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Germany

Foreign Help in German Homes

For a brief period in 2002 Germans were allowed to legally hire foreign household help from eastern Europe. Now the law has changed and thousands are left with the choice between no job and breaking the law.

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Help in the home: foreigners could fill the demand, but not legally


"Polish woman, 25, friendly, hard-working, responsible, looks for position as domestic help, etc., also by the hour, experienced. No sex."

Open the classified ad section in any German newspaper, and you'll find an abundance of people, both German and foreign, anxious to help you around the house. Until recently, it was generally understood that foreigners did domestic work, while Germans expected to get jobs outside the household, jobs that paid better.

Although there’s no way of knowing how many foreigners work in German homes, estimates from various organizations, political parties and the press put the number at up to 100,000. The labor ministry, which is normally responsible for keeping track of the number of employed persons, has no statistics on foreign domestics.

The vast numbers of foreign household help hover in a gray zone between legal and illegal employment. For a short time, Germans could legally employ Polish, Czech or Slovenian housekeepers. But that was back in 2002 when former Labor Minister Walter Riester legalized employing foreign domestics. It was a short-lived regulation and was only valid until the end of the year. Now many of the formerly legally employed domestics are finding themselves in a difficult situation and without a source of income.

Waiting on immigration law

Riester's relaxed regulations were designed to allow foreign domestic workers to live and work in Germany for three years. The worker was required to contribute to the German social welfare, unemployment and pensions systems and pay health insurance and accident insurance. Only people from the five countries that were at that time first in line to join the European Union – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – were allowed to apply.

And some of them did. In 2002, the International Employment Agency (ZAV) in Bonn found positions for 996 domestics, 783 of whom were Polish.

But at the end of the year when the program was terminated ahead of schedule, the foreign workers found themselves caught in a difficult situation. Peter Umber, a spokesman from the labor ministry told Deutsche Welle, "There hasn't been a legal basis for such job placement or for issuing a work permit since Dec. 31, 2002. Until a new regulation goes into effect there is no possibility to issue such domestics a work permit."

The regulation legalizing the employment of foreign domestics was meant to bridge the time until a new immigration law came into effect at the start of 2003. But German politicians wrangled over the legislation for months, and after the opposition conservative parties blocked its passage on a point of procedure, the bill got mired down in a parliamentary commission.

High demand and high cost

In the meantime, the illegal market in household help from central and eastern Europe is flourishing. Many foreigners are attracted by the prospect of earning more than they could at home.

Malgorzata, a nurse from Gdansk, Poland, has been caring for an elderly couple since October. She works here legally, a beneficiary of Riester's 2002 regulation. Malgorzata was attracted by the opportunity to make good money. "I earn more here than I could in Poland. My accommodation here is free. I don't really need to spend any money; I can set it all aside. And that is my goal."

But employers have discovered that legally hiring domestics entails high costs.

"The whole thing does have a snag," Heribert Bodens explained. Like many Germans, Bodens had looked for affordable help for taking care of his father. He was fortunate to have been able to find an eastern European under the Riester regulation, but added that such help is expensive.

"It is not exactly cheap to employ such household help, simply because you're confronted with the issue of non-wage labor costs. The cash amount that comes out after deductions is not half of the total costs."

On the illegal market a domestic worker gets free food and accommodation and €800 ($909) cash. But a similar arrangement is impossible to carry out legally since the law requires that domestics are paid the standard rate for their profession. The employer must pay a total of €1872.72, of which the domestic gets €800. Room, board and social insurance contributions swallow up the rest of the money.

Though expensive, there is a consolation: both employer and employee needn't worry about being discovered, deported, slapped with a fine or even facing criminal proceedings. But until the new immigration law is passed, most of the foreign domestic help advertising in German papers will have to continue to live in a precarious situation.

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