German contract workers and the coronavirus pandemic

The story of Müntzer and many others

When the Coronavirus pandemic hits Germany, contract worker Thomas Müntzer lost his job. So did thousands of his colleagues. Largely bypassed by the media, most Germans hardly noticed these massive job losses among contract workers. When factory worker Müntzer clicks his way through the headlines of German online portals, when he listens to politicians’ recent campaign speeches on the upcoming election, it sometimes seems to him that he is living on a different planet. 

As if he were at home in a kind of a parallel universe, which, despite all the good news on the Coronavirus pandemic and the economy, does not seem to brighten up his life. Yet, the recovery is coming, predicts Germany’s powerful Institute for Economic Research. 

Despite all grand announcements, Müntzer feels exhausted. At the same time, Germany’s business newspapers tell him, the economy is breathing a sigh of relief. Germany’s conservative minister of economics, Peter Altmaier tells him, the economic engine is kick starting. And that the state’s pandemic support packages is working – believing that substantial losses to the German economy had been prevented.

Meanwhile, Thomas Müntzer feels that in the last few years he was treated rather harshly. A few months ago, his doctor declared him unfit for work. Thomas Müntzer is a skilled worker and a father of three. Yet, he lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic. He is a temporary worker and he is one of those who are almost always hit first by one of capitalism’s usual crisis.

Much has been reported on Germany’s losers of the Corona crisis, about restaurateurs who no longer serve anyone, about musicians who no longer perform, and about retailers who could no longer sell anything. 

At the same time, contract workers like Thomas Müntzer were hardly talked about. He was employed at car maker Volkswagen working at VW’s plant in Hanover, where, among other things, the VW minibus is made. Müntzer is one of about 200 temporary contract workers employed in VW’s assembly and pressing plant. For many years, he and his co-workers have been making body parts, fanned transmissions, mounted steering wheels, turn signals and mirrors. 

Although Müntzer worked at the VW factory, VW was almost never his employer. Instead, Müntzer was employed by a labor supply company called Autovision. He was one of their 12,000 temporary employees. These so-called labor supply companies lend workers to other companies in exchange for plenty of money for them and some money for workers.

As casualization moves on and with the precariat increasing, German examples of both are found in hospitals, insurance companies, airlines, shipyards, security, cleaning companies, logistics companies, hotels, call centers, mail order companies, and, of course the automotive industry. On the whole, there are more than 780,000 temporary workers throughout Germany.

These workers are very convenient for German corporations. Workers can be ordered and fired quickly. They can be booked easily and they can be sent back to your rental company. When capitalism is booming, they are welcomed. In crisis, they are treated worse than uninvited guests. 

In 2020, more than 1,100 temporary workers at Germany’s Airbus plants were forced out. Even in Germany’s seemingly prestigious Mercedes factory, 1,300 lost their jobs. In Munich, BMW kicked out 10,000. Although BMW’s top-management denies that while admitting, some rental contracts weren’t renewed further denying to say how many. Worse, BMW isn’t even going to tell the number of temporary workers it has. Simultaneously, VW keeps a low profile when it comes to disposable people – renting human beings like you renting a pool towel (used and discarded) – simply a commodity.

Even Germany’s signature corporations seem to be uncomfortable with the topic. Yet, Germany’s Employment Agency registered 275,000 temporary workers as unemployed between April 2020 and March 2021. In addition, German consulting firm PWC noted a strong slump in the temporary employment industry. This so-called employment industry is just another industry, like the meat industry and the car industry.

Yet, German workers working for the car industry were particularly hard hit. Worse, they were threatened by two crises: the pandemic and the end of the combustion engine. German corporations, their highly-paid CEOs and corporate apparatchiks – also known as top-management – have been very sluggish in taking on the much needed conversion toward the electric car, a fact that they have known for years. 

Although electric cars are definitely not the solution for the environmental catastrophe in the transport sector, only massive reduction of traffic is needed. This comes despite the constant management talk of innovation, being a world leader, corporate re-structuring, etc. They simply missed the train. In the end, their comprehensive fiasco is costing many temporary workers their jobs even before Corona.

On top of this, labor-lending companies are quick to dismiss workers. They also systematically cheat workers particularly when it comes to wages and payrolls. These hire companies often treat workers worse than the companies that hires them. Beyond that, it appears as if recent changes in Germany’s labor law were made more for companies like VW and, for labor hire companies than for the temporary workers.

This makes life worse for Thomas Müntzer. When sales collapsed, VW’s factory in Hanover closed for weeks. Like many, Müntzer too, remained hesitant to talk about his experiences fearing he will no longer find a job if he criticizes his old employer. So much for the much-acclaimed freedom of speech! He talks but Müntzer is not his real name – not even in the original article on which this article is based on – which appeared in the German weekly Die Zeit.

Müntzer joined VW in 2016. Previously, he had worked for more than twenty years as a permanent employee in construction. The work ruined his knees. His construction work worked well until more and more workers from Eastern Europe appeared on Germany’s construction sites. Eventually, his boss asked him and his colleagues to take unpaid leave. In their place, he hired low-paid Romanians.

Other workers advised him to apply at Volkswagen. But Germany’s car industry had no jobs for people like him. Instead, he found work at the labor hire company Autovision. Together with IK Hofmann and Randstad Automotive, it has specialized in supplying labor to Germany’s massive car industry. 

Thomas Müntzer was hired by Autovision who lends him to VW’s factory in Hanover, and actually is owned by VW itself. The wages he received were above average – almost as much as the permanent VW workers. On the first day, he was introduced to VW’s huge assembly halls. Unlike at Henry Ford’s original US factories and VW’s original plants, today there are plenty of robots assembling body parts on production lines.

Yet, many assembly line workers still carried out pretty much the same assembly line work. Müntzer and the other temporary workers were welcomed by management. They were also introduced to trade unionists who work to strengthen workers’ rights. Management welcomed them with the usual ideology, i.e. the VW family. 

As in Ford’s Detroit plant, he got the same dubious advice car workers have been getting since well over 100 years, if you are punctual and work hard, you will make it. Today, it got worse. Today, many workers are offered an even more doubtful instructionyou will have a good chance of eventually being hired as a regular worker.

In reality, risks are increasingly borne by temporary workers. Yet, many German workers know that management always promises them safety. But in any crisis, workers are no more than collateral damage of globalization, digitization, energy transition, structural change, the Coronavirus pandemic, etc. Increasingly, capitalism delivers high degrees of uncertainties to many workers.

Thomas Müntzer’s contract with Autovision was limited to seven months. The next contract was limited to seven months and the third, to eight months. The next to eight months and the following, to six months. Every time, it was only at the last moment that he was told that things were going fine. 

For Müntzer, it was five contracts within three years – that’s how temporary work works in Germany. The government regulation controlling contract work is made to help companies. When demands shoots through the roof, VW gets short-term workers. Once the boom is over, labor-hire companies are supposed to transfer workers to other companies where workers are needed. That is the illusion of perfect capitalism spun by neoliberal ideologues.

The problem is: all too often it doesn’t work that way. Autovision, for example, lends 3,500 employees to one single company: VW. Worse, Autovision is a subsidiary to VW. In other words, VW lends workers to itself instead of VW hiring them directly. It is a scam that works well for the corporation but not so well for workers – as so often.

In addition, the car company’s trickery allows it to hire contract workers much longer than Germany’s law actually allows – not just 18 months, but for up to four years. Here is the trick:  if a VW waits three months after a set deadline, it can re-hire the same workers again for the same work. Companies such as Autovision and VW profit from this – workers don’t. They pay the bill in the form of lower wages, bad working conditions and eternal job insecurity.

On the corporate side is the fact that Germany’s multi-national corporations like VW get access to experienced workers like Müntzer cheaply. And, they can get rid of them very quickly. Beyond that, those management deems to be slow, clumsy, get sick or who are even late can be deregistered, i.e. fired without compensation and without a long notice period. Most beautifully for capitalism, the risk is borne by the temporary workers while corporations make handsome profits. In the case of VW, it is roughly €9.7bn.

