To Germany? No thanks!

Up to 5,000 seasonal workers from Georgia were supposed to help the local farmers with the harvest last year. But only a few came – because some fellow compatriots warned of the exploitation and conditions in this country.

(…) Again and again he told of his trust in Germany, of the hope for a fair wage for hard work, of the flight he paid for himself – and of the fiasco on a strawberry farm on Lake Constance. Again and again, one sentence emerges: “They cheated us all along the line.”Chakhanidze, a muscular man of 30, has been working as a fruit seller since before his trip to Germany. But now he has to pay off debts to acquaintances with the little income he has. According to Tschatschanidse, he earned so little in Germany that the money was not even enough for his return ticket.Around 275,000 seasonal workers help out in German agriculture every year, many of them from Eastern Europe. Poland, Romania, Ukraine, farmers recruit their labour ever further east. There, where poverty is greater and the willingness to work under adverse conditions abroad is higher.But from Georgia, where poverty is great and prospects are few, hardly anyone has come. For the first time this year, up to 5,000 Georgians would have picked asparagus, cucumbers, apples or strawberries in Germany. That is the plan of a placement agreement between Germany and Georgia announced by the Federal Employment Agency at the beginning of 2021. Within a few days, 80,000 Georgians are said to have applied, and the asparagus associations rejoiced. Now, after the season, the employment agency sends an incomparably lower number: just 300 Georgians were there. And Jemal Chakhanidze may have had his share in that.

A debate throughout the country

Because Chakhanidze and his colleagues did not put up with the precarious working conditions, because they shot videos, called journalists and trade unionists, because it all became a big public debate in Georgia, many of his compatriots probably stayed at home – instead of toiling in German fields.”Georgians have seen that Germany is not a paradise,” says a Georgian trade unionist about the scandal the reports have caused in Georgia.”Many Georgians have said, no, not under these conditions,” confirms a consultant in Germany who has supported Georgian workers.”I think it has to do with the fact that people now know the real situation,” says Chakhanidze. (…)

Jemal Tschatschanidze says he learned about the agreement between Germany and Georgia on television, that was in March 2021. He applied to the responsible state agency in Georgia, got an employment contract, he bought a flight ticket for just under 400 euros and landed in Munich on 9 May. He documented almost every step of his long journey on Facebook.


He trusted Germany

(…) But Tschatschanidze describes the following six weeks on the strawberry farm as a trauma. “Even the arrival was a shock for me,” he says. In dilapidated containers, the 24 workers from Georgia were supposed to sleep close together in worn bunk beds, in the toilet room the floor was broken through, only centimetres in front of the window there was a thick wall. Sewage was flowing behind the containers. It stinks, the workers say in one of the videos in which they documented everything. They are available to DIE ZEIT. “I could never have imagined anything like this,” says Tschatschanidze. “I don’t even want to use the words that come to mind for it.”


400 euros in six weeks

Just under 400 euros in six weeks. Tschatschanidze had hoped for around 2,500 euros for this time. He had a contract, after all. “I came to work,” he says. “Strength I had, and it is clear that I had come to earn money.” But the money was not even enough for his expenses in Germany: “I had to ask acquaintances to lend me money.”

Jemal Tschatschanidze and his colleagues are not the first seasonal workers to fight exploitation in Germany. This becomes clear when talking to counselling centres, translating social media posts or opening up local newspapers.

Lawsuits are also being filed in other sectors

Workers going on strike. In the spring of 2020, 200 Romanians went on strike at an asparagus farm in the Rhineland. A year later, meat workers at the slaughter giant Vion in Bremen, Brandenburg or Upper Bavaria and at the head butcher Tönnies in Weißenfels in Saxony-Anhalt went on strike. Afterwards, there was a minimum wage in the meat industry for the first time: 10.80 euros per hour. By 2023 it is to be 12.30 euros.

The workers are also going to court. In the autumn, a Bulgarian care worker got her case heard by the Federal Labour Court – and turned an entire industry upside down: home care, in which mostly women from Eastern Europe look after senior citizens at home around the clock. In future, a much larger part of the day will be considered working time. Care workers can expect high additional payments.

And workers warn their colleagues about particularly problematic employers – in Facebook groups or via messenger services like Viber or Telegram. The groups often have thousands of members, and there are new messages every hour. Jemal Tschatschanidze and his colleagues went one step further at Lake Constance. They recorded videos, contacted journalists and lawyers in Georgia. “We had no other choice,” says Tschatschanidze. “We needed help.”

“It was on the radio, there were talk shows about it”.

(…) Gabaidze works as a lawyer for the Georgian Trade Union Confederation. “The situation of seasonal workers in Germany was a hot topic in the summer,” she says, “it was on the radio and there were talk shows about it. The mediation agreement with Germany was a huge opportunity from a Georgian perspective, she says. For the first time, Georgians were able to work in an EU country at a low threshold and earn euros. Unemployment in Georgia is high, there is a lot of corruption, and inflation makes things even worse. “And then there was also Germany, which has a high reputation in Georgia. Expectations were correspondingly high.”

And great was the disappointment. Gabaidze says she has also received complaints from other parts of Germany. Many of those affected had just not dared to go public.

With Gabaidze’s help, the workers from Lake Constance are now taking legal action in Georgia – not against the farmer, but against the Georgian authority that negotiated the agreement and arranged the employment. (…)

A Court Judgement is Pending

Gabaidze and the workers from the strawberry farm are now demanding compensation of around 4,000 euros each from the Georgian agency, mostly for lost wages, but also as compensation for personal suffering. The first day of negotiations was shortly before Christmas, and the agency rejects the demands. Gabaidze expects a verdict in a year at the earliest. (…)

And the Interview (in German) with Bulgarian truckdrivers: