Are construction workers not valued in our society

Working conditions in the corona crisisWhen the job becomes a danger

A man around 50 sits in a Leipzig tram and coughs as quietly as possible with his mouth closed. Nevertheless he gets furtive looks. It's march. The corona pandemic has arrived in Germany. There are curfews and no contact, anyone who does not have to go out to work should stay at home.

On the outskirts, the man gets off at a huge gray-yellow hall with a dozen other passengers. Stand up on the sidewalk in front of it and light a cigarette.

"Hello, Jennifer Stange, Deutschlandfunk, may I briefly ..." - "No" - ".. what?"

A few more hasty puffs on the cigarette, then he disappears behind the turnstiles of the Amazon logistics center in Leipzig. For the Group's logistics workers, it is now more worthwhile than usual to go to work: there is more money for a limited period in the Corona period: two dollars plus an hour in the USA, Germany and some other European countries, it is two euros more.

A winner of the crisis

The approximately 1,500 employees in Leipzig are happy about that, says works councilor Jens Lämmerhirt, but: "To a certain extent this is a dangerous game because you give an incentive to people who do not feel well, who may have symptoms, regardless of whether they are now in the direction of corona or other diseases, gives an incentive to drag oneself to work. So some people really did that in the past, at Christmas time, when there was this attendance bonus, some really dragged themselves to work. "

Employees in an Amazon distribution center (INA FASSBENDER / AFP)

The online mail order business, headquartered in the USA, is one of the winners of the corona crisis. While stores around the world have to close, demand is increasing at Amazon and the share price climbs to a record high. Amazon has everything people could need in good times and bad. This is exactly what has caused conflict around the world in the past few weeks. After COVID-19 infections at several locations, employees in France, Italy and Spain mostly unsuccessfully asked to stop selling non-essential products in order to protect employees. In Leipzig, the Lämmerhirt works council is not yet aware of any infections:

"With our employees, everything is included, from 'This is completely exaggerated' to 'You'd have to do a lot more protective measures'. So, it's all mixed up. People who are terrified and who then sometimes attack each other, 'How can the three of you still get to work in a car here? That's not possible, you can't!' Up to people who don't do that even if you say: 'Please keep the two meters distance' or maybe even get closer to you. "

No information on infections

But in Germany it is comparatively quiet: no protests, no angry trade unionists. However, employees from locations in Bavaria, Rhineland-Palatinate and Lower Saxony report cases of infection. The responsible health authorities do not want to provide any information. According to employee information, there should have been at least 68 cases of infection at the Amazon site in Winsen in Lower Saxony at the end of April. The responsible district of Harburg confirms several cases, but does not want to give any figures. The company itself refuses to provide any information on the topic to Deutschlandradio.

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"One thing is clear, of course, that if you are simply exposed to much higher frequencies when it comes to meeting other people, that naturally leads to a higher risk."

Infection risk unevenly distributed within society

Gerald Pruckner is a professor at the Institute for Economics at the University of Linz and heads the Health Economics department. He is convinced that the risk of infection is unevenly distributed within society.

"In concrete terms, some do a home office, others cannot do a home office because that is reserved for a certain group."

According to surveys by the Economics and Social Science Institute of the union-related Hans Böckler Foundation, only 27 percent of employees were working from home at the beginning of April, which suggests that millions of people will go to work during the shutdown as before.

"The risk of contracting COVID-19 is greater for lower socio-economic groups. For one thing, it has something to do with the job you work in: lower socio-economic groups have certain jobs that others don't."

The Robert Koch Institute names two factors that make the coronavirus dangerous: age and previous illnesses. The economist Pruckner mentions a third: the socio-economic status. This is a term from sociology that describes a bundle of characteristics that have a central influence on life. These include: education and work, social standing and lifestyle, as well as income and property.

"It has been scientifically proven that lower socioeconomic groups have poorer health, have a shorter life expectancy and are more susceptible to chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. And that brings us to the risk factors for COVID-19."

Housing container for construction workers on a large construction site (dpa / picture alliance / Winfried Rothermel)

Is that so, are socio-economic inequalities reflected in the number of infections? So far there is no evidence of this. At least not based on the data from the Robert Koch Institute. Gender and age are recorded here, with the exception of staff in medical facilities, but neither industry nor occupation, or other status information.

