When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

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

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.


Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

Keep reading...Show less

The latest