In Munich, Where Immigrant Workers Hawk Themselves By The Day

Downtown Munich
Downtown Munich
Alexandra Reinsberg

MUNICH - In central Munich an Arbeiterstrich is a crossroads where day laborers from southeastern Europe hang around waiting for low-paid work. Some say they are modern-day slaves, ready to take whatever job comes along, even at the risk of not getting paid.

All Ilya* has to offer is his physical strength. "I don’t give a sh*t what kind of work it is. I’ll do anything," he says. For four days, the 24-year-old Bulgarian has been milling around the corners of Landwehr and Goethe Streets, near Munich’s main train station.

At six o’clock in the morning, the Arbeiterstrich that some call the Tagelöhnermarkt (Day Laborers’ Market) is the only busy place. The asphalt is still wet from the previous night’s rain, and gleams as the first rays of sun hit it. The owner of a kebab shop is cranking down his awning.

Some men sit on chairs drinking coffee. Ilya and a few others stand nearby. There are three other men across the street. A few of them are wearing red T-shirts, gifts from ver.di, one of Germany’s largest trade unions. The backs of the shirts read: "Good People, Good Work, Good Money." The men sit, lean, squat -- positions best suited to long waits. What they do day after day is wait for someone to show up and hire them, for their cell phones to ring.

Having used up all his money, Ilya has just spent another sleepless night in the park. He arrived in Munich four days ago. Like nearly everyone else here, he comes from the region of Pazardzhik, a town of 78,000 inhabitants in central Bulgaria, where those of Turkish origin, like Ilya, are discriminated against. He had heard about these German day laborers' markets and decided to take his chances.

Every large German city has its own day laborers' market. According to local police and the Initiative for Civil Courage, the Munich market has been around for at least five years. Each day the number of men waiting for a job is different: sometimes five, sometimes 20. In Bavaria’s affluent capital, the usual pay is 10 euros an hour, Ilya says. In Cologne, where he worked on a construction site, he was only earning 7. That’s why he’s back in Munich.

By now there are 20 men milling about. They say Merhaba to each other: "hello" in Turkish. Some of them spent the night at friends’ homes; some crammed in eight to a room at a hostel; others, like Ilya, slept outdoors.

"It’s a struggle for survival," says Michaela Ostermeier of ver.di. "These people need money so desperately they don’t care about working conditions." Overtime, double shifts, no breaks, no protective clothing, no contracts or safety nets -- all fine with the workers as long as they get paid.

A reporter trying to uncover the day-laborer-to-employer chain comes up against a wall. All that lawyers, the Initiative for Civil Courage, the police and the unions know is that employers are usually subcontractors of subcontractors who leave no traces and are often abroad.

Shadowy practices

Seven a.m. Still no potential employers. A street-cleaning machine sprays the sidewalks, and the men dash out of the way. Now the sidewalk is cleaner than they are.

The men can wash and eat at the Haneberghaus homeless shelter on Königsplatz. Ilya heads there now, passing elegant boutiques and hotels on the way. In the center’s lounge he helps himself to a cup of tea and three heaping teaspoons of sugar. He takes off his jacket, revealing tattoos on his arm and neck. He tattooed himself, he says, with a contraption he built out of guitar string and a motor. What do the tattoos say? Ilya is illiterate. "It’s just some screwy stuff,” he replies, grinning.

Hussein* doesn’t go to the homeless shelter. He sneaks into a hostel and takes a shower there. The 49-year-old is wearing a white linen shirt, and his graying hair has just been trimmed. "Gotta look good on the streets of Europe," he jokes.

A Turkish friend has been lending the trained bricklayer money, because Hussein is still waiting to be paid the 1,680 euros he earned for 10 days’ work on a construction site. Good money -- except he’s not getting it. Even if Hussein had the money to pay a lawyer, he would not stand much chance of getting paid. Employers with no intention of paying use tried-and-true methods, like going underground or declaring bankruptcy. Jurists argue that this sort of thing can be stopped only if the big firms behind a construction project are made responsible for their subcontractors. But they are not, so the shadowy practices continue.

At the sight of the police, the workers disperse. The police show up "every five minutes," according to Hussein. "Alle fünf Minuten" is one of the few German phrases he knows. In Turkish, he goes on to say that a friend of his was searched, right there on the sidewalk, underwear and all. Another man says the police destroyed his passport. "I won’t be able to get back into Bulgaria now." The police contest these claims. Raids are an exception, they say, conducted only when they suspect something big is going on, like drug dealing.

Meanwhile a man with a jackhammer has started ripping up the street, but the men do not try to avoid the dust this creates. The expression on their faces is one of resignation; there are still no employers in sight. The owner of the kebab place chases four men away. "They sit around for hours on my chairs and slow business down," he says. One of the men calls out, "What kind of a country is this where you don’t get paid for your work and are chased off the streets?"

Four days later, same street corner, late afternoon. Six Bulgarians are standing around. At the arrival of Mustafa*, a Turk who came to Germany 37 years ago, the men wake from their lethargy. He is the first potential employer of the day. He usually needs a few guys to work in his demolition business. "But only if they have a specialist trade license, a Gewerbeschein. I don’t want any problems," he says. However, he has no work for the men today.

It’s getting dark. The men begin to disperse, picking up their few belongings stuffed into backpacks and shopping bags, heading off to find a place to spend the night. They’ll be back tomorrow.

*not his real name

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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