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

By Matthias Bartsch and

Injured on the job, a Bulgarian migrant worker desperately needs surgery, but his official status as an independent contractor has allowed the companies involved to shirk responsibility. His case exposes a troubling gray area in Germany's labor market.

Before Biser Rusev left to live his own German dream, he took his goats out every morning to graze in the fields of Vetovo, in northeastern Bulgaria. Rusev was a good goatherd, never losing a single animal. The livestock dealers were pleased with his work. They paid him with anise liqueur, potatoes or bread, but only a few paid in cash. Rusev rarely left his village in northern Bulgaria, near the Danube River. He felt safe in Vetovo, where he never locked his door. Most of all, his work was in demand there.

Since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, many Vetovo residents left for the West, most of them going to Germany. When they returned, they drove German cars, renovated their houses, bought land and wore gold around their wrists. "A lot of gold," says Rusev. He became curious about this faraway country, this place where money grew on trees, at least according to the rumors coming from those returning to his village. That was in the late summer of 2011.

Today, 18 months later, Rusev is lying in a decommissioned hospital bed in Room 35 of a hostel for the homeless near Ostpark, a park in Frankfurt, sorting out the wreckage of his life. His body is emaciated, there are dark rings around his eyes and his cheeks are sunken. The plaster is crumbling from the ceiling, fluorescent lights illuminate the cracked walls and trains rattle by outside. A blonde anchorwoman smiles from the TV set, but Rusev can't understand what she is saying. This is the new world of a goatherd from Vetovo: eight square meters (86 square feet) of Germany, in a place next to a freight yard that represents the end of the line for the homeless.

A plastic tube is taped to Rusev's stomach. One end leads to a catheter in his penis, while the other end is attached to a urine bag in a blue bucket. "I no longer dream about German gold," he says. "I just want to get rid of this tube."

Rusev, 36, is wearing an adult diaper. His wound is infected. He contorts his thin face into a smile. He is in pain, as has often been the case in recent weeks, since his urethra was torn in a serious work accident in January at a Frankfurt chemical plant.

He was working as a laborer and had no health insurance. For weeks, it has remained unclear who would pay for the surgery Rusev needed. The companies he was working for at the chemical plant didn't even report the accident.

The 2,000-Kilometer Trip to Prosperity

Rusev is one of the so-called "pseudo self-employed" in the German labor market -- one of tens of thousands who are formally registered as small business owners, but who in reality are modern slaves. He is stranded in Germany, lured there by the promise of prosperity, exploited by companies to do dirty work for starvation wages, and now abandoned because he can no longer perform as desired. The gray area of the laws governing Europe's nomadic work force has no provisions for cases like Rusev's.

"Things didn't go well," says Rusev. He seems cautious, not wishing to sound ungrateful. Most of all, he doesn't want to abandon the hopes that prompted him to leave Vetovo in the first place. His only knowledge of Germany, 2,000 kilometers away, came from Bulgarian television, where he had seen images of tall buildings and clean streets. The returnees said that Germany had job centers and an intact social welfare state. He decided it was time to follow their lead and seek his own fortune in Germany.

Modern-day slave traders have divided up the villages among themselves in the region where Rusev comes from. Since Bulgaria joined the EU, they have been supplying the German market with day laborers. Their vans make the trip to Germany three times a week. Rusev also bought a ticket from the traffickers. With five kilos of luggage, Rusev set out to start his new life. The trip took one night and the rest of the next day.

He ended up in Offenbach, a city near Frankfurt, where he had relatives who had moved to Germany earlier. Together they would collect scrap metal, earning between €50 ($66) and €100 a day. But the money was divided up among eight people, and Rusev rarely got his fair share. He was angry, and it made him wonder why he had left his wife and two children behind in their village.

Rusev decided to set out on his own. For three months, he slept on a mattress in an abandoned and condemned building. There were 15 Bulgarians living there, without running water or electricity, and only a small gas stove for cooking. But Rusev wasn't paying any rent, and he was satisfied with his situation.

The men explained the rules of his new world to Rusev. They told him about Germany's policy of "limited freedom of movement" for Bulgarians, which will last until 2014. He would be allowed to remain in Germany for no longer than three months, unless he registered a business.

Small Business Owners, in Name Only

On Oct. 4, 2011, the City of Offenbach issued Rusev a business registration. He was now a self-employed "laborer in the field of construction." For unskilled laborers like Rusev, the business registration is the ticket to fictitious self-employment. The central customs office, which handles cases like his, estimates that in the Frankfurt area alone, there are well over 10,000 pseudo self-employed workers from Bulgaria and Romania, working on construction sites or in factories and restaurants. They are officially independent contractors, meaning they have more than one employer, are scarcely regulated and work as their own bosses. But the only responsibility Rusev had in the ensuing months was to show up at the market square on time so that employers could pick him up.

In the weeks that followed, the former goatherd worked 12-hour days on construction sites, earning €60 a day. He emptied out apartments for €50 a day and cleaned businesses for €30. On days when no one hired him, he collected recyclable bottles and returned them for the deposit. He kept his money in his pant pockets, and sometimes hid it in his underwear, depending on how full the abandoned building was at night. He managed to save some money -- not much, but enough to buy his first home in Germany: a sky-blue Golf III, which he bought from a Turkish man for €250.

Rusev, who doesn't have a driver's license, had the man drive the car onto a parking lot. He kept his clothes in the trunk, and he used a wool blanket to stay warm at night. Sometimes he allowed homeless Bulgarians to sleep in his car. Others would have charged €2 a night, says Rusev, but he never did that.

Then, on a cold winter morning, the engine wouldn't start. Two months after it became his temporary home, the Golf went to the junkyard and Rusev moved into the apartment of a welfare recipient, into a room shared by eight Bulgarians. Those who didn't pay the monthly rent of €150 on time were thrown out, Rusev recalls. Nevertheless, he says it was his happiest time in Germany. The shower worked, the door could be locked and business was going well.

One evening there was a dispute in the apartment, and the neighbors called the police. The overcrowded apartment was promptly cleared out, and Rusev was back on the streets. Someone in the market square told him there was work to be had, even for Bulgarians, in the vicinity of Frankfurt's main train station. So Rusev set out for Frankfurt.

Meeting the 'King of the Bulgarians'

When he arrived, he saw the city's skyline, the bank towers and the men in suits carrying leather briefcases. The first night he slept under a bridge, where he met a fellow Bulgarian who took him to the train station district and to a makeshift apartment complex in the courtyard behind an old building at Münchener Strasse 55. The Bulgarian kept Rusev's mobile phone as a deposit.

When Rusev moved into the building, more than 40 Bulgarians were living on the top floor. After a raid in October 2012, the tabloid press described the building as "Frankfurt's worst tenement." That's exaggerated, says Rusev. He admits that there were cockroaches, and that they sometimes crawled into his ears at night. But cockroaches are far less dangerous than rats. He paid €155 a month to sleep in the kitchen.

In the next few days, some of the other Bulgarians in the apartment took him to Can 58, a combination Internet café, phone shop and Turkish export business. Rusev belongs to the Turkish-speaking minority in Bulgaria, and they spoke his language at the shop. For stranded migrants like Rusev, places like this serve as an employment office, real-estate agency, bank, social gathering place and a source of hope. The word "can" means "life" in Turkish.

According to its entry in Frankfurt's commercial register, one of the businesses Can 58 is involved in is "demolition work and construction services," followed by telephone services, kiosk operations, imports and exports. Across the street shines the bright red façade of a large brothel. In this neighborhood, sex is sold cheap and geared toward the masses, just like the labor provided by the pseudo self-employed.

The registered owner of Can 58 is a smartly dressed, 43-year-old man with a well-kept short haircut and stubble, a man everyone in the neighborhood knows simply as Aydin. He was Rusev's first point of contact in the neighborhood. Aydin lends money to the needy and has them work for him to pay off their debts. When he meets with someone in his office, he has an assistant serve Turkish tea, puts down his smartphone and asks one of his employees to leave the room before getting down to business. For desperate men like Rusev, Aydin is the King of the Bulgarians in this neighborhood.

Aydin is one of the profiteers of poverty-related migration. As employers, they save themselves the cost of social security contributions by hiring men like Rusev. This is unlikely to change after 2014, when Romanians and Bulgarians will be allowed to work jobs covered by social insurance in Germany without needing a work permit. "Many employers will still try to use this approach to circumvent the expense of payroll taxes and minimum wages," says a spokeswoman for the central customs office.

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