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Exploited truckers in the EU: Resistance is an option

Photo taken by the author

Most of the time strikes are about pay raises. But here it was different: Close to Frankfurt, Germany 62 truck drivers from Georgia and Uzbekistan had been on strike for weeks, because they had not been paid according to their contract. It was a difficult fight, but the strikers won. This victory is not only relevant for the 62 truckers themselves, but for other migrant workers as well – and even for the whole working class of Germany.

What is happening in Gräfenhausen …

The Polish company conglomerate Mazur has refused to pay the truck drivers their wages according to their contracts since last fall. The truckers’ wages were reduced by one daily wage per week. For this reason more than 100 truckers have participated in strike activities in the last weeks – in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. The only strike assembly that lasted for a longer time was the one at the highway rest area of Gräfenhausen close to the city of Frankfurt and right next to Darmstadt. The first truck drivers went on strike there in the end of March. Over time more of their colleagues have joined them. The strike has not been led by unions – it was primarily self-organized. Still, important support came, among others, from the German Union Federation (DGB) and the Dutch Union Federation (FNV). Due to the pressure Mazur finally paid the truckers at the end of April, all 303.363,36 euros that the company owed them. This is a notable victory if we take a look at the broader picture.

Most of the truck drivers were from Georgia, some were from Uzbekistan. Usually they have decided to work in Europe to support their families financially. In the Caucasus and in Central Asia the economic situation is difficult and the prospect for well-paid jobs is not good. That is why many people from both regions migrate to Russia or work there a couple of months per year as underpaid workers. For many it seems to be more promising to work in the European Union (EU). But the reality of the EU’s labor market does not match the picture that the EU tries to paint of itself – least of all for migrant workers.

The 62 truck drivers from Gräfenhausen worked for a Polish company, but drove on German streets. In addition, they were not officially employed by the company, but were self-employed on paper. In this way the Polish company avoided paying the minimum wage. The truckers have been paid 70 to 89 euro per work day, while a work day was up to 15 hours long. This can result in an hourly wage of 4,67 euro, although the German minimum wage per hour is 12 euros. This way companies save around 5.000 euros per year in comparison to a driver who they would pay minimum wage.

The company reduced the truckers’ wages by charging them for example 700 euros per month “for damages and violations [in traffic]”, a fee for the “processing of orders”, 450 euros per year for an apparently invalid health insurance and their first monthly salary was retained as a deposit. In addition, the drivers simply did not get paid when they were sick. Under these circumstances it is hardly possible to support the family back home financially as the truckers had intended before starting to work for the company. As if that were not enough, Mazur had refused to pay some drivers any wage since February. That is what led 62 workers to strike.

Now, it is not often the case that truck drivers decide to fight back collectively against their blatant exploitation like those in Gräfenhausen did and during the recent strike there were other drivers who continued working instead of joining the collective struggle – hoping that the company would pay them the wage at some point. This is understandable because the truckers are in a very difficult situation. Regarding this the colleagues from Gräfenhausen deserved and deserve even more respect and support.

Photo taken by the author. The case Gräfenhausen receives attention internationally, among others from Poland, France, Greece, Italy, Korea and of course from the drivers’ countries of origin.

A key reason why the Gräfenhausen case received so much attention in Germany and internationally was the fact that Mazur sent a paramilitary unit to Gräfenhausen on 7th of April. It included an armored vehicle, a patrol car, and men in bulletproof vests – at least by looks. This paramilitary unit belongs to the Polish private detective agency Rutkowski which already has a bad reputation for years, among other reasons because it had been accused of kidnapping. When the thugs were unable to take away the trucks through intimidation they turned to force. In the end they only managed to take away one of them. The strikers were able to defend the other trucks until the police came

After they were paid, many of the truckers returned home. It was barely imaginable for the truckers to return to Poland after their strike – to continue working for Mazur is not an option anyway. Obviously Mazur considers violence as an acceptable means toward its profits. If the drivers drove for the company again and were separated from each other, it would be easier for Mazur and his thugs to take revenge for the strike. In addition, Mazur tried to sue the truckers, because the company said they withheld the trucks. Besides that the strikers had difficulties with their residence status. 

… is the normal state (in capitalism)

The outrage for the Gräfenhausen case was big and that is good. But the spotlight should not only be on Mazur and its Wild West methods. Not every company is crazy enough to bring in paramilitary units. But the working conditions of the colleagues who have been on strike are nevertheless nothing special in the logistics sector – even if the majority of the population of Germany does not know about this situation.

It is often the case that migrant workers in the end do not get the wage that was promised to them when they were hired. In addition, companies often take money from the workers for various reasons: for the job mediation, for housing, for the transport to Germany, for organizing the documents and so on.

This is the normal state for migrant workers in different sectors in Germany. Many of them work in logistics, in construction, in agriculture, in the meat industry and in industry. A critical special case of migrant work is domestic care where mainly women work.

The exploitation of all workers is the basis of capitalism. The notion of exploitation means in short that workers create more wealth than what they get paid via their wage. Capitalism cannot function in any other way, because otherwise companies would not make profit. The profit of the companies and the exploitation of the workers are two sides of the same coin. While all workers are exploited in capitalism, migrant workers are usually exploited even more, they are hyperexploited. In numbers: Workers who are not German citizens get paid 26% less than workers who are German citizens – for workers from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea it is even 42% less.

The possibility of this hyperexploitation is based on the fact that migrants are in a weaker position. Reasons for this vulnerable position include the following: The workers do not speak the country’s language well yet, they do not know the country well and are disoriented, their residence status is connected to a specific job, the legal situation is more uncertain for migrants, they are rarely organized and integrated into unions, they do not have strong social networks that can support them in the case of problems, and so on. As long as the economy is about profit, as long as capitalism rules, companies will try to take advantage of the vulnerable position of migrants and they will try to overexploit them. Everything else would contradict the companies’ profit interest and would weaken them in the competition against other companies. Capitalism can realistically not exist without this racist exploitation and without racist inequality.

