CATL battery factory: Chinatown in Thuringia

Mr. Wuh laughs. Because Mr. Wuh, 30 years old, straight black hair, plaid shirt, mask under his chin, has finished work early today. Today is “Kaufland Day”…

Arnstadt in Thuringia, Erfurter Kreuz industrial area. Every morning shortly after 8 a.m., the buses arrive from the surrounding villages, and a few hundred Chinese get off. The men and women wear masks, eyes on their phones. They go to a gigantic construction site that is about to be completed: the giga factory of the battery cell manufacturer CATL from China; the largest battery production in Europe.

CATL stands for Contemporary Amperex Technology Limited; it is the world’s largest battery maker. CATL invests around 1.8 billion euros in its first giga factory in Europe and receives only 7.5 million euros in government subsidies from Germany. The annual capacity is initially eight gigawatt hours (GWh), which is enough for around 120,000 electric cars. In a few years it should be up to 100 GWh. A market worth billions, a business worth billions from which Germany as a business location should also benefit.

Start of work shortly after 8 a.m.: Chinese workers arrive at the CATL company premises near Arnstadt.

The production of state-of-the-art battery cells is scheduled to begin in Thuringia this fall. Around 1,500 German jobs are to be filled by the end of the year. But with a few exceptions, it is still the Chinese who walk past nine solar energy systems that rotate with the sun onto the construction site and through the already completed Gate 1. People like Mr. Wuh.

CATL will not answer questions

The residents of Arnstadt “of course perceive the Chinese specialists in everyday life,” says Mayor Frank Spilling (independent). That might be a bit of an understatement, because the cityscape is now shaped by the Asians who are building the plant. How many there are, how many Germans already work at CATL and other questions are not answered by CATL.

Inquiries are sent out in China, and anyone who asks for information at the factory gate gets Ms. Paul on the phone, but she immediately warns: Answers are coordinated with the headquarters in China and that “could take a very long time”. CATL Europe boss Matthias Zentgraf was also not available.

Internship at CATL: Student Sophie Gao in the Chinese supermarket “Le De” in Arnstadt’s pedestrian zone.

So let’s take a look around the beautiful old town of Arnstadt. The Chinese love half-timbered houses. And German food. In the canteen, the CATL Europe boss reported to a logistics magazine, the Germans would choose Chinese dishes, but the Asians would choose Thuringian specialties.

Two-page “confidentiality statement” upon entering the factory

And they are good at business too. A Chinese supermarket has just opened in the center. There we meet Sophie Gao (26), a Chinese BMW student from Freiburg, who is doing an internship in the HR department at CATL. How many Germans are already working in the factory? “I can’t say,” Gao said. (CATL sodium-ion batteries: is this the breakthrough for electric car batteries?)

According to AUTO BILD information, anyone who enters the plant must sign a two-page “confidentiality statement”. If only one of the 18 listed rules is violated, CATL threatens with the lawyer.

A few meters further on, the owner of a grocery store reports that she supplies the administration of “Kattel”, as the Arnstadt residents pronounce the company, with her goods: fruit, beer, sausages. An acquaintance of hers worked in the canteen there, but quickly resigned.

Buses bring the Chinese workers to the factory in the morning and pick them up again in the evening. Their pensions are often many kilometers away.

The working conditions were too stressful for her. The Chinese have a different work-life balance. “They’re just busy.” On the Internet you can find comments from other Germans who worked at CATL in the factory ramp-up. Quite a few – now ex-employees – complain about the high work pressure.

Menu now bilingual

The owner of a stationery shop reports that the Chinese are a daily topic of conversation among her customers. They are nice and friendly, but also everywhere. Chinatown in Thuringia.

And, as the woman from the shop says: Some Chinese, probably managers, have already bought entire apartment buildings in Arnstadt. Rents would go up. The old Caféwaffelstübchen has long been in Chinese hands, and the menu is now actually bilingual.

More than every third gigawatt hour installed in batteries for electric cars worldwide in the first half of the year comes from CATL.

Shortly after 6 p.m., Mr. Wuh reappears. He and his colleagues board a coach operated by the Chinese operator CEB from Frankfurt am Main. Driver Yüksel has been driving workers from China for over a year.

He says: “There are already 4,000 Chinese here in the region. I heard that 3,000 are still to come.” That cannot be checked. “Just last week, 100 new ones came. Some stay for a very long time. I’ve been driving the one in the back to his accommodation for over a year.”

And Germans? Yuksel laughs. “They hardly work here. The Chinese work twelve hours a day, six days a week.” It’s two hours earlier than today because it’s “Kaufland Day”: the buses stop in front of the supermarket, the Chinese go shopping.

For Mr. Wuh it is then 30 kilometers to the old pension “Zum Luchs” in the middle of the Thuringian Forest. He’s been living there for four months, he says in broken English. “Zum” and “Luchs” are the only German words he has learned so far.

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