Archive | February, 2014

Refugees vs. Robocops

19 Feb


“Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here!”

The refugee protest camp at Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg is usually a pretty tranquil place – just last week I did an interview on a park bench. But on Thursday afternoon, the square was packed with more than 2500 students who were on strike in support of the rights of refugees. Young people came from schools and universities across Berlin. There were fiery speeches and a hip hop concert – any interviews had to be shouted. In the days leading up to the strike, there had been assemblies at half a dozen schools featuring presentations about Germany’s asylum laws as well as speeches from refugee activists.

Originally the strike had been planned against the ultimatum by Interior Senator Frank Henkel (CDU) to evict the protest camp by January 18. The ultimatum was cancelled, but the alliance of left-wing youth organizations and independent students maintained the protests. Even without an eviction, there seems to be plenty to object to – refugees are forced to live in camps with no right to work or education. The last attempt to evict the O-Platz in November was thwarted by 600 supporters, but there’s still an ongoing threat. In fact, early on Saturday morning, the toilet truck used by the refugees was completely burned down – arson is suspected, but the perpetrators haven’t been identified.

The first pro-refugee school strike took place on December 12 in Hamburg – now there is talk of a national day of strike action in the coming months. School students have parents, and parents write angry letters to newspapers. So I would expect the police to let the young people, mostly aged between 12 and 18, demonstrate in peace, right?

Not so. Police surrounded the march with officers in black riot gear reminiscent of those Robocop posters all over Alexanderplatz. Also present was the Anti-Konflikt-Team in neon yellow vests and armed with (anti-conflict?) pistols. A total of seven students and refugees were arrested during the day – a spontaneous protest at the Berlinale in the afternoon saw further detentions. (I have to admit, with a bit of shame, that I was in a film screening at the time.)

Since they opened the camp at O-Platz, I’m not the only person who has learned about the refugees’ struggle. It used to be a niche topic that I would think about only a few times a year. But now everyone is talking about the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. More student strikes will keep the discussion going. The right-wing tabloid Bild has accused the students of Schwänzen (truancy) and attacked the teachers’ union for supporting the protest. But I can say I learned more in a day at O-Platz than I ever learned in a day in a classroom. The strike is an important part of a humanistic, anti-racist education and the students get my vote of support in their decision to participate.


Photo: quilombofotos


Getting by with the minimum

5 Feb


Under the new government, Germany is on track for getting a minimum wage of €8.50 per hour. But don’t go on that spending spree quite yet: even after the law goes into effect, many Berliners – including plenty of expats – will keep working for next to nothing.

Forming a new governing coalition is hard work. Angela Merkel from the CDU, Horst Seehofer from the CSU and Sigmar Gabriel from the SPD spent 17 hours putting the final touches on their agreement. It wasn’t until 5:30 in the morning of November 27 that the parties finished their discussions in the SPD headquarters in Kreuzberg and voted for the 185-page coalition contract. But at least all this work is well paid: Merkel, as Chancellor and head of her party, makes a monthly wage of €17,043 (plus a bonus month’s worth of wages every year). Gabriel as a member of parliament earns €10,864, while Seehofer, Bavaria’s prime minister, makes €15,431 every month.

Another difficult job is that of kitchen assistant. Miguel Sanz works in an Italian restaurant, washing dishes, cleaning floors and making pizzas from noon until 10pm. For these 10 hours a day, six days a week, Sanz – a 33-year-old from Seville who studied and worked in environmental protection in his home country – gets €1250 per month. That’s just €5 an hour – and perfectly legal in Germany.

On the surface, the decision by the newly formed coalition to implement a national minimum wage would seem like good news for Sanz. Yet the new law does not necessarily guarantee that he – or the 5.6 million other people in Germany working for less than €8.50 an hour right now – will be any better off than he is today.

Ten years of discussions

Germany’s lack of a minimum wage has been a topic for a decade. Since the Social-Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder introduced the Agenda 2010 reforms in 2003, Germany has become a land of low wages. Twenty-four percent of workers in Germany are in the Niedriglohn­sektor, earning less than 60 percent of the median wage: the highest rate in the European Union. In the last elections, the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke called for wages of at least €8.50 per hour.

These three parties won a majority of seats in the Bundestag and could have passed a law on a minimum wage before any new government was formed. Instead, the SPD preferred to fight for it in their negotiations for a grand coalition with the CDU. Their results: there will be a minimum wage of €8.50 starting in January of 2015 – but critics already warn that by that time, inflation will mean that €8.50 is worth less than it is today. And even then, there will still be exceptions.

In sectors where the collective contract allows wages below €8.50, the minimum wage won’t be implemented until January 2017. Currently, hairdressers in Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt have a collective contract that allows them only €3.05 an hour – and this will still be legal for three more years.

