Excessive rents for factory subcontractors: workers in hovels

Factory workers in the meat industry are often housed by the same subcontractors who hired them. This is profitable.

Lots of work, poor conditions: Meat factories often employ workers on work contracts. Photo: dpa

The stairwell of the former barracks in Quakenbruck has seen better days: The ceilings are moldy, someone has nailed up the intermediate doors with OSB boards and the lamps have no shades. Daniela Reim points to power cables hanging out of a junction box: "Some residents tap the others here to save electricity."

Daniela Reim works at Oldenburg’s "Beratungsstelle fur mobile Beschaftigte," whose mission is to improve the situation of factory workers. Their house is in Quakenbruck, where many factory workers live who work in the meat industry in neighboring Essen (Oldenburg).

The principle works like this: The large slaughterhouses buy certain services from subcontractors, such as cutting up a certain number of pigs. The subcontractors then do the job with factory workers they hire in Eastern Europe.

Up to 64,000 pigs are cut every week by 1,300 employees at the Danish Crown slaughterhouse in Essen alone. According to the company, 900 of them are factory workers. And they have to live somewhere. In Essen alone, there were 60 apartments occupied by 513 people two years ago – a huge deal.

"In Quakenbruck, it’s particularly bad at the moment," says Detlef Kolde. He sits for the SPD in the Cloppenburg district council. And has been dealing with Eastern European factory workers for years. Last year, the terrible conditions became a topic in the media.

Up to 90 percent of the work in slaughterhouses is organized through work contracts, according to the unions.

8,000 to 10,000 people work in the slaughterhouses.

In Lower Saxony the industry has a turnover of four to five billion euros a year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

In the past dumping wages of between three and seven euros are said to have been paid.

Since August an industry-wide minimum wage of 7.75 euros has been in effect.

They reported moldy rooms and people camping in the forest. Earlier, two men from Romania had died in a fire in Papenburg. They had been employed by a subcontractor at the Meyer shipyard.

A decree issued by the Lower Saxony state government has been in force since the beginning of this year. It regulates how plant workers should live. According to this, a person needs at least six square meters to live. A maximum of eight people are allowed to sleep in a shared room, for which there must be at least one toilet, two washbasins and a shower.

But whether the decree will do any good is the question. Detlef Kolde is standing in front of the ex-barracks in Quakenbruck. The window frames are dilapidated. On the second floor, a tenant complains that she can no longer open them at all because various cables from satellite dishes hang in front of them. "Nothing will change," says Kolde. There are too few controls, he says.

Inside the house, Daniela Reim points to half a dozen shoes in front of an apartment. "An extended family lives here," she says, "but we’d rather not disturb them today." After the last reporter’s visit, she says, the family got into trouble.

That’s why Daniela Reim is knocking on a different door today. In the apartment, she shows moldy corners in the bathroom and broken windows in the bedroom. They pay 340 euros for the apartment, which is in need of renovation and measures about 45 square meters. Even if you deduct the ancillary costs, that’s still a price per square meter of between six and seven euros. The average rent in Quakenbrueck for apartments of this size is 5.50 euros per square meter.

Yet the families here still have it comparatively good. Most of the factory workers live in mass housing, which is not much cheaper. They can be recognized by the dozens of names written in felt-tip pen on the mailboxes or computer printouts stuck over them with scotch tape when there is no more room.

This is also the case a few minutes’ walk from the house in Quakenbruck. Two young men are standing in front of the entrance. They have been shopping and are leaning on the shopping cart they brought with them. They work for a subcontractor who has a contract with Danish Crown. Their accommodation is sparse: a few metal beds, foam mattresses on them, a table, they live out of a suitcase. Four of them sleep in the room. Daniela Reim sees this as a violation of the accommodation decree. Apparently there is not enough space in the room.

Later, it is dark, and Daniela Reim’s VW bus rolls one last meter on crunching gravel. Then it comes to a halt somewhere in the Cloppenburg district. The headlights make a long building visible. It used to be a stable, but now Eastern Europeans who work in the surrounding slaughterhouses also live here.

Daniela Reim briefly looks through one of the square windows. Inside, tired men in jogging suits and slippers shuffle through a large and barren hall. The ceiling is stabilized with thin iron columns that someone has painted red. Large overhead spotlights add a garish flair.

We walk inside. There is some furniture in the hall: sofas, tables and chairs. One of the men sits in the corner with the hood of his sweater pulled down low over his face and stares into a laptop. A child’s voice croaks from the tinny speakers: Skyping with the family. Crooked pictures hang on one wall, Daniela Reim points to them: "They hung them up before the last inspection."

Since there are rules for the accommodations in Lower Saxony, they have one less bed in the room in the Cloppenburg stable. However, two to three workers still sleep in each room. A total of 12 men spend the night here, for rates between 2 euros a month. The money is deducted directly from their wages. For the landlord, that makes about 3,000 euros every month – for a converted stable.

The stalls are part of the business strategy for the subcontractors. Often the houses are rented directly from them or even belong to them. The money that they give to the workers with one hand, they take away from them with the other. This is how wage dumping is organized through the back door.

Josza is the name of one of the workers, and he digs out a few papers from his private belongings: Contracts and pay slips. He shows them to Daniela Reim. The two speak to each other in Romanian. Josza doesn’t know German, like most of the factory workers. His employment contract has two columns: on the left are the agreements in Romanian, on the right the German translation.

"That’s pretty good," says Daniela Reim. Often the contracts are formulated in a language that the workers don’t understand. It doesn’t always have to be German. Some Romanians have a contract written in Polish, some Poles have a contract in Romanian, depending on where the subcontractor they sign with is from.

Josza has a problem: there hasn’t been enough work at the slaughterhouse for some time. 182 hours per month are agreed in his contract. He was able to make 125 last month, just under a thousand euros, minus 240 euros for his bed in the shared room. That leaves too little money.

Workers like Josza don’t want to stay in Germany forever. They want to make a little money for a few years. Usually, part of it goes to the family, another part is put aside to afford something at home, a house or "that my children will be better off," says one of them. That will be difficult if only 800 euros are paid out in the end.

Josza also believes that his subcontractor didn’t bill enough hours. He cannot prove this because he is not allowed to see the records.

The man in the hoodie turns away from his computer for a moment. Daniela Reim translates: "It happened to him, too. "He had suspected that there were thirty hours missing from his payroll." He was lucky and got the hour records: In fact, 27 hours were missing.

Factory workers are always employed on a temporary basis. Usually six months. "Then they go home for three weeks to see their families and eventually come back for another six months," says Daniela Reim. Because the contracts are always temporary, almost no one fights back against impositions at work, contract violations and lousy housing. Those who do, or who are even sick for a longer period of time, simply don’t get a follow-up contract.

"For many, that’s even okay," says Daniela Reim. After all, they earn four to six times as much here as they would in their home countries.

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