Modern slavery? – Asylum seekers as a source of cheap labour

Modern slavery? – Asylum seekers as a source of cheap labour

by Hansjörg Rothe

James Brokenshire is no communist, not even a Labour MP. He represents the Conservative Party in the British House of Commons. However, the name of the law which he introduced in November 2014 initiated the rebirth of a political term that was long forgotten in the European discourse, because it had seemingly been irrelevant for some 150 years: the Modern Slavery Act. Human trafficking and slavery are the crimes which are punished by this law. Ten to thirteen thousand people are said to be affected – in England and Wales, that is! The United Nations estimate the number of people “in the slave trade industry” to be between 27 and 30 million world-wide, 14 million in India alone.
 Alain Dehaze is no Swiss native but was born in Belgium, today he is the CEO of Adecco, the world´s largest labour leasing company with headquarters in Zürich. In mid April 2016 he gave an interview to the Swiss journal Finanz und Wirtschaft (Finance and Business), in which he outlines his expectations for profits made by his company in Germany. He was cautiously optimistic: “Germany remains an interesting market”, he said, although current efforts to pass a law that would make it illegal in Germany to pay lower wages to leased workers after 9 months could cut profit margins.
“Leased labour” – i.e. labour provided by leased workers who can be laid off any time and get lower wages for the same workload – played a major role twice in the last 20 years, each time when massive disturbances in the political party landscape of Germany have occurred: At first at the left edge of the spectrum, when chancellor Schröder introduced the concept of “leased labour” at the turn of the century and abolished financial aid for the long-term unemployed, which caused his Social Democratic Party to split while a new party under the name “The Left” was founded; and then again over the last several months at the right edge, where the ever increasing votes for the newly established party “Alternative for Germany” are interpreted as a reaction to the migration policies of the current government.
Both incidences are discussed in the “Finanz und Wirtschaft” interview. “Under Chancellor Schröder”, the Interviewer recalls, “temporary work used to be popular in Germany. It was seen as a means to bring the long-term unemployed back to work. Now the proposed bill [i.e. the plan to outlaw lower wages for the same workload for longer than 9 months] seems to indicate that the reputation of leased labour is somewhat tarnished.”
The following remark may explain why many companies are so happy to have leased workers in their work-force, although they have to pay the Adecco fees on top of the (really low) wages of the leased workers: “After a twelve months lease”, Dehaze said, “60% of our leased workers get a proper contract.” It is everybody’s guess how these prospects will influence the working spirit in the company.
Now that long-term beneficiaries of unemployment payment no longer exist in Germany, at least one million asylum seekers entered the country in 2015. This number includes several tens of thousands of refugees, mainly from Syria, i.e. people who had to flee their homes for comprehensible reasons. Thanks to a new law2, which was introduced on 29 September 2015 – while public discussions were still buzzing about the first weekend of that month when Angela Merkel and the (then still serving) Austrian Chancellor Faymann decided on their own to dump the Dublin agreements – all these people are now eligible for leased labour. All that is required, since the bill passed the Bundesrat chamber of German parliament in October 2015, is a waiting period of three to fifteen months.
Unsurprisingly, the Finanz und Wirtschaft interviewer muses about new areas of activity for Adecco in this context: “Considering Germany, the question poses itself, whether human resource providers could make a contribution to the integration of refugees into the labour market.” Alain Dehaze absolutely agrees and replies: “We are already co-operating closely with the authorities in Germany and organize first-hand enrollment. However, the legislative has to change the legal framework, so that people who have been granted asylum may be integrated into the labour market straightaway. In Germany a waiting period of fifteen months has to be observed at this point, before a refugee may be offered a job.”
This answer is interesting, since it contains a kernel of truth but distorts several other aspects, as it is only too common for political statements nowadays. In fact the passage of the law which Dehaize refers to states: “Asylum seekers and tolerated people [whose asylum applications were turned down] are no longer forbidden to be leased out by human resource providers after three months, if they are skilled workers. Unskilled workers are eligible for leased labour after fifteen months.” This effectively means that the whole asylum application process has been rendered irrelevant for the labour leasing companies – while proper work contracts are still forbidden for them, both immigrants who have just crossed the border (i.e. asylum seekers) and asylum seekers, whose applications were turned down (i.e. “tolerated people”) may now be leased out by labour leasing companies to work. It seems doubtful that Dehaze does not know that and just mixes the terms up by mistake. He talks about “people who have been granted asylum”, without mentioning that this would imply a completed asylum application process, which takes several months and will only be successful for the “real” refugees. Having been granted asylum, however, means for the refugee that after this process he or she may apply for jobs in the “proper” labour market. Those fifteen months, which Dehaze erroneously connects with “real” refugees, are not related to “jobs” for “refugees”, but to leased labour for unskilled asylum seekers and “tolerated people”.
Interestingly, Dehaze does not even mention the three month waiting period for skilled workers seeking asylum. Probably Adecco is not planning to invest time and money into the verification of qualifications which were obtained in Baghdad or Damascus. In the historical context this attitude is similar to the precursor of “leased labour”, which was introduced after the ban of slavery and referred to as “indentured labour” in the English speaking world: labour leasing companies of the late 19th century hired their workers mainly in India or the Pacific islands and leased them out to Caribbean or Australian sugar cane plantations or for guano mining in Peru. While apologists of this practice like to point out that several of those “coolies” or “blackbirds”, as the workers were usually called, signed up for a second term after the end of their contract, still in many instances the recruitment must have occurred under dodgy circumstances. Sometimes people of good will had to suffer because of that, such as the Anglican missionary John Coleridge Patteson, who was murdered on the Salomon islands in 1871. Contemporary commentators linked this tragic event to the so-called “missionary trick”, which recruiters posing as missionaries used to lure islanders on board of their ships with false promises.
Having had a glance into the overpopulated refugee camps in Germany today, one does not need to be a prophet to predict that many of the men will accept an offer made by labour leasing companies such as Adecco, Randstad (Netherlands) or Manpower (USA) – just to name the three market leaders. There are about one million leased workers of German origin today, this number will at least double within a short period of time. Still many of the asylum seekers are vocal about their disappointment, as the statement of an asylum co-ordinator3 suggests, since they had been promised a “house of their own” by “Mama Merkel” as they claim. However, this promise by Angela Merkel cannot be verified, in contrast to the notorious recruitment speech made by the current Federal president Gauck in India, in February 20144.
Of-course the former pastor Joachim Gauck is an honourable man, too. Nevertheless some German companies will soon find it challenging to explain to the Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland where their leased workers come from and how little they are paid. Starting in 2017 they will be legally required to provide such explanations, if they are involved in business relations with the United Kingdom – on a yearly basis. Should Adecco stock owners worry? Probably not, thanks to the German members of parliament, who included the following passage in their “asylum application process acceleration law”, which we quote one last time now: “Increased numbers of foreign employees will cause bureaucracy costs for the employers, how much exactly cannot be specified at the moment …. The German government will pay a compensation within one year.”    •


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