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Foreign temp worker at Amazon's logistics center in Pforzheim, Germany Photo: Jan-Philipp Strobel/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Cheap labor

Dirk Kaufmann / hg
February 21, 2013

For some, temporary employment is an indispensable labor market model, for others it's an instrument of exploitation. Mass joblessness in southern and eastern Europe could worsen that conflict in Germany.


Temporary work is nothing new: it's been around for years, for instance in agriculture where seasonal workers help bring in the harvest. And for the remaining ten months of the year there's no work for them.

For Johannes Jakob, a labor market expert with the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), the concept of temporary employment looks alright in principle. He sees it as "a meaningful temporary work arrangement which is used whenever staff is required for a limited period." And he doesn't see a problem so long as workers have a longer-term perspective in their temp work.

But that's not always the case. Jakob argues that employers increasingly use temp work agencies to be able to hire and fire. "But that's not the idea behind it," he argues.

Amazon at Center of Exploitation Row

European wealth gap

Dubious practices have reached the headlines in the case of the online store Amazon. The reports have triggered fiery debates and calls for a boycott. In Amazon's case, it was predominantly foreign workers from Spain and elsewhere who were affected.

But generally, it wouldn't be true to say that foreign workers are more affected than domestic employees, says Jakob. Recruitment abroad is usually quite expensive for employers and hence not attractive, so that foreigners will only be hired at exceptional times, such as for seasonal peaks like the pre-Christmas period.

But Werner Eichhorst of the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) sees more and more non-Germans joining the domestic labor marker as a result of EU legislation on the free movement of labor. For two years now, EU citizens have been allowed to work wherever they want within the bloc. Eichhorst says there's been an increased influx of foreign workers since 2011.

He maintains temporary work is particularly attractive for unskilled workers or job-seekers without language skills: they've got more chance of getting a job there than elsewhere in the labor market.

Estimates instead of facts

According to Johannes Jakob, precise figures about temp work are hard to come by. The DGB estimates there are about 900,000 temp workers nationwide, with no more than 100,000 believed to come from abroad. He says those are only estimates, because workers from other EU nations are technically viewed as German employees and not counted separately.

But despite the lack of hard facts, there's no overlooking an underlying trend. The worse the economic situation becomes for people from the south and east of the European Union, the more likely they are to want to work in what seems like a rich country like Germany. And, says Werner Eichhorst, they'll most likely find themselves employed in the temp work sector.

Powerful or powerless trade unions?

Jakob says German trade unions would love to represent the interests of those workers as well, but that's not so easy. He says one obstacle is the fact that foreign workers are usually in Germany only for a short period of up to three months, and more often than not they don't speak German. And the latter makes them hesitant to contact a union.

He adds that often the unions' hands are tied, because they lack the required infrastructure. Jakob bemoans the lack of staff councils and union representatives in factories employing many temporary workers.

DGP chief Michael Sommer at a rally in Germany Photo: Daniel Maurer/dapd
Fighting for fair wages has long been a priority for Germany's Trade Union Confederation (DGB)Image: dapd

Eichhorst maintains it wouldn't take much to stop employers from using temporary workers for  wage dumping and exploitation. He suggests temp workers should get the same pay as permanent staff.

Jakob agrees. "We've been trying to ensure that wage levels are aligned," he says. And if that were the case, temp work would decrease over time.

Challenge to society

But Jakob concedes improvements cannot be achieved overnight, and the unions cannot resolve the issue all on their own. There needs to be a common awareness of the problem, so that people would agree that society cannot accept that people should be treated like that.

Werner Eichhorst, too, believes it's society which has to act. He argues that everyone could make a contribution to curb exploitation of workers: we're all consumers and thus have a certain degree of power. Usually, he says, people look at the price when they buy something. But if consumers were to ask themselves why a given product can be so cheap and find out that it was because of exploitation, they could get the same product from a different provider. Everyone could make their own contribution, says Eichhorst, to help ensure that temp workers would receive fair wages.

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