On The Job, It's A Veritable U.N.

The construction boom in Germany created jobs not just for Germans but for bricklayers, carpenters, and other laborers from as far away as Russia and Portugal. Even with the drop in projects, up to a half-million foreignworkers will toil on German construction sites this year for as little as $4 an hour, or one-tenth the $41 average hourly wage cost for unionized German construction workers, estimate union and industry sources. They typically work for subcontractors based outside Germany. To save money, thousands live in makeshift homes at construction sites or simply sleep in their cars.

About 200,000 of these foreign laborers come from other European Union states, such as Spain and Britain. EU rules give them the right to seek employment in any member state. But critics of the policy are arguing that this is the kind of single market Germany can do without. "[Our neighbors] are doing nothing other than exporting their unemployment," says Klaus Wiesehugel, chairman of construction union IG Bau. "We don't want a [common] Europe if we have to carry it on our backs."

ON THE JOB, IT'S A VERITABLE U.N. (int'l edition)

Wiesehugel hopes that the new legislation winding its way through Parliament will help alleviate the problem. The law would set a minimum wage of about $14.50 an hour for all workers on German construction sites--regardless of where they come from. Companies that are caught breaking the regulations would be subject to fines and would be barred from public works projects in Germany.

Yet if it is passed, the law will likely have limited impact. Policing Germany's 500,000 construction sites will be an overwhelming task. And EU officials could decide that the law contradicts free-trade rules and toss it out. One way or another, Portuguese, Polish, and plenty of other languages will still be spoken at Germany's building sites.

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