Slaving over the Wok Chinese Restaurants Accused of Human Trafficking

In many Asian restaurants in Germany, Chinese cooks are exploited, miserably paid and lacking in almost any rights. In many cases, they are victims of systematic human trafficking. Now German authorities are cracking down on the restaurants and institutions that bring these workers to Europe as modern-day serfs.


Aijun G. wanted to take a sick day. "You can take a break when you have cancer!" his boss screamed. Then, he claims, his boss added: "What would happen to me anyway, even if I beat you to death?" He then attacked his employee with a chair, threatened him with the broken neck of a bottle and shouted, "If you go to the police, I'll stab you!"

That was the pinnacle so far of Aijun G.'s working life in Germany. The rest of the time, he had to cook, wash dishes, mop the floor and clean stove exhaust hoods for up to 12 hours a day in an Asian restaurant in Speyer, a small city in southwestern Germany. For his labors, he was paid a maximum of €900 ($1,270) a month -- far less than promised when he was recruited back in China.

By the time Aijun G. tried to go home sick, it was clear to him that his dream of returning home from Germany a wealthy man would never materialize. He has since pressed criminal charges and sued for the wages he wasn't paid. A court recently dismissed the criminal proceedings for assault in exchange for the payment of a fine. The case in the labor court is continuing.

It's impossible to say whether Aijun G. will ever be paid. But for law enforcement authorities, at least, the case of the mistreated cook in Speyer has proven valuable. Until this case, police investigations into Chinese restaurants in Germany tended to be focused on widespread protection payment rackets. Now investigators have their sights on a very different kind of criminal activity: a sort of 21st century slave trade.

Large Profits, Low Risk

There are hundreds of people from China being lured to the West. Once they get here, they are sometimes brutally exploited. It's a type of human trafficking that offers large profits and low risk. Smuggling organizations disguised as employment agencies earn big, while restaurant owners profit from their employees' low wages.

The victims are people like Zhao Zhen*, 36, from Jiangsu Province in eastern China. Together with his wife, two children, parents and parents-in-law, Zhao lived in a simple mud brick house with a dirt floor. He kept chickens and grew vegetables on his property because the €100 a month he earned as a cook in China wasn't enough to feed the whole family.

At an employment agency, he was told he could cook in Germany and earn 10 times as much money. A frugal man like Zhao would be able to put away as much as €25,000 in the course of four years -- a literal fortune compared to what he earned in China. The prospect of being able to pay for his children's education and buy the family a bigger house was so enticing that Zhao agreed to go.

But first, he had to pay the equivalent of €10,000 to cover agency fees, paperwork and travel costs. Zhao borrowed money from the bank and from relatives and friends. Then he signed two contracts -- one in Chinese and one in German. He couldn't read the German one, of course, but the agent assured him it was only a formality for entry into Germany. Zhao also applied for a passport.

When he left for his new life in Europe, he packed eight pairs of work shoes, 15 shirts and several pairs of pants. He knew the cost of living in Europe was a lot higher than at home. Zhao traveled first by bus to Nanjing and then on to Beijing, where he boarded a plane for the first time in his life. His new boss was waiting for him at the airport in Berlin and took Zhao's passport from him right away. They didn't talk much.

13 Hour Shifts, 7 Days a Week

In the restaurant kitchen, his boss taught him how to cook Chinese food to Germans' tastes. "The quality was worse than back home, and it didn't taste as good," Zhao said. Vegetables left unfinished by customers were cooked into sweet and sour soup, and leftover meat had to be washed and served again the next day. "I wouldn't have eaten it," Zhao says.

He wasn't allowed to anyway. During his shifts, which ran seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., he was only given rice, noodles and Chinese cabbage to eat. He slept on a mattress in the laundry room. At the end of the first month, his boss gave him €300. "He kept the rest, supposedly as a security deposit so I wouldn't run away," Zhao said. When he complained to the agency, he was given a terse reply: "If you don't work, we'll send you back to China."


*Name changed by the editors

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