Juice and kiosks

Even when the law goes into effect, businesses will still find ways to exploit workers, especially foreigners desperate for work and without a full knowledge of their rights. Carmela Negrete’s first job in Berlin was selling orange juice at a kebab shop for €5 an hour. “Eight hours, standing up in the cold, for €40,“ she remembers. By the fourth day, she had a terrible cold and couldn’t go to work – on sick days, of course, she got nothing at all.

So she took a job at a kiosk, working 30 hours a month for €6 an hour. Instead of a job contract, there was a list of rules taped to the counter. “If you arrived more than 10 minutes late, you would have to pay €10.” Wages were paid whenever funds were available, sometimes after weeks of delays. The 27-year-old from Huelva in Spain had no choice but to comply: a journalist by profession, she could not pay the bills in Berlin with reporting alone.

“At least we got to climb for free,” says Thorben Korfhage about his job at an indoor climbing hall in Wedding. Beyond that, they only received €7.50 an hour. If money was missing from the register, they had to pay the difference out of pocket. “One guy had to pay €30 in one month,“ he remembers, “because when it gets really full, anyone can give the wrong change.” Many of the workers refused to sacrifice part of their salaries, and the 27-year-old economics student called the trade union ver.di and was informed this was clearly illegal. After a petition from the staff, management agreed to pay 50 cents per hour extra to anyone working the register, and money missing from the register could only be taken out of this extra payment. Nonetheless, wages there remain below €8.50.

“A minimum wage would mean I would have more time for my studies,” Korfhage says. “I could work five hours less a week and make the same money.” Yet there is no indication that the shady activity at his and Negrete’s workplaces will stop once a minimum wage is in place. Experts estimate that 2000 additional work inspectors would be necessary to ensure that businesses respect the law, and no new positions are currently planned.

Worse than Spain

“The laws here are worse than in Spain,” explains Sanz. There, you can sue an employer for paying less than the wage defined by the collective bargaining agreement. Employers must also provide written contracts – in Germany, oral contracts are also allowed. More important are the trade unions: “In Spain, a cafe owner will be a bit afraid that we’ll organise a picket out on the street and customers will stay away.” Germany’s businesses, with the exception of a few pockets in the retail sector, don’t have to worry much about angry employees because so few low-wage workers are in trade unions. However, as Korfhage’s case shows, even a simple phone call to a union and a letter can bring about small improvements.

There are all kinds of legal exceptions to the labour laws already, many of them involving the state welfare system. Negrete went on welfare after nine months of combining a newspaper internship with a €400 mini-job. Since benefits can be cut for refusing a job offer, there is enormous pressure to take any work at all, no matter how poorly paid. “Hartz IV creates extreme control mechanisms,” says Negrete of her experience with the state unemployment subsidy, which forces recipients to follow Byzantine rules.

“At the same time, it forces people to get jobs off the books.” So-called Schwarzarbeit, whether collecting bottles or working in a shop, is the only way to earn a significant amount on top of benefits. “Without cheating, it’s impossible to survive,” she says. “With a minimum wage, they’ll agree to pay you €8.50 an hour, but then they’ll ask you to work for two.”

Getting off Hartz-IV, Negrete was told she would work three hours a day cleaning a three-storey elementary school. “It was me and a retired person,” she remembers. On the first day, it became clear that two people could not possibly finish the job in three hours. They would work five or six hours – and were promised they would get the overtime back later in the form of paid vacation days. The retiree disappeared soon, but Negrete was worried that quitting would mean a benefit cut from the Jobcenter.

She was then joined by women from Romania, a young refugee, and an endless cycle of people doing unpaid ‘trial’ work days. “They yelled at us, they insulted us, they told us we were good for nothing,” she remembers. And when she left after three months, there was no question of getting back wages for having worked almost twice as much as agreed. “The minimum wage won’t mean anything,” she reflects.

The real effects

Opponents of the minimum wage law have said it will destroy jobs. For Sanz, who has also been involved in trade union work, it’s simply not true. “Employers hire people not because they want to give away money, but because they require a concrete service.” One restaurant owner who didn’t want to be quoted said with a shrug that he would have to raise prices if he had to pay his employees €8.50. But there’s really no question of getting rid of waiters entirely. Korfhage, the economics student and climber, agrees that there’s no danger to employment: “It’s not like they could reduce personnel at the climbing hall. At most, they could pass on higher costs to consumers.”

However, the law could result in an increase in that breed of worker already found all over Berlin, especially among young English speakers: the freelancer. Some call centres already classify their phone bank employees as “independent contractors,” paying them €8.50 an hour but forcing them to ‘rent’ their workspace for €1. This kind of Scheinselbstständigkeit (fake self-employed status) will only get worse with the implementation of a minimum wage. If a law mandates that waiters must be paid €8.50 an hour, there may soon be ‘freelance’ waiters getting paid per table served, rather than per hour worked, and earning much less.

