We are the Refugee Initiative of Brandenburg (FIB) and Elexir-A, an antiracist group working in Berlin and the federal land of Brandenburg in Germany. Both groups from our respective perspective are working towards self-organization of refugees.
Two and a half years ago we organized an event in Berlin with guests from the United States, the topic was labor struggles of immigrants, with and without documents. Many refugees had come to listen but the topic was clearly not up their alley: "Hey, we have different problems here in Germany, we do need jobs!!!!". What does it mean, looking from this economic perspective, to be a refugee in Germany??? Refugees are obliged by law to stay in communal refugee shelters, each person receives Euro 40,- monthly social support and a chipcard and/or vouchers to shop for food in a local supermarket. Refugees by law are not allowed to work, except after a special application procedure where in Berlin/Brandenburg practically no work permit is ever given. With the low rate of asylum recognition and the increasing attempts to deport people people also fluidly move from the state of being an asylum seeker to the state of being illegal. No matter in which state- people canâ€™t survive in the conditions that the state foresees for them and need support, both financial and structural. So of course refugees do work, but under precarious conditions. Our idea was to adapt the discussion event and to give the refugee community some information on how to avoid betrayal on the (illegal) job! We researched both legal as well as political information and started to put it out in discussion events in refugee shelters around Berlin and also e.g. at NoBorder camps. In December 2002 we were approached by a group of refugees who had worked on a big inner city construction site in Berlin, officially run by a city owned housing company (WBM), and who had never received their proper money!!!!!! Imagine that scenario: it quickly became clear that over a period of 6 months in the year 2002 at least 5 different sub-subcontractors had systematically exploited at least 50 workers by hiring them for dirty deconstruction and never paying them! The workers had not been standing around like sheep, they had already waged many different confrontations, some of them of physical nature, none had been sucessful and they were frustrated. Despite their question "Well, is there anything you can do for us???" they were full of mistrust. We started to think about a campaign, our means of organization will be described later. For 6 months we slowly built trust with the workers and did groundwork, then in June 2003 we went public with a demonstration and good press work to target the WBM. Surprisingly enough the WBM immediately invited us in for negotiations and we managed to claim Euro 13.500,- for the first 19 workers!!! YEAH! The momentum continued, 23 workers picked it up and continued to negotiate and struggle, resulting in another big payment for 15 more workers in October 2003. The remaining 8 workers who are claiming another Euro18.000,- have not given up, they might change strategy and go to court soon. But the struggle is and has been going on!
What do "precarity" and "migration" have to do with that? Of course it is a two-fold-situation: one precarious aspect is the refugee-situation where work is not legal which makes the workers highly vulnerable. The other precarious aspect is the construction sector itself. When budgets for construction projects are done, there is usually high competition for the jobs. This ferquently results in offers and calculations already based on "black labour" and exploitation. This phenomena is as well known as ignored in Germany, one of "our white elephants".
How did you get organized in your struggle? The workers were predominantely interested in receiving their money, our organizations FIB and Elexir-A had a broader outlook and and interest in organizing the people. Still in terms of the different action levels the workers had already raised hell on the construction site, then we came in with legal research and friendly yet threatening letters to their former employers and finally in the action phase we acted together. Yet during every step we paid much attention to common decisionmaking processes and transparency. Talking about steps, what did we actually do??? As our "we" consists of the workers, the FIB and Elexir-A, we did a broad range of things! The first group of workers after two months work and no salary had occupied the construction site and seized all machines. They were ready to move the mobile tools away from the site, when the subcontractors gave in and paid them cash. Other workers had physically threatened the bosses of the sub-sub-contracting firms, had visited their personal homes, had confronted them in many phonecalls. A small number of workers had even gone the legal way, claiming their wages in small claims court (German: Mahnverfahren), one of them had even gotten paid! Now Elexir-A and the FIB had written many letters in the name of the Antiracist Initiative and through a lawyer, had done research to come up with the strategy to "attack on the top level" (WBM), had done publicity with god timing, be the demonstration, be feeding information to the press using the slogan "Betrayal on city-owned construction site". There was a high public interest in the topic "black work", resulting in the WBM being quite afraid of image damage. All of us joined in the negotiations. The WBM as top level called their subcontractors to the table who had to take responsibility for illegaly bringing in sub-sub-contractors, even though none of them was willing to fully take responsibility. As already mentionned, some people are even now thinking to go to court. Self-Organization is in our eyes the central piece of the struggle. The ability of people to empower themselves and others to stand up for their rights, be the right to stay here, be the right to work, to be treated with dignity, to receive good medical treatment â€“ you name it! Illegality does not begin at the point where you loose the last stamp in your papers and "legalisation" needs to be addressed as a much broader concept.