From the cradle to the grave… Paperworks….Nederlands
Berlin, April 2013
Working at an employment agency in Berlin seems like a simple way to earn a living as a new resident in the German capital. It is, but you have to be aware that an employment agency in Berlin cannot be compared in the slightest to an employment agency in Amsterdam, Utrecht or another Dutch city.
In the Netherlands you enter an employment agency, you have a kind of intake interview, fill in all kinds of forms and if you are lucky, you can get started quite quickly. Anyone who wants to tackle everything and does not shy away from unskilled, hard work will usually find something. In Amsterdam I once worked for a few months as a mail sorter at a company in Southeast. That was a nice job. You had to ensure that your job sheet was signed off and that the employment agency received the job sheets on time. You worked more or less from week to week and you also received your wages every week.
In Berlin, and in most other German cities as well, you enter a “Zeitarbeitsfirma”. I did that two years ago, at Zeitarbeitsfirma Widmann in the Neukölnn district. The company offered many jobs on the internet and that was a reason for me to introduce myself here. Just like in the Netherlands, you first have an intake interview at this employment agency here. Cozy, with a cup of coffee or tea to your liking. I told the young consultant a few things about my work experience. He was beaming, because I turned out to be deployable in various places. Out of vanity, I also told him that I had once published my own newspaper. He looked at me and I knew he was nor really taking me serious. I knew that because once I was in a similar position.
That was in the early 90’s. I was a 24-year-old chef dishwashing in the kitchen of a famous Amsterdam hotel, directly opposite the palace at Dam Square. Here I also had conversations with potential temporary and on-call workers in a small office in the basement. As a supervisor, like the boy from the employment agency here in Berlin, I wore a striped “Jan Lenferink shirt” and a dark blue tie. I had always rolled up my sleeves, because every now and then I was in the steaming dishwashing kitchen chasing the dishes from a big party through it. At that time I met the English temporary worker Colin, an older man in my eyes at the time, probably in his mid-forties, like me now. He told me about his career in England, that he had studied and was successfully running his own business. He talked a lot about that he was an engineer and a lot more. I remember not believing a word of it. Because, if really was that good, why was he sitting here at the hotel applying for a job as a dishwasher? No, something was wrong there!
In my eyes Colin was a poor bastard, who was loyal and needed money quickly. He stuttered a bit and also showed a slight tic when he talked. Colin initially turned out to be a very good force in the dishwashing kitchen. He always showed up when you called him and was more than 100% committed. That sometimes would cause problems, because not everyone was as fanatic as Colin. He raced down the halls with the trolley of dirty dishes. I often had to slow him down and say that it could also be a bit more controlled. Then he started cursing in English and stamping his feet. He could not tolerate criticism because he worked his way all the way through and oh dear…if someone said something about it. Not accepting criticism turned out to be Colin’s weak spot. He threw all his frustrations and pent-up anger into his work, often resulting in explosive situations. That explosive, that Colin showed up less often, smelled of alcohol whenever he did show up, and in the end he never showed up again.
Back to the office in Berlin. The consultant told me that the employment agency maintains good contacts with the BSR. I immediately knew what he was talking about because you see that abbreviation on all garbage trucks in town. Garbage man instead of dishwasher, something different, I thought. “That means that you are in the garbage truck as a co-driver,” the boy explained about the activities at the BSR. “And the great thing is, you will receive an extra euro surcharge for this. This also applies to working as a co-driver on the brewery car. You then help carry around barrels and crates of drinks. ”
I nodded and said “well, a euro is a bonus.” He looked at me with satisfaction and probably thought “we got that one”. “I am going to read you the safety instructions that must be observed when you are working for us in the dishwashing area. Then I discuss with you all the points for attention that apply to working in a factory hall, on the refuse or brewery truck or on the construction site. ”
I nodded. This was something typically German. Rules and forms. A man in a cafe once told me a saying that almost every German knows; Deutschland, von der Wiege bis zur Bahre – Formulare, Formulare (from the cradle to the grave – forms, forms)
After I expressed this wisdom, I saw little admiration on the consultant’s face. A faint laugh and then he went on to read me the instructions. He talked about work shoes, washing hands and a safety helmet. In my mind I was already on the brewery wagon, which you encounter in traffic here every day. I saw another one on the way to the employment agency. It was a big truck. A rather thin young man with a baseball cap stood on the tailgate. He smoked a cigarette, while the tailgate lifted automatically with a pallet of beer kegs and a pallet truck. As I passed, I saw that the wagon was loaded with barrels and crates. “Bitte unterschreiben,” asked the boy and brought me back to reality.
I signed one form, then another form, one more and one more. All forms stating that I had taken note of the safety instructions, that I do not discriminate, that I comply with the rules, etc., etc. After this autograph campaign, the boy asked what size clothing I had. I shrugged my shoulders. He laughed, don’t ask me why. I was still after my cup of tea, letting everything come to me. The young consultant got up, opened a filing cabinet and took out blue overalls. The garbage collectors’ orange clothes also hung in the closet. An orange that reminded me strongly of the Dutch national football team. The closet was otherwise filled with work gloves, caps and work shoes. Routinely the boy grabbed everything together and put the overalls, my work shoes and work gloves in a bag with the text “Arbeiten bei Widmann macht spaß (working at Widmann is fun)”.
I wanted to get up, but suddenly it occurred to me that I didn’t even know how much I was making. He had talked about it but it had escaped me completely. I asked him again what my hourly wage was exactly. He suddenly looked dubious, as if I would suddenly decide not to work for Widmann. “That is € 6.89 as“ tarifliche Grundvergütung (TV-Lohn), to which is added the “übertarifliche Zulage (ÜTL) of € 0.11 and then we arrive at € 7.00 gross per hour.” “But then there is also the surcharge of the BSR on top of and of the brewery car, the insurance is in it, holiday pay, everything is paid by the firm Widmann.” I nodded. “And when will I get my money, every week?” I asked, because that piece of explanation was not entirely clear to me either.
“Always the 20th of the month,” he said. “Guaranteed,” he added.
That day was the fifth of the month. If all I would earn that month, I wouldn’t get paid until a month later. That was what went through my mind. I asked to be sure. Yes, it was. He didn’t really care that you got your money every week in the Netherlands. “This is Germany!” he laughed.
I did not laugh. I was stressed out and started doing math. This was an unexpected setback. I had signed a six-month contract. During those six months, the employment agency can do whatever it wants with me and you will receive your wages once a month. Usually, overtime is not paid. These are “settled” for the days when there is no work for you. You will receive a basic salary of 20 hours per week (this can also be 32 hours per week) and you are obliged to take on all the work that the employment agency offers you. A trial period of 6 months was attached to this six-month contract. Strange but true. Once at home I read the contract again calmly. During the first four weeks, a notice period of 2 working days applies, from the fifth week to two months the notice period was five working days and from the third to the sixth month a notice period of two weeks was in effect. I didn’t know at the time, but I would also use it later.
The young consultant already called a day later. He sounded enthusiastic and told me that I could start tomorrow. At 5:30 am at a large beer brewery in the east of the city. I had to report to the gate. “Don’t forget your Blaumann, work shoes and gloves,” the boy told me. “Everything is ready,” I replied and went to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. My roommate Klaus, I was living in a WG (living group) of two people at the time, I explained that I had to get started the next day and I asked if he knew who Blaumann was.
“You wear a Blaumann,” he told me. Now it came back to me. These blue overalls are often referred to as “Blaumann” in Germany. I took my work clothes out of the bag. I had never worn overalls and certainly not Blaumann. Do you keep your clothes on underneath or just your underwear? I tried on the garment with the many pockets and suspenders first with only underpants underneath. I noticed there was no fly in it. Then I changed my loafers for the heavy work shoes. I decided to try it on with a denim book, because only with underpants it felt very naked. I saw myself in the mirror of the wardrobe and was shocked. I barely recognized myself. I had seen those blue overalls before in the cityscape, just like those brewery wagons. Groups of men in blue overalls with a bottle of beer in hand, a lonely blue overalls lonely in the morning at a bus stop or a group of blue overalls, smoking in front of the S-Bahn station.
The next morning, I rode Klaus’s bicycle towards the brewery. It was dark, cold and foggy. I had to be very careful not to be run over by the racing cars on this road without a cycle path. In the middle of the road was the tram rails, something that reminded me of Amsterdam.
In the tram that drove past I saw two men in blue overalls. This morning I felt related to the Berlin worker in his blue overalls. The blue overalls stood for hard, hard work. Hand in hand, comrades, that feeling. I parked my bicycle on the sidewalk in front of the brewery and reported to reception as agreed by telephone. Of course I had to endorse forms here as well, I was used to that by now. Go straight ahead and then report to the office on the left, the man from the security service said. He pointed in the direction of the area that was full of large trucks full of liquor. I walked with heavy steps to the office, which turned out to be a converted site hut. I was prepared for my role as a laborer for hard work. Two of the six drivers responded to my “Tomorrow” greeting. It was not yet clear that I was a foreigner. I immediately decided to open up and tell who I am.
“I’m from the Netherlands and don’t speak German very well yet,” I said in my best German. Hands were shaken and the driver with whom I had to travel even offered me a cup of vending machine coffee. I already felt at home in the world of the Blaumanni.
The brewery car had a comfortable truck cabin, from which I watched the city slowly that was slowly waking up. The driver had his thermos of coffee with him and poured himself a cup of coffee while driving. I had to say something because we would be out all day together. The longer you don’t say anything, the more difficult it becomes to say anything else.
“This is my first time doing this job,” I said. It was correct and I had also covered myself against possible mistakes. He was not really enthusiastic. That will be fine, he said something like that. I wanted to know whether the regular co-driver is ill. Yes, the man was sick. I noticed from the tone of the answer that his regular co-driver was often sick. At least he and his regular co-driver did not seem to be close friends. I asked a question again because his answers were rather short. The man was clearly not a big talker.
“How many supermarkets do we visit today?” I asked. “Today it’s mainly cafes and restaurants in Tegel,” he said, taking a sip from his coffee mug with a stripping woman on it. Cafés and restaurants, are they open at this time, I did not ask. Do not ask too many questions immediately after each other, that is more like an interview or even an interrogation. Maybe the man had bad experiences with interrogations, after all we were in Berlin.
The driver called. I understood from his conversation that someone had to open a gate so that we could do our job. We stopped by the side of the road. I didn’t see a cafe or restaurant anywhere nearby. The engine stalled and my driver got out. It is over there, he said, pointing in the direction of a barrier. Once outside he showed me how to lower the tailgate. I nodded and remembered which buttons to press on the next customer to lower that valve. With a long paper frame in his hand, he placed a dozen crates of soft drinks and four casks of beer on a pallet, took the electric pallet truck and pulled it all onto the tailgate. He pressed a button twice with his foot, lowering the tailgate. I felt quite unnecessary.
Together we walked up to the barrier, the pallet truck could just pass under it, and so did we. To the left and right of the paved path were small houses with a garden. It was a complex with allotment gardens, which you usually see near the train track. In one of the gardens even a Dutch flag was waving. That gave me reason to say something again. “Holländische Flagge”, I said and pointed. The man said nothing.
“Tomorrow!!” That was the woman on the phone. She stood behind a barred metal gate, put the key in the lock, and let us in. I shook the woman’s hand and said I was new. Did we feel like a cup of coffee? I immediately said yes, but quickly added that of course we had to “work” first.
“Have a quiet cup of coffee,” my driver said.
I looked at him. Fortunately it was not intended to be cynical, because then a bad atmosphere had already been created for the rest of the day. I still protested slightly, because I felt I couldn’t sit at the bar and drink coffee now, while he was busy with beer kegs. He patted my shoulder and told me to just enjoy my coffee. Well, I thought, there is no better way to start this working day.
“Sandwich with it?” Asked the friendly canteen lady.She was a woman who was the perfect fit for this canteen with football flags, pictures of clover nights, fake gold chandeliers and tables with plaid plastic tablecloths.
She reminded me of the Dutch singer called De Zangeres Zonder Naam (The Singer Without a Name) because she was also such a type of folk woman. A Berlin folk woman who made a “Mettbrötchen” for me. The driver smiled and said “enjoy it”. I asked for the umpteenth time if I shouldn’t help, because I hadn’t touched a crate so far. “No, we have plenty of time. No problem, enjoy your breakfast first. ”
I enjoyed the two half sandwiches with some kind of minced meat, onions, pepper and salt. It was not the breakfast I would find out for myself, but it tasted great. My driver walked past again with two kegs in his hand and nodded “come on then, have a cola”. I poured a glass of Coke and felt better than ever. I could also go to the bathroom. My intestines weren’t prepared for so many goodies this early morning. It was a fumbling to open the overalls, then the denim book and then try to sit. I bumped into the door a few times, shouted “scheiss blaumann” and heard the woman and my driver cracked down.
The first hour and a half of work were done and I felt good. Outside it had become a bit lighter. On the way to the second customer I wondered what to expect next. The street had clearly gotten busier. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle, the full trams with the windows fogged up, the annoyed motorists and the hurried cyclists. I was comfortably dry in the cabin and my Blaumann proved that I was also at work.
“Here we have to wait until nine o’clock,” the driver said. I checked my watch. It was half past seven. I asked him if that actually meant waiting an hour and a half. He nodded yes.
Allard van Gent
Allard (1966) works as a freelance journalist, copywriter and translator German – Dutch. He has lived in Berlin since April 2011. He successfully completed the course Copywriting at the Hogeschool Holland (specialization magazine journalism) and the course Translator German at the ITV College for Interpreting & Translation in Utrecht.