Immigrant Workers' Struggle - Strike At Supplier Sweatshop March 2001
The Struggle of the Vemiko Workers at Satzvey near Euskirchen, Germany, in January/February 2001
Since last summer a turn in EU and German migration policies can be seen: industry demands higher numbers of immigrant workers for a larger potential of cheap labor (see article below on the immigration debate). During the restructuring of shops in the last twenty years ever more departments of production had been outsourced, handed over to subcontractors and shifted away into sweatshops. There is skillful subsidising of precarious hiring through temp agencies. The wage differences inside Germany are to be further spanned, and especially the lowest wages for unskilled jobs are to be lowered. At the moment they are still around 70 per cent of the average wages, which for the government and bosses appears way too high in international comparison (e.g., USA: 30 per cent). Since years entrepreneurs demand to build up a low wage sector, and for this they need a new wave of immigration.
Thus, workers in the old "factories" are being put under pressure to work more intensively for lower wages and fringe benefits. In the outsourced departments, mainly workers with unsecure legal status are being exploited under precarious conditions. Since there are no collectively agreed regulations by unions, their situation is hardly being noticed. Even when there are conflicts, only accidently one will hear about it - as in the case described here. We estimate it is no single incident. In »Illegal in Deutschland" (Karlsruhe 1999) by Jörg Alt, the diverse methods of not paying wages as well as the resistance against that are being described: from strike to sabotage to forceful recovery. With the shift towards an increased labor immigration there will be more of such conflicts in the years to come. And here lies the perspective that such struggles may overcome their isolation and produce impulses for a broader uprising against exploitation.
The small conflict in a provincial place near Bonn has raised the whole spectrum of questions that we are confronted with in this segment of exploitation:
- Is there a perspective of expansion in these struggles - or will they get stuck in their isolation?
- How do different factions of the working class behave towards each other?
- Which positions do refugee support groups take in such struggles?
- What is the role of the unions and the state labor bureaucracy in these conflicts?
- Most of all: what can we do to support such struggles or establish connections amongst them?
Multinational Staff And Exploitation Of The Asylum Claimant Status
Euskirchen is a small industrial town near Bonn. There, in an industrial aera, firms like household appliances producer Miele or the pet food processing NestlÇ daughter Latz/Friskies have their factories. In the recent years, packing and preassembling jobs have been outsourced. today, they are being performed in small shops with remakrably worse working conditions. One of them is the firm Vemiko in Satzvey, a little village about ten kilometers from Euskirchen. Until summer 2000, the firm's name used to be Nickipack which was probably changed into Vemiko for financial reasons. The legal structure is unclear. Contracts with ordering firms are being signed not by Vemiko, but by one firm Logiserv. Shortly before it became clear that Vemiko couldn't pay, the company management had stuffed all machinery in the shop with stickers "Logiserv" in order to be able to exclude them from the bankrupt assets. Those are the usual tricks to extract a maximum of personal profit without running too big a risk.
In production, the firm employs nearly exclusively foreigners without a guaranteed legal status, many are still amidst their asylum claiming procedure. They come from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Maroc, Kosovo/Albania, Turkey; a third are women, in production we only met two German men. Also the foremen's jobs are being held by foreigners, depending on seniority and adjusted behaviour. The local Dole Office has a special regulation for this shop: foreign workers get a work permit at once without the firm having to look for workers from Germany or another EU country first, as is normally the rule.
Summer last year over a hundred people are said to have worked at Vemiko, in January 2001, shortly before the conflicts, there were about 70 left. Even though the job is shitty, many workers accept daily driving times of several hours to work here. They say, it's very difficult to find other legal jobs. Some of them have been working in the shop for years.
Piece-wages, Slavedriving and Wage Cheating
The Vemiko company consists of a big hall that - for economical reasons - has no heating. There is only a small number of machines for the work, most of the jobs are manual labor: assemble dogs' bones and pick them, fill dry food for the cats, put sweets into boxes, preassemble parts for vacuum cleaner motors. The pay is piece-wages, i.e., for every job a price in Pfennigen per piece will be set (sometimes only after the job has been done) and the wages can vary pretty much. In extreme cases, they say, it was so shitty that they'd only get something like 20 or 30 DM a day (9$ or 14$), and there was constant conflict around the piece-wages. Furthermore, often the numbers calculated by the firm did not correspond with the numbers noted down by the workers themselves. They regularly protested such incorrect pay slips. In average, though, they reached 1.500 to 2.000 DM (ca. 700$ to 900$) net wages a month.
According to the job contracts, the wages are due to be paid on the 15th of the following month, but even this late deadline was hardly ever kept by Vemiko. One further way of wage reduction, because the workers had to regularly take up credits to e.g. be able to pay their rents. As early as September 2000 the workers had once stopped production because of delayed wage payments, but outside of the shop nobody learned about this.
Workers' Struggle And Humanitarian Aid
Again in January 2001, wages were not paid in time. A note announced the payment of the wages (always by cheque or cash, which the workers find discriminating) for Friday, January 19. But on Friday, a new note hung in the corridor, saying the payment could only be done on Monday or Tuesday. Noone from the management was to be seen. Around 2 p.m. they therefore stopped work; normally they worked until 4 or 5 p.m., according to the work-rate.
During the weekend, one of the workers contacted a refugee support group, member of the regional refugee council, whose speaker met the workers Monday morning in front of the shop. According to press reports (Kölner Stadtanzeiger, Eifelausgabe, Jan. 23, 2001) he asked the workers to be calm and called upon them to go back to work, since a wildcat strike could have legal consequences. Even on a strictly judicial level this was overwrought: in the case of delayed payment of wages there is a right to refuse to work, of which the boss is only to be informed explicitly and formally.
On a political level, this behaviour is fatal. The caring paternalism advises the workers to delegate their problems to the authorities and thus sabotages any attempt to develop their own struggle. Instead of thinking about how the workers could by themselves put up pressure and inform the public of their cause, the refugee support group approached the local Dole Office and the unions, without reaching any success. Towards the press they "threatened" to maybe institute bankruptcy proceedings.
The company's boss Peter Wassong announced for the next day, Tuesday, 23rd of January, a part payment that with 200 DM (ca. 90$) turned out very moderate. At this point, obviously, the workers didn't manage anymore to reach a common behaviour facing this provocation. A part of them wanted to strike, others were afraid to lose their jobs. Some of them, then, just went home or to the Welfare Office to get money for their rents, others continued to work. In the end, here already the perspective of a common struggle was gone. Until this moment, there had been no support whatsoever that encouraged them to organise a concerted action despite their multinational composition and the great distances between their apartments. All of the German supporters that seems »competent" to them, only pointed out to rely on the marvellous German legal system - which unfortunately in such cases has not much to offer except the inevitable individualisation of the conflict.
The payment of the rest of the wages had been promised for the following Friday, but this time, too, there was no money coming. As a result, again the workers went on strike. Even though they had not succeeded a continuing strike, they were much clearer about where it was at and where to deliver a blow than their German supporters. They had, e.g., discussed the danger of layoffs before the conflict started, and there was the proposal to go on strike altogether as soon as the first person got sacked. An attitude of solidarity hard to find amongst trade-unionists or factory committee members to whom the rules of the law for the protection against layoffs has become a second nature!
They were as well clear about the points where they could effectively apply pressure: this was the preassembling for Miele, because it was an integral part of the whole Miele production. Often, some of them had been sent to the Miele factory in Euskirchen to do some touching-up on the parts, and so they knew the production run there. From workers there they also knew that over a hundred Miele workers in the vacuum cleaner production couldn't go on working when there was a disruption of production at Vemiko. All in all about ten people of Vemiko worked for this preassembling. So, some of them went to the Miele management and confronted them with the problem of unpaid wages.
Miele cared so much for their cauum cleaner motors, that on January 26, they paid the workers of the Miele line at Vemiko (and inadvertently some others, too) the missing wages and even promised, that nobody would be laid off. In the end, Miele know exactly what they get out of the low wages in sweatshops like Vemiko, and they didn't want to endanger their own production through a disruption of the motor assembling. It is in situations like these, when the construct of main and supplier companies collapses and it becomes obvious that it is about one production process and exploitation by the same capital. But when in such situations ordering firms like Miele take over responsibility for a short time, they thereby try to keep up the split of the workers inside these supplier chains. One of the Vemiko workers, when asking for a job with Miele after he had been fired, he was sent away...
Layoffs, Occupation And Bankruptcy Proceedings
The following Monday, January 29, the first seven workers were fired. They were those who had been going to Miele and also had got noticed as speakers during the other conflicts. The unrest in the shop, though, didn't vanish. Further lay-offs followed. For some days, production was being kept up by scabs from a friendly sweatshop in the neighboring village. On February 6, furious workers prevent the boss from leaving his office, since the December wages (!) haven't been paid out yet. He has to be escorted out of the shop by the police.
Two days later, an official receiver was ordered to investigate the company. On a meeting on February 14, this receiver asked the leftover thirty workers to keep on working and promised to save the shop. He said he was looking for a new owner. On March 1, the bankruptcy proceedings were opened up, which means that the lawsuits about the wages and against the layoffs are suspended. All workers, including the fired ones, can now claim "bankruptcy compensation" [Konkursausfallgeld] from the Dole Office.
Problems Of Solidarity
Twice during the three weeks of conflict, in Euskirchen and in front of the shops Vemiko is producing for, leaflets were handed out to inform about the situation of the workers there. In the beginning you could even walk into the shop to talk with the workers. After a bigger group visited Vemiko on February 2 and which the workers enjoyed, Vemiko had the gate controlled by guards. Outside of the shop we only had contact to workers that already had been laid off and filed lawsuits against the firm.
With the leaflet that we document here we most of all wanted to attract the attention of the workers in the ordering firms towards the situation in the supplier sweatshop and the actions of the workers there. The leaflet was being taken, but as we had expected, there were no special reactions to it. It became clear that - despite the reports in the regional press - most hadn't heard of the conflict yet. Some workers who we were able to talk with at the change of shifts expressed their sympathy and complained about the entrepreneurs' wickedness. In front of the Miele factory, even a factory committee member came out and appreciated »the help for the weak," but he didn't like the fact that the good name Miele was connected to the exploitation at Vemiko, when at Miele everything was in "order".
By their short wildcat strikes, Vemiko workers have shown that they are able to fight even though "objectively" the odds were against them: the state with its dividing immigration laws; the trade-unions with their statutory regulations and their monopoly of representation; the groups of political supporters with their paternalising concept of the "refugees" as victims needing help.
We can only support such struggles when we understand the situation of these workers, what they do themselves, what ideas they have and how they organise themselves. It is only in this self-activity that we can find starting points for an expansion of the struggles, because in it, unlike with the trade-union negotiation rituals, other workers can recognise themselves and the possibilities of acting on their own.