Romanian Migrant Workers in the German Construction Industry: A Study Based on Social Classifications Theory

The German construction industry employs tens of thousands of migrant workers from Romania, one of the poorest countries in the European Union. They are, moreover, employed in highly precarious conditions that often fall short of minimum legal standards, and even pay is sometimes withheld. Accordingly, both the migrant workers in Germany and the wider Romanian public will sometimes refer to their work as ‘slave labour’. This empirically oriented research project examines why Romanian migrant workers are nonetheless prepared to enter such employment. Its aim is to explain their willingness to perform such work in Germany – work which would appear to be not wholly lacking in gratification. To this end, the research project will focus on a particular type of interpretation – that of social classifications – through which migrant workers perceive and evaluate the conditions in which they work. The semantics of such classifications, which are both cognitive and evaluative, is closely tied to the actors’ lived reality. Likewise, the approach pursued here focuses on patterns of classification embedded deeply within the cultural fabric and which in turn serve to pre-structure the actors’ interpretations, discourses and modes of action. This project is centred on four dimensions of the research question. It will examine how certain preconditions of migratory labour (1), e.g. recruitment networks or cultures of migration within Romania, are reflected in classifications and shape the willingness to engage in temporary labour in Germany. Drawing on the expectations migrant workers have of their work (2), the project will explicate the yardsticks they use, which have hitherto been little studied by the sociologies of labour or migration. The labour conflicts in which migrant workers find themselves (3) will then be examined to establish how these classifications impact on the course of conflicts in Germany. Finally, the focus will turn to the Romanian context (4) and the patterns and semantics of classification that encourage informal employment; this will then be related to the German context. The enquiry will proceed by multi-lingual, semi-narrative interviews with migrant workers and their families in Romania as well as by observation studies. In line with a multi-sited ethnographic approach, these will be conducted, e.g. in workers’ hostels and bars in Germany; the workers’ Romanian context of origin will be examined in the course of two field trips, each lasting several months. Sampling, evaluation, and theory development will take their bearings from the Grounded Theory method. The theory to be developed is intended to demonstrate the significance of and the power exercised by classifications in migratory labour. In so doing, the study will provide not only empirical findings, but also offer a conceptual contribution to sociologies of labour and classification.



Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2023: Romania’s societal transformation and labour struggles abroad – how missing income opportunities and the fear of dismissal inform practices of labour resistance. SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, 26 (1), 47-64.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian und Ferdinand Sutterlüty 2023: Vom falschen Versprechen guter Arbeit. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, S. 12, 23. August.

Buzoianu, Cătălin; Sperneac-Wolfer: Christian and Țoc, Sebastian 2023: Editors’ Note. Sociologie Românească 21 (1), 9 – 17.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian; Botorog Andrei and Ferdinand Sutterlüty 2023: ‘Slaves’ Without Coercion? Work-Related Classification Patterns among Romanian Migrant Workers. Sociologie Românească 21 (1), 55 – 74.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2023: Die multiple Prekarität rumänischer Bauarbeiter in Deutschland, in: Sozial.Geschichte Online, 34, 189 – 217.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: Der verdeckte Widerstand rumänischer Bauarbeiter in Echsberg, in: Ferdinand Sutterlüty und Almut Poppinga (Hg.): Verdeckter Widerstand in der demokratischen Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 239 – 261.

Botorog, Andrei 2022: Im Schatten der Neubauten. In: OXI -Wirtschaft anders denken, 15. März (3/22).

Organization of meetings and workshops

03. – 05.04.2024: Special Stream »Labour and Migration: Recomposition, Regulation and Conflicts at the Point of Production and Beyond« gemeinsam mit Georg Barthel, Linda Beck, Peter Birke, Felix Bluhm, Laura Bremert, Samia Dinkelaker, Anita Heindlmeier, Jaqueline Kalbermatter, Benjamin Herr, Johanna Neuhauser, Janina Puder auf der 42nd International Labour Process Conference (ILPC), Göttingen.

05. – 06.05.2023: Workshoporganisation »Arbeit und Migration. Prekäre Arbeits- und Lebenskonstellationen migrantischer Beschäftigter im Fokus« gemeinsam mit Linda Beck and Andrei Botorog, Frankfurt am Main

10.12.2022: Panelorganisation »Entangling digital inequalities and upheavals« zusammen mit Anastassija Kostan auf der Jahrestagung der Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) / ESCOCITE, Cholula, México.

07.09. – 16.09.2022: »Romania‘s transition since 2007« Mitorganisation einer Seminarfahrt nach Rumänien der Hans Böckler Stiftung, Rumänien.

Talks (selection)

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2023: ‘Slaves’ without coercion? Classifications of work and their social effects amongst Romanian migrant workers, 4th conference of the Romanian Network of Migration Studies (RoMig), Bucharest, 08. September.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2023: ‘Slaves’ without coercion? Classifications of work and their social effects amongst Romanian migrant workers, 20th IMISCOE Annual Conference, Warschau, Polen, digital, 06. Juli.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2023: Wie bewerten rumänische Bauarbeiter ihre Arbeit in Deutschland? Vier Arbeitsklassifikationen und ihre Effekte, Workshop Arbeit und Migration, Frankfurt am Main, Deutschland, 05. Mai.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: ICT and labor resistance amongst Romanian migrant workers in Germany. Jahrestagung der Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) / ESCOCITE, Cholula, México, 10. Dezember.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: ICT and labor resistance amongst Romanian migrant workers in Germany. George Washington University, Usable Security and Privacy Lab, Washington D.C., USA, 30. November.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: Arbeitsklassifikationen rumänischer Wanderarbeiter:innen in der deutschen Baubranche. Vortrag und Diskussion im Forschungsseminar Soziologie, Olaf Tietje, an der LMU, München, digital, 17. November.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: Romanian transformation and labor migration. Seminar Hans Böckler Stiftung, digital, 11. August.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: Rumänische Bauarbeiter auf deutschen Baustellen, Vortrag im Institut für Sozialforschung Frankfurt a. M., 23. Juni.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2022: Changing sites, trust-building, and ethically important moments – three research strategies within the field of Romanian working migrants in Germany. »Approaches and Methods in Interdisciplinary Romanian Studies«, International Student Colloquium 2022, Jena, digital, 05. März.

Botorog, Andrei 2022: Die Situation rumänischer Arbeitsmigrant:innen in Deutschland. Interdisziplinären Wochen, organisiert vom AStA der FH Kiel, Kiel, 24. Februar.    

Botorog, Andrei 2021: Die Politische Ökonomie von Arbeitskämpfen rumänischer Saisonarbeiter:innen in der deutschen Landwirtschaft, Wandelwochen Berlin-Brandenburg, organisiert von FAU Berlin, Berlin, 22. September.

Sperneac-Wolfer, Christian 2021: Der verdeckte Widerstand rumänischer Bauarbeiter. Konferenz der Autor:innen / Authorsʼ Conference zum Band »Verdeckter Widerstand in der demokratischen Gesellschaft / Covert Resistance in Democratic Societies«, Institut für Sozialforschung Frankfurt am Main, organisiert von Ferdinand Sutterlüty und Almut Poppinga, digital 10. September.


Lisa Bor im Gespräch mit Christian Sperneac-Wolfer 2023: »Für manche überwiegt die Angst, arbeitslos zu sein«. Jungle World, 05. Oktober.