German Minimum Wage Push Gets Moderate Response | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 31.03.2008
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German Minimum Wage Push Gets Moderate Response

A poorer-than-expected response to a German plan to set minimum wage deals in some sectors has led to yet more political debate on the topic.

Forest ranger Josef Woehrle checks a fir tree's branch in the City Forest in Neuried, near Munich, on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2004.

Forestry was one of the few sectors that sought a minimum wage

Only seven business sectors had applied for a minimum wage by the end of the day Monday, March 31. That was the deadline set by politicians for business sectors under a deal put forth by Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) and workers' unions.

North Rhine-Westfalia parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen, portrait

Röttgen says minimum wage will bring joblessness

The number is fewer than the 10 to 12 hoped for by the SPD, and also included smaller industries, representing just 1.43 million workers. These include specialized mining workers, with just 2,500 employees, and other industries such as temp workers, security guards, industrial laundries, forestry workers, nurses' aides, and career trainers.

German Labor Minister Olaf Scholz, of the SPD, said he was happy with the results, and called them a "gigantic political success." It would double the number of workers who are currently protected from wage-dumping competition under the Entsendegesetz, a German law enacted to protect construction workers from cheap labor.

Even after the deadline passes, Scholz said, other branches are allowed to enter the protection of the law.

However, the SPD had originally predicted it would garner more important sectors representing 4.4 million workers.

Response surprises SPD

Christian Democrats (CDU) as well as German business leaders have said the lack of interest is an expression of support for their anti-minimum-wage position.

In contrast, the SPD continues to demand a minimum wage. And the Green Party and The Left party are seeking a unified minimum wage for all business sectors.

Last year, the CDU and SPD, which make up Germany's grand coalition government, had struck a deal, saying employers and unions could apply for a minimum wage in their sector. The application deadline was March 31, 2008.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, portrait

Wowereit: government should step in where industry fails

The weak turnout came as a surprise to the SPD leaders, who had previously demanded a unified, cross-sector minimum wage. Most CDU politicians had opposed the plan, and thus the compromise of a branch-by-branch application process was reached.

Germany's Economy Minister Michael Glos, of the CDU's sister party CSU, told the Bild newspaper that the low response shows business branches themselves "knew best what was good for them, and minimum wage isn't part of it."

CDU parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily that "the overwhelming majority" of workers opposed a minimum wage "because they know it brings joblessness."

CDU Secretary General Ronald Pofalla told the German weekly paper Welt am Sonntag that the SPD had made an "error in calculations" in making the minimum wage a major point in state election campaigns.

Left vows to continue the fight

But while right-leaning parties are claiming the topic is now dead as a campaign issue, others are sticking to their guns on the issue.

The SPD will continue to fight for a general minimum wage, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit told reporters on Monday, adding that the topic is anything but off the table in terms of election politics.

The fact that few sectors applied for the wage only reflects the lack of power that stands behind the unions, he said. In that case, "the state needs to take an active role," Wowereit said.

Green Party economics expert Brigitte Pothmer also noted that the weak response to the legislation was simply more proof than ever that "we need binding minimum wages in branches that have poor tariff agreements."

The executive director of the The Left party, Dietmar Bartsch, reiterated his wish that the state should simply create a broad-based minimum hourly wage of 8.44 euros ($13).

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