What is an undocumented worker

Working without papers - not without rights

In Austria there are currently 28 different residence permits that deny migrants regular access to the labor market or restrict their access. A circumstance that pushes migrants into informal sectors and makes them easier to blackmail and exploit against employers. Whether as a cleaning lady, nanny or carer in a private household, as a harvest helper in agriculture, on the construction site, in the catering trade or in sex work: Undocumented work is usually unsafe, poorly paid and dangerous.

A typical characteristic of undocumented work are extremely long working hours: ten to twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week, are widespread. Undocumented employees usually receive extremely low hourly wages, which are well below the respective collective agreement. In private households, for example, hourly wages of up to one euro are no exception. But wage fraud, non-compliance with protection standards, dismissal in the event of illness, accident or advanced age, as well as physical and sexual assaults are to be found here again and again.

Break down inhibitions

Despite the diverse range of advisory services in Vienna, there has so far been no offer that brought together advice on labor law, social law and residence law. This gap was closed in June 2014: In the new UNDOK contact point[1] In the second district of Vienna, undocumented workers can get information and advice - free of charge and in several languages.

Those affected can also get support when it comes to enforcing labor and social law claims - including in court. Because regardless of whether you work with or without papers: social security laws, labor law, minimum collective bargaining standards and works agreements apply to all employees.

Bundle expertise, build alliancessize>

With UNDOK, an alliance structure was created that acts at the interface of undocumented workers, trade unions, chambers of labor, NGOs from the area of ​​foreign and asylum law and anti-racist activists (see also members and cooperation partners of the UNDOK association). The latter in particular gave the impetus for founding UNDOK.

Following on from earlier attempts to sensitize the trade unions to the issue, the PrekärCafé initiative launched the "Undocumented work, trade unions and organization" campaign at the end of 2009. It should create public awareness of the need for a specific trade union advice and support offer for undocumented workers, whereby the activists referred to already existing contact points in Germany and Switzerland (see also the migrazine.atFocus 2010/3 "undocumented rights").
It was also anti-racist and grassroots union activists who founded the "Working Group Undocumented Work" (AK Undok) in March 2011. The aim was to bring various actors who are involved in this field into conversation with one another and to network them. In this context, the first joint experiences in the support work of the formerly undocumented colleague Zoheir S. could be gained.

Cheated out of wages

The UNDOK contact point is currently open two half days a week. And the interest is great. In the first few months there were already 58 cases. The most common problem with which colleagues come to UNDOK are withheld wages or payments below the applicable collective agreement. As in the case of Erzsebet S .: She came to Lower Austria from Hungary, where she worked in a private household for seven years with interruptions. She cared for an elderly woman and worked in her household. Despite the agreement with her employer that she would receive 100 euros a month for her work, she didn't get a cent.
The UNDOK contact point accompanied Ms. S. to the Chamber of Labor in Lower Austria and to the responsible regional health insurance fund in order to make a record of her employment relationship. This enables her to assert her labor and social law claims retrospectively.

Another problem - particularly relevant in the case of accidents at work - is the lack of health insurance, for example in the case of Cvetko R. As a Serbian citizen, he is only allowed to enter Austria for three months without a visa and has no regular access to the labor market. Despite his employer's promises to the contrary, he was not registered with social security. As a result, without knowing it, without working papers, he worked in the auto trade. When he suffered a serious accident at work in the course of construction work, his employer did not call the ambulance - instead he hired another worker to move Cvetko R. and take him to the hospital. Reason: It shouldn't look like an accident at work.
Cvetko R. two toes had to be amputated. It was only in the hospital that he was made aware that he had no health insurance. After his stay in hospital, he received a hospital bill for 43,000 euros. So far, the UNDOK contact point has been able to obtain retroactive health insurance for Mr R., which now also covers the costs of hospital stays. The UNDOK contact point has also asserted the outstanding wages, the continued payment of wages during the sick leave and the special payments to which he is entitled. However, since the employer has not yet paid, the Lower Austria Chamber of Labor is now preparing a lawsuit before the Labor and Social Court.

Organized against exploitation

In addition to advice and support, UNDOK also offers workshops for those affected and multipliers. Here the necessary basic knowledge about one's own rights and how to enforce them is imparted - the most important prerequisite for being able to defend oneself against exploitation. The UNDOK contact point would also like to support the (self) organization of undocumented workers. Because their discrimination is not an isolated case, but represents a systematic exploitation against which collective efforts are needed.

The UNDOK association also conducts lobbying and public relations work. Undocumented workers are not only exposed to the arbitrariness of employers - insecurity of residence affects their whole life. Their health care is often just as precarious as their housing situation, not to mention educational opportunities. For this reason, other relevant actors and public bodies such as the City of Vienna must be reached and informed about the situation of undocumented workers in order to contribute to improving their situation.

Inclusive union policy

Unlike those in Germany, for example, trade unions in Austria have in the past adopted a distanced or even negative attitude towards migrant workers. For example, the right to stand for immigrants in works council and chamber of labor elections had to be fought for in court in the 1990s; it was not actually implemented until 2006. In comparison: In Germany, migrants have been able to participate in decision-making at company level since the early 1970s.

As far as undocumented work is concerned, the main focus in Austria was on controls and punishment of employers in order to combat "undeclared work". The newly established UNDOK contact point is accompanied by a change of perspective: people who work undocumented are to be supported in claiming and enforcing their rights.
Ultimately, the discrimination of undocumented colleagues also weakens all employees, because employers undermine social and collective bargaining standards that have been won. With the Wage and Social Dumping Act, an important instrument for combating fraudulent practices on the labor market exists in Austria. In addition, however, the direct support of the undocumented working colleagues is necessary.
Andreas Huss, senior secretary of the Bau-Holz trade union, put it aptly at the opening of the UNDOK contact point: "This advice center is a very important facility for me, a lack of connection between undocumented workers and the institutions of the Chamber of Labor and the ÖGB. I hope that that will not be the only institution, but that we may create such institutions in other federal states in the future. "


[1] Photos from the opening of the UNDOK contact point http://undok.at/2014/06/fotos-von-der-eroeffnung-der-anlaufstelle


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Legal brochure "Work without papers ... but not without rights!" (Download PDF)