Accusation of social abuse: scrounging in german

Immigrant workers picking up Hartz IV in Germany? Not at all. Social abuse does not take place with them, but with German enterprises.

It’s not the migrants who are greedy, but German companies. Image: Getty

The European elections have shown it: politicians in Germany try to score points with keywords like "poverty migration" or "social abuse." "Who cheats, flies," the CSU had pithily formulated. They were referring primarily to migrant workers from Eastern European countries.

Shortly before the European elections, Angela Merkel decided to play this card as well. Europe, said the chancellor in a newspaper interview, is not a social union and one does not want to pay Hartz IV for EU citizens who are in Germany solely for the purpose of looking for work.

Social abuse, it is insinuated, takes place on the part of migrant workers. However, this view of things has little to do with reality. There is another way of looking at the matter of social abuse. This takes a look at those companies that make a profit by socially abusing migrant workers; companies that are based in Germany.

In Hamburg, for example. There, a young couple from Romania comes to the "Fair Mobility" counseling center and tells their story: Both had managed to find a job in a factory at the port. They pack goods and prepare packages for shipment. But when they receive their first pay slip, they notice that hours they have worked are not listed. On top of that, there are unreasonable deductions for housing and transportation to work. If they complain, they are threatened with dismissal.

The whole thing has a system: The statements are not correct in the following months either. Shortly before the end of the six-month probationary period, they are then fired and have to immediately leave the apartment that the employer has rented for them. At the job center, the couple is told: They have to present the rental contract for an apartment and a police registration, only then can they be granted benefits. But an apartment is not to be found so quickly. When the couple’s financial resources are exhausted, they return to Romania. The adventure in Germany has failed, they have only paid the price.

Exploitation by German companies

More than a few migrant workers from Central and Eastern European EU countries have experienced similar situations in the German labor market. Their stories show how systematically some German companies exploit immigrants.

Harvest workers sometimes receive significantly less than 4 euros per hour, and that for a 15-hour day. Construction workers, the last link in the subcontractor spiral, are being deprived of their wages. Not only the BER airport was partly built by migrant workers who were not paid. New hotel buildings in Frankfurt’s chic Europaviertel also made the headlines with this exploitation practice.

Quite incidentally, such practices cheat the state out of taxes and social security contributions. It is social abuse that the companies can afford unhindered. No one talks about it. That is the real scandal.

Resentment is stirred up

Now, at the beginning of June, a law of the Ministry of the Interior is to be passed in the cabinet, which will impose a re-entry ban on migrants who have allegedly wrongly received Hartz IV. There is sweeping talk of "poverty migration" and even of "social tourism. Resentment is being stoked against migrants, especially from Romania and Bulgaria, who have only had full freedom of movement in the EU since the beginning of the year.

The debate surrounding this bill gives the impression that a large proportion of the 72,000 people who came to Germany from Romania and Bulgaria in 2013 were only after Hartz IV benefits.

After all, 25 years after the fall of the Wall, the GDR should be history – but it lives on in the fields of eastern Germany. Read how a cartel of old SED comrades has secured huge areas of land in the taz.am wochenende of May 31/June 1, 2014. Also: Christian Lindner wants to revive the FDP and is asking for time. But does he have it? And: The colors are bright, life flickers. A day at the outdoor pool. At the kiosk, eKiosk or in a practical weekend subscription.

It doesn’t matter that the facts at hand suggest a completely different interpretation of reality. For example, in a recent answer to a Green Party question, the federal government had stated that there were only 112 cases of suspected social benefit fraud by citizens from Romania (74) and Bulgaria (38) in the nationwide police crime statistics for 2012.

And the Federal Employment Agency (BA) stated in April that there is currently no evidence that a noteworthy number of immigrants from these countries apply for Hartz IV benefits shortly after arriving in Germany. Rather, a special evaluation by the BA shows that, compared to other population groups, an above-average number of Hartz IV recipients from Romania and Bulgaria are not unemployed at all, but at most have to supplement their insufficient salaries with state assistance. This is another way in which Germany subsidizes low wages paid by employers.

No generous benefits

Moreover, practitioners from counseling centers know that the assumption that competent German authorities generously award benefits to unemployed EU citizens is wrong. On the contrary, it turns out that not only those who have not yet worked in Germany de facto do not receive benefits, but often those who would be entitled to support under both national and EU law also go empty-handed.

Thus, those who do not speak German are not even handed an application for ALG II in many job centers. And if the decision on the application drags on for months, many migrant workers – like the Romanian couple – have no choice but to return to their home country.

Companies know of many repressive ways to deprive migrant workers of fair wages: Wage dumping, in which minimum wages are circumvented, for example, through bogus self-employment. Or wage fraud, where wages are not paid or unpaid overtime is forced. They also often deduct excessive amounts for mass housing and transportation to work. It is also clear that neither taxes nor social security contributions are deducted from unpaid wages.

Exploitation as a lucrative business idea

Due to their often poor knowledge of the German language, migrant workers are rarely in a position to defend themselves against wage fraud or unlawful dismissal. No government agency can help them collect their outstanding wages, and it is almost impossible for them to go through the legal process. This is precisely what some entrepreneurs are counting on. Since there is usually not much to fear under criminal law for simple wage fraud, the exploitation of migrant workers is an extremely lucrative business idea.

The public debate about the exploitation of migrant workers has at least led to some sectors of the economy coming under the spotlight. In the meat industry, for example, entire sectors have been permanently handed over to foreign contract labor companies in order to save on labor costs and social security contributions. The media attention has contributed to the fact that a minimum wage will finally be introduced in the meat industry as of July 1.

What remains incomprehensible, however, is that mass tax, social security and wage fraud plays virtually no role in the public debate.

Populist debates that blanketly accuse immigrants of social abuse are not only incendiary, but also distract attention from the much larger problem: social abuse and wage dumping by companies.

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