. Other than that, however, he insists he did nothing wrong.
On the evening of Jan. 28, Rusev and a group of Bulgarian laborers were standing in front of Can 58. They were waiting for a van Aydin was sending to take them to the Höchst Industrial Park, a 460-hectare (1,137-acre) site in the western part of Frankfurt, home to roughly 90 companies operating chemical plants. Rusev's shift began at 7 p.m., and he was paid €84 for 12 hours of hard work. But he was pleased. He hadn't had such a good job in a long time.
At the plant entrance, Rusev showed the security guard an access permit with his photo and registration number, I 608475. The plastic card is made by Infraserv Höchst, a company that handles infrastructure and security at the plant. Infraserv also owns the plant were Rusev was assigned to work that night. But when he is asked who his employer was, his only response is: "Aydin Company."
The van took Rusev and the others across the industrial park, past gloomy brick buildings and under thick pipes to building E 264, which looked like a large, sheet-metal container in the light of the lanterns on the plant walls. Rusev still doesn't know exactly what happens in the building. Weeks after the accident, he still refers to it as a "furnace," and says that his job was to remove "rocks" from it. In actuality, the building is a filtration system for the foul-smelling exhaust air that comes from a sewage treatment plant for production residue.
Infraserv classifies the work in this plant as "dangerous." Rusev was given a white protective suit and a dust mask for his mouth and nose -- not by Infraserv, but by a small demolition company called O.A.M., which Infraserv had hired to replace the filters.
Rusev climbed up an iron ladder to a work platform about three meters off the ground. His job was to lift and move heavy ceramic filters. At about 2:30 a.m., he slipped from the platform and fell down the ladder. Shortly before he hit the ground, one of his legs became caught between the rungs of the ladder.
Rusev remembers the moment very clearly. He flinches as he describes how his body smashed against the iron rung. He was in so much pain that everything went dark. Then Rusev felt something wet under his protective suit. He still had no idea that it was blood, perhaps because of his intense focus on completing the job. Aydin's assistant told him not to draw attention to himself. He was quickly taken away from the plant grounds through an unguarded side entrance and put into a taxi. The driver was instructed to take him to the "company office."
No One Claims Responsibility
Rusev got out of the taxi in front of Cam 58 about half an hour later. One of Aydin's men paid the driver and sent the Bulgarian home. Rusev managed to walk the short distance, past nightclubs and strip joints, and even up the 100 steps to reach the top floor of his building at Münchener Strasse 55. Only after removing the protective suit in the apartment did he realize that his entire abdomen was drenched in blood.
The sight of the blood scared Rusev, who dragged himself back to Cam 58. Aydin himself took him to the university hospital. Rusev says that Aydin repeatedly told him to tell the doctors he had had an accident at home, although Aydin denies this. As it is, Rusev could only have said two words to the doctors: "Stairs. Fell."
The diagnosis read: "pre-bulbar urethral tear," "hematoma" and "transurethral hemorrhage," terms that meant nothing to Rusev. But he did understand that without an operation, the pain would not go away and he would no longer be able to work. The doctors "strongly" recommended that the surgery be performed "within the next 4-6 weeks." That was 10 weeks ago.
None of the companies involved in the filter replacement feels responsible for Rusev's accident. Anyone working in the industrial park is "required to have a work permit," says a spokesman for Infraserv. He adds that Rusev was able to present his business registration. When asked whether the Bulgarian was state-insured, the spokesman says that Infraserv has "no further information," and notes that this would have been the responsibility of the people who hired him. The demolition company, O.A.M., says that it had hired a subcontractor, Best Nova, and that Aydin had acted as its "construction manager."
The company was apparently paid a sum in the low five figures to provide cheap labor for what was a dirty job. The head of O.A.M. says Best Nova had confirmed "that all employees are registered, through immediate reporting, with the German Federal Pension Fund and the statutory health insurance system, and that the applicable social security contributions are paid." It isn't O.A.M.'s fault, he adds, that the company did not live up to its obligation. The managing director of Best Nova says that Biser Rusev "is not one of our employees."
Dashed Hopes in a German Hospital
Now that Rusev could hardly walk and could no longer earn any money, he was quickly evicted from the apartment on Münchener Strasse. He placed the urine bag into a plastic bag and walked gingerly through the neighborhood, searching for help. An Italian took him to "MigrAr," a drop-in center for immigrants with no place to stay, run by the service sector union Ver.di.
Rusev doesn't know what a trade union is. To this day, concepts like German labor law and employer liability mean nothing to him. All he knows is that "Madame Huckenbeck" works at MigrAr and is helping him. Kirsten Huckenbeck, 46, obtained a bed for Rusev at the homeless shelter, food vouchers from the job center, as well as clothing vouchers and medication. She submitted applications to a health insurance agency, and she took him to an outpatient treatment center run by Catholic relief agency Caritas. The doctor who treated him there ordered an emergency admission.
Rusev was convinced that everything would be okay now. "German doctors can make you into a new person," he says.
It's shortly before Easter. After getting up early, Rusev showers, shaves, puts on a black knit cap and places his urine bag into a red plastic bag. Huckenbeck drives him to the university hospital in her small Opel. But at the front desk in the urology department, the receptionist pushes the emergency admission slip back to Rusev. "We don't do anything unless someone is covering the costs," she says.
Huckenbeck calls the social assistance office and the health insurance agency. A case manager at the hospital is sympathetic with Rusev's case, but remains firm. "If we operate, we'll be stuck with the costs," she says, "and our boss doesn't allow that." The case manager tells them that the operation would cost about €15,000, and that payment is expected in advance.
Rusev sits dejectedly in a chair in the hallway. At least someone replaces his catheter, after hehas been waiting for six hours. His urethra has been inflamed for days. "Without Madame, I would probably be under a bridge or dead," says Rusev. "She is my German mommy."
Huckenbeck says that most of the pseudo self-employed are simply put on a train back to Bulgaria when someone goes wrong. It's important, she adds, that someone finally expose what is happening every day on Germany's construction sites.
No Path Back to Bulgaria
In the evening, Rusev, exhausted, is back at the homeless shelter. He runs his hand across his bed and says: "This is my first bed in Germany." When he arrived in Offenbach, Rusev was still dreaming about a Mercedes and a house for his wife. Today he hopes that his urine bag won't spring a leak by the next morning.
He also refers to his first bed in the West as "my office." Rusev has collected the documents attesting to his German life in a blue folder that he keeps under his pillow. It contains his business registration, work ID cards, a letter from the city stating that it agrees to pay for his stay at the hostel and his hospital records. An inexpensive bottle of red wine is on the wooden table, and German-Bulgarian dictionary from 1975 is on the windowsill. Rusev has emptied the tobacco from cigarette butts he collected on the street into a tobacco bag.
The goatherd doesn't want to return to Bulgaria. What would he say? That he failed in the West? Rusev is quiet for a moment. His wife sent him a text message to tell him that she was leaving him. He didn't send her enough money, he says.
Rusev misses his children. He also misses the open fields and the goats. When he starts talking about his days as a goatherd, his eyes light up. He says that the livestock dealers even asked for his advice in the evening. It seems as if this were the last thing Rusev truly felt proud of in his life.
But he refuses to give up. "I haven't tried everything yet," he says. Madame Huckenbeck mentioned something about an appointment for surgery, and this time, he says, it will happen. "Soon, I hope," he says. Only after locking the metal door to his room does Rusev feel a little safer, here in Germany, his new home.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan