“Let's show the world how we live and work!”

By Lisa Riedner, Munich | Pictures: Trixi Eder

The Struggles of Bulgarian Day-labourers in Munich

With Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, Bulgarian citizens are entitled to free movement within other EU states. For many members of Bulgaria’s large Turkish minority, this new freedom was taken as a chance to get away from discrimination and economic despair at home. Pembe, Natka, Hristo and Yasar, four ethnic Turks from the town of Pazardjik in Bulgaria, went to Bavaria’s capital Munich with hopes of making a better life. However, they were forced to realize that free movement does not automatically entail the possibility of legal employment. Germany as well as other older EU states made use of the “transition period” of Bulgaria’s accession by blocking Bulgarian citizens’ access to their labour markets until 2014. Banned from legal employment, migrants like Pembe, Natka, Yasar and Hristo find themselves in a catch-22 of illegalized abusive work relations (often as day-labourers) and homelessness. Now, some of these workers work together with the Munich-based « Initiative Zivilcourage » and the union ver.di to change their situation. They develop initiatives that should raise public awareness for the situation of the Turkish day labourers from Bulgaria; volunteers provide language trainings and the union organises legal advise.  The pictures shown are one of the outcomes of these activities.

One Friday morning in Munich in April 2010, members of the Initiative für Zivilcourage and I set up an information desk to brief migrant workers about their rights. The Initiative is an independent, non-state organisation. Those engaged are individuals of various ages and backgrounds, brought together by one naive interest: to take action to shape life, making it self-determined, worth-living as well as free of exclusion and exploitation for everyone. I am able to dedicate most of my time to the Initiative, as it is central to my Ph.D.-project in Social Anthropology.

We had located the info desk at a street corner. In the early morning, there were already people hanging around, seemingly waiting for something and I was wondering who they were and what they were waiting for. After our arrival, they had left the side of the street where we were installing our stand and preferred to lean on the walls on the other side of the street instead. Mostly men of various ages, they seemed to avoid any interaction with us. I am not sure how the first contact happened - members of the Initiative might have distributed a flyer to them. My first communication was indirect. A policeman arrived and asked some men standing next to me for their passports, but not me. I asked him why he seemingly asked only darker skinned individuals for their ID. So he asked for mine, too. Waiting as the police checked the IDs, we exchanged some glances and words, “Bulgaria?” - “Bulgaria.” “Deutschland?”- “München, ja”. 

In the following hours, they discovered that some of us spoke Turkish, that we wanted to take action against exploitation, and that we were interested in their stories. It turned out they were day-labourers, waiting for employers, mainly from the construction and cleaning sector, and that they were waiting on that street corner every day. They came from Bulgaria, but spoke Turkish as they belong to the country’s large Turkish minority. Their stories gave the impression of a daily life full of struggles. Accommodation, medical services, work and payment were not easily available to them. Spontaneously, we decided to learn more about their situation.

 A place for a meeting was found soon. The theatre “Kammerspiele” had launched their neighbourhood project “Munich Central” in a former supermarket just a few days ago. Already the same afternoon we met there. In a lively conversation, the question was raised if we should try to raise public awareness for the group's presence and their issues. Would public attention lead to more repression - or even to their expulsion? Or would it help in giving them a voice to promote their needs and demands, eventually leading to a better life? This dilemma got practical soon: The idea to take part at the traditional Mayday demonstration was proposed. Surprisingly to me, the decision to participate was reached quickly. “Let's show the world how we live and work!” shouted Hristo, one of the first individuals we had talked to.

 I did not know then, that I was going to get to know some of the day-labourers, including Hristo, much better in the following weeks and months. Hristo has a wife and two sons in Bulgaria. Presently, he is not able to send money back home to them and he would go back, if it were not for his court case, which is still running in Munich. He and his nephew Selahattin had found a job at a warehouse, when, on their third working day, their employer accidentally mishandled a pallet transporter and Selahattin lost his right forefinger. The employer took him to hospital, however, reported the incident incorrectly, claiming that it had been a private accident while changing tires. Then he sacked them without payment for the three days work. They decided to go to court. According to their lawyer, it will not be easy as they only had an oral contract for the work. 

Hristo’s story was additional confirmation that supporting the day-labourer’s presence at the demonstration was the right thing to do. To prepare, we met again at the same theatre a couple of days later. Banners needed to be made, slogans to be discussed, a flyer to be written. About 20 day-labourers joined in. Together, we sat down to gather and discuss the most important facts and demands to tell the public. Members of the Initiative facilitated that discussion and created the flyer, as the day-labourers did not have the experience, education and facilities for such discussion. However, the phrasing in the resulting flyer is very close to their own words and expressions:

Left out And Exploited
We want respect and more rights – not only on paper!
Since 2007, Bulgaria has been part of the EU. Many of us (more than 300) have come to Munich to work, often with our families and children. Now we are living in terrible conditions – often without housing, food, water, and medical services. However, in Bulgaria we see even less of a future for us.
We are treated like second-class individuals. Everyday, we are confronted with discrimination and resentment!
We do not understand why Bulgaria is an EU-country but we are not treated as free EU-citizens. Police officers control us regularly, often five times a day, although they know us already and that our papers are OK. As EU-citizens we are holding an unlimited residence permit. Our problem is that most of us do not have a work permit!
Theoretically, getting working papers is practically impossible – it is always very difficult. Often, we don't even know our rights and the procedures of claiming them.
We are allowed to work as self-employed. But often, it is too difficult to correctly fill out the required forms. There is no possibility for us to get information about the requirements. The low wages agreed on are often not paid; work accidents are not insured. The status of self-employed is often used to by-pass costs required for employed workers such as social insurance. Good employers who want to employ us are afraid to do so because we do not have work papers.
But we have to work to earn our and our families' living. So we are forced to accept badly paid and insecure jobs.
Our financial situation is precarious!
Many of us stay with good-willed people from our home or on streets. We cannot find affordable places to stay. In private dormitories they often just don't accept us, also because we are Turkish Bulgarians.
A lot of men and women are standing on the pavement in the neighbourhood south of the railway station and waiting for jobs. Shop owners chase us away, many are hostile towards us.
But where shall we go?
We demand:
•  Opportunities for further education about our rights, bureaucratic procedures and German classes
•  Unlimited work permits within the EU, easy and fast procedures!
•  In cases of housing and work shortage: access to social services and help with the search for housing
•  We need medical treatment for our invalids, elders and children
•  Respect of fellow citizens and an end to daily police controls
•  A room and meeting place, away from the streets!

We distributed these flyers at the Mayday demonstration one week later.

May Day Demonstration and Beyond

When we arrived, some hundred people had already gathered in front of the union-building. Various speeches were held targeting the current social cutbacks. The flags of the major German unions were blowing in the wind. One word was omni-present: The crisis! In relatively prosperous Munich, however, crisis seemed to be something mostly connected with far away places: Greece, the US, Spain.

Yet with the day-labourers a group of people took part in the demonstration whose situation was critical indeed. About 80 men and two women - none of them had been represented here in the last years, together with 15 members of the Initiative, joined in with several banners showing their demands, two drums and the flyer above. We were certainly the loudest and – as I do believe – the most sincere group in this annual march for better labour conditions and social justice. Shouting the slogans "We want to work!", "Long live international solidarity" and "We want respect and rights!" we certainly out-cried the mayor of Munich who held a speech at the final rally.

After this first, quite successful and inspiring collaborative action of the day-labourers and the members of the Initiative, more and more activities evolved in the course of the next months. A regular German course was arranged; once a week, student volunteers now teach basic vocabulary according to the day-labourers' demands. Moreover, members of the Initiative accompanied claimants to municipal offices, hospitals, etc. “When the claimants went alone, they were refused right away in most of the cases, when someone accompanied them, they mostly were successful”, explained a member of the Initiative. They also met for discussions on topics like housing, discrimination, bureaucracy and went to sit in for their demands at municipal political debates.

Furthermore, collaboration with the union ver.di's new office for (un)documented migrant workers evolved and Hristo and his nephew became the first Bulgarian day-labourer members of ver.di, which is now providing their lawyer. Currently, about 250 Bulgarian citizens of Munich have joined – most of them had taken part in the Mayday demonstration. One of the originators of the new office expressed her opinion on the reasons for exploitation: The transitional arrangement for new EU-countries, which restricts the new EU-citizens' right to work in the EU, aims to combat wage dumping – “but in fact, it achieves the opposite and creates an informal market. About ninety per cent are withheld their wages!” Moreover, lawmakers have laid thorns on the path to a secure employment relationship: Once you have found a job as new EU-citizen in Germany, you and your employer have to fill out complicated forms that are only available in German, hand them in at the employment office and wait four weeks during which the employment office checks if there are any Germans or EU citizens of the old member states willing to do the job. Alternatively, you can be self-employed – but this is full of snares.

The Collaborative Workshops of Photographic Documentation

Following up on the preparation of the Mayday demonstration, my partner Trixi, photographer and psychologist, and I decided that we wanted to develop our interaction with the day-labourers further with our contribution to the Flexi In Security project. At the demonstration, we had asked Hristo, and three of the most motivated participants – Natka, Pembe and Yasar - if they would like to meet again with us to develop a photographic representation of their issues in a few workshops. Not really knowing what we wanted, as they explained later, the four preliminarily agreed and gave us their cellphone numbers.

We began the project soon after. We met the four in the old supermarket, but moved into a café soon, as it was too busy there. First, the atmosphere was a bit tense, as nobody really knew what would happen or how things would develop. But the ice soon broke and lively discussions about their situation, experiences, aims and ways to show them to a public audience developed. We decided to combine techniques of coaching with participatory photography. Thus, we hoped to be able to support the participants in their struggle to live a life worth living, to learn about the most relevant and pressing issues and to express their aims and messages publicly.

Usually coaching is used as a technique for business people to optimize processes of problem-solving. Obviously, homelessness, discrimination, unemployment and poverty differ from the issues business people are concerned with. It was a challenge to deal with the severity of the problems in this case and with the language barrier. We communicated with the help of a friendly German-Turkish interpreter. The goals of the four were defined very easily: a home, a job, health insurance, living together with their families, living independently, and an end to discrimination. The difficult part was to develop individual strategies for reaching their goals. How can you reach a goal when the steps that lead there are blocked by social deprivation, bureaucracy and discrimination? This asks for strong creativity, confidence and endurance. All of them have been struggling for a living for their whole life – working in factories, travelling far to find jobs, learning how to survive on the streets. How could our collaboration develop further potentialities without falling into paternalism or platitudes?

It turned out that in addition to our conversations about the upcoming issues and collective visits of municipal offices, we were able to make only rather symbolic action that nonetheless showed some results. First, we formulated sentences that would describe the individual's most important messages or aims. Then, we made speech bubbles out of cardboard, black paint and sticks so we could go out on the street to take expressive pictures. This developed into a public performance drawing the attention of many people passing by and local residents. 

The four and their messages

“I wanna live an independent life!” ...

…answered Natka to my question concerning what her goals had been when she had moved to Munich. Her home town Pazardjik had nothing to offer her any more, especially after the crisis. In autumn 2009, she and her best friend Pembe decided to follow some of their friends and took the 24-hour bus to Munich. Migration was easier now, as Bulgaria had joined the EU in 2007. “That was a big adventure! We two women sat in the bus and we were so excited!”
Natka's determination and joy about the step of leaving Pazardijk to look for a better life was relieving to hear, as it followed on her account of the hardships of her every day life in Munich. She did not have a place to stay, she was homeless. Her hunt for jobs was mostly unsuccessful. Without a private place to rest or any change to at least buy a coffee and sit down in an establishment, she lived on the streets. When she was not invited to stay at friends' places, she was forced to find someplace to sleep on the street or at the railway station. 
Like many of her friends, she spent most of her time in the neighbourhood close to Munich Central Station. Here, they leaned against walls, chatted and waited for employers to pick them up for a few hours, a day's or a couple of days' work. 

“I want to work! Why can't I get papers?”

…was the slogan Pembe chose for herself. Especially after her accident two months ago, she does not feel able to struggle any more without social safety and health insurance. She had been hit by a car, brought to a hospital and received first aid and a basic examination. But then, she was asked to pay. As she was not able to do so, she was sent away. She still has difficulties breathing and pains in her shoulder, however,  the medical services for homeless and undocumented people refused to do more than a superficial examination. For her, employment would mean health insurance. It would mean a room with a comfortable bed to sleep in and the chance to get away from life on the streets. She had already thought herself close; just a few days before we met, she had met the owner of a small cleaning company who would have employed her if she could start immediately. But she could not; due to the mentioned bureaucratic restrictions, she would have to wait at least four weeks for her work permit – and even then might not have gotten it at all.
However, when I asked her if she was frightened living in Munich under the present conditions, she answered: “Frightened? No, I have never been frightened in Munich! So many friends are here and we support each other.” She spends her days with her neighbours from Pazarjik. She is almost inseparable from Natka. They have been friends since their childhood. Along with other names of their beloved ones, they have tattooed each other's names on their arms. Together, they are standing up for their rights. “We were the only women in our group at the demonstration!” she reminded me proudly.

“We live here, they live over there. Their roads are paved, ours are dusty.”

