Postcard from a Berlin building site: To escape the UK recession workers are pricing themselves into a job and out of the protection of the law, reports Steve Boggan

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The Independent Online
THE DAY they dug the dead man from the rubble was the day Watsy learned the true meaning of being a British bricklayer in Germany.

'He was pinned between a wall I had built myself the day before and a fallen crane that we had previously warned the foreman about,' Watsy said. 'We dug him out by hand but he was dead. When we got the bricks off his face, the boss saw who it was and heaved a sigh of relief. 'It's all right,' he said. 'He was only a self-employed worker'.'

Watsy is one of tens of thousands of British construction workers who have sought refuge from the British building recession by looking for 'self-employed' work in Germany, where reconstruction of the old East has brought a jobs boom.

The Department of Employment in London says as many as 6,000 British builders are working in Germany. That is based on the number of E101 forms - National Insurance exemption certificates - filled in by migrant workers to avoid paying insurance in Germany. But craftsmen in Berlin say such estimates are derisory. One sub-contractor said the figure was nearer 100,000; British Embassy officials in Berlin put it at about 40,000.

Watsy's story is impossible to verify; he didn't know the man's name and won't give his own for fear of being blacklisted by other construction sites. But his account came as no surprise to other builders at the Irish Folk Bar in Wedding, north west Berlin.

There was Spud, a 29-year-old bricklayer idolised by his workmates for managing to 'bed' a German television celebrity from an apartment overlooking his building site. There was Geordie Alan, 42, and his son Lynny, 20, who drove from Newcastle and slept in their car for five nights before finding poorly paid work as steelfitters. And there was Danny, a bricklayer, who, at 23, was experiencing the problems of many older workers. He had taken on an expensive mortgage several years ago before losing his job. He received no unemployment benefit because his lodger's rent counted as income; he had to take another lodger and move in with his parents before looking for work in Germany.

There were others, too, each with a tale of misery. And there were a few who would tell you clandestinely that they were making a lot of money.

Comparisons with the television programme Auf Wiedersehen Pet are inevitable - but the joke has gone sour.

'I was here back then and it was well paid. There were good working conditions, good accommodation and it really was a laugh,' said Geordie Alan. 'But it's not like that now. They pay as little as they can get away with. You have no rights and your accommodation is disgusting.'

Watsy, from Swindon, was lured with the promise of a job in Nuremburg. Shift payments in Britain - if he could find work - had fallen from pounds 120 to pounds 50.

'We travelled 14 hours and found that the job didn't exist,' he said. He finally found work in Berlin earning 18 German marks ( pounds 7.20) per hour and was forced to live in a room with five other people.

'When I got work on my latest site, they said they would provide accommodation,' he said. 'It arrived on the back of a lorry. It was a sea container. They shoved four of us in there with a bed each, a locker each and a two-ring stove. It's a cesspit.'

Peter Rack, who directs attempts to combat illegal employment at the German Department of Employment in Dusseldorf, said casual British workers were breaching a 1972 law aimed at banning 'labour leasing'.

Under this law, contractors who win a job tender must include their own labour as part of the cost. Those employees are then covered by employment and safety law and can earn the going rate for the job.

But then came migrant workers from Poland, Romania, Turkey, Portugal, the old East Germany and Britain, many supplied by employment agencies operating from Holland. Their subsequent 'leasing' as cheap labour is illegal.

Mr Rack estimated a sliding pay scale depending on nationality: 'Germans can get up to DM65 an hour; the British can expect DM30 to DM38 and, at the bottom, Poles get between DM7 and DM10,' he said.

The German authorities fear reputable companies will be forced to resort to cheap immigrant labour to compete. Socially, they fear unrest if foreigners are given work before Germans.

Back at the Irish Bar, speaking in hushed tones, Steven (not his real name), a Scottish sub-contractor, was having a go at the DM18 an hour 'moaners'.

'There is plenty of money to be made here - they probably spend theirs on beer,' he said. 'I supply labour and I get DM45 per man per hour. I have eight men working for me and they get paid well. I am making a fortune.'

British Embassy officials agreed with Mr Rack that the problem was steadily worsening. They deal with desperate and disillusioned workers almost every day. 'The usual complaints are that they were promised jobs that didn't exist or that they haven't been paid for work they have done, so we help them to get home,' said Stewart Attwood, head of the British consular section in Berlin.

His advice to potential economic migrants is to think twice before travelling to jobs in Germany and to accept only guaranteed work covered by health and safety insurance.

Arriving 'on spec' is not recommended. But for people such as Geordie Alan and his son and their friends at the Irish Bar, such advice may go unheeded from simple, barren necessity.

'What do you do when there is no work at home and you have a mortgage to pay?' said Geordie. 'You have to do something to earn some money. This isn't great, but it's better than anything you can get in Britain.'

(Photograph omitted)

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