Romanian migrant workers are protesting outside the Mall of Berlin, Germany's largest shopping center, having gone unpaid since September. The workers, who have been outside the mall every day since December 1, were employed in the construction of the near 1 billion euro ($1.2bn), 270-store development in the city's Leipziger Platz.
The 30 workers, who are all Romanian, were recruited from building sites around Europe, and brought to Berlin with the promise of stable employment and secured housing. Instead they found themselves working illegally, without proper contracts or documentation, and sleeping rough in the streets.
The laborers were told that they were not allowed to register in Germany, a legal requirement to work or find an apartment. When they protested this, they were told that they could register, but that it would cost them 150 euros, a prohibitively large sum. The actual price is nothing.
Bogdan Droma, one of the workers, told VICE News how they came to Berlin: "We were working for a month in Birmingham, UK, before we came here. We were promised a work contract and a place to stay, if we wanted to work at the Mall of Berlin. I thought it would be great to work in Berlin, as I had a good opinion of Germany — I knew I would receive a contract here, and a place to sleep and to work."
The reality on arrival was markedly different. They were immediately put onto the building sites, working 10-hour days, six days a week, for wages of just 5 euros per hour. The minimum wage for an unskilled construction worker in Berlin, as agreed under German law by employers and trade unions, is 10.25 euros. Bogdan, a 29-year-old with a daughter back in Romania, was shocked at the conditions he found on arrival.
"When I began here, the guys were sleeping in the street. The bosses failed to organize an apartment for them. After a few days sleeping in the street we found a room, where we slept 12 guys together, but because we couldn't pay for the room, the owner threw us out."
'They fired me because I asked the site manager if I could have some toilet paper.'
Their bosses eventually arranged housing for them, but conditions were little better. "They found an 'option' for us, if you understand what I mean by 'option,'" he continued, "an apartment, two rooms, for 1,800 euros a month. [Average rent for a two-bed apartment in Berlin is less than half that.] We slept there, 16 guys, with a shower that worked for 20 minutes a day."
After a few weeks of work, wages were not forthcoming. "We worked 20 days, and we should have been paid after two weeks. They delayed with the money, so we had a small protest, and they paid some money, but afterwards they cut our hours and wages." When further payment did not transpire, they complained again, only to be sacked on the spot.
"When I asked about our official papers, they found reasons why I was not a good worker — they fired me because I asked the Bauleiter (site manager) if I could have some toilet paper." Bogdan and his colleagues found themselves again on the street, hungry and sleeping in a shipping container next to their building site.
Some workers have joined the FAU (Free Worker's Union), a trade union in Berlin that organizes among migrant workers. They estimate that these workers are owed 30,000 euros in unpaid wages, some of whom were scared away from protesting by threats from their former employers. As well as providing legal advice, the union has managed to find them temporary housing in Berlin's left-wing scene.
The Mall of Berlin was financed by High Gain House Investments (HGHI), led by Harald Huth, an investor with so many developments on the go in central Berlin that he has become known as the "King of Leipziger Platz". HGHI employed Fettchenhauer Controlling & Logistic (FCL), who sub-contracted it out again to over 200 firms.
On Tuesday, FCL filed for bankruptcy, and Harald Huth refused to answer questions, responding only with the statement that, "everything will be okay." Large parts of Leipziger Platz are still a building site, with a hotel and apartments still under construction, and the workers on those projects now fear that they too will not be paid.
The total estimated wages due to FCL workers comes to around 4 million euros, who are considering their options. The shopping center had previously been found to lack adequate fire protection, and FCL were given until December 17 to bring the building up to code.
Whether they will now be able to do this, and whether the mall will be able to stay open in the busy pre-Christmas period, remains unclear. Asked privately, the Romanians were unsurprised by these structural faults, alleging that they had been encouraged to cut corners and save costs whenever possible.
'Migrants, especially those from new EU states such as Romania, are far less likely to know their rights and far less likely to complain about poor treatment.'
The firms that directly employed the Romanian workers, Metatec Fundus GmbH and Openmallmaster GmbH, have been similarly elusive. Both have also refused to give statements since a demonstration on Saturday, but previously spoke to Bild-Zeitung. Vitaly Aronovich of Openmallmaster claimed in the newspaper that his company were "victims themselves," and that "when we get our money, we will pay the workers."
Metatec, on the other hand, claimed that they'd never hired any Romanians at all. The Berlin branch of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) disagrees with Metatec, and explicitly named them in a statement when demanding "€33,000 in wages to employees which have so far not been paid by the contractors Openmallmaster and Metatec Fundus."
The FAU union, of which the Romanians are members, is ramping up protests outside of the Mall of Berlin. Last Saturday saw a demonstration of 500 supporters, bringing the shopping center to a standstill on a key business day in the run-up to Christmas.
Johnny Hellquist, secretary of the FAU Foreigner's Section, which organizes migrant workers in Berlin, was unsurprised by the worker's treatment. "Migrants, especially those from new EU states such as Romania, are far less likely to know their rights and far less likely to complain about poor treatment. Employers know this, and therefore see them as an easy target for exploitation," Hellquist told VICE News.
"The truth of the matter is that cases such as that of the Romanian workers are far from isolated, and are widely repeated in building sites across Berlin. The difference here is that these workers have chosen to fight back, and demand what any German worker would be given as standard," Hellquist continued.
The Romanians have vowed to keep up their protests until they receive their money, and will picket indefinitely — possibly the only permanent fixture at the Mall of Berlin, as the corporate structure unravels itself.
Follow Mike Meehall Wood on Twitter: @MillbankBhoy