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