…Yasar told me his message standing on the invisible border between a Bulgarian and a Turkish-Bulgarian neighbourhood in Pazarjik. The chance to take a trip to Bulgaria had come up for me when Yasar had invited me to his home town before he left Munich. Life on the streets had made him ill and his current employer had withheld his wages. I took the invitation and stayed at their house in Pazarjik for a few days. It was an opportunity to learn more about this town, from where Hristo, Natka and Pembe also come, and about the situation of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria.

Pazarjik is a town of 75 000 inhabitants. In the province of Pazarijk, about 6.6 per cent of the population belong to the Turkish minority. After the Roma, Turks appear in statistics as the second biggest national minority. Their marginalization has historical roots. In the Communist era they were subjected to a policy of assimilation. In June 1984, the Zhivkov government adopted a policy that aimed to re-name all Turkish with Slavic names, to ban the wearing of distinctive Turkish clothing, to forbid the use of the Turkish language and to close down mosques. Yasar's official name had been changed to Angel. However, his accounts of communist times were not all bad. “Zhivkov at least built housing for us!” he said, pointing at a concrete skeleton between shabby apartment blocks in a dusty neighbourhood on the outskirts of Pazarjik. “In 1989, they stopped constructions and left this site to rot”.

His home is in a settlement of self-built houses right next to the apartment block. He shares the house with his wife, his three sons and their wives. Each couple has a room. Although only the youngest son has a child, it is very cramped already.  There is no kitchen, no bathroom – but the four rooms are little jewels, decorated with fine wallpaper, paraphernalia and well-sized TVs. Yasar has paved the stairs to the rooms on the first floor with marble (or something similar) and cast  columns in decorative shapes. This speaks of the modest wealth they brought from abroad and Yasar is proud of his craftsmanship. They cook in the yard; there is no shower and no warm water. But at least they have water and electricity. A few hundred meters further, the huts are much less stable and lack even these basic necessities.

During Zhivkov's times, Yasar had a job in a local factory. After 1989, those factories were shut down one after another, the last ones with Bulgaria's introduction into the EU. Yasar does not believe that any effort is made by the state of Bulgaria or the EU to improve the situation of minorities in Bulgaria nowadays. With the EU, at least, free movement was introduced. Even more workers than before go to earn their families' living in EU countries: Spain, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Germany….

“I am a human being, am I not?”

…is Hristo's message to the imagined spectators. He can no longer stand the everyday discrimination that has haunted him his whole lifetime. “In Bulgaria, we are treated as second class citizens. In Munich, it isn't much better”. On the streets, he says, he is treated without respect. Policemen ask him to leave no matter where he is. When he asks where he is supposed to go, they slightly wave their hand as if to indicate: “Anywhere, just keep moving.” However, it is not only the police that disrespect him. The well-thought-of owner - once called the “mayor of the quarter” by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet - of a hotel on the street where the day-labourers used to wait for jobs, was recently cited by a major German daily as saying “These people are nothing, I call the police, remove them, all are dirty, but the police say you cannot send them away to their home country; Bulgaria is in the EU, unfortunately”. 
In addition to this daily discrimination, it is almost impossible to find affordable rooms to rent in Munich. Prices are shocking: A dormitory charged 1200 Euro for a room measuring 16 square meters and shared by five day-labourers. Hristo showed us the place he had slept for several weeks; it was a well at the side of a busy road, with barely a roof overhead. “Document this! Show it to the whole world!” he insisted.

Taking the messages to the street

Pembe, Natka and Hristo – Yasar had left to Pazarjik before we started our photographic work – together with Trixi chose places and situations for their photo shoot with their speech bubbles. Hristo chose the place where he used to sleep. Both Natka and Pembe positioned themselves at the junction where they often waited for work. These activities always had the air of something disreputable, secret about it. Day-labourers would try to hide away and avoid the attention of their fellow citizens, who would often not know why they were hanging around there and would suspect something disrespectful. Local café and shop owners would rail and chase them off. But now, Pembe, Natka and Hristo held the signs “I want to work! Why don't I get papers?”; “I am a human being, am I not?” and “I wanna live an independent life!”, accompanied by a photographer. My impression was that this happening startled the hidden communication process between the participants of this everyday scene and brought their issue to public perception. Their self-esteem was raised: “Finally I am treated with respect as human being,” said Pembe.


After a member of the Initiative confronted him publicly with his statement and he had a face-to-face conversation with a day-labourer, even the hotel owner respects the day-labourers now. He invited them for fast-breaking during Ramadan and promoted their demands – especially their demand for a room and meeting place. His main interest in doing so might still be to “keep the streets clean”. But he positions himself now in collaboration with the day-labourers and less with the police whom he urged to chase all Bulgarians away just some months ago.