Along the Low Rhine river, in Germany's outer West and adjacent to the Netherlands, thousands of workers from Poland work under precarious conditions in agriculture and gardening. They get cheated out of their wages very often, but occasionally they fight back. The Free Worker's Union (Ger.: Freie Arbeiterinnen- und Arbeiter Union, FAU) practises anarchosyndicalist solidarity with them and thereby demonstrates that borders play no role at all. FAU is the German section of the International Workers Association (IWA).
Gardening and agriculture along the Low Rhine is unthinkable without Polish workers. Their harvest and plant-breeding work is badly paid, so companies hardly employ residents. Yet, finding a job in agriculture and gardening further away from there, e.g. in Kleve or Borken, does not automatically imply better working conditions. Sometimes you simply do not know if you get paid in time or if you will receive your money at all. Some weeks ago, employees from Grenzland Produktions- und Handels GmbH asked FAU for support because the company owes them money. Polish workers contacted the union because they have heard about FAU's support for Polish workers last year.
FAU Münsterland talked to the employees who work in Rhede (Borken county) and learned about more than a dozen Polish and German Grenzland workers claiming back pay, sometimes up to several thousand Euros.
Know Your Enemy
The union immediately began to investigate the company's background. Grenzland Produktions- und Handels GmbH is part of a group of several interwoven companies which breed ornamental plants on a grand scale on both sides of the border. Some plants are sold in stores, called “Plant-Devil”, some are sold to the wholesale trade. The company has been employing Polish workers in greenhouses for more than two years. In 2010, a newspaper from the Netherlands referred to indefensible working conditions at a greenhouse complex in Venlo (NL). Michaela Klein, the chief executive officer who then worked for another company, employed Polish seasonal labourers. In winter they had to live in half built construction sites or caravans. Many of them had not been paid or did only receive advances. Some weeks later, after government agencies started to investigate, the company declared bankruptcy. But FAU knows: this company has only changed its name.
Situation of Grenzland Employees
The situation of employees working for Grenzland Produktions- und Handels GmbH in Germany is very similar to the worker's situation in Venlo. While living conditions in Rhede (Germany) are better, there are still delays in payment. Many Polish workers who spent Christmas with their families at home, did not come back to Rhede although Grenzland owes them money. Others stayed and stopped work in January, 2011. They claim wages together with their German colleagues. Sometimes it is more than €3000 per person.
German workers at Grenzland signed contracts on basis of €400 (mini-job). Polish workers had to sign a special contract, which registered them as owner of a small-scale enterprise. As most of them do not speak German, they simply did not know what they signed. Now their judicial status does not include payments for old-age pension and health insurance which are obligatory for all workers. German companies register workers from Eastern Europe as owner of a small-scale enterprise to avoid tax and social security contributions.
Most workers in Venlo (NL) or Rhede (G) are affected by delays in payment. FAU has documents of seven Polish workers who did not receive thousands of Euros. 21 German workers signed a paper approving the work hours of their Polish colleagues. Four of them stayed in Rhede until middle of April; three of them have refused to work since January. When German workers did not receive their January wage, they collectively threatened Grenzland to leave their jobs. After that, four Polish workers got paid. Some remained working for Grenzland for the time being, some went to the labour court.
Grenzland must pay!
After several talks to workers, document classifications and consultation with lawyers, FAU called on Grenzland Produktions- und Handels GmbH to pay. But the bosses did not react. Then FAU initiated court orders against them. When they received no answer, FAU held a picket in front of a Plant-Devil shop in Duisburg. Their customers were informed about the racketeering going on. FAU sections nationwide are already preparing actions to inform customers and residents of Rhede, Venlo and Duisburg, if Grenzland does not pay. There was a farm in Münsterland some years ago which refused to pay Spanish workers. After some direct actions against them, the company needed to close.
FAU thinks that the number of exploited workers from Eastern European areas will significantly increase in the upcoming months. On May 1, a new law has been inaugurated granting complete labour mobility for workers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Hungary. As more workers from Eastern Europe will work in Germany, more attempts of wage-theft will occur. Most of the workers do not speak German and have no idea about Germany's labour law.
Struggle Generates Solidarity
“The workers have no country” has always been an anarchosyndicalist principle. We are forced to leave our homes to look for work in all parts of this planet. We laboured in Argentine's metal working industry and we ruined our health in Californian laundries and in the sweatshops of New York. Today we are Pakistani wage slaves building skyscrapers next to the Persian gulf; we are Philippine housemaids serving dinner to the new rich in Hong Kong and we ruin our backs harvesting asparagus in Germany and the Netherlands. In every place where we sold our labour we have been forced to fight for our rights and practice solidarity. Today it is only possible if native and foreign workers unite. And we have to organise. Grenzland has shown that quite plainly. Without solidarity between FAU and the Polish IWA section ZSP it would have been much more difficult to talk to the Polish workers and keep in touch with them. Additionally, FAU supports a conflict of Polish temporary workers who are being employed by the temporary work agency OTTO-Workforce. Our comrades from ZSP-IWA, PA-IWA and AGA from Amsterdam have initiated this campaign. There are more examples showing that struggle generates practical solidarity. It is not we who need borders and states but capitalism. It is needed to divide us into ethnicities and nationalities, control us and play us off against each other. Our struggle to end wage slavery, for a better life on this planet and for a global free society needs to fight borders and the prison of national states, because these are borders forced upon us by capitalism.