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Relieving Job Angst Through Temp Work

A government-appointed commission assigned to come up with ways to fight Germany’s unemployment wants to encourage temp work. It’s a tough sell to a populace more accustomed to the idea of a job for life.

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One-third of temporary workers in Germany work in the electronics or metal industries.

It used to be easy in Germany – you went to school, got a job, and were usually set for life. Working for one company for thirty or forty years was common and the security that went with it lay close to the German heart.

But that kind of job security is a thing of the past. Today, Germany is struggling with four million unemployed, a languishing economy and wave after wave of insolvencies and layoff announcements. The government is scrambling for new strategies to put its citizens back to work. One of those, released last week by the Hartz Commission, a 15-member panel appointed to suggest labor reforms, wants to put new emphasis on temporary work.

It’s a concept that goes deeply against the German grain.

“We’re very sceptical when it comes to temporary work,” Johannes Jakob of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) told DW-WORLD, expressing the traditional view of the country’s powerful trade union movement and many Germans. “It can be misused by employers, especially to lower wages. It leaves the worker unprotected.”

Thrown Among the Wolves

To Germans, who are used to a level of job protection the rest of the world can only dream about, being farmed out by a temp agency to a strange company is something akin to being thrown out of the boat without a life preserver. Critics argue it’s pure exploitation, citing the fact that temporary employees don’t necessarily receive the same wages as the permanently-employed colleagues they might be working alongside. A study by the DGB in 2001 said that temp workers on average received 40 percent less than those with equal qualifications in permanent positions.

Other black marks against the temp industry, according to the unions, are high levels of job insecurity among temps, greater frequency of on-the-job injuries, and lower overall contributions to the Germany’s social security system, which is already under strain.

Critics argue further that temp work embodies the “hire and fire” principle, accepted in liberal economies like the US and Britain, and traditionally anathema in Germany. This widespread opposition to temping has meant that the industry has been more regulated in Germany than elsewhere. In its Temporary Work Law of 1972, the government restricted temp assignments to less than seven months. This year that limit has been extended to 24 months – still far less than what is allowed in Britain or the Netherlands.

"Slave Traders" No More

Arbeitsamt in Berlin, thumbnail

Arbeitslose warten vor einem Arbeitsamt in Berlin auf diesem Archivbild vom 4. Maerz 1998. Die Zahl der Arbeitslosen ist im September 2001 ueber den Vorjahresstand gestiegen, wie die Bundesanstalt fuer Arbeit am Dienstag, 9. Oktober 2001, in Nuernberg erklaerte. Die Arbeitslosenquote liegt bei 9,0 Prozent. Bundesweit gab es 3, 743 Millionen Arbeitslose, 58.200 mehr als vor einem Jahr und 45.800 weniger als im August 2001. (AP Photo/Hans Edinger)

But with four million unemployed and no relief in sight, temp work has emerged as a possible tool in the fight against joblessness, and it’s starting to overcome some of its bad reputation, even among die-hard opponents.

“There are still vestiges of the old mentality against temporary work here. Germany has a harder time getting rid of them than other countries, it seems,” Katja Hartmann, marketing manager with Manpower, an American temporary agency with operations in Germany, told DW-WORLD. “But attitudes have changed dramatically over the last few months.”

The media coverage of the Hartz Commission proposals encouraging expansion of the temporary sector have gone a long way, Hartmann said. She said people are seeing temp agencies less as “slave traders” and more as possible job creators.

According to a study by the McKinsey consulting firm, temping could create up to 4 million new jobs in Europe by 2010, with the biggest potential for job growth in Germany. In addition, temping has a good track record in several other European countries. In Britain and the Netherlands, the countries with Europe’s lowest jobless rates, temp workers represent 3.7 and 4.5 percent of the workforce respectively. That’s in stark contrast with Germany, the country with Europe’s largest percentage of long-term unemployed, where temporary workers make up less than 1 percent of the workforce.

Besides fueling job growth, temporary agencies have proved effective at putting unemployed workers back into the labor force, funnelling some 30 percent of their workers annually into full-time jobs.

“That means turning unemployment into employment, and it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a cent,” Gert Denkhaus with the Federal Association of Temporary Work Agencies told DW-WORLD. According to him, temp work can be a springboard to employment for traditionally hard-to-employ groups, like low-skilled laborers, older workers, mothers wanting to reenter the workforce and students. Half of those who go to work through temp agencies, he said, were unemployed before.

Unions Coming Around?

Given all the good news around temping and the bad news about unemployment, even the unions have begun to rethink their long-held opposition. “Temporary work is one instrument, a small one, to fight unemployment,” said Johannes Jakob of the Trade Union Federation. “But it must be regulated in the interests of employees,” he was quick to add.

Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder, rechts, und Peter Hartz

Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schroeder, rechts, und Peter Hartz, Vorsitzender der nach ihm benannten Hartz-Kommission, in Berlin. Hartz hat am Samstag, 3. Aug. 2002 davor gewarnt seine Vorschlaege zur Reform der Arbeitsvermittlung im Wahlkampf zu zerreiben. Laut dem Reformentwurf soll die Bundesanstalt fuer Arbeit teilprivatisiert werden und sich auf Kernaufgaben beschraenken. Nicht mehr zu den Aufgaben der Behoerde sollen etwa die Auszahlung des Kindergeldes oder die Bekaempfung der illegalen Beschaeftigung gehoeren.

In fact, it would have been hard for the unions not to give temping a second chance. The proposals by the Hartz Commission that have shone new light on the industry came not from conservative voices unfriendly to unions, but from Peter Hartz, close friend of Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder (photo), who is a close friend of the unions.

“For the first time, the question of temporary work it being accepted – even by the trade unions – and this consensus represents a breakthrough that could lead to reform,” Manfred Weiss, professor of labor law at Frankfurt’s Goethe University said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

Katja Hartmann of Manpower sees a bright future for her industry in Germany. While Germany’s more than 3,000 temp agencies employ 800,000 people now, she thinks that number will soon go up, especially if the Hartz Commission proposals are adopted. She said old ideas about temporary work are on the way out.

“People should realize that no country protects their temps more than Germany does and they’re starting to understand that having a job for life is really a thing of the past,” she said. “Those kinds of jobs just aren’t there anymore.”

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