Once, Müntzer was involved in a car accident before the start of VW’s late shift. His car’s hood was crumpled and airbags inflated. His car was a total loss. Müntzer was in pain but afraid of being late for work. He worked the shift at WV and after that he went to the hospital. The doctor’s findings were whiplash, thoracic contusion, knee contusion on both sides and a wrist contusion on the left. This is a life on the line for VW.

In order to be accepted into the regular workforce, it is not enough to live up to management’s strict requirements overseen by the shift managers – these managerial requirements have to be over- fulfilled. As a consequence, workers impose even stricter rules on themselves. Here are the five Golden Rules (e.g. those with the gold make the rules) of contract workers in Germany: 

  1. If you have a break, work through it. 
  2. If your colleague is fast, be faster. 
  3. If you’re sick, go to the shift anyway. 
  4. If you are in pain, take a painkiller and carry on. 
  5. If they get worse, take another painkiller.

Last year, an insurance company in Germany found that contract workers suffer more often than other workers from back and joint diseases. They have more accidents at work and get prescribed antidepressants much more often.

Germany’s boom in temporary work, as well as, the Coronavirus pandemic have made everything worse. In companies where the virus was rampant, many regular workers would have taken sick leave for fear of getting infected. Temporary workers, on the other hand, started their shift. The fear of losing their jobs is huge. 

Corona has made the lives of workers more difficult. At the Daimler plant in Rastatt, temporary workers had refused to be tested for Corona. They were afraid that if the result was positive, they would not only be sent to quarantine, but would also be losing their jobs. When contract workers call in sick even for a single day, or have a death in the family – Germany has 93,000 Corona deaths – or, when a worker wants to take a short-term vacation even for just one day, it can be enough to lose the job.

With conditions like these, some workers become aggressive, others show signs of depression, lack of sleep, pale skin, etc. The labor-hire industry treats its people as a commodity. They are here to serve a product, a company, and ultimately – capitalism. Many experts fear that contract work is on the way of becoming the new standard in some sectors of Germany’s economy.

If you look for work and have a low level of education, you can get a job almost only through temporary work. Initially, hire companies were prohibited in Germany out of concern that it could displace permanent employment. In the 1970s, this changed. Suddenly, it was allowed. Initially, for a maximum of three months. 

As neoliberalism moved in, the boom in temporary agency work began in 2003. At that time, Germany’s – supposed to be progressive – social-democratic government pushed for deregulation. Temporary workers were henceforth allowed to be lent without time limits. 

Today, the neoliberal hallucination is that temporary work could pave the way for people without a job into working life. This would work even for those with rather poor chances. The problem is, there is next to no evidence that this works – other than in the imagination of the ideologues of neoliberalism.

Virtually, anyone starting as a temporary worker remains fixated on management’s promise of becoming a permanent employee. Thomas Müntzer would cherish this hope years later. For many, this never becomes true. 

In reality, companies laid off thousands of permanent employees only to bring the same workers back into the company a little later, as even more cheaply and as an even more insecure temporary workers. As a consequence of social-democratic deregulation, i.e. pro-business regulation, Germany’s number of temporary workers exploded. By 2017, it had reached more than one million eventually leveling off at just below five million – officially.

Four years ago, the government finally changed the rules by amending Germany’s Temporary Employment Act. At first glance, it provided “some” improvements for temporary workers such as, for example, higher wages and limited hiring periods. Yet, there are so-called “special regulations”. These are especially installed loopholes for Germany’s car industry. For many workers, uncertainty remains. 

Overall, the Coronavirus pandemic has made life for many workers at the lower end of capitalism worse and, it has done so for plenty of workers even in the so-called centers of capitalism, the EU and the OECD. In short, the Coronavirus pandemic has a polarizing effect turbo-charging the inequalities and the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism.

This article was published on 25 August 2021 at ZNet.

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