Contrast media for social inequality

In Frankfurt am Main, the lockdown acts like a contrast medium for social inequality. The suits, ties and costumes of women bankers, brokers and consultants have disappeared from the streets. The majority of the women and men who talk or make phone calls in a Frankfurt public bus in the morning do not do so in German. It is similar for the men with glowing helmets and safety vests on the construction sites in the center. Radu works there, who doesn't want to say his last name, he got himself a coffee in a mall.

"Everyone is afraid, nobody wants to be sick somewhere in a hospital."

Reporter: "What about then?"

Radu: "We don't have any more money, you can't survive without money and so on. Let's go to work, sometimes it's hard, but without work is a big problem."

According to the union, day laborers on construction sites often do not have health insurance (picture alliance / dpa / Julian Stratenschulte)

Radu is self-employed and fears first and foremost an economic shock in the corona crisis and only secondly a COVID-19 disease. If he no longer works, his family's existence is quickly threatened. Many of his compatriots feel the same way, says the native Romanian. They worked as seconded workers for companies from their home countries, as temporary workers, contract workers, mini-jobbers, day laborers - with no or only little protection against dismissal and often no social and therefore no health insurance.

Hans-Joachim Rosenbaum, head of the Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt industrial union in Hesse, has been calling for equal rights for foreign employees, who mainly come from south-eastern European EU countries and work in the construction industry and in agriculture, for years.

"People get in touch and say, 'I'm sick, I think I have Corona, I have a fever, but I don't dare to call in sick.' Because that doesn't just mean that they might have 60 percent, or what Other people get paid, they get their dismissal. They are simply thrown out, they don't know when they will get their next money, they don't know - because the transit routes are tight - how they will get home. "

Dumping wages and low occupational health and safety are a high burden and a great risk for all employees. However, foreign workers in precarious employment are increasingly placing them in a difficult social situation. Because they do not know their rights, because access to the health system is difficult for them, because employers neglect their duties. Right now it is becoming clear that what has always been unhealthy will become dangerous in the corona crisis.

"If you live in collective accommodation, that is, four-bed rooms, six-bed rooms, eight-bed rooms, that means being very, very close together, that is, using a shared shower, using a shared kitchen, then the distance is actually no longer guaranteed If you are suspected of having Corona, isolation is almost impossible. "

Overview on the subject of coronavirus (imago / Rob Engelaar / Hollandse Hoogte)

And so the cases of COVID-19 infections are increasing, especially in companies that rely on such collective accommodation: On a construction site of the Stuttgart 21 rail project, 90 contacts from infected construction workers had to be quarantined in residential containers in April. In the North Rhine-Westphalian district of Coesfeld, the meat producer Westfleisch had to close last week following a court order: More than 200 employees had tested positive for the virus.

When the minimum distance can hardly be kept

There were problems on the assembly line and in the changing rooms to keep the minimum distance of 1.50 meters. And: According to Westfleisch, the majority of the workers are housed in apartments with three, four or five people. Freddy Adjan, Deputy Chairman of the Food-Enjoyment-Restaurants Union:

"Accommodation in collective shelters is an essential factor that contributes to the spread of infections. That was also the case a year ago when there was a hepatitis infection in the meat industry."

Many harvest workers are also housed in group accommodation. And the corona virus has also become a problem in the fields: A 57-year-old Romanian died on Holy Saturday on an asparagus farm in Baden-Württemberg. According to research by the weekly newspaper "DIE ZEIT" without even having seen a doctor. Corona infection was diagnosed postmortem. The rules for foreign seasonal workers are actually particularly strict: According to the catalog of measures of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the Federal Ministry of the Interior, harvest workers are not allowed to leave the farms in the first 14 days after their arrival, after that only subject to conditions. Laundry and dishes must be cleaned at at least 60 degrees, distance rules must be observed. Visits are not allowed.

Harvest helper stinging asparagus (dpa / picture alliance / Raphael Knipping)

BAU trade unionist Rosenbaum: "The situation there has always been very modest for the people. Not only in the Corona period, but right now you should have a very special eye on the farms."

Wherever foreign workers are deployed, unions accuse the authorities of a lack of controls. As far as the trade inspectorate is concerned, the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs confirmed, when asked by Deutschlandfunk, that companies were barely checked in April. For the protection of the employees, so the written explanation. That should change in the future. The lack of controls raises questions: Is there a double standard here? Are risky working conditions considered acceptable for employees in the low-wage sector, while the supervision of these working conditions is hardly reasonable for employees in the public sector?