Another aspect that makes the hyperexploitation of migrant labor easier are the legal regulations regarding work and the labor market. The existing working or exploitation conditions had to be created politically in the first place. That is exactly what all parties that have ruled in Germany on a national level in the last 25 years have done – SPD, Greens, CDU and FDP. A key point was and is the expansion of precarious employment relationships. For workers, precarious work means more insecurity and less money. For capital precarious work means more profit, because it can exploit the workers more intensely and it can use their workforce more flexibly. Examples of precarious employment relationships are temporary employment, involuntary part-time jobs and contract work. Through contract work companies can avoid paying the wage according to the collective agreement by employing workers who work for another company on paper.

Capital and the political representatives of its interests have managed to establish the biggest low-wage sector in Europe in Germany. Almost 25% of the workers are in this low-wage sector, and thus get a wage that makes it difficult for them to make a living. The low-wage sector is an important pillar of the dominance of German capital and the German state in Europe. Migrants get paid low-wages more often than German citizens. It becomes clear that migrant workers are essential for German capitalism – in the past it was the so-called Gastarbeiter (guest workers), today it is mainly migrant workers from Eastern Europe and refugees.

So, Gräfenhausen was no accident. It is an example of the cruel normal state, from which big capital benefits. The truckers said they transport goods for companies like Bosch, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Ikea and Amazon, while truckers also showed products from General Electric when they were in Gräfenhausen.

A fight in the interest of the whole class

A large low-wage sector makes it possible for capital to press down wages. The less the worst paid workers get, the easier it is for capital to also lower the wages of other workers. We as a class are thus weakened, even if only a part of our class is exploited to a particularly high degree. Therefore it is in the interest of the whole working class to fight the low-wage sector and raise the wage level.

It is similar with precarious work: Capital has the interest to expand precarious work and to intensify it. In the last decades it has been shown that precarious work spreads in different sectors – even if it only exists in certain sub-sectors. It is in our class’s interest to push back precarious work in the whole economy, even if it only affects some of us at first. The strikers from Gräfenhausen made a small but important contribution to this.

The fight was not only about the wage. It was also a fight against the working conditions in logistics and against the overexploitation of migrant workers. Partly the strikers said this themselves: “We are not only standing here for our families […] We also do this for all the drivers who are in similar situations.” But also independently from what the striking colleagues’ stated motivations were, they showed that workers can stand up united. Strikes like the one in Gräfenhausen do not happen often in logistics – just like in other sectors where companies tend to overexploit migrant labor. The fight of our colleagues in Gräfenhausen can thus be an inspiring example for other truck drivers, but also more broadly for workers in sectors with similar exploitation conditions.

Photo taken by the author: The Georgian drivers were forced to celebrate Easter on the highway rest stop. The muslim colleagues from Uzbekistan also spent most of Ramadan, including Eid, at the highway rest stop.

Companies like Mazur know that examples of resistance like this are dangerous for them, because they can motivate other colleagues to also fight back against bad working conditions collectively. For this reason we can assume that Mazur’s paramilitary intervention should also show other truck drivers: “Violence is an option for us. Don’t even think about resisting!” But even here the case is not a complete exception: it often happens that migrant workers are confronted with intimidation and violence.

The Gräfenhausen strikers got much support from German unions and other organizations and persons. In practice this meant different things, from food supply to legal advice to organizing barbecues. Gräfenhausen is a good example of how strike solidarity can be organized practically. The striking colleagues were impressed and thankful.

The left in Germany can learn from the strike and the strike solidarity of the recent case and try to support similar fights in the future. They can help draw more attention to cases like the Gräfenhausen one and the left can make clear what relevance the fight has for the whole class. Outrage for this kind of cases is good, but it is even better, when larger parts of our class become conscious, that fights of migrant workers are in the interest of the whole class. Besides that the left can organizationally and financially support this kind of fights.

Photo taken by the author: The truckers were supported by the German Union Federation (DGB) and its unions, but also by other political groups.

The political left can and should fight precarious work, the low-wage sector and the hyperexploitation of migrant workers – on the shop floor, through unions and on the political level. The legal regulations have to change to oppose the division of our class and improve the conditions for our struggle. The left should of course demand this kind of legal change. Nevertheless, the left should be careful with its concrete demands. For example, to call for stricter control by the state can also have a not intended effect: In the case of unregistered employment often workers get criminalized and arrested, like recently when more than 30 construction workers got arrested. In cases like this the affected workers get more problems with the state than the companies that exploited them under illegal conditions. For this reason the left in Germany should consider the concrete circumstances and consequences of its demands.

Photo taken by the author: After the unions’ march for International Workers’ Day in Darmstadt, the union activists sent greetings to their colleagues from Georgia and Uzbekistan. They shouted “Schachmatt” (“checkmate”) like the strikers did after their victory.

The left in Germany now at least discusses how capitalism and racism are connected – here Bafta Sarbo and Eleonora Roldán Mendívil made an important contribution with their book The Diversity of Exploitation. But it is also important to connect theory and practice. This means on the one hand to use the theoretical insights for the practical political work. And on the other hand it means to use practical experiences to develop analysis and strategy. This means much work. But it is necessary because to bring together anti-racism and class struggle is a crucial task to reach fundamental social change in Germany, Europe and beyond. Here also international connections between union activists and left organizations can play an important role.

Minoas Andriotis is an activist of the German service union Ver.di