Illegal workers and corona: reportage on day laborers in danger

Stamismir Panov fears that he will lose his place in the container if his corona test is positive. Sergei Angelov is afraid that jobs will break him due to the state ban on contacts. Dimitar Velev fears that he will not be able to join his family now that Europe is closing its borders.

The three Bulgarians, who earn their money on the so-called workers' line, have just more problems than usual due to the corona pandemic: They have hardly any reserves, but sometimes find it harder to work because of the lockdown. They live in precarious conditions, which threatens to promote a severe course of the lung disease Covid-19. At the same time, emergency medical care is just rarer for them: there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in Germany who are concerned about such worries. Bogus self-employed, often from Romania and Bulgaria, who came here to find decent work in their home countries after decades of economic downturn – and who all too often got stuck in the German shadow labor market.

Cleaning stairwells, unloading containers, cutting meat, taking care of old people: Without people like Angelov, Velev and Panov, food and services would be much more expensive in Germany. Day laborers work up to twelve hours a day, up to six days a week, for five to ten euros an hour, mostly black, mostly without valid contracts. The customs that are supposed to take action against undeclared work are chronically understaffed and rarely bother them, but most of them remain in Germany. The bottom line is that they often earn significantly more than in a proper job at home. The price for this is a life with almost no collateral. An eternal search for the next opportunity. This applies more than ever in the corona crisis. It is now time to continue working. To live on. Somehow.

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Sergey Angelov
Stefan Schultz / DER SPIEGEL

On Sunday afternoon, Sergey Angelov runs across the sun-drenched Stübplatz in Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg. The surrounding bars, where day laborers usually do their jobs, are closed. The windows of some pubs have recently been covered opaque, like in Chicago in the 1920s, at the time of prohibition, when the business behind the privacy screen sometimes just went on. However, according to local residents, there does not seem to be any secret operation here either: since the bars are closed, jobs have sometimes been found on the street, says the 39-year-old Bulgarian. It doesn't make things less risky.

Angelov wears a black baseball cap, a shiny black leatherette vest and a dust mask from the hardware store. He knows that the mask cannot protect him 100 percent. But better a little protection than none, if he gets infected, he may not be able to work for weeks, says Angelov. After that, he would probably be homeless.Angelov sleeps on a mattress in a small room that he shares with two other day laborers. The semi-legal accommodation costs 250 euros per month, in cash on hand, without notice. Angelov has almost no reserves.

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Mattress camp of migrant workers in Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg

He still finds a good job, says Angelov. He is laying screed. That is still in demand now. Other day laborers, on the other hand, would have to reorient themselves. The unloading of containers at the port is currently sluggish because fewer goods arrive. Harvesters are no longer coming across the border. But where doors close, others often open. The disinfection of airplanes, says Angelov, is currently very popular, and Metin Celik, who runs a small mobile phone shop with a Western Union terminal not far from the Stützenplatz, is also aware that some day laborers are suffering from the crisis. "Usually the workers come to me to send money to their home countries," says Celik. "Now a lot of money is getting sent from there."

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Dimitar Velev
Stefan Schultz / DER SPIEGEL

It's good to distract yourself in these times, says Dimitar Velev. If you sink too deeply into your thoughts, you will be paralyzed at some point, and in your mattress room you would just disinfect the door and window handles three times a day, says the 35-year-old demolition worker from Yambol, Bulgaria, while he sticks a cigarette with unwashed hands and touched his mouth with his fingers while smoking and would like to go back to his family. But he didn't know how to get home. Some of his colleagues had tried to come to Bulgaria and had been turned away at the Hungarian border, and as long as he was stuck here, says Velev, the main motto was: Don't get sick! The medical emergency hour for migrants has just been closed, representatives of social organizations confirm that their offers for the socially disadvantaged are now quite limited. "Our doctors often belong to the corona risk group themselves," says Eva Lindeman, spokeswoman for Hamburg, a place of hope, a church network that includes around a dozen local aid organizations. "We sent them home to protect them." Some still offer telemedicine, and advice centers that help migrants to free themselves from exploitative living and working conditions are often closed due to Corona. Most of the employees are in the home office, says Lindemann, and often only support a few cases of hardship over the phone.

Detailed report about labor migration

What happens when a migrant worker falls ill with Corona? One who is afraid of this is Stanismir Panov, a construction worker from Borisovo in northern Bulgaria. He is 66 years old and has already had prostate cancer, so he belongs to the risk group twice. Panov lives in a residential container in which the city lets some homeless people hibernate. He doesn't know whether he's infected with Corona, he says on the phone. But he is currently ill and must not leave his container. The food will be put in front of them. He is afraid that they will throw him out if he tests positive, and the social support and housing agency that manages Panov's container settlement confirms that some residential units are now used to isolate suspected Corona cases. But people like Panov do not end up on the street – on the contrary, they are even better off than other homeless people.

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"Unlike everyone else, they don't have to leave the bed in the morning, but can stay there all day," says a spokeswoman. They receive three meals a day and should their health deteriorate, caregivers call an ambulance for them. "However, it usually becomes complicated for people like Panov." If someone is in mortal danger, the clinics have to treat him in a very basic way, "says Marianne Schaaf, head of Westend, a non-profit organization that organizes anonymous medical care for migrants, "but there are often problems with admission because the clinics fear they will be left at their own expense." Actually, the Infection Protection Act regulates that City authorities later reimburse the clinics for the costs, but the bureaucratic hurdles are high. The authorities sometimes ask the hospitals for papers that migrants can hardly get. Some clinics are therefore restrictive in the emergency room. They know cases in which migrant workers had to fight long to see a doctor at all "says Schaaf." Some seriously ill people were so frightened that they just left. "
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Translations: Ali Yüce

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