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German-Brazilian spat on poaching of highly qualified nurses

Bruno Lupion
May 30, 2024

Considering the shortage of health workers in Germany, there have been efforts to recruit foreign nurses from Brazil. However, the current government, as well as certain nurse associations, are not impressed.

A nurse holds a baby and there are two other people and a small child in the background
Critics of German recruitment efforts say highly qualified Brazilian nurses are needed in Brazil Image: Edmar Barros/AP/picture alliance/dpa

The visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and a ministerial delegation to Berlin in December was full of mutual praise and pledges to deepen the bilateral partnership. But one topic caused unease: Germany's efforts to recruit Brazilian nurses.

Brazilian Minister of Labor Luiz Marinho expressed dissatisfaction with the way Germany was trying to recruit Brazilian skilled workers at a meeting with his German counterpart, Hubertus Heil. He said that agreed-upon procedures were being ignored.

He was referring to a declaration of intent to promote the fair exchange of skilled workers that was signed in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, in June 2023. Heil had traveled to Brazil with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock as part of a campaign to attract Brazilian nurses to Germany in view of the shortage of skilled workers.

The Brazilian Ministry of Labor had assumed that the German government would hold off on recruiting Brazilian nurses until the new bilateral collaboration was established. However, German efforts only ceased at the end of 2023 after much pressure from the Brazilian government.

Brazil's National Federation of Nurses, which represents 15 regional trade unions, had also called for an end to Germany's recruitment efforts, which had come about under the previous Brazilian government. 

Hubertus Heil (l) and Annalena Baerbock standing in front of microphones
In June 2023, Hubertus Heil (l) and Annalena Baerbock travelled to Brazil to recruit skilled workers to GermanyImage: Kira Hofmann/photothek/IMAGO

Controversial agreement under Bolsonaro

In June 2022, Germany's Federal Employment Agency (BA) signed an agreement with Brazil's Federal Council of Nursing (COFEN) when Brazil was still under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. But Brazil's current government and the National Federation of Nurses have since questioned the legitimacy of COFEN to sign such an agreement with Germany's employment agency. Maira Lacerda, the head of the international advisory at Brazil's Ministry of Labor and Employment, told DW that it was not COFEN's mandate to sign such an agreement.

The president of the National Federation of Nurses, Solange Caetano, told DW that the agreement was not good for Brazilian nurses. She criticized the lack of support in Germany for the nurses trying to adapt to a foreign country and the fact that they had to wait for up to three years before their qualifications were recognized.

"If nurses want to go abroad of their own accord, that's fine as long as they have good conditions. But we don't encourage them to do so, and we don't think they should be encouraged to do so," she said.

For its part, COFEN explained that it had signed the agreement with Germany after being designated as the responsible body by both the health and labor ministries of the time. The body added that the agreement had been advantageous for nurses because it established rights and made it easier for those wanting to gain international experience to go abroad.

"It was an occasion for nurses who wanted to live in another country with the certainty of good pay and the chance for personal and professional development," COFEN's legislative assessor Alberto Cabral told DW.

The German employment agency told DW that it regretted that the agreement had been suspended. It said that from its "point of view, the agreement in its existing form provides a reliable framework for regulated, fair and ethically acceptable labor migration that meets international standards." Talks on new cooperation were set to continue in the second half of this year.

Cabral repeated a previous COFEN statement that Brazil had a surplus of skilled labor, which he claimed justified the agreement with Germany. The body has said in the past that there is 10% unemployment in Brazil's nursing sector.

However, Brazil's National Federation of Nurses rejects the argument that there is unemployment in the nursing sector. It says that skilled labor is poorly distributed, concentrated in big cities and lacking in remote areas. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor in Brasilia also claimed that there was no surplus of nurses in the country.

Generally, there is little reliable and up-to-date data on unemployment in the nursing sector. The most recent figures cited by COFEN date back to a 2015 survey.

Germany goes on a charm offensive to draw Brazil's nurses

Criticism of the brain drain

The debate is also connected with the Brazilian government's general attitude to the brain drain. Lacerda from the Ministry of Labor pointed out that nurses in Brazil studied for five years and underwent two years of practical experience. Thus, they received "long and solid" training, and it was problematic that the "Brazilian government had invested in" these skilled workers without getting anything in return.

Similarly, at the end of April, Lula criticized Boeing's recruitment of Brazilian engineers: "It is not honest to steal our engineers without having spent a cent on their training."

The German Federal Employment Agency insisted that it did not want to contribute to the brain drain in partner countries and said that it respected the concerns of the Brazilian government. "This is why the recruiting process" was "immediately stopped," it added.

For its part, the German Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs told DW that the implementation of the declaration of intent with Brazil was a high priority. "It is important to promote a form of exchange, from which both countries, and the workers, will benefit and through which the immigration of skilled labor from Brazil will be stabilized and enhanced."

This article was translated from German.

Regierungskonsultationen Deutschland-Brasilien
Lula da Silva and Scholz got on well in December in Berlin but the nurse recruitment issue remains a sore pointImage: Liesa Johannssen/REUTERS