Exploitation of migrants in Berlin´s gastronomy

restaurant 690x460 - gastronomie Exploitation of migrants in Berlin´s gastronomy


There´s a lot of migrants working in the sector of gastronomy. Insufficient knowledge about employee´s rights lead to black labour, no compensation for overtime, no holiday pay, pressure and exploitation. Some thoughts about a shady side of the business. 

A few weeks ago, I went to a panel discussion. „Migrant workers and exploitation in the gastronomy sector“, was the title of the event which took place in the Neukölln pub „B-Lage“, hosted by the FAU, the „Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter-Union“. A left-wing independent trade union.

Three young people working in Berlin´s gastronomy, coming from Italy, Greece and Israel, described their negative experiences in the city´s restaurant business, how they were forced to do black labour (in part-time), how overtime was neither payed off nor did they receive compensatory time, how they would get no money when sick or on holiday. Two of them eventually were fired with many working hours not compensated yet. A demonstration was organised by the FAU in front of the respective restaurants. Ironically, one of the places is known as a place which used to have a „socialist“ interiour style with decoration aiming to attract the political left population of the urban district. It was successful: Its owner now has to compensate his former employees as they reached an agreement in front of Berlin´s labour court, read more here.

The problem is omnipresent

Those cases are not isolated ones, as this evening´s discussion made quite clear. Other guests working in bars and restaurants reported similar issues, from full-time black labour to mixed models (find an explanation what it means further below) to freelance contracts (in full time, thus Scheinselbständigkeit). A quite famous burger place works with many „freelancers“ to safe indirect labour costs, one of the panelists reported. A woman tending bar said freelance contracts are perfectly normal in her business.

I have heard of exploitation in Berlin´s gastronomy, too: An established Neukölln restaurant did not pay an American employee after one month of work which it called „Probezeit“ (I actually found out when ordering food there when eating out in a group, an aquaintance arriving later asking us why we went there of all places and then showed us an e-mail correspondence which made the case very clear). A bartender told me the bosses of a place he started working at permanently forced him to „manage“ the place off the books (so he left). From another reliable source, I have heard about a refugee who was paid as little as 2,50 EUR for his work in a snack bar.

Exploitation is said to occur in ethnic restaurants in particular

The participants of the panel discussion pointed out that exploitation specifically occurs in „ethnic restaurants“ working with mainly migrant staff (from the country their concept´s cuisine is based on or from other places), because

  • migrants often do not have sufficient language skills to understand their rights and duties
  • many migrant workers come from countries where labour rights are even worse (so they do not see they´re actually being exploited)
  • there´s a lot of supply of migrant workers which has lead to a „swim or sink“ mentality/situation

At the end of this talk, the discussion was about how to strengthen the position of (migrant) workers in the Berlin restaurant business. Three things were pointed out:

  1. The exchange of experience within staff, it was said, is crucial. Very often, due to shift work, employees do not know each other well – thus they do not know if the colleague is facing the same pressure. A work council is more or less unusual in restaurants (aside from some chains or very big ones).
  2. The panelists recommended to write down and document working times (for oneself, too, in case of legal action).
  3. Finally, they advised not to sign contracts if its content was not clear to the employee.

What about those contracts? As mentioned above, a mixture between work on and off the books seems to be an established model: the employee gets a „450-Euro-Job“, for instance (so the boss does not have to pay any or not all social costs). However, the employee works much more than e.g. 53 hours a month (450 EUR job, hourly pay of the new minimum wage of 7,50 EUR) but the rest is paid cash and illegaly. How does it work? I recommend listening to this radio feature (in German) which makes it very clear. In this case, a man from Romania coming to Germany to find better labour was forced by his compatriot to work in his delivery service seven days a week, ten hours a day.

Restaurant industry is divided into tiny sections which makes it even more blurry

The crux is that working conditions in the restaurant industry often remain particularly blurry. Other than the car industry, for example, it is divided into tiny sections. Moreover, there´s very imprecise numbers. It´s even unclear how many gastronomies there are. The quantity in Berlin varies in all statistics since the criteria for evaluation (what is gastronomy and what is not) are not fixed. There is a very high fluctuation of businesses and so is the labour turnover with many part-time employees. It is popular amongst migrants since working in a restaurant does not necessarily require German language skills (neither in the kitchen nor, in Berlin in particular, in service). Compared to other sectors, facts, figures and standards are poorly developped, which makes it difficult to control.

So what to do?

From my point of view, it is crucial to clarify what the rights and duties (agreeing to do black labour is illegal, too, obviously) are for anyone working in the restaurant business. They need to be translated into many languages (even for most Germans, official German administration language is foreign). And that is not enough. It needs self-organisation, sources of information and a forum for the exchange of experiences, contact persons and support by trade unions and associations. And it needs making the whole thing transparent to the customer. If exploitation is proven and then made transparent, it will damage those who exercise it and indirectly support those who do not but treat their staff properly. Why would anyone go to a pizza place with Che Guevara posters on the wall if the guy in the kitchen must work ten hours a day and more for a few Euros an hour?

I would like to know more about this issue. If you have experienced exploitation yourself, or heard of other cases, or want to add something to the discussion – please feel free to write me an e-mail or to leave a comment below. You do not have to give your name if you don´t want to, obviously.


Foto: Restaurantküche via Shutterstock

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