Germany's Disappointing Reunification How the East Was Lost

By and

Part 4: Paid to Do Pretend Work


"I can say to the Germans in East Germany that no one will be worse off than before, and many will be better off."

(Helmut Kohl, July 1, 1990)

A light breeze is blowing on this sunny June morning in the forests south of Berlin. Knut Sprenger is standing in front of a trail map near the town of Luckenwalde in Brandenburg, preparing for his workday under a publicly funded employment program.

"We'll take the Holbeck circular route today," he says. "We haven't been there in a while."

Sprenger works for "Fläming Walk," a 450-kilometer (280-mile) network of hiking trails named after the Fläming region. The participating towns like to tout it as the "biggest Nordic walking park at the gates of Berlin and Potsdam." Sprenger, who is in his mid-50s and deeply tanned, monitors hiking paths, replaces damaged path markers and accompanies groups of hikers. "I spend a lot of time in the great outdoors," he says, "and I always have a destination in mind."

A Tradition of Concealment

Not everyone in eastern Germany is as satisfied with his or her job. Two decades after reunification, the labor market is the clearest indicator of the ongoing gap between the two Germanys. The unemployment rate in the eastern states is still almost twice as high as it is in the west, and the east has more temporary and seasonal workers.

According to a study by the Institute for Employment Research, "central indicators for the job market suggest more of a tendency toward stagnation than catching up."

Back in the former East Germany, it was common to conceal the true scope of unemployment behind a large number of unproductive jobs. This tradition was seamlessly extended into the post-reunification era.

The government came up with a series of publicly funded employment programs in the years after the fall of the Wall. But there was always an underlying contradiction. On the one hand, the jobs created under these programs were designed to resemble normal jobs as closely as possible, so that participants would be able to eventually return to the regular working world. On the other hand, this parallel labor market could not compete with the real job market.

It was not a success, as Germany's Federal Audit Office concluded two years ago in a devastating assessment of one such program involving so-called "one euro jobs." Under the scheme, the long-term unemployed could work a certain number of hours a week in, for example, old people's homes, schools or parks. In return, they received compensation of €1 an hour or more on top of their regular welfare payments. But, according to the report, the government-funded ersatz jobs were displacing many regular jobs and even decreased the chances of participants finding real work.

For the majority of long-term unemployed people, the one-euro jobs did not "provide any measurable advantages" in terms of finding work, the auditors concluded. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans were "branded as second-class workers," says Esther Schröder, a former SPD member of the Brandenburg state parliament.

Making Sundials for the State

Knut Sprenger is familiar with the experience. When Sprenger, a bricklayer by trade, was no longer able to work in construction because of a slipped disc, the job placement office helped him embark on what he describes as a "career in government-funded job programs." He went from one temporary job to the next, but the positions were either pointless or lacked job security.

At first, he received a one-euro job as a janitor in a center for the disabled. Even though his new employers praised him as the "man with the golden hands," Sprenger was unable to keep the job, because one-euro jobs are usually only temporary.

Then the employment office placed him in a so-called "qualification" program, in which he and other unemployed workers were supposed to build sundials. They were only permitted to use sandpaper and files as tools, and the results of their work disappeared into the basement of the company running the program.

The work making sundials was not supposed to resemble an ordinary job in the trades. Sprenger began to question the purpose of the project. "When I finish work in the evening, I have to be able to see what I've accomplished," he says.

Hopes of a Job

Now he hopes that he'll at least be able to keep his job with Fläming Walk, but the chances aren't good. The federal government program that provides the funding for his current position expires in two years.

By now it's early in the afternoon and Sprenger is back at his starting point. In a few moments, he'll report to his boss that he found no significant damage, except for a downed tree that had fallen on another tree behind a small grove. "If it comes loose," says Sprenger, "it could be really dangerous."

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