Unions take up immigration issues

In October 2002, Germany's Unified Service Sector Union (ver.di) is holding a special conference aimed at developing new trade union demands in support of migrant workers. This reflects a growing interest in the issue among German unions. While recent government efforts to introduce a new legislative basis for targeted immigration and improve the integration of immigrants are currently in legal limbo, the DGB union federation is reaching out to other pro-immigration organisations in order to put immigration issues high on the agenda. Recent research indicates, however, that the increasing diversity of immigrants’ employment relationships will make it more difficult for unions to recruit among the migrant population.

On 24-25 October 2002, the Unified Service Sector Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di) is holding a two-day conference which seeks to develop new ideas for integrating immigrant workers at the workplace and new trade union demands in support of migrants. This initiative represents a considerable extension of the union's work in relation to a group of workers that – according to the union's estimates - represents between 5% and 7% of ver.di's total membership. Of the five unions which merged to create ver.di (DE0104220F) in 2001, only the Postal Workers' Union (Deutsche Postgewerkschaft, DPG) had substantial structures to support members who were migrant workers, with the other unions having done little in this area. With the help of the October conference and the support of a special new department in charge of migration issues, ver.di is now seeking to give immigration issues and the integration of immigrant workers more emphasis.

Within the German Trade Union Federation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) several other member unions, such as the IG Metall metalworkers' union, have a good track record of activities in the field of migration and the DGB's federal executive board has increased its efforts in this field. Previous attempts, however, to lobby for more 'immigrant-friendly' legislation have not brought the expected results. With legislative support still in limbo (see below), some unions fear that they will not achieve the kind of government support that they are hoping for.

New legislation in doubt

In September 2000, the coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and the Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) decided to set up a special commission to suggest new policies in the field of immigration (Zuwanderungskommission) (DE0105223F). Composed of migration experts from the federal parliament (Bundestag), state parliaments, municipal governments, churches, trade unions, employers' associations, universities and government agencies, the special commission was charged with recommending a new immigration policy.

In July 2001, the commission issued its final report which – among other proposals – suggested providing new options for controlled immigration from outside the EU as well as supporting the integration of immigrants into working life and German society in general. While some details of the report were disputed, employers, unions and the government largely supported the commission's findings and suggested changing German immigration law accordingly. In November 2001, the Federal Ministry of Interior drafted a comprehensive reform bill (for a 'Zuwanderungsgesetz', or Gesetz zur Steuerung und Begrenzung der Zuwanderung und zur Regelung des Aufenthalts und der Integration von Unionsbürgern und Ausländern) which was later modified by migration experts from both ruling parties and submitted to the federal parliament for adoption.

Parliament passed the bill, with the support of the red-Green coalition, and referred it to the Bundesrat– the second chamber of Germany's parliament, representing the governments of the federal states – for its approval. What followed was unprecedented in the post-war history of German politics. In the Bundesrat, the red-Green coalition did not have a clear majority and the Christian Democrats (Christlich Demokratische Union, CDU), the largest opposition party, opposed the bill. In the voting, the tie-breaking vote was held by the federal state of Brandenburg, which is governed by a coalition of the SPD and CDU. While Manfred Stolpe, Brandenburg's SPD prime minister, cast the state's vote in favour of the bill, Jörg Schönbohm, his CDU vice-prime minister, refused to support this decision and voiced his opposition. Because the German constitution does not allow federal states to split their vote, a fundamental dispute emerged from this dilemma. After the Bundesrat's president and the President of Germany had accepted the majority vote of the Bundesrat achieved with Mr Stolpe's support, the CDU and its ally the Christian Social Union (Christlich Soziale Union, CSU) challenged this decision in the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht). With the case still pending, it is not yet clear whether the new immigration law will be allowed to come into force by 1 January 2003, as the government had planned.

Alliance in support of immigration

As it is not clear when and if present and future non-EU immigrants will benefit from improved legal provisions for immigration and integration into German society, the German trade union movement is endeavouring to improve the rights of foreign-born workers and their families. In 1998, DGB participated in the creation of the 'Network against racism and for equal rights' (Netz gegen Rassismus, für gleiche Rechte), which brings together about 100 non-governmental organisations, most of which have a strong record in the field of anti-racism and pro-immigration policies. The network, which is coordinated by DGB and has its offices in the DGB headquarters in Berlin, lobbies for the introduction of a 'mainstreaming strategy against racism and for better acceptance and equal treatment'. Under this mainstreaming strategy, the network seeks to commit not only the federal government but also regional and municipal governments to considering issues related to the equal treatment of immigrants as a central part of their daily work.

As part of its work in the field of integration and anti-racism, the network has issued a position paper which analyses the programmes for the September 2002 general election of all major German political parties with regard to migration issues. The report welcomes statements in the electoral programmes of the SPD, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, the Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus, PDS) on fighting racism and supporting activities by civil society to oppose right-wing extremism. However, the network also criticises the CDU/CSU for allegedly not openly supporting the notion of Germany as a 'pluralistic immigration society' (pluralistische Einwanderungsgesellschaft).

DGB's demands for equal treatment of migrants

While the network largely seeks to convince the political parties and the general public to fight xenophobia, DGB and its affiliates have already taken some important practical steps forward. In a number of company-level agreements, trade unions such as IG Metall, the Mining, Chemicals and Energy Workers' Union (Industriegewerkschaft Bergbau Chemie Energie, IG BCE) and the Railworkers' Union (Transnet) have negotiated provisions for the equal treatment of foreign-born workers. Such agreements exist at Deutsche Bahn AG (the national rail company), Satorius AG, Opel AG, Jenoptik and Aventis.

To improve non-EU immigrants' opportunities for integration into German society, DGB suggests a number of changes to the law, as follows:

  • the introduction of universal standards for the recognition of foreign educational and training qualifications by the German authorities. Due to the lack of recognition of such foreign qualifications, migrant workers face significant disadvantages when applying for further training or for university-based programmes;
  • allowing the families of migrant workers to join them in Germany. However, in order to define universal standards for the movement of the dependants of migrant workers, DGB would prefer this issue to be regulated at European level;
  • giving permanent resident status to those groups of migrants who have already been living in Germany for several years. At present, German law provides for different legal statuses for different groups of migrants - a situation that in DGB's view makes the integration of migrants more difficult; and
  • the enactment by the government of an anti-discrimination law (Antidiskriminierungsgesetz). While EU Directive (2000/43/EC) on the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin (EU0006256F) requires the Member States to adopt national laws, regulations and administrative provisions to transpose the Directive by July 2003, DGB criticises the slow process of implementation. In addition to adjusting German law to the standards set by the Directive, the unions also demand additional 'proactive' measures to avoid any future discrimination against immigrants.

New research on immigrants' working conditions

While DGB and its affiliates are seeking to find new strategies to improve immigrants' living and working conditions as well as their integration, it is not clear if a majority of migrant workers and their families support the trade union movement. A recent study ('Zuwanderung und Arbeitsmarkt: Alter Zopf mit neuem Muster?', Felicitas Hillmann, WSI-Mitteilungen No. 10, vol. 55, 2002) found that immigrants' employment relationships are increasingly diverse, a development which has significant consequences for unions' capacities to approach and recruit migrant workers.

The first generation of immigrants (1955-73) came to Germany on the basis of bilateral agreements between the German government and several, mostly European, countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia) and it was intended that they should join the domestic workforce for a limited time only. Immigration - rather than increasing the labour force participation rate of German women - was the strategy of choice to meet the exploding labour demand of the time. With the economic crisis following the 'oil shock' of the early 1970s, many immigrants became unemployed and consequently moved back to their countries of origin. While the share of foreign-born workers in the employed workforce was 11.2% in 1974, this proportion declined to 9.8% in 1980 and 7.9% in 1990. Women represent about 30% of the migrant working population and it can be observed that foreign nationals are over-represented in certain occupations - including physically demanding work and certain service occupations in sectors such as hotels and restaurants. As shown in the table below, starting with the oil shock of the 1970s, unemployment became a severe problem among the migrant population.

Unemployment in west Germany 1980-2000 (%)
Year Total unemployment rate Unemployment rate for foreign citizens
1980 3.5 5.0
1985 9.3 13.9
1990 7.2 10.9
1992 6.6 12.2
1994 9.2 16.4
1996 10.1 18.9
1998 9.4 19.9
2000 7.8 16.8

Source: Hillmann 2002; Federal Employment Agency, various years.

During this period, while unions were able to contact those migrant workers working in highly unionised large companies in manufacturing, they were not able to reach the growing number of unemployed foreign nationals. The same was true of the growing number of self-employed immigrants. Partly as a reaction to growing unemployment among immigrants, Turkish employees and their families in particular started to set up small businesses which later were to be known as part of 'ethnic economies'. Most of these businesses were concentrated in larger cities such as Berlin, but they could be also found throughout the country. Between 1985 and 2000, the number of self-employed Turkish citizens in Germany increased from 22,000 to 59,500. About 25% of these entrepreneurs are women. While most of these small businesses employ three people or fewer, close to 10% of the Turkish entrepreneurs have 10 employees or more. While this portion of the migrant population was essentially outside unions' recruitment efforts, it could at least be said that the employed segment of the migrant population was within reach of union representation.

Starting in the early 1990s, this situation changed and made unions' organising efforts among migrant employees even more difficult. Recent developments have led to a further polarisation of migrants' employment relationships. At one end of the spectrum, there is an increasing influx of foreign labour in relatively high-skilled occupations. Through its so-called 'green card' initiative launched in 2000 (DE0003252F), the red-Green coalition government introduced a limited work permit for non-EU foreign experts in the information technology sector. With permits granted for a duration of one to five years only, these non-permanent migrants are to some extent a 'moving target' for any union efforts at systematic recruitment. At the other end of the spectrum, the existence of a growing share of the workforce in relatively precarious, often illegal, employment in sectors such as construction and domestic services (DE0201226N) is causing the unions problems. In particular, the part of this low-skilled and low-paid workforce which is considered to be 'illegal' is mostly out of reach of the unions.


There are important and encouraging signs that the German trade union movement is taking the interests of migrant workers more seriously and is putting issues such as immigration law on their agenda. In addition, unions are making considerable efforts to become part of broader alliances to fight xenophobia and right-wing extremism. However, such initiatives to take issues of immigration more seriously are only slowly becoming a higher priority of the German trade union movement, and there is also troubling news for organised labour. With the polarisation of employment relationships of foreign nationals, unions face increasing difficulties in recruiting immigrants. The growth of both high-skilled and temporary employment in the information technology sector, and of low-skilled and frequently illegal employment in domestic services and construction, 'raises the bar' for union efforts to recruit these workers. (Martin Behrens, Institute for Economic and Social Research, WSI)

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