Sociologists assume that social inequality is also reflected in the unchangeable characteristics of individuals. Jan Paul Heisig, head of the health and social inequality research group at the Berlin Science Center for Social Research.

"We see that there are other, so to speak, horizontal differences beyond socio-economic status, which we measure through education or income."

In addition to age and social origin, gender and migration status are among the so-called horizontal, i.e. unchangeable, factors. It is believed that they are related to socio-economic status.

"So that, for example, people with a migration background are overrepresented in certain activities, for example strongly in the meat processing industry, that women are overrepresented in care professions. The consequence is an increased risk of infection."

Business as usual again after the crisis?

So far there are no study results on this in Germany. Findings from Norway, however, suggest a connection between low socio-economic status and an increased risk of infection: While the first corona cases appear in the affluent west of Oslo and can be traced back to skiing holidays in Austria and trips to Italy, the virus is spreading faster in the poorer eastern part of Norway Capital and meets the migrant population here above average.

Stuttgart Central Station, the construction site for Stuttgart 21 (imago / Arnulf Hettrich)

The Peace Research Institute Oslo names two causes: Migrant women work more frequently in systemically important jobs with a high risk of infection. In jobs that are also paid below average, with the consequence that those affected mostly live in smaller apartments and thus with a greater risk of infection. These results could also be transferable to Germany, because the starting position is comparable. In both countries, according to an OECD study from 2018, migrants do around 40 percent of jobs in the low-wage sector. For both countries it is also true that the majority of those employed in systemically important occupations are paid below average.

In Germany, gender differences are particularly striking in this segment. Berna Kocak is also familiar with this problem. Originally came to Germany from Turkey, she has been working as a cleaner at the Essen University Hospital for 24 years. It is now becoming apparent that women like her are exposed to a greater risk due to the corona crisis: According to a study by the German Institute for Economic Research, the proportion of women in systemically relevant professions is almost 60 percent.

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Recognition, applause and the prospect of a tax-free bonus: the work of nurses is highly valued in the corona crisis. The job is even considered systemically relevant in times of crisis. That could help in the current negotiations on collectively agreed wages. But the road to better pay is difficult.

"The colleagues who work in the corona area are affected one and on one. They are then more afraid, for example in the central emergency room, they then have to clean these examination areas several times a day, so they do a thorough cleaning after each patient and they have more contact with the corona patients. "

Kocak is also a staff councilor at the Essen University Hospital. Although the risk is the same for almost everyone who works in the hospital, she and her colleagues had the impression that they had to fight more for protective clothing than the nursing staff and doctors when the first COVID-19 infected people arrived. The hospital's press office simply replied that there were no supply shortages at any time. Kocak says: The fear among the cleaning staff was great.

"The colleagues then said more: For the little money I get, I have to risk my life and I could bring viruses home and my family would be in danger too."

But even among the cleaning staff at the Essen University Hospital, infection with the virus would not affect everyone equally, but rather some harder than others: Staff councilor Berna Kocak is employed directly at the clinic. She gets significantly more money for cleaning the corridors, hospital rooms, operating theaters and the corona ward in the university hospital than those who work at the university's own subsidiary. For the same work. Especially in the Corona time, this inequality became unbearable with increasing pressure. Kocak wants all cleaners to get the same amount of money. The management has so far refused, but there is a lot of support from the entire workforce.

Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn (CDU) and Federal Minister of Labor Hubertus Heil (SPD, r) (Kay Nietfeld / dpa)

"They then sent us solidarity photos, such photos. It also says: More time and wages for cleaning. We are by your side." That means a lot to Berna Kocak.She doesn't know whether people meant her when they stood on their balconies and applauded for those who mattered in the corona crisis.

Nicole Mayer-Ahuja, Professor of Work Sociology at the University of Göttingen, fears that the debate about working conditions and fair wages in the healthcare system that arose at the height of the corona crisis could quickly be forgotten and give way to business-as-usual. She says: Recognition and public attention are a good start, but working conditions are actually deteriorating:

"But that also means at the same time that you 'prove' in quotation marks that you can tighten the working conditions even further, increase the pressure even further and then everything will somehow work fewer staff to drive even longer shifts. "

The first tightening of labor law occurred in the middle of the crisis. At the beginning of April, the Federal Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Health issued the so-called COVID-19 Working Time Ordinance. This means that in times of crisis, twelve-hour shifts may be permitted for systemically relevant professions.

"My personal assessment would be that you really have to ask these fundamental questions and in the next step you have to organize the employees for it so that something really changes."