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.