The New Guest Workers A German Dream for Crisis Refugees 


Part 4: 'Germany Greeted Me with Open Arms'

Starnberg. Starnberg sounded good, 36-year-old anesthesiologist Alexandra Mani thought to herself. A year ago, she applied for a job at the Starnberg Hospital, but she didn't realize she would be living in one of the most expensive parts of Germany. She had lost her job in Athens during the crisis. She is married and has a 6-year-old son and a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Her husband is also a doctor, but his salary was cut in half. The mortgage on their condominium, the car, the private school for their son -- they wouldn't have been able to pay for all of this without Mani's full salary.

Doctors are needed in Germany, especially outside the big cities. Mani promptly received a job offer, partly because she is fluent in German. She studied in Innsbruck, Austria, for six years. The hospital administration found an apartment for her, and she bought the furniture at IKEA. She sees her family every night on video chat, and she flies home to Athens every three weeks.

"Germany greeted me with open arms," says Mani. There is a large Greek community in Munich, but she hardly interacts with fellow Greeks, preferring to spend her free time with German friends on Lake Starnberg. Her husband and the children have already visited her here twice. Now they want to learn German. If Mani doesn't receive an attractive offer in Greece, they will move to Germany as soon as possible.

'We Still Have a Long Way to Go'

Starting out in Germany is rarely as smooth as it was for Mani. Politicians like Labor Minister von der Leyen like to say that Germany has to learn to be a "welcoming culture," and must have something to offer to the newcomers. "We will only be able to attract highly qualified professionals if we can say to them: Your partner and your children are also welcome, and they'll have good prospects and career opportunities in Germany," says von der Leyen. In her view, this means good daycare facilities and schools, as well as better information and support for families. "We still have a long way to go," says von der Leyen.

German companies also have a long way to go. They complain about not being able to find qualified candidates, but are they making an effort to attract Europe's young elite? According to an OECD study, nine out of 10 German companies had unfilled positions between July 2010 and July 2011, but only one in four companies searched for candidates outside Germany. In the case of small and mid-sized companies, only 15 percent consider looking abroad. "There is a widespread belief that recruiting personnel abroad is complex and unreliable," writes the OECD. Dieter Hundt, president of the German Employers Association, urges businesses to be more open-minded. "We have to send a clear message to people in other countries that we urgently need them and that they're welcome in our country. In this regard, we certainly didn't take advantage of every opportunity in the past."

Many economic migrants from Southern European countries set out for Germany on a wing and a prayer, without a work contract or any social connections. They often turn to communities of people from their native countries already in Germany. To make ends meet while looking for work and learning German, they try to find menial jobs in places like the kitchens of Greek and Spanish restaurants. But those kinds of jobs are in short supply, at least in big cities.

There are also few government-run help centers, and when they do exist they are largely unknown, says immigration expert Bade. He advocates establishing welcome centers where immigrants can receive counseling on important practical issues, such as how to find a job and where to find an apartment.

Germans Sometimes Make Life Hard for Immigrants

The example of Schwäbisch Hall shows how difficult Germans sometimes make life for immigrants. In early 2012, a Portuguese journalist wrote an article about the small city in Baden-Württemberg, about the peace and quiet, the beautiful half-timbered houses -- and the available jobs. One sentence stood out, in particular: "Get to the know the German city that wants to put Portuguese to work." Soon afterwards, employees at the Schwäbisch Hall Job Center received more than 2,500 job applications from Portugal in their email inboxes.

One was from Lisbon native Isabel do Espírito Santo. She was turned down immediately, but Espírito Santo wasn't about to give up that quickly. She gave away her furniture to friends and neighbors, canceled her apartment lease and booked a flight to Stuttgart. In Portugal, she and her husband had built up an automotive supply company with 40 employees. The company lost its contracts during the crisis and went out of business. The marriage also ended in divorce. Espírito Santo took a job as a dental assistant, earning €600 a month.

At first she thought Schwäbisch Hall looked like the photos in the magazine article. She went to the city hall to ask about places to stay. She was told that she had to find a job before they could help her. She went to the employment agency to ask about jobs, saying that she had come from Portugal. An employee gave her a piece of paper that said, in Portuguese: If you are here from Portugal, please go back home. Unfortunately, we don't have a job for you.

She was finally sent to an interview with a trucking company, where she was told: "The work is too hard for you." But she took the job anyway, and now she drives a forklift and packs crates. She earns €8.50 an hour, or about €1,000 a month, after taxes. It's enough to support herself, but no more than that. The only items in her room are the suitcase and clothing she brought with her.

Still, Espírito Santo wants Germany to become her new home and not some kind of temporary way station. She says she wants to "participate in this society," doesn't want to be a traditional guest worker and has taken a second job working in a restaurant kitchen.

One of her sons joined her in November and now works at the trucking company. Espírito Santo would like to improve her German. But her coworkers speak either Russian or Turkish, and she can't afford a language course at the Goethe Institute or adult education center. At first, the trucking company paid for one hour of instruction per week, when the story about Schwäbisch Hall and the Portuguese was still in the papers.

For few years now, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has been offering German courses for people from non-EU countries. But citizens of EU countries, like Espírito Santo, can only attend the courses if there are available slots, and are required to pay a fee.

About two-thirds of the immigrants arriving in 2011 came from EU countries. In the long run, however, Germany will only be able to satisfy its demand for qualified immigrants if it becomes attractive for people from all over the world. "Germany has to set its sights beyond Europe," says Christine Langenfeld, the chairwoman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration.

Merkel's Government More Progressive Than It Appears

The country is much further along than it appears. Ironically, the conservative coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) has quietly and persistently removed one hurdle after another for immigrants, while others were busy deriding immigrants as "social freeloaders."

The German government introduced the so-called EU Blue Card in August 2012. The program allows non-EU immigrants to work in Germany, as long as they can furnish proof of a job offer with a minimum annual salary of €46,000. A university degree is also required. The minimum salary requirement is lowered to €36,000 for professions in which there are few domestic candidates. Foreign university graduates can apply for a six-month visa to look for a job. According to the OECD, the reforms have turned Germany into "one of the countries with the fewest restrictions" for highly qualified immigrants.

Universities are also helping to recruit qualified young professionals from abroad. In 2011, almost 73,000 young people who had finished high school abroad began attending German universities -- the largest number ever. A quarter of the young academics have already decided to stay, including many Chinese and Russians. But Germany still needs more highly qualified workers.

Labor Minister Von der Leyen is also convinced that it isn't just foreign university graduates that Germany needs. She also wants to introduce a new employment regulation for consideration in Chancellor Merkel's cabinet before national elections in September that would also make immigration easer for skilled workers.

The city of Hamburg also wants to make things easier for prospective immigrants. It has established a "Welcome Center" where various bureaucratic requirements can be addressed at the same time. Newcomers to Hamburg can go there to apply for a residence permit, register a place of residence or receive advice on how to secure a place for their child in a daycare center -- all in one place. Almost every employee speaks English.

The center is in a classical building in downtown Hamburg, with high ceilings, comfortable armchairs and glass walls. Visitors are greeted with a friendly handshake instead of being told to take a number and wait. They are asked a few questions by an accommodating advisor, and in the end they are given the documents they need and sent on their way with best wishes. Hamburg is already trying out a new German approach, by telling its qualified immigrants: Please, stay here!


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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