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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss