Wednesday

16th Jun 2021

Investigation

The dark side of 'egg' building: workers without papers

  • A number of fraudulent employers who managed to nestle in the chain of subcontractors in charge of the construction of the Europa building hired workers without contracts for 18 months (Photo: Consilium)

The Europa Building, the symbol of the European Council, where prime ministers and heads of EU states hold their summits, was partly built by undocumented migrants and workers without proper contracts, according to an investigation by Kasper Goethals and Roeland Termote, journalists at the Belgian newspaper De Standaard.

The investigation published on Saturday (14 December) reveals that the wages of some of those who built "the egg" were paid cash-in-hand, or sometimes simply denied their money.

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  • The spectacular interior of the 'egg' building in central Brussels

The construction of the building was agreed by EU leaders in 2004 to host the the summits - which were organised outside Brussels at the time.

The actual construction process took from September 2011 until the Belgian authorities handed the keys to the council in 2016.

In 2008, the EU signed a construction agreement with the Belgian state. But, after a public tender was won by Belgian construction giants Interbuild and Jan De Nul, a temporary chain of smaller construction companies for the labour was then established.

As a result, a number of fraudulent employers managed to get into that chain of subcontractors to hire workers without proper contracts.

The investigation of De Standaard shows the "dark side" of the construction of one of the main buildings of the EU, but also of the Belgian construction sector and judiciary system in general.

Dzhelilov's story

A Bulgarian construction worker, Beyhan Dzhelilov, was offered work on the Europa building in the spring of 2012.

"I agreed [to do the job] because my wife and son were still in Bulgaria. I wanted them to come over, but I needed money for that," he said, but adding that it felt "suspicious" when he did not receive the contract he was promised.

"It was tough, we sometimes worked double shifts," Dzhelilov said. "[But] none of us got a contract, and we were not insured," he added.

The first months he received about €2,000 to 3,000 per month in cash, knowing that the same type of work in Bulgaria would generate a maximum of €500 salary.

However, later in 2013, the problems with the wages of Dzhelilov's team began. The employers were holding back thousands of euros for them.

The workers coming from Bulgaria were managed by subcontractors around the Group Diamond Services (GDS) company, so employees like Dzhelilov did not always know for whom they were working.

Following the payroll problems, Dzhelilov managed to arrange a meeting in September 2013 with a Turkish man from the GDS, who gave Dzhelilov a contract for the past four months - but also a notice of contract termination.

"I have never experienced this in Bulgaria - apparently it is possible in Brussels," Dzhelilov said.

Dzhelilov's contract was issued by the name of the company CRF, which was never officially registered in the chain of subcontractors of the European Council's project.

Hence, Dzhelilov and others filed a complaint with the labour prosecutor and in December 2013 inspectors start looking into the headquarters of the suspicious companies.

"In the fall of 2013, around 20 GDS employees complained that they were not receiving their money. They even downed their tools for one day. GDS was then thrown out by the site's major contractors," a logistics and safety officer said.

"There were Moldavians, Italians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Spaniards, Romanians, Bulgarians and even two Guineans, but they posed as Portuguese. Many did not have the correct papers," he added.

Four-year gap

During the two inspections by the authorities that he remembers "a lot of employees were miraculously absent," he said, adding that "the fact that fraudsters still find loopholes in the system is typical of the situation in Belgium".

The Belgian company De Nul confirmed De Standaard that GDS and Fani were thrown out because "GDS did not comply with contractual planning and technically did not perform the work correctly".

"Every employee from all subcontractors was checked for possession of the necessary documents. This also applied to the employees of subcontractors who acted on behalf of a subcontractor or a sub-subcontractor. Only after this preliminary inspection did the approved employees of subcontractors gain access to the site," the construction company states.

How GDS managed to avoid those controls is still unclear. However, the journalists from De Standaard saw the working badges of Dzhelilov and three of his colleagues, even though they did not have contract.

Manuel Ferreira, a former colleague of Dzhelilov, also confirms the story. "That's how it is in this country. They don't catch you," he said.

"In the 30 years that I have been working here, the number of foreigners and 'sans-papers' [without papers] has increased dramatically. It is a catastrophe," Ferreira added.

Despite the inspection by the labour services during the first months, a four-year gap in the investigation file of the labour auditor (April 2014 to April 2018) was reported by the Belgian daily.

Dzhelilov's complaint had thus expired and his case was dismissed in October last year for "insufficient evidence".

'Tip of the iceberg'

However, the Brussels labour prosecutor, Fabrizio Antioco, said that "the file [of Dzhelilov's complaint] has unfortunately been lost".

"That loss explains the enormous delay with which the competent magistrate has taken note of the facts," he said, adding that this is an "unfortunate situation".

According to De Standaard, the files with fatal industrial accidents or millions of euros in fraud are given priority over smaller files such as those of Dzhelilov.

"Many people don't know that people without a legal residence permit also have labour rights," said Jan Knockaert, the director of Fairwork Belgium, a small organisation that provides legal assistance to undocumented migrants.

"This case doesn't surprise me at all," said Knockaert, adding that this year he already received 497 calls from undocumented migrants about wage-theft or labour accidents.

"Those calls are just the snow on the tip of the iceberg," he added, pointing out other cases, such the construction of the European Parliament's daycare centre, the construction of federal police stations or the cleaning services of the Palace of Justice.

"Everyone in Belgium uses employees without legal residence," he concluded.

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