Revealed: Scandal of Bulgarian Workers Plight in Germany

Novinite Insider » FEATURES | Author: Milena Hristova |November 4, 2010, Thursday // 12:14| Views: | Comments: 0
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Bulgaria: Revealed: Scandal of Bulgarian Workers Plight in Germany Photo by EPA/BGNES

Bulgarians are driven to Germany, share a single densely packed grotty room and work long hours only to be left high and dry when their, usually Bulgarian, employers vanish into thin air a few months later. Is there hope for help when the dream job turns into a nightmare? Milena Hristova finds out the answer is yes.


The eurozone seems to be recovering and Germany is reporting record growth, but the hard times are not over for European workers. Especially if they come from an Eastern European country like Bulgaria and are employed by Bulgarians working in Germany. Ivan Petrov knows that best.

A 40-year-old construction worker, Ivan has been attracted by the prospect of earning seven euros per hour by working in the company of another Bulgarian in Hamburg. But three months on, he is homeless, empty-handed and glad just to find 110 euros to get out of Germany and return to Sofia.

"We were forced to work from ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes even during the night. First the boss - I don't even know his surname - said he will pay us in a month. But we worked for three months and he was still giving us nothing. Then he just disappeared and left us with no money or place to live," says he.

Viktoria Muftieff, a Bulgarian speaking lawyer from Hamburg-based Rechtsanw?lte Fochler W?lfken & Collegen, has heard many such stories of hardship.

"Very often Bulgarians, who have signed an illegal contract to work in Northern Germany, end up at my office, seeking help, with no money in their pockets and nowhere to spend the night. Most of these people are from the construction and ship-building sectors," she says.

The fraudsters' victims end up at Muftieff's office after failing to get help at the Bulgarian Embassy or police, which is more often than not the case.

"Unfortunately the police can't help these people since they have voluntarily left Bulgaria and can not be treated as victims of human trafficking. What the police can do is advise them to find a good lawyer and take the disloyal employer to court," Viktoria Muftieff explains.

The Bulgarian diplomatic mission can also be hardly of any help, especially when the workers have entered into an illegal contract, not signed by a licensed mediating company.

In most of the cases Viktoria Muftieff is visited by groups of four to nine Bulgarians, who have arrived and worked together in Germany. Depending on what the people can tell her and whether they have a written contract, she tries to contact the employer and asks him to pay the owed money voluntarily.

"This never happens, which is the reason why I approach the Labor Court. The court has ruled in favor of the employees in each of the cases that I have handled so far and they all have received their due payments."

Foreigners, who have worked in Germany after they were promised a legal job, have the right to file a complaint in court and seek their pay even if they have worked illegally, that is without a work permit and without paying taxes or insurances.

"Unfortunately in most of the cases the Bulgarian workers have not signed a written contract. It is all about a word-of-mouth recruiting, which includes negotiations about the pay per hour and the rent of the place, where the workers are accommodated. That's why it is very difficult to prove in court what the two sides have agreed upon initially and I resort to the testimonies of the other workers, who are recalled as witnesses," says Muftieff.

"Bulgarians who are exploited without being paid have the right to complain to the local police," says Patsy Sorensen, an expert from the European Commission, who has been helping human trafficking victims across Europe.

Sorensen explains that the European Union does not distinguish between sexual and economic exploitation, that's why these people can ask for social shelter and protection.

"There are always good and bad people and some are more vulnerable than others."

On the other side of the fence are the locals, who object to moves to offer jobs to eastern European workers especially in towns where unemployment is soaring.

Immigration has always been a contentious issue in Europe. But these days, as enduring economic turmoil further fuels concerns over rising unemployment, it's not difficult to understand why Germans are even more sensitive about the prospect of Eastern Europeans taking jobs away from their citizens.

"True, Germans complain that foreigners, not only Eastern Europeans, have the right to work here in times when the unemployment rate is high. Yet more and more people have been saying lately that Bulgarians, Romanians, Polish, etc. don't come here to steal jobs, but rather to plug gaps as they do the jobs that the Germans would never do," Muftieff adds.

Three years after they joined the EU, Bulgarian nationals must still obtain permits before they can work in any of ten other partner nations, including Germany, despite freedom of movement being a founding European principle. According to Viktoria Muftieff German employers don't bear Eastern Europeans a grudge as long as they can employ them legally.

"I often meet German employers, who have been lucky enough to come upon honest and hard-working Bulgarian workers. They are so happy with their employees that even try to help them get a permit," she recalls.

Fears that a deluge of cheap workers from the east would swamp the labor market in Western Europe following the enlargement of the European Union have proven over-fetched. The flood turned out to be a trickle, but still cheap labor is unwelcome, especially in a recession. Viktoria Muftieff however claims one can't talk of discrimination in Germany.

"Bulgarian and Romanian jobseekers can get a work permit in Germany only if the employer proves their pay and working conditions won't be worse than that of a German employee with the same skills. In this sense discrimination is banned by the law in Germany."

Bulgarian politicians have recently renewed their calls for an open door labor market in the ten older member states, including Germany, that still impose restrictions for job-seekers from the country and its northern neighbor Romania.

Sofia says it does not expect all countries to lift the restrictions to their labor markets simultaneously, but wants to draw the public attention to the issue and pile up pressure on these countries to take this important step prior to 2011.

The restrictions can be kept for another two years, until 2013, if the countries present evidence to back up their claims that the Bulgarian and Romanian job-seekers are a burden for their labor markets. What will happen after that?

"When the restrictions are lifted, there will be a discrimination of a different sort – the pay for the Germans may fall to the levels, which are just enough to lure Eastern Europeans," forecasts Viktoria Muftieff.

The experts from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), one of the leading research institutes in Europe with a staff of about 120 economists, also believe that the German immigration policy has hurt the country's economy.

"The influx of eastern workers to Germany has not abated despite the restrictions. Instead low-qualified workers have invaded the country following far from clear routes," says Klaus Zimmermann, DIW President.

To the detriment of both the German state and the Bulgarian workers.

"That's why Bulgarian migrant job-seekers better use the services of a licensed mediating company and a labor bureau or contact directly a German employer," Muftieff says.

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