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Wladek Flakin: Botanical Garden’s employment shenanigans

On Tuesday, visitors to the Botanical Garden saw a few activists in black hoodies climb to the top of one of the green houses. Wladek explains why.

Image for Wladek Flakin: Botanical Garden's employment shenanigans
Photo by Wladek Flakin

Have you ever been to the Botanical Garden in Steglitz? It’s beautiful. They have more than 20,000 different plant species. There are trees, hills, lakes, a rose garden, and an Orientalist “Chinese” pavilion – a nice place for a long walk.

Like many a thing in Berlin that’s more than 100 years old, the garden has a nasty imperialist past – it was originally built to display plants from Germany’s colonies. But the massive greenhouses are still cool. The old-school Tropical House remains, a century after its completion in 1907, one of the biggest glass and steel structures in the world.

But on Tuesday’s grey afternoon, there was more to see than just scenery. Visitors in the garden saw two people in black masks putting up a banner on the roof of the Mediterranean Greenhouse. It said: “Gegen Lohndumping unter Palmen!” (“No wage cuts under palm trees!” “Lohn” means “wage” but “Lohndumping” is one of those Denglish word manglings that basically means “low wages”.)

Why the protest? The Botanical Garden’s working conditions aren’t as idyllic as its landscape. You see, since 2007 the Garden has been outsourcing a big part of its workforce, and all its new employees have contracts with a 100 percent subsidiary company. The catchy name: Betriebsgesellschaft für die Zentraleinrichtung Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum, or BGBGBM.

The “old” workers employed by the Garden, which belongs to the Free University, still earn the union rate for the public sector, while the “new” workers employed by the BGBGBM earn about 40 percent less than their colleagues, even if they’re doing the exact same job. The cleaners, for example, earn €8.77 an hour. That’s just a few cents over the minimum wage of €8.50. And actually, there’s a specific minimum wage for the cleaning sector: €9.80. But this minimum wage applies to people employed as a Reinigungskraft. The Garden employs people as a Reinigungsservice. Even with the help of a Duden, I couldn’t figure out the difference.

The BGBGBM workers began to organise in the trade union ver.di about four years ago to demand “Gleicher Lohn für gleiche Arbeit” (“equal pay for equal work”). Is it a coincidence that at the end of last year, as negotiations with the union were underway, management started talking about outsourcing many of the jobs even further? Specifically, they want to take work like cleaning, maintenance and the visitors’ service – which is currently outsourced to the BGBGBM, a 100 percent subsidiary – and outsource yet again to outside companies. This would mean 31 BGBGBM workers getting fired.

The ironic part of this story is that further outsourcing would actually be more expensive for the Garden – the outside company has higher administrative costs and needs to make a profit to boot. But the Garden’s management clearly wants workers with no trade union or workers’ council representation. In short, they want workers with no rights. These policies are making visitors suffer as well – since an outside company took over cleaning duties, the public toilets are not in great shape. And the low-paid gardeners have a high turnover, which is not ideal for the tens of thousands of plants.

The workers are fighting back – and not just for themselves, but for all of the Berlin public workers who don’t earn union rates. This is the same struggle as workers at the two big hospital chains, Charité and Vivantes, in the exact same situation. That’s why I support the workers at the Botanical Garden. It should be a place where everyone, not just visitors, can relax.