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Germany’s Economic Woes Threaten French Commuters

Workers who cross the German border from France to get to their jobs every day are facing escalating employment fears as Germany’s recession bites hard in the Alsace region.

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Workers in the economically lagging Alsace long sought employment across the border.

European economic experts often refer to Germany as “the sick man of Europe” with its recession-hit economy and increasing unemployment levels. Many say that when the sick man sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold. Such is the influence Germany’s economic woes have on the rest of the continent.

If this is the case, then the south-western border region of Alsace is currently tucked up in bed with a stinking case of flu. Because those workers who have always found solace in the fact that they can escape France’s troubles by hopping across the divide to work in the previously stable neighboring economy are now feeling the effects of hard times. The commuters of Alsace are suffering, caught between the two wheezing giants of the euro zone.

People living in the Alsace region always used to be able to find work on the German side of the border when the economy was strong, mostly in low-paid jobs working as factory staff, cleaners or construction workers. But those days are gone. Over the last two years unemployment in this border area of France has increased by 3 percent, from 5 percent unemployment to 8 percent, the highest rise registered in the country.

Recession sends commuters back to France

One of the main reasons is that the unemployment situation in Germany is driving the commuters of Alsace back across the border in search of work. Those who have been paying bills back in France thanks to manual labor jobs in Germany now find themselves the first to go as their German employers buckle under the weight of demands from an economy forecasting zero to minimal growth.

Arbeitsamt in Berlin, thumbnail

Germany's unemployment figures keep rising.

According to the federal government’s annual economic report, published recently, 4.2 million people, i.e. one in ten German workers, will be affected by unemployment this year. The very slight economic growth of 0.2 percent in 2002 and the zero growth forecast for 2003, which according to the major economic research institutes and to the federal government’s annual economic report has been revised downwards, also do little to raise the spirits of the workforce.

French job troubles increase

As a result, those border commuters returning from Germany after becoming victims of the German recession are flooding the job market in the Alsace, adding to the region’s existing worries. Unemployment in France is currently at 9.6 percent with its own economic forecast looking bleak with the French economy shrinking by 0.3 percent in the second quarter of 2003.

Suffering from Germany’s ongoing economic weakness, more people are looking for help from the Association of Cross-Border Commuters of Alsace-Lorraine in the French town of Haguenau. Susan Salar, a lawyer with the association, told Deutsche Welle that many of those returning to the region for work are victims of the wider malaise in Germany and that their numbers represent the amount of failing businesses in the border region. “In particular, people are being laid off because of insolvencies. In this area, even big and old-established companies with up to 500 employees have gone bankrupt.”

One of the worst examples of companies shedding their Alsace workforce is that of German IT-company Emtec, which has cut nearly 400 jobs in the last two years.

Companies closing as work dries up

Wartezimmer beim Arbeitsamt in München

Waiting for a job.

The telephones ring non-stop in the commuter’s association’s office and the waiting room is full of people.

A 40-year old Alsatian man named Patrick is sitting awaiting his turn. Patrick has just been laid off by his German employer in the city of Oberkirch.

"I worked in Germany as a carpenter for a different firms," he said. "I was at one company for the past five years. My boss gave me notice from one day to the next and, as we say, 'he threw me out like yesterday's trash.' He just threw me out."

Another is a 35-year-old mechanic who, despite speaking perfect German, has been released by his German employer after the levels of work dropped dramatically and never recovered.

“I could feel it getting worse from month to month. First of all they took away the company car. Then they cut all bonuses. Then they told us to stay at home for a few days. Or we had to start working at seven in the morning and then leave at ten. That’s when we really felt it.”

However, the unemployment situation in Germany has not put off everyone from trying to find work there. Having a job in Germany is still an attractive opportunity for some people in Alsace, primarily because of the higher wages there. A carpenter, for example, can command up to €400 a month more in Germany than in France, and secondly because the situation in France is barely any better.

Germany still attractive

Cédric Rosen, head of the commuter’s association put the feelings of many into blunt language: “A lot of people here have two opportunities. Either I’m jobless in France, or I commute to Germany, to earn money for my family. It is a pretty simple decision.”

But if the state of the German economy worsens and the numbers of unemployed workers continues to increase, there may be fewer options open to the commuters of the Alsace region and tougher decisions ahead.

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