Anna was promised solid pay at a chocolate factory. But when she arrived in Hamburg, the men who offered her the work put her up in a moldy, garbage-strewn two-story home to share with dozens of other Ukrainian migrants, she said. Every morning she and others were squeezed into a van and driven to a warehouse belonging not to a chocolate factory but to Fiege, a logistics giant that made more than 1.5 billion euros in revenue in 2018.
There Anna packed car parts into boxes and learned her first two German words: “punishment” and “faster.” During 10-hour shifts, she said, the workers were hardly allowed to sit or eat unless they wanted their wages docked, cutting further into pay already heavily garnished by a series of fees enforced by a number of different intermediaries, claiming to cover everything from paperwork to the cost of the van. After two and a half months on the job, Anna said she left with nothing — instead she was in debt.
Ukrainian workers have been systematically lured under false pretenses to Germany and Poland, where they often live and work under appalling conditions, in some cases akin to modern slavery, a three-part BuzzFeed News Germany investigation based on dozens of interviews has found. Ukrainian migrants described being made to live in squalid accommodations and work long hours for little pay.
Seven migrants described a network of intermediaries in northern and central Germany who they said recruited them, housed them, and organized their assignments at several different warehouses. Using interviews, surveillance, and public records, BuzzFeed News identified a company apparently at the heart of this network, Alfa Logistik GmbH. Five migrants told BuzzFeed News they recognized one of Alfa Logistik’s former managing directors as part of the network.
Hamburg’s state prosecutor said in a statement it is conducting two “extensive” investigations “connected to questions” that BuzzFeed News sent about Alfa Logistik and two of its former directors, but declined to say whether the investigations are directed against them specifically. In response to a letter with detailed questions, Alfa denied employing the migrants or housing migrants under inhumane conditions.
Two of the seven migrants, including Anna, said they worked at a “mega-center” in Hamburg-Moorfleet belonging to Fiege, which said in a statement that it will conduct an internal investigation into the allegations, involving the company’s works council, which represents workers under the German labor system and is similar to a union. “The incidents you describe are unacceptable and unacceptable to us,” a Fiege spokesperson said. “Should your accusations be confirmed, we will immediately initiate measures and also legal action against those responsible.”
Fiege packages, stores, and transports products for a wide range of industries — including health care, online retail, and fashion — and operates “mega-centers” in 15 different countries in Europe and Asia. Neither Anna nor the other migrant who described working inside Fiege’s Hamburg “mega-center” knew whether the work they were doing there was for Fiege or for a subcontractor, and both recalled packing items belonging to companies which, Fiege said in its statement, are not Fiege customers at that warehouse. Fiege said that it was unaware of anyone illegally employed in the 70,000-square-foot “mega-center,” and said that it checks "all necessary documents such as residence permits, work permits and identity documents" of workers hired by subcontractors.
Both Anna and the other migrant remembered clearly that the warehouse they worked at belonged to Fiege. Though they did not know each other, in separate interviews, they both recalled the warehouse’s chilly temperatures, and seeing tires and boxes of alcohol near where they labored. They both also recalled a McDonald's and a gas station near the warehouse which matches the location of the “mega-center.” Late last year, BuzzFeed News covertly followed workers from the same house Anna said she had lived in. In the early morning, a man in a blue Volkswagen Golf picked up at least five people and drove them through the gates of the same “mega-center” that Anna described and entered.
BuzzFeed News has seen no evidence to suggest that Fiege was aware of the conditions allegedly suffered by workers like Anna or has any contractual relationship with Alfa Logistik or any other company engaging such workers. A company spokesperson said in a statement that the company has no business relationship with Alfa Logistik, and declined to comment further until the internal investigation is complete.
Hundreds of thousands of people have left Ukraine in recent years, many fleeing a war in the country’s east which has killed more than 14,000 people and displaced about 1.5 million. The conflict has left many people unemployed, and therefore more desperate and willing to accept “increasingly risky offers,” said Irina Mydlovets, an expert in combating human trafficking at the Kyiv office of the International Organization for Migration.
Before the war, people usually left for work abroad only if they could make about $1,000 or more a month, Mydlovets said. Now they are tempted by offers of as little as $300 per month. One recent IOM survey of Ukrainians found that one out of every five was willing to accept a “risky” job offer abroad that might put them in danger of being trafficked.
Many choose Germany. “A lot more people are coming from Ukraine now,” a translator for Germany’s customs directorate told BuzzFeed News. Requests for Ukrainian translators have doubled in the past few years, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A spokesperson for the customs directorate said that the department does not keep statistics that allow for an analysis by country of origin. But the Hamburg state prosecutor’s investigations offer a glimpse at the scale of possible exploitation.
German customs conducted a raid in January during which they searched 24 business and private addresses in northern Germany, and found a “considerable number” of Ukrainian laborers. The people suspected of employing them have been under investigation since the end of 2018, the state prosecutor said. They are accused of having employed at least 3,000 workers without paying social security contributions, depriving the state of approximately six million euros.
The prosecutor’s office declined to give further detail about the conditions the laborers were made to work under, or how they were brought into Germany.
But the seven migrants who spoke with BuzzFeed News, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, described a sophisticated operation which kept tight control over their livelihoods. The men picked them up when they arrived, ran their accommodations, set rules for their workdays, and — most important — decided when and how they would be paid. They paid in cash, and only when they decided that workers had paid off the many debts they had accumulated. Workers described deductions for everything from up-front “bureaucratic costs” to monthly rent to gasoline for the car they were driven to work in, even the special safety boots they had to wear. Two women said the deductions left them without enough money to purchase food, forcing them to rely on a coworker to buy them bread. The men also used the fact that the Ukrainians were here illegally to blackmail them.
Many of the Ukrainians interviewed said they learned about the possible work through word of mouth, but BuzzFeed News also found evidence of a thriving online marketplace for shady employment advertisements. Dozens of Russian-speaking Facebook groups offer up employment opportunities in Germany, often offering pay below the national minimum wage, and claiming to have positions within industries for which there is no foreign employment scheme in the country. The posts speak of work on a strawberry farm near Osnabrück, in a warehouse for the German mail service, or driving delivery trucks. They ask interested applicants to reach out on Viber, an encrypted messaging app. The three largest of these Facebook groups each have over 30,000 members — in one of them, more than 400 posts were shared in one day. Among the postings are ads for work in chocolate factories, just like what was promised to Anna.
BuzzFeed News called a phone number listed in an ad promising work at a strawberry farm in Bremen. The man who picked up the phone said that taking the job required entering Germany on a tourist visa. "Then you get a seasonal work permit, you'll be registered with the police, immigration and the Ministry of Labor." To get the process started, he requested a passport copy and 250 euros transferred to a bank in Ukraine.
Anna recalls that at the moldy two-story house in Barsbuttel, northeast of Hamburg, where she lived with dozens of other Ukrainians, there were no dishes to cook with. Anna said the only thing she was able to make was instant oatmeal, because there was a kettle to boil hot water. “There were people coming in, mostly men, at all hours, night and day,” she said. “I called my intermediary to change my job and I cried,” she said. “My arms and legs were shaking. For the first time in my life I was so worried.”
But the intermediary, she said, told her he could not do much and referred her to others. “I said I paid money. I don't understand who's responsible,” she remembered saying. “One said, call someone else. The next one said, call this person. Nobody gave me an answer.”
The house is in a quiet residential area. Little on the outside suggests anything suspicious aside from the bins out front, which are far larger than what might be expected of a normal family home. As of January 2020 “Alfa Logistik GmbH” could be found on the mailbox. Half a year earlier, the name of Alfa’s current managing director could also be found on the mailbox.
In an emailed statement in January, Alfa Logistik GmbH said that neither the company nor the managing director owns the property in Barsbüttel. The company said that as far as it was aware, the house was currently empty and had been throughout January 2020, adding, “It is simply wrong that our company has given this house to people under inhumane living conditions.”
Alfa Logistik did not respond to a number of detailed questions from BuzzFeed News, including how and why the company knew about the property, how the names on the mailbox could be explained, or whether the company or its managing directors ever used or owned the house in the past.
Alfa Logistik also said it did not contract with Fiege, or with another company where the migrants said they worked. "[W]e are not the employer of the people you have observed,” the company wrote in its statement, saying therefore that it could not comment on the allegations.
Two former managing directors of Alfa Logistik are Ruslan Tsinaev and Alexander Alekseev. Alekseev is a former professional boxer who, in 2013, fought for the IBF World Championship title. According to the German Commercial Register, Tsinaev left as managing director in May 2018 and Alekseev left in September 2019. Alekseev is still listed as managing director on the company's website.
Five of the Ukrainian workers BuzzFeed News spoke with recognized Alekseev as one of the intermediaries who they accused of getting them into illegal work in German logistics centers, including Fiege. One, Anna, identified Tsinaev as an intermediary.
BuzzFeed News called a number that workers said belonged to Alekseev. The man who picked up the phone identified himself as Alekseev, and confirmed he still worked for Alfa Logistik. He declined to speak further with BuzzFeed News, asking that questions be sent via email, which he did not respond to. Tsinaev did not respond to requests for comment.
The second woman who worked at the Fiege warehouse, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was Alekseev who hired her. She said she came to Germany on the promise of work at a coffee factory in Berlin. Her intermediary told her she could earn 7 euros an hour. In Ukraine, she said, she spent 1,000 euros in savings, including more than 200 euros up front to the intermediary, who gave her a fake ID and a Polish visa.
When she arrived in Berlin, she said, the man waiting for her told her that the jobs in the coffee factory were all taken. Instead, he told her to go to Hamburg. There, another man picked her up from the central bus station and took her to live in a house in Tespe, an hour’s drive from the Fiege warehouse, she said. BuzzFeed News obtained photos and descriptions of the house and was able to verify its existence.
The woman said she packed car parts at the warehouse. “It was very difficult. You can't even sit down. I sat down for a minute and they immediately yelled at me," she said. Fiege said that it allows for "legally prescribed work breaks" and follows "regulations on maximum working hours." BuzzFeed News has seen no evidence that this woman worked for Fiege or that Fiege was aware of her working conditions.
After two days, the woman realized what she had gotten herself into. With her last remaining savings, around 100 euros, she got on a bus and escaped to Berlin.
Other Ukrainians she lived and worked with were not so fortunate, she said. The intermediaries deducted two months of rent from their pay straight away, she said, amounting to 600 euros. This was enough to make many stay and work, even as other fees accumulated. “They had to stay to make money, believing that they would have something after a month,” she said. “But that never worked.” Some told her they had been there as long as six months. ●