Berlin rebuilt by low-wage British labour

Local building unions are worried about the impact on their wages, writes Imre Karacs in Berlin

Culture vultures should probably steer clear of the James Joyce and the Oscar Wilde. The music is loud, the conversation unpoetic, and sheer genius merely a twinkle at the bottom of a glass of Guinness.

The "Oscar" and the "James", and a string of other pubs in Berlin named after famous Irish exiles, are watering- holes for the gangs of workers from Britain and Ireland who have come to seek their fortune in the El Dorado of the building trade. Tens of thousands of Britons and Irish are labouring on Europe's biggest building site: Potsdamer Platz and the surrounding areas where the Berlin Wall once stood, and where the edifices of reunited Germany's might will soon be soaring to the sky.

The hard men building the new government quarter and the temples of commerce in the former minefields seem harmless enough but they give Germans the creeps. To put it bluntly, as the local press does: the trouble with the Brits is that they are oversexed, over here, and underpaid.

Kevin, a Glaswegian carpenteraged 34, has been in Berlin for three years, claims to have several girlfriends, and, though he will not say how much he earns, admits that people such as he get between DM22 and DM35 an hour (about pounds 9-pounds 15). That may be at least twice as much as he would be earning in Britain, but by German standards he is slave labour.

So concerned are the German trade unions that they are prepared to go on strike on Kevin's behalf. Well, perhaps not on his behalf, as they claim, but in defence of the interests of German workers who cost their employers up to DM65 an hour. The unions argue, reasonably enough, that Kevin and his pals are pricing German workers, 350,000 on the dole at the last count, out of the market.

Matters came to a head last week when the main employers' federation, the BDA, vetoed the government's proposal to introduce a minimum wage of DM18.60 an hour in the building sector. The measure would have been the first step in a series of swoops on foreign workers.

Administering the new system would have required checks on building sites, an unwelcome intrusion into the unregulated labour market. Although most Britons would clear the wage hurdle, they and their employers pay no social security contributions which boost the cost of a marginally better-paid native worker.

The BDA's unexpected veto provoked anger among unions, opposition politicians, and even some construction companies being squeezed by the smaller cowboy outfits' "wage dumping". IG Bau, the building workers' union, had only just agreed to a tiny pay rise in return for the minimum wage, and is now dropping dark hints of conflict between foreigners and Germans on the sites.

"My colleagues are absolutely furious," said Klaus Wiesehugel, leader of IG Bau. "And some have said to me: 'We must take matters into our own hands when no one else is prepared to help us.' "

Help will not be forthcoming in a hurry. Too much prestige and too many vested interests are attached to the soon-to-be-restored capital being completed by 1999 at the prices tendered. Without foreign workers, the cost overruns would be huge, and Kevin thinks the native workers would not be up to the task. "In the Communist regime it took four people to do one man's job," he says. "This is still East Germany. The German man is not good enough to do the amount of work I do."

Whatever their relative merits, it is true a unionised German worker would not do Kevin's 50-hour week and, when the temperature dropped to -15 degrees last winter, the Germans did not emerge from the canteen.

Driven from home by unemployment or low wages, the foreign workers must abide by the rules of the game: no paid holidays, no sick leave, no social security, and not even a guarantee that they will get paid at the end of the week. Paul, another Scottish carpenter arrived here six months ago. Unable to find work at home, he came to Berlin, where his mates assured him the roads were paved with gold. Finding a job was easy enough: the Irish pubs act as an informal labour exchange, with vacancies advertised by word of mouth. It did not work out. "First job I was here I got ripped off," he says. "Six weeks I worked and they didn't give me any money."

Kevin estimates he is owed DM6,000, money he will never recover from the crooks who prey on foreigners. Their victims, illegal or semi-legal workers, are in no position to sue.

More time-honoured traditions for settling scores in the building trade are also inadvisable. "One of my friends is on the run because he beat up a subcontractor," says Paul, who concluded long ago that the only sensible response to such adversity was to "pack your bags and move on".

But there are some who cannot cope with penury, and take to shoplifting, the bottle, or worse. "There's a small number who can't handle Berlin, and they get fucked up with booze and drugs," says Kevin.

Yet, despite the difficulties, Kevin has no intention of going home, and Paul is settling in nicely. He has just moved into a small flat with plenty of his mates. "It's a shithouse," he says. "But it's better than what I had in England."

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