Waiting in Pain: Migrant's Case Highlights Modern Slavery in Germany

By Matthias Bartsch and

Part 2: The Accident, Hidden from View

Aydin is upset with Rusev. He says that the Bulgarian begged him for a job so that he could pay his rent. And Aydin only wanted to help the man. Of course, says Aydin, he had no idea that Rusev didn't have any health insurance. He admits that it was his mistake for not checking. Other than that, however, he insists he did nothing wrong.

On the evening of Jan. 28, Rusev and a group of Bulgarian laborers were standing in front of Can 58. They were waiting for a van Aydin was sending to take them to the Höchst Industrial Park, a 460-hectare (1,137-acre) site in the western part of Frankfurt, home to roughly 90 companies operating chemical plants. Rusev's shift began at 7 p.m., and he was paid €84 for 12 hours of hard work. But he was pleased. He hadn't had such a good job in a long time.

At the plant entrance, Rusev showed the security guard an access permit with his photo and registration number, I 608475. The plastic card is made by Infraserv Höchst, a company that handles infrastructure and security at the plant. Infraserv also owns the plant were Rusev was assigned to work that night. But when he is asked who his employer was, his only response is: "Aydin Company."

The van took Rusev and the others across the industrial park, past gloomy brick buildings and under thick pipes to building E 264, which looked like a large, sheet-metal container in the light of the lanterns on the plant walls. Rusev still doesn't know exactly what happens in the building. Weeks after the accident, he still refers to it as a "furnace," and says that his job was to remove "rocks" from it. In actuality, the building is a filtration system for the foul-smelling exhaust air that comes from a sewage treatment plant for production residue.

Infraserv classifies the work in this plant as "dangerous." Rusev was given a white protective suit and a dust mask for his mouth and nose -- not by Infraserv, but by a small demolition company called O.A.M., which Infraserv had hired to replace the filters.

Rusev climbed up an iron ladder to a work platform about three meters off the ground. His job was to lift and move heavy ceramic filters. At about 2:30 a.m., he slipped from the platform and fell down the ladder. Shortly before he hit the ground, one of his legs became caught between the rungs of the ladder.

Rusev remembers the moment very clearly. He flinches as he describes how his body smashed against the iron rung. He was in so much pain that everything went dark. Then Rusev felt something wet under his protective suit. He still had no idea that it was blood, perhaps because of his intense focus on completing the job. Aydin's assistant told him not to draw attention to himself. He was quickly taken away from the plant grounds through an unguarded side entrance and put into a taxi. The driver was instructed to take him to the "company office."

No One Claims Responsibility

Rusev got out of the taxi in front of Cam 58 about half an hour later. One of Aydin's men paid the driver and sent the Bulgarian home. Rusev managed to walk the short distance, past nightclubs and strip joints, and even up the 100 steps to reach the top floor of his building at Münchener Strasse 55. Only after removing the protective suit in the apartment did he realize that his entire abdomen was drenched in blood.

The sight of the blood scared Rusev, who dragged himself back to Cam 58. Aydin himself took him to the university hospital. Rusev says that Aydin repeatedly told him to tell the doctors he had had an accident at home, although Aydin denies this. As it is, Rusev could only have said two words to the doctors: "Stairs. Fell."

The diagnosis read: "pre-bulbar urethral tear," "hematoma" and "transurethral hemorrhage," terms that meant nothing to Rusev. But he did understand that without an operation, the pain would not go away and he would no longer be able to work. The doctors "strongly" recommended that the surgery be performed "within the next 4-6 weeks." That was 10 weeks ago.

None of the companies involved in the filter replacement feels responsible for Rusev's accident. Anyone working in the industrial park is "required to have a work permit," says a spokesman for Infraserv. He adds that Rusev was able to present his business registration. When asked whether the Bulgarian was state-insured, the spokesman says that Infraserv has "no further information," and notes that this would have been the responsibility of the people who hired him. The demolition company, O.A.M., says that it had hired a subcontractor, Best Nova, and that Aydin had acted as its "construction manager."

