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German Coal Miners Go West

The German government’s latest strategy to tackle its unemployment rate says workers need to be more mobile. Six coal miners in the Ruhr Region are taking that to the extreme by emigrating to America for work.


German coal miners face an uncertain future - some are deciding to take their chances in the US.

Andreas Willrodt has called Germany’s Ruhr Region home his entire life. The coal mines there are all he’s ever known. He and his brother Peter are the third generation of the family that has long made its living underground. His grandfather was a miner, so was his father.

But coal in Germany is a dying industry, and Willrodt knows it. Although the sector still employs 47,000 people here, it survives only thanks to a lifeline in the form of €3 billion ($2.97 billion) in subsidies it gets every year. While those subsidies are safe for now, miners see the writing on the wall. In the next five years, at least two of the remaining ten coal mines will have to close, leaving 12,000 without jobs.

Forty-year-old Willrodt has decided to get out while the getting is good.

He’s one of the first two miners participating in a program set up by the Essen-based RAG Coal International that is relocating company workers to the United States. They’ll soon pack up their picks and shovels and head west. Willrodt dreams of riding his BMW across the wide-open spaces of Wyoming and working without worrying that his mine could be closed in a year or two.

"I’m definitely going to seize this once-in-a-lifetime chance," Willrodt says, "and at some point I want to become an American citizen."

Fulfilling the American Dream

Willrodt is one of more than 100 miners who applied for the program set up by RAG, which operates mines in Australia and in the U.S. states of Wyoming, West Virginia, Colorado and Illinois. One other German miner will be relocated to RAG’s West Virginia operation. Four others have been approved for the program and are now just waiting for job positions to open up.

"I think the idea of the ‘American dream’ is still very strong with some people," says Wolfgang Unterkötter, RAG’s spokesman, when describing the response the company got when it publicized the program in the job centers that are in place at every German mine. "They see the U.S. as a place of almost unlimited possibilities and love the country’s beautiful landscapes."

He says dozens of miners could follow. Applicants must possess a proficient enough knowledge of English to work in the mines, the correct qualifications for the job and the willingness to leave home and hearth behind and start a new life in a foreign country.

"I’ll miss the atmosphere in the Ruhr Region," admits Steffen Scholand, 20, who will be heading for the West Virginia mountains in four to six weeks. But he’s young and unmarried and ambitious enough to pull up stakes in order to make sure he has steady work.

The German government wishes there were more people like him.

Flexibility, the new mantra

The German government isn't encouraging its citizens to leave the country or hoping for a mass wave of emigration to relieve its swelling unemployment rolls. But Michael Kinzler of the Essen Labor Office says the idea of these miners looking beyond their own backyards for a chance for a secure future is an encouraging one which could serve as a model for many Germans.

"We need people to be flexible and mobile these days," he says, "and I think the RAG project offers an interesting perspective about what it can take to find secure employment. Even though this is kind of an extreme example."

At the end of June, Volkswagen board member and personnel director Peter Hartz unveiled his plan for sweeping labor-market reforms in Germany – reforms that Hartz claims can cut the country’s unemployment rolls in half. His proposals have been on the lips of politicians and the media ever since.

Among the specific measures suggested by the Hartz Commission is a requirement that single people whose personal circumstances allow for some mobility should accept jobs anywhere in the country. That means an out-of-work plumber in the eastern city of Magdeburg should be willing to move to Stuttgart in the southwest part of the country if an available job is vacant.

While many politicians and even the labor unions have welcomed the idea of demanding increased worker flexibility and mobility, the idea isn't been without its critics.

Matthias Platzeck, premier of the eastern state of Brandenburg, warns against creating a "nomadic society" whose direction is only determined by the whims of the free market.

But Kinzler says there is little danger of that – even in economically depressed areas like the Ruhr Region, where unemployment hovers at 11.6 percent.

"People are settled and Germans are less likely than Americans to pull up roots and leave their home region, much less leave the country," he says.

Rarin’ To Go

But Andreas Willrodt can’t wait. He’s getting the motorcycle ready for those miles and miles of wide-open spaces.

He sees little future for German mining and at 40 years of age, he said it’s too late for him to start fresh in Germany.

"America is my chance," he says.

  • Date 03.09.2002
  • Author Kyle James
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2TST
  • Date 03.09.2002
  • Author Kyle James
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2TST