Germany works itself into a shopping frenzy during the holiday season. From PlayStations to bicycles, more and more presents are purchased online. That means backbreaking labor for employees at distribution centers, where workers have to lift countless packages from conveyor belts, sort them into bins and then load them onto trucks. BIEK, the German parcel-shipping lobby, estimates that workers will have sorted and distributed about 355 million packages in 2019 — up 7% from last year. In order to handle that load, logistics companies are increasingly turning to temporary workers, thousands of them.
Job agencies saw a loophole when Germany’s government began allowing visa-free travel for Ukrainians in 2017: The law would make it possible for students to participate in a special Federal Employment Agency program that permits students to work in Germany for two to three months per year. The only requirement is that they present a document bearing a stamp from the employment agency upon arrival their arrival in Germany. The idea behind the program — that students would come to Germany during their school holidays — quickly became a farce: Ukrainians, for example, are not only being recruited when they are on summer break, but rather whenever there is an acute labor shortage in Germany.
In recent years, agencies that offer temporary employment opportunities in Germany for students have popped up all over Ukraine. Websites advertise openings for package handlers, cooks and cleaners.
The simplified recruitment especially benefits such companies as DHL, which desperately needs temporary workers during the winter holidays. DW is in possession of contracts that document the fact that temporary workers from Ukraine are employed at DHL distribution centers in Neuwied, Krefeld and Neumünster.
Petro, who grew up in a poor village in western Ukraine and told DW that he is using his job at DHL to pay for his studies, works for less than €10 an hour. Germany’s federal minimum wage is €9.19. Standard pay for handlers with contracts at DHL is €12 ($13) an hour. He told DW that he’d had to pay the equivalent of about €200 to a Ukrainian company, which put him in touch with a German temporary-placement agency, which, in turn, secured him the chance to work for DHL for two to three months. Petro asked to use a pseudonym for fear that the agency he contracted with would retaliate. The company threatens “severe penalties” for talking with third parties about his job. He showed DW an affidavit that Ukrainians must sign, pledging to not even speak to their German colleagues at DHL about pay or working conditions.
A company representative confirmed to DW that DHL does contract with the temporary-placement agency Petro used. However, the representative said DHL was not breaking the law. “We require all companies that work with us to uphold minimum wage rules as well as abiding by existing law,” a statement from DHL read. The company did not respond to a question about whether the difference in pay for temp workers and regular staff meant savings for DHL or a cut for the temp agency.
Not much remains
Although DHL demands that temp agencies pay minimum wage, students often don’t have much left from the average of €1,500 they make per month. Petro, like many, had to borrow money just to make it to Germany in the first place.
DHL, for example, requires workers to rent their uniforms and purchase protective footwear. But, even before that, workers are charged at least €75 for the preparation and mailing of required documents by Ukrainian middlemen. The prepaid card that workers need for their pay to be transferred once they arrive costs another €60. Lastly, the Ukrainian companies who are the de facto recruiters assisting the German temp agency require a payment — illegal under German law — of €200 to €400.
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“The Federal Employment Agency is responsible for mediating all student jobs lasting less than three months,” a representative told DW. “Third-party placement agencies are not permissible.”
“If the Federal Employment Agency were to become aware of such a situation no placement confirmation would be granted,” the spokesperson said.
The agency also has its own official partner in Ukraine, the nongovernmental organization MultiKultiUA, which charges a €65 processing fee to students who are seeking work. The placement process takes four or five months, and student jobs are only offered in summer — mainly as farm help.
“The German Federal Employment Agency, with whom German companies work with to fill vacancies, can only find jobs for half of those seeking work,” MultiKultiUA’s Sergey Savicky said. Each year, about 300 students seek work through official channels, he added, but he estimates that up to 10 times as many seek employment through private placement companies. “They boast 100% placement,” he said. However, if the German police become suspicious and begin an investigation, Ukrainians can be deported, prohibited from reentering and charged heavy fines.