The company was apparently paid a sum in the low five figures to provide cheap labor for what was a dirty job. The head of O.A.M. says Best Nova had confirmed "that all employees are registered, through immediate reporting, with the German Federal Pension Fund and the statutory health insurance system, and that the applicable social security contributions are paid." It isn't O.A.M.'s fault, he adds, that the company did not live up to its obligation. The managing director of Best Nova says that Biser Rusev "is not one of our employees."

Dashed Hopes in a German Hospital

Now that Rusev could hardly walk and could no longer earn any money, he was quickly evicted from the apartment on Münchener Strasse. He placed the urine bag into a plastic bag and walked gingerly through the neighborhood, searching for help. An Italian took him to "MigrAr," a drop-in center for immigrants with no place to stay, run by the service sector union Ver.di.

Rusev doesn't know what a trade union is. To this day, concepts like German labor law and employer liability mean nothing to him. All he knows is that "Madame Huckenbeck" works at MigrAr and is helping him. Kirsten Huckenbeck, 46, obtained a bed for Rusev at the homeless shelter, food vouchers from the job center, as well as clothing vouchers and medication. She submitted applications to a health insurance agency, and she took him to an outpatient treatment center run by Catholic relief agency Caritas. The doctor who treated him there ordered an emergency admission.

Rusev was convinced that everything would be okay now. "German doctors can make you into a new person," he says.

It's shortly before Easter. After getting up early, Rusev showers, shaves, puts on a black knit cap and places his urine bag into a red plastic bag. Huckenbeck drives him to the university hospital in her small Opel. But at the front desk in the urology department, the receptionist pushes the emergency admission slip back to Rusev. "We don't do anything unless someone is covering the costs," she says.

Huckenbeck calls the social assistance office and the health insurance agency. A case manager at the hospital is sympathetic with Rusev's case, but remains firm. "If we operate, we'll be stuck with the costs," she says, "and our boss doesn't allow that." The case manager tells them that the operation would cost about €15,000, and that payment is expected in advance.

Rusev sits dejectedly in a chair in the hallway. At least someone replaces his catheter, after he has been waiting for six hours. His urethra has been inflamed for days. "Without Madame, I would probably be under a bridge or dead," says Rusev. "She is my German mommy." Huckenbeck says that most of the pseudo self-employed are simply put on a train back to Bulgaria when someone goes wrong. It's important, she adds, that someone finally expose what is happening every day on Germany's construction sites.

No Path Back to Bulgaria

In the evening, Rusev, exhausted, is back at the homeless shelter. He runs his hand across his bed and says: "This is my first bed in Germany." When he arrived in Offenbach, Rusev was still dreaming about a Mercedes and a house for his wife. Today he hopes that his urine bag won't spring a leak by the next morning.

He also refers to his first bed in the West as "my office." Rusev has collected the documents attesting to his German life in a blue folder that he keeps under his pillow. It contains his business registration, work ID cards, a letter from the city stating that it agrees to pay for his stay at the hostel and his hospital records. An inexpensive bottle of red wine is on the wooden table, and German-Bulgarian dictionary from 1975 is on the windowsill. Rusev has emptied the tobacco from cigarette butts he collected on the street into a tobacco bag.

The goatherd doesn't want to return to Bulgaria. What would he say? That he failed in the West? Rusev is quiet for a moment. His wife sent him a text message to tell him that she was leaving him. He didn't send her enough money, he says.

Rusev misses his children. He also misses the open fields and the goats. When he starts talking about his days as a goatherd, his eyes light up. He says that the livestock dealers even asked for his advice in the evening. It seems as if this were the last thing Rusev truly felt proud of in his life.

But he refuses to give up. "I haven't tried everything yet," he says. Madame Huckenbeck mentioned something about an appointment for surgery, and this time, he says, it will happen. "Soon, I hope," he says. Only after locking the metal door to his room does Rusev feel a little safer, here in Germany, his new home.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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