“It’s not all about bad capitalists trying to exploit people. The Berlin economy is notoriously bad. Taxes and social contributions are high – times are also tough on employers, and believe me, we’re trying our best,” says Silvia (name changed), owner of a digital publishing company. The reality is that many smaller independent companies in the Berlin creative sector have to rely on “atypische Beschäftigungsverhältnisse”, a bureaucratic term for anyone without a full-time contract and social insurance.

There are hordes of young people who want work in attractive fields such as media, journalism or design – and small companies that can provide work but can’t afford full-time salaries. Were they to pay €8.50 to everyone, some employees would simply have their hours cut. “Every bit of profit we make gets reinvested into people,” continues Silvia. “Often we give our employees the choice between a higher freelance fee or a smaller staff wage, which in reality costs us much more.”

High payroll taxes and social security contributions in Germany are often a deterrent to staff contracts. “Many prefer a freelance status and more cash in hand; some would rather be paid less, but have their social security costs covered… I guess everyone’s got to be flexible.” So, how much will the new law affect their company? “Frankly, I’m not quite sure…”

What is for sure is that even if €8.50 becomes the law of the land, Berlin will remain a capital of Hartz-IV and precarious employment. In the coming years, in this city’s cutthroat market, we are going to see endlessly creative means of getting around the minimum wage.

Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.


Photo: Tania Castellví

My two cents on the prostitution debate

5 Feb


“Would you like to have a sweaty old man stick his penis up your butt?”

That is what a friend asked me the last time I ventured an opinion on the Prostitutionsdebatte. That shut me up for a while (heterosexual man’s guilt), but after doing a number of interviews for the February issue of Exberliner, I’m ready for a double confession:

1. I do not want to have any kind of sex with a sweaty old man.

2. I think sex work should be socially accepted. Prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002, but the hoped-for emancipated sex worker has still not become the norm. However, I think a lot of the problems can be traced back to ongoing persecution via immigration laws and social stigmatisation.

Now don’t get me wrong, no one should have to sell their body if they don’t want to. Anyone who forces women to prostitute themselves should get the book thrown at them – there are already laws against kidnapping, assault, rape and human trafficking.

Nonetheless, statistics claiming that 95 percent of prostitutes in Germany would escape if they could can be deceptive. Not only do most of the numbers in this Debatte lack any legitimate source, but… How many cleaners would escape their jobs if they had an alternative? What if the same survey was done in a call center, in a meatpacking plant, at Lidl?

For me, sex work seems like an especially intimate way to sell one’s body compared to, say, picking items at Amazon. I would personally like to work in a brothel even less than in an Amazon warehouse. But I’ve interviewed people who prefer sex work to low-paid jobs, and to quote Pope Frank: “Who am I to judge?”

A few simple measures could help prostitutes:

  • Counseling and education. A police officer reported that pimps often tell women from Eastern Europe that prostitution is illegal in Germany so they won’t turn to the authorities for help. Exploiters benefit when the women are – or think they are – working underground. They need to know their rights.
  • Legal status for immigrants. I was shocked to learn, as reported in an interview in the February issue, that women from outside the EU who are liberated from human traffickers are given just a temporary residency permit – and then deported! Is it a surprise that more victims don’t make statements to the police?
  • Free health care for all people in Germany. It was also shocking that women who are rescued from traffickers don’t get any kind of health care (except in emergencies). How can conservative politicians express so much concern for these women and then deny them basic counseling?
  • Good jobs for everyone. It’s possible that women can’t get out of prostitution because the alternative, for many people without job qualifications, is cleaning houses for €3 an hour. This is the case for many women from Southern Europe. That’s why Germany needs a universal minimum wage.

With these measures in place, no one would have to sell their bodies.

Anyone who is against prostitution but doesn’t talk about these measures is, it seems to me, a hypocrite. That’s why I don’t trust Alice Schwarzer – who recently admitted to dodging taxes with an illegal Swiss bank account – because she talks about saving women from prostitution, but doesn’t talk about saving women from other degrading jobs, like in retail.

Researching for the new issue, I had my first long conversation with women who work in the sex industry. Both of them are specialists in different sexual techniques. Is it wrong for someone to enjoy the work of a “sexpert”, the same way we enjoy food by a master chef? Is it immoral to assist people who, due to disabilities, are unable to express themselves sexually?

There are bad conditions for many, perhaps most, sex workers in Germany. But to fight against this, we need to do the same thing we do about terrible conditions at Ikea, in cleaning, in child care, etc.: organise, form unions, fight for rights. There is a long tradition of trade union organisation of prostitutes in Germany going back to the 1920s. I think we should aim for a world, as Missy Magazine argues, where sex workers are treated like in the TV series Firefly: as respected craftspeople and not as pariahs.


Photo: Michal Andrysiak