Germany: Seasonal workers force farm bosses to pay up

Creditors who had taken over the Spargel Ritter asparagus farm in Bornheim, Bonn, thought they could get away without paying what they owed to low-waged workers, but a solid campaign organised with the FAU syndicalist union soon disabused them of that notion.

The trouble with Spargel Ritter started two months before picking season was due to begin in April of this year, when creditors began bankruptcy proceedings against farm owners Claus and Sabine Ritter. Migrant workers were already being hired, mostly from Romania, despite an evident running-down of the site as the Ritters got into deeper financial trouble.

A report on the site in February described a rubbish-strewn mess where containers for the workers were no longer being even vaguely maintained and activity had been cut to the bone, a situation that certainly wasn’t going to improve when the creditors, led by law firm Dr. Schulte-Beckhausen & Bühs, rolled in.

Instead things got significantly worse when the workers started arriving for the harvest in mid-April, as it turned out that lead administrator Andreas Schulte-Beckhausen had no intention of paying for the back-breaking labour he was imposing on 240 harvest helpers who had travelled 1,800 miles to be there.

On May 15th, workers expected to get the wages they’d worked for, but instead got pittance money of €100-200 for a month’s work in the fields – €3-7 Euros a day for leaving their homes and families to live 4-5 to a room in rubbish-strewn shacks next to a sewage treatment plant in one of the richest regions on Earth, with no guarantee of seeing the rest as creditors attempted to rinse the collapsing company for all it was worth.

It was a final slap in the face on top of a mounting list of insulting behaviour from the new owners, who had already, according to the workers, been cutting corners wherever possible, including providing food that was mouldy and out of date, not bothering to provide heaters or adequate sanitation and latterly, a lack of PPE or virus distancing measures. Safety was so poor that one worker had been paralysed.

So their response was immediate. More than 150 people protested in the courtyard of the farm, making it clear they wouldn’t be wasting their time further without full payment.

The situation quickly escalated and when the FAU tried to send reps down – three workers were members – the administrators attempted a full lockdown, barring them from the site. Security were hired, at great expense, and up to 20 Bonn Police officers were drafted in to keep control as bosses threatened to evict the overcrowded containers being used to house them.

On the 19th around 80 harvest workers and a larger number of union supporters marched on the Romanian Consulate in Bonn to publicise their grievance, turning it into an international political issue, prompting major news sited to pick up on the issue and piling pressure on Schulte-Beckhausen, who they described as acting like the Mafia. A FAU rep stated at the rally: “The farce at Spargel Ritter must now be ended. Wages have to be paid, sick people have to be properly looked after. It is unbearable that this condition continues. “

A day later more money was magically forthcoming, as the administrators attempted to buy off the protests as inexpensively as possible. Even so, they attempted to stymie union oversight by diving workers into groups of ten, bussing them out of the area and only allowing FAU access to one vehicle.

FAU Bonn Tweeted: “We have achieved our minimum goal: the workers are not bankrupt and have no prospect of being put out on the street. Now the legal battle begins.”

The demands remaining for the Spargel Ritter workers include:

  1. All workers to be paid three months’ wages. The monthly wage is based on 30 working hours per week, remunerated at €9.35 per hour.
  2. All workers who wish it must be supported with a referral to other companies.
  3. A return trip to their home town should be organised for all workers who wish to leave, with the employer covering the cost. In the case of workers who need this for medical reasons, the costs of returning the patient to health mustbe borne.
  4. All workers are entitled to sick pay for sick days, at the regular rate of pay.

The legal end of the showdown is now in swing as FAU attempts to enforce full rights for the workers and eventually get them home with their full wage. The union is asking for support for its legal aid fund, details below.

FAU | IBAN: DE25 3506 0386 1112 5200 05 | BIC: GENODED1VRR | Reference: Asparagus Ritter