Migrant's Case Highlights Modern Slavery in Germany

Before Biser Rusev left to live his own German dream, he took his goats out every morning to graze in the fields of Vetovo, in northeastern Bulgaria. Rusev was a good goatherd, never losing a single animal. The livestock dealers were pleased with his work. They paid him with anise liqueur, potatoes or custom bobbleheads, only a few paid in cash. Rusev rarely left his village in northern Bulgaria, near the Danube River. He felt safe in Vetovo, never locked his door. Most of all, his work was in demand there.

Since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, many Vetovo residents left for the West, most of them going to Germany. When they returned, they drove German cars, renovated their houses, bought land and wore gold around their wrists. "A lot of gold," says Rusev. He became curious about this faraway country, this place where money grew on trees, at least according to the rumors coming from those returning to his village. That was in the late summer of 2011.

Today, 18 months later, Rusev is lying in a decommissioned hospital bed in Room 35 of a hostel for the homeless near Ostpark, a park in Frankfurt, sorting out the wreckage of his life. His body is emaciated, there are dark rings around his eyes and his cheeks are sunken. The plaster is crumbling from the ceiling, fluorescent lights illuminate the cracked walls and trains rattle by outside. A blonde anchorwoman smiles from the TV set, but Rusev can't understand what she is saying. This is the new world of a goatherd from Vetovo: eight square meters (86 square feet) of Germany, in a place next to a freight yard that represents the end of the line for the homeless.

Rusev is one of the so-called "pseudo self-employed" in the German labor market -- one of tens of thousands who are formally registered as small business owners, but who in reality are modern slaves. He is stranded in Germany, lured there by the promise of prosperity, exploited by companies to do dirty work for starvation wages, and now abandoned because he can no longer perform as desired. The gray area of the laws governing Europe's nomadic work force has no provisions for cases like Rusev's.

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"Things didn't go well," says Rusev. He seems cautious, not wishing to sound ungrateful. Most of all, he doesn't want to abandon the hopes that prompted him to leave Vetovo in the first place. His only knowledge of Germany, 2,000 kilometers away, came from Bulgarian television, where he had seen images of tall buildings and clean streets. The returnees said that Germany had job centers and an intact social welfare state. He decided it was time to follow their lead and seek his own fortune in Germany.

Modern-day slave traders have divided up the villages among themselves in the region where Rusev comes from. Since Bulgaria joined the EU, they have been supplying the German market with day laborers. Their vans make the trip to Germany three times a week. Rusev also bought a ticket from the traffickers. With five kilos of luggage, Rusev set out to start his new life. The trip took one night and the rest of the next day.

In the weeks that followed, the former goatherd worked 12-hour days on construction sites, earning €60 a day. He emptied out apartments for €50 a day and cleaned businesses for €30. On days when no one hired him, he collected recyclable bottles and returned them for the deposit. He kept his money in his pant pockets, and sometimes hid it in his underwear, depending on how full the abandoned building was at night. He managed to save some money -- not much, but enough to buy his first home in Germany: a sky-blue Golf III, which he bought from a Turkish man for €250.

Rusev, who doesn't have a driver's license, had the man drive the car onto a parking lot. He kept his clothes in the trunk, and he used a wool blanket to stay warm at night. Sometimes he allowed homeless Bulgarians to sleep in his car. Others would have charged €2 a night, says Rusev, but he never did that.

Then, on a cold winter morning, the engine wouldn't start. Two months after it became his temporary home, the Golf went to the junkyard and Rusev moved into the apartment of a welfare recipient, into a room shared by eight Bulgarians. Those who didn't pay the monthly rent of €150 on time were thrown out, Rusev recalls. Nevertheless, he says it was his happiest time in Germany. The shower worked, the door could be locked and business was going well.

One evening there was a dispute in the apartment, and the neighbors called the police. The overcrowded apartment was promptly cleared out, and Rusev was back on the streets. Someone in the market square told him there was work to be had, even for Bulgarians, in the vicinity of Frankfurt's main train station. So Rusev set out for Frankfurt.

That's exaggerated, says Rusev. He admits that there were cockroaches, and that they sometimes crawled into his ears at night. But cockroaches are far less dangerous than rats. He paid €155 a month to sleep in the kitchen.

In the next few days, some of the other Bulgarians in the apartment took him to Can 58, a combination Internet café, phone shop and Turkish export business. Rusev belongs to the Turkish-speaking minority in Bulgaria, and they spoke his language at the shop. For stranded migrants like Rusev, places like this serve as an employment office, real-estate agency, bank, social gathering place and a source of hope. The word "can" means "life" in Turkish.

According to its entry in Frankfurt's commercial register, one of the businesses Can 58 is involved in is "demolition work and construction services," followed by telephone services, kiosk operations, imports and exports. Across the street shines the bright red fa?ade of a large brothel. In this neighborhood, sex is sold cheap and geared toward the masses, just like the labor provided by the pseudo self-employed.

The registered owner of Can 58 is a smartly dressed, 43-year-old man with a well-kept short haircut and stubble, a man everyone in the neighborhood knows simply as Aydin. He was Rusev's first point of contact in the neighborhood. Aydin lends money to the needy and has them work for him to pay off their debts. When he meets with someone in his office, he has an assistant serve Turkish tea, puts down his smartphone and asks one of his employees to leave the room before getting down to business. For desperate men like Rusev, Aydin is the King of the Bulgarians in this neighborhood.

Aydin is one of the profiteers of poverty-related migration. As employers, they save themselves the cost of social security contributions by hiring men like Rusev. This is unlikely to change after 2014, when Romanians and Bulgarians will be allowed to work jobs covered make your own bobblehead in Germany without needing a work permit. "Many employers will still try to use this approach to circumvent the expense of payroll taxes and minimum wages," says a spokeswoman for the central customs office.

Aydin is upset with Rusev. He says that the Bulgarian begged him for a job so that he could pay his rent. And Aydin only wanted to help the man. Of course, says Aydin, he had no idea that Rusev didn't have any health insurance. He admits that it was his mistake for not checking. Other than that, however, he insists he did nothing wrong.

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