My first Foreign Contract  or  How I came to be a Schwarzarbeiter

The story is true, only names and details have been changed
to protect the guilty and confuse the innocent.

Merseyside looked bad enough on rainy day in March in the early nineties. When viewed from the officers of the Lighthouse Circular Finance House it looked even worse. Still when the phone went I tried to sound bright and efficient.

The voice was vaguely Germanic, “Hello, when would you be available for a contract in Switzerland?”

I gulped. Then I considered the view out of the window, and even worse, the view inside the window and the mind-numbing tedium of the project I was just finishing off.

“Yes,” I said.

After that it all seemed to happen too fast, and I was on a flight to Switzerland for an interview with the client. It went incredibly well, it seemed the interviewer was more interested in persuading himself that I was suitable than in finding out if I actually were or not.

Then after the interview the agent apologised for the low rates. He then specified a sum about four times what Lightstone were currently paying. I had to ask him to repeat it before I believed it, but was true. I could even fly home at weekends and still make a reasonable profit.

Perhaps I should have been a bit more cynical. My first worry came at the airport on my first morning when I was met airside by the agent who had also flown in that morning.

“When you come to Passport Control, just say you are here on business. You mustn’t say you are coming here to work.”

Of course it rang alarm bells, but what do you do in that situation? You have just committed yourself to a contract under the law of a foreign country, you have persuaded your bank manager to give you a bank loan of £7000, which is now sitting in a bank in Switzerland waiting for you to collect it, and you have five minutes to decide what to do.

I think what I decided was wrong. I should have said “get lost” and walked away. But the financial consequences would have been pretty serious. You’ve got to be absolutely sure you’re right to do that, and I don’t think very well in airport lounges with a pile of luggage at my feet and a £7000 overdraft hanging over my head.

I said, “OK, if you’re sure.” and I did as I was told.

I worried a bit more on the way to the client’s office and when I got there I asked my new boss and I didn’t really get a good reply. In fairness it might have been language problems, but I was steadily getting more and more unhappy.

My hotel was just over the border in Germany, and I had to cross the border daily. I got away with it the first couple of times, but the third time the customs man obviously recognised me and asked a lot of questions about who do you work for and so on. I got the message.

First I checked the law. As far as I could see I was still legal, barely! A couple more days and I would not be. I spent the rest of the day writing a carefully worded note to my boss, copy to my agent, saying more or less that I completely believed his assurances that my position was absolutely legal, but just to keep me happy, could he confirm that in writing.

It worked like a dream. I spent the rest of the week working 2 kilometers over the border in a hotel bedroom with pile of printout and my trusty pencil. On Friday I was shipped back to Blighty with a set of disks and a lot of excuses about how petty and Gestapo-like the Swiss police were.

A month later I went back, legally. Well just about – they did stretch out the 90-day work-visa to the maximum possible. I also found out that in my absence the police had raided the client’s offices and several visa-less colleagues had had a sudden free ride to the border, with a special stamp in their passport to commemorate the event.

I later found out my experience was not unique. A Nigerian colleague also insisted on a work visa and got sworn at by the same agent as a “stupid black whore”.

Still at least the Nigerian and I got our visas and I got to fly home every Friday for a weekend with my family. Most of my British colleagues decided they’d rather stay in Switzerland and be non-tax-resident in the UK. This included a few who had somehow escaped the police raid and were apparently not paying any Swiss tax either. Apparently they were called Schwarzarbeiter, as a pun on the word “Gastarbeiter” (“guest worker”).

They didn’t seem to make much money out of it however. Most weekends seemed to be spent with the ladies of negotiable affection in the dodgier pubs around the Hauptbahnhof. They also seemed to suffer a lot from marital breakdown and alcoholism.

May be I did have to pay tax, but I probably ended up with more in the bank, and I got to keep my marriage.

 Posted by at 10:55 pm

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