Fortress Germany Skilled Immigrants? No Thanks


Part 2: The 'Immigration Prevention' Law

The German cabinet met last week at Meseberg. But the changes to employment law they agreed are fairly insignificant.

The German cabinet met last week at Meseberg. But the changes to employment law they agreed are fairly insignificant.

The ministry's report warns of a "dramatic" situation, which even a double-digit percentage increase in the numbers of university graduates would hardly defuse. "This is why, at least for a transitional period, the immigration of foreign specialists is completely unavoidable," says Jürgen Egeln of the influential Center for European Economic Research (ZEW).

But politicians, especially those dealing with immigration, continue to ignore the calls from the business world. For more than a decade, international organizations and German experts have been calling on the German government to emulate modern, pro-immigration societies, like Canada and the UK, and create programs designed to attract qualified foreign workers.

But few efforts have been made in this direction so far. "Germany is not a country of immigration," say the leaders of the two main parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Whether they realize it or not, their words are truer than ever.

More people are leaving Germany than coming into the country. All attempts to reverse this trend have consistently failed to be effective.

A program, introduced by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, to attract computer experts from Eastern Europe and Asia with American-style "green card" visas was terminated after failing to produce adequate results. And despite years of negotiations, the CDU and SPD have been unable to agree on a quota system that would allow a set number of especially qualified foreigners to be brought into the country each year.

Instead, Germany has retained immigration legislation that Klaus Zimmermann, president of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), calls an "immigration prevention law." Under the current law, for example, foreign graduates can only immigrate to Germany easily if they earn an annual salary of at least €85,500. This is the sort of salary that not even every managing director makes in Germany, so it isn't surprising that less than 500 foreign specialists qualified under the €85,500 rule last year.

The provisions that are designed to convince foreign students to remain in the country after completing their university education are no less off-putting. A recent change now gives them a full year after graduating to find work in Germany. However, once they have found a job, the regional employment agency is required to conduct a so-called "preference test" to determine whether an equally qualified German candidate can't be found to fill the same job.

Not only does the process usually drag on for months, but it often ends with the foreign applicant being turned down. As a result, close to 95 percent of foreign students, whose education often costs German taxpayers thousands of euros, end up leaving for other countries more hospitable to foreigners or returning to their native country.

And there's little hope that the recent government resolutions will convince more foreign graduates to stay. Although the grand coalition plans to get rid of the bureaucratic monster that is the preference test, it will also limit the amount of time foreign students are permitted to remain in Germany after graduation to three years. After that they are ordered to return to their native countries. Exactly how this new legislation is meant to inspire young Ukrainians or Koreans to pursue a career in Germany is a secret known only to the cabinet.

Many German industry sectors are facing huge skills shortages.

Many German industry sectors are facing huge skills shortages.

The lowering of barriers to immigration for foreign engineers will also be relatively ineffective. The government, at least for the time being, is only opening the borders to candidates who come from the new Eastern European members of the European Union and who have degrees in specialties like heavy machinery manufacturing and electrical engineering. For everyone else, the German labor market remains as inaccessible as ever.

And there's even more. Those who brave Germany's inhospitable laws nonetheless often end up caught in the cogs of the over-stretched employment and immigration bureaucracy. Chinese electrical engineer Yun Tang, who, after graduating from the University of Karlsruhe, took a "green card" job with Stuttgart-based electronics giant Bosch, experienced German bureaucracy at first hand.

Tang was so good at his new job that he was soon sent to Japan to work on a special project. But when he returned after a one-year stint in Yokohama and wanted to settle in Germany, the engineer had a rude awakening. The immigration authority informed him that, because he had temporarily moved his place of residence to Japan, he had forfeited his right to reside in Germany. Under the law, the agency told him, he was required to leave the country immediately.

Tang's employer managed to convince the agency to change its mind, but at a high price to Bosch. Contrary to the company's plans for Tang, he was not permitted to return to Japan for the foreseeable future. Tang, for his part, is no longer interested in overseas assignments. "You feel worried that they won't let you back in," he says.

The fact that foreign workers are penalized when their employers transfer them to other locations is only one of the curious features of German laws governing foreign residents. No less bizarre are the consequences of the new 250-page immigration law for the diverse reality of modern human resources management.

Germany's complex rules regarding residency, visa requirements and qualifications have little to do with the world of global export companies in which international teams of experts constantly commute between company headquarters and regional offices. Companies must conform to highly complex regulations that differentiate among whether employees are being brought into the country to do project work, training or research. In some cases, work permit applications must be filed at a central agency in Bonn and in others at a local employment agency. If a foreign employee travels to Munich to work on a project, for example, he is barred from attending a management seminar in Hamburg.

"There is a considerable administrative cost," says Peter Schoof, a human resources development expert with the Stuttgart-based carmaker DaimlerChrysler. The work involved in obtaining the necessary work and residency permits for DaimlerChrysler's foreign employees keeps three full-time employees busy the whole year round at the Stuttgart headquarters.

Even the departments specializing in foreign employees at major German companies are sometimes forced to capitulate when it comes to dealing with the bizarre conditions imposed on international staff exchanges. The program loosens the immigration rules for foreign employees -- but only if a company sends just as many German staff abroad as it brings foreigners to Germany.

Designed to protect the domestic employment market, the regulation actually does the opposite. To circumvent the requirements, some companies are "increasingly outsourcing international projects to other countries," says Bosch human resources director Marie-José Stevens.

Germany is isolating itself with its restrictive policies on foreign residents. But while Germany erects barriers, rival countries are doing their utmost to attract foreign specialists.

Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, France's immigration requirements for well-paid foreign workers, students and their spouses have been improved. In Denmark, the national employers' association has established its own agency to lure specialists from around the world. Belgium and the Netherlands provide attractive tax benefits for qualified foreigners who come to these countries to work.

A proposal by Hesse state governor Roland Koch, who has spent years trying to introduce similar benefits in Germany, failed miserably in the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat. It should come as no surprise that the world's elite graduates are drawn to the UK, Australia or the US, but rarely to Germany.

To attract more highly-qualified employees to Germany, experts like DIW president Zimmermann recommend a comprehensive package of measures. According to Zimmermann, Germany should lower its barriers to graduates seeking to immigrate, relax work permit requirements for foreign students and bring a solid contingent of foreign specialists into the country using a quota system. This is the only way, says Zimmermann, that "Germany can regain a positive image among highly-qualified foreign personnel."

But the chances that the government will heed the experts' recommendations are slim. Although the cabinet, at its meeting in Meseberg, decided to completely restructure access to the German labor market for specialists in the medium term, the two coalition parties disagree on how this should be achieved. The SPD favors a points system, which the CDU has consistently rejected until now. The CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), want to lower the income thresholds for graduates seeking to immigrate. This, in turn, is unacceptable to the SPD.

A solution to the current impasse is not in sight, and so, for the foreseeable future, the current strategy of splendid isolation will remain in effect. Vice Chancellor Franz Müntefering summed up the status quo when he said last Friday that "tapping domestic potential" had to take preference.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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