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Business

Germany's Working Poor

It's one American trend that Germans never wanted to import: people forced to take several low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. But a growing number of Germans are now among the nation's new working poor.

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Rushing from one low-paying job to the next

Iris Otten from the town of Mönchengladbach wakes each morning at 6 a.m. to face an 18-hour day. The 48-year-old has been a single mother for nine years. Her first task is to make sure her daughter and two sons -- aged 15, 16 and 19 -- eat breakfast and get off to school. Then she makes the beds and does a bit of housework until 9 a.m., when her first customer arrives.

Otten gives pedicures in a converted room in her basement, earning around 150 euros ($180) in addition to what she gets from the state in the form of unemployment benefit and family allowance. It's never enough. Though Otten is able to cover her fixed costs, there are always additional expenses -- gas, clothing, school supplies for her kids.

For that reason, Otten completed a three-year course to become a non-medical practitioner. She set up a small practice in the same room where she gives pedicures. Her relatives gave her an interest-free loan to get the business started, but visits from clients are still erratic. Her goal? To earn a living, independent from state support.

Working longer to scrape by

In March, almost 6.6 million people in Germany were working so-called "mini-jobs" for minimal wages. Since the money is often not enough to get by, many of these people hold several jobs. Statistics from the Federal Labor Office for March 2005 showed 1.75 million people with at least one low-paying side job -- and that number is growing. The estimated number of unreported cases of people working more than one mini-job is extremely high.

Kochkurs für Migranten in Hannover

Learning new skills in the hope of getting one job that pays a living wage

Frank Herzen from Cologne doesn't have any children -- but he still works an 18-hour day. The 33-year-old worked as a chef for many years, but is now concentrating on getting his secondary school diploma. His lessons begin at 8 a.m. Today, he has to give a presentation in biology, which he prepared in between completing assignments for other courses and working the two jobs he needs to finance his studies. Herzen had to give up his chef's job for health reasons, and opted to go back to school in order to open up new opportunities for himself. Twice a week, when school lets out, he goes to work as a supermarket clerk.

School, supermarket, bar

"In the evenings, I also try to take a couple shifts behind the bar," Herzen said. "I try not to do those shifts during the week, but sometimes it can't be helped. So sometimes I leave my job at the supermarket and go straight to the bar, where I work until 3 or 4 a.m. And then I have to get up for school at 8 a.m."

Herzen's supermarket job doesn't pay enough to cover his living expenses. Together with the bar job, he's able to scrape together 1,000 euros a month.

But racing from one job to the next is no way to live, says Herzen.

"When you're doing three jobs simultaneously, you can't really identify with any of the employers, but you also don't have the time or the peace of mind to work on finding a better solution," he said.

Herzen's goal is to get a fixed contract so that he can concentrate his energies.


"It's definitely not my plan to spend my whole life as a mini-jobber," he said.

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