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Spanish workers in Germany unite in defense of their labor rights

A group inspired by the 15-M protest movement has come together to fight against abusive practices

The organizers of GAS in Berlin.

It’s been a familiar scene in these recent years of crisis, which have pushed many into economic exile: a group of young Spaniards gets together in a bar in a European city, or some other part of the world. But the twenty- and thirtysomethings sharing beers last Wednesday in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg have more in common than just having left behind a country where more than half of those aged under 25 are unemployed. After also leaving Spain because of the crisis, they are now getting organized to help those who emigrated later and, once in the so-called “German paradise,” found themselves in jobs with abusive conditions or salaries clearly below those paid to local workers.

Together they have created the Labor Action Group (GAS), a platform designed to serve as a connection between workers suffering abuses in the country and German labor unions that has its roots in the 15-M popular protest movement, which was born in Madrid in May 2011.

Nurses who earn half of what their German colleagues are paid, and are not allowed to take a break during 12-hour shifts; employees in innovating companies who pay €300 a month for a full-time position… These are the kind of situations in which some of these youngsters have found themselves in Germany, and that have now led a group of Spaniards to set up a consultancy service for those newly arrived in Berlin. The aim was to give information about how to sign up at City Hall, as well as guiding people through other bureaucratic processes, and it led to the formal creation of GAS in February.

The platform serves as a connection between workers suffering abuses and German labor unions

“We want people to get organized in their jobs,” explains Miguel Sanz, a 34-year-old environmental scientist. “Investigate to see who is able to carry out labor union roles in groups where, until now, there was no kind of workers committee.”

After just four months, they are already seeing results. Employees from six companies have got in touch with them, although only two so far have managed to get the workforce involved in the defense of common interests. “The other four were too small,” explains one of Sanz’s colleagues. “They were start-ups where no one dared get organized.” But with the nurses, GAS has found a collective that is willing to take steps to stand up for themselves.

“We went to them because we were not willing to tolerate being paid €9.50 an hour, while a German employee was earning as much as €15,” explains Natalia Silva, a nurse who went to GAS, which is a non-profit organization financed by individual contributions and “solidarity parties.” “If we leave the company before we’ve worked there for 18 months, they can fine us up to €6,600,” Silva continues.

Nurses earn half of what their German colleagues are paid, and are not allowed to take a break during 12-hour shifts

The activists say that so far the reaction of the Verdi union, the second biggest in the country, has been very positive. The two organizations have together published leaflets in Spanish that call for, among other things, the same salary “for the same work and the same qualifications,” and to get rid of the fine that ties nurses down to the company. “The union representatives that we have been in contact with have told us that they have spent years trying to penetrate these collectives, but for some reason they hadn’t managed it,” explains Sanz, who adds that the work they are doing now cannot be understood without the mobilizing effect that the 15-M popular protests movement had in Spain.

The organization of foreign workers, they explain from GAS, is also of interest for the Germans, who often see how companies deny native workers social improvements on the basis that there are Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks willing to do the same job for less pay. This situation has raised tensions between local workers and foreigners, in some cases generating something resembling xenophobia, according to reports from the activists.

Of the 2.3 million foreigners registered as workers in German, last year Spaniards accounted for 48,546, behind 12 other European countries. That figure has risen in recent years, and with it have come situations that, while not breaking the law, do constitute abusive practices. The team behind GAS say they are only just getting started, and believe that they will be successful in other places and sectors. What will be the next one? I don’t know, but in London there is a very similar situation,” they explain. “Perhaps something will happen there.”