On the day when Evrim Günal* dismantled her workplace, it was raining cats and dogs. The social worker and her colleagues pulled plastic garbage bags over their heads against the wet winter weather.
Then they began to tear down a tent city in the northern part of Essen where, until recently, hundreds of refugees had been housed. They dismantled camp beds and stacked them on pallets, disposed of mattresses and folded tents together – a job for construction workers, not social workers.
Ms. Günal pitched in nonetheless. Don’t create trouble, she thought: Shortly before, her employer European Homecare (EHC), Germany’s largest operator of refugee housing, had announced mass layoffs in Essen because of declining numbers of asylum seekers.
Ms. Günal said it was unclear for weeks who would go and who would stay. “I helped to take down the tents because I hoped to keep my job.” EHC management encouraged those hopes, says Süleyman Yildiz, who for years himself belonged to management. “People didn’t want to help in clearing the site. So they were told: ‘If you do it, you have a good chance of keeping your job,’” says Mr. Yildiz. A spokesman from European Homecare denies that such promises were made.
In any case, the hope proved to be fruitless for Ms. Günal, Mr. Yildiz and 150 other employees in Essen. At the end of the year, they lost their jobs. The company declined to comment further on the matter.
Quite a few providers are closing down accommodations for asylum seekers. They are consolidating locations and firing employees. In 2015, some 890,000 refugees came to Germany; in 2016, it was only 280,000. German states are scaling back their reception centers; local councils are doing the same. “The number of provisional accommodations is continuously declining,” states the German Association of Towns and Municipalities.
Companies like EHC made a lot of money at the height of the refugee crisis in the autumn of 2015. And they undoubtedly also create jobs.
The Research Institute of the Federal Employment Agency (IAB) estimates that some 50,000 jobs were created over the short term. “In certain professions such as social work, an intense search was made and all possibilities explored. Things won’t continue like that,” says IAB researcher Enzo Weber. The market will once again become more difficult – as EHC's former employees can testify.
The number of provisional accommodations is continuously declining. German Association of Towns and Municipalities
The company has attracted unwelcome publicity in the past. In 2014, pictures went round the world showing employees of the SKI security service physically assaulting refugees at an EHC home in Burbach. The Public Prosecutor’s Office in Siegen is continuing to investigate the incident, including the role of the head of the company, Sascha Korte. Refugees were also assaulted by SKI employees at EHC accommodations in Essen.
Nevertheless, municipalities continued to use EHC. Business boomed. The most recently published balance sheet shows that already in 2014, revenues doubled in comparison to the previous year and amounted to almost €39 million; profits even rose by 280 percent to €5.3 million. Since then, EHC says that its workforce increased by a factor of five to 2,000; revenues have most certainly risen to more than €100 million.
In reaction to the assaults in Burbach, the local government in Arnsberg in 2014 came to an agreement with the operators regarding new security standards that were to apply to all accommodations for asylum seekers in North Rhine-Westphalia. But according to Ms. Günal, there are indications that, at least in the tent dwellings in Essen, European Homecare didn’t always adhere to those standards. Shortly before the living quarters were dismantled, she says, 200 to 300 persons still lived in the tent village.
The security standards of the district council specified that for accommodations of up to 200 residents, at least three people must be present around the clock for grounds surveillance and gate supervision. Security patrols inside and outside the housing are to be conducted by trained security personnel.
But sometimes only two security officials were present at the site in Essen; one sat at the entrance, the other watched the kitchen. “So as social workers, we made the rounds,” says Ms. Günal. “Of course, that was a disadvantage for the residents.” Less time was left to give assistance to the refugees. EHC states that it has no knowledge of social workers taking over the tasks of security personnel.
Other accommodation centers in Essen are said to have been frequently understaffed between 2013 and 2016. “When city inspectors came, a kitchen helper was quickly declared to be a social worker so that the staffing requirements were maintained,” says former manager Süleyman Yildiz. EHC disputes his account.
Employees apparently had hardly any opportunities to complain about working conditions. “Anyone who telephoned headquarters in Essen got in big trouble the next day with the supervisors,” Mr. Yildiz claims.
There are workers’ councils at only two of the nearly 100 EHC locations throughout Germany.
At a refugee home in the city of Neuss, attempts at creating a third company workers’ council backfired. In mid-November 2016, the staff there sought to set one up. However, only two days after they had posted a bulletin informing everyone about upcoming elections, the EHC personnel manager paid a visit to Neuss: “He said he had bad news that the home was being closed and all 126 employees were being fired as of December 31,” said Murat Korkmaz, who was at the meeting. The manager said that the decision was based on the fact that fewer refugees were arriving. After the Ver.di labor union got involved and the local newspaper published a story, only 15 of the 126 employees were let go; the others were given jobs at other EHC refugee homes.
The EHC spokesman said that the announcement of mass layoffs was a misunderstanding. Viewing the visit by the personnel manager as a response to the planned election of a workers’ council is “nonsense in every way,” he claims.
“One wonders where the change of heart came from,” countered Özay Tarim of Ver.di in regards to the jobs that were preserved. Even so, the Neuss employees won’t be voting for a workers’ council. The accommodations are being shut down. “So there is no longer a legal basis for a workers’ council election,” Mr. Tarim said.
In general, the tight-lipped family-run company has shown little interest in giving employees a voice. According to the business register, EHC has no supervisory board where worker representatives could fight for better working conditions. Yet European Homecare says that it has 2,000 employees – which would legally obligate it to set up a supervisory board with equal worker representation.
* name changed.
This article first appeared in business weekly Wirtschafts Woche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected]