Germany: Refugees today, the exploited workers of tomorrow?


Wajdi arrived in Germany a few months ago. He had studied law in Syria. But he was not able to bring his diplomas with him. The only things he still has with him from his home country after his long journey across Europe are his passport and his smartphone.

Over a million migrants and asylum seekers like him have arrived on German territory since the beginning of 2015.

Once the initial formalities are out of the way, they have a new challenge to face: integrating into the labour market of their host country. And German legislation does not make that task any easier.

“Theoretically, a refugee has the right to work after three months on German territory. This deadline has been extended to six months however, by a law adopted in October. Then, for more than another year, he or she cannot apply for a job if there are potential German or European candidates for that post in the same region.

"Even after this time has passed, they still have to get authorisation from the authorities to have the right to sign an employment contract. This process can take weeks.” explains Franziska Hartmann to Equal Times.

She works for the Berlin-based project Arrivo, which for the last year has been supporting asylum seekers and refugees in their search for a job.

In the heart of the German capital, the association puts migrants in touch with companies, provides German language courses to prepare for interviews and runs a woodcrafts workshop.

On this December day, a dozen men from all over the world are busy in the workshop, bent over machines and tools, to the sounds of saws, sanding machines and hammers.

“The artisan enterprises in Berlin cannot always find enough apprentices to train. And for refugees it is very difficult to find an employer,” explains a young woman. The idea therefore is to bring the two sides together and to open a workshop for new arrivals as a place of transition.

Some 60 enterprises are already associated with the project, mainly in fields of employment that are traditionally considered ’masculine’. But other initiatives of this kind are being developed in the city in sectors of more interest to women, such as the restaurant trade and the care sector.

Over the last year, Arrivo has supported over 100 people. Forty of them began vocational training in September. Once they have completed it, it will be a valuable asset that will help them avoid exploitation.

"A lot of people come here without any diplomas or education certificates, either because they have none or because they could not bring them with them. Which is often the case when you have to flee your country.

"In this situation, following a recognised vocational training course is the best way of getting a real job for the long term in Germany. Above all it protects you against having to work in the black economy or for very low pay.” stresses Hartmann.

Because low pay is also a serious risk facing the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have chosen Germany as their host country in the last few months.

An exception to the minimum wage?

The country’s most influential economist, Hans-Werner Sinn, has been asking for weeks for refugees to be excluded from Germany’s minimum wage. Yet it came into force, set at EUR 8.50 gross per hour (USD 9.30) just one year ago, in January 2015.

This approach, which would make refugees second class workers, is shared by some on the political right. The German unions categorically reject such discrimination. “Workers must not be set against each other, nor should the unemployed from here be set against refugees looking for work,” insists Sasha Howind, head of the powerful industry trade union federation, IG Metall.

“At IG Metall, we are looking at ways of successfully integrating refugees into the labour market.” The union has already taken a first step by allocating €500,000 to support initiatives for receiving asylum seekers in its local branches.

The German authorities also seem to be opting for a more open approach. “A lot is being done to facilitate the refugees’ access to the labour market” says Hartmann.

Since this autumn, asylum seekers who are likely to be granted refugee status (which under current Germany policy means Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Eritreans) can take part in a German language course very soon after their arrival.

Before, they had to wait for months, or years, before their asylum application was processed.

The German employment agency has set up teams throughout the country to deal specifically with asylum seekers. They go directly to the reception centres to meet the refugees, evaluate their language skills and their qualifications.

If they have their diplomas with them, the recognition procedure can begin straight away. It is an important way of saving time, because here too procedures are complicated. “The recognition of qualifications takes a lot of time, and costs hundreds of euros, payable by the applicant » says Hartmann.

“And the results don’t always match expectations. We accompanied a Pakistani man who was an aeronautical engineer in his home country. At the end of the procedure, he was only given the status of a mechanic.”

The refugees of today face numerous obstacles before they can become the workers, like any other, of tomorrow.

But there is one factor that should help them a lot: their youth. Seventy per cent of people who applied for asylum in Germany in 2014 were under 30, according to the figures of the federal migration and refugee agency.

More than half were under 25.


This story has been translated from French.