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Germany: Would-be migrant workers worried by growing racism

Rosalia Romaniec
January 27, 2024

Germany needs skilled workers from abroad, and its labor minister has just signed a relevant deal in Vietnam. But potential immigrants fear that racism in Germany is on the rise. Rosalia Romaniec reports from Vietnam.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was enthusiastically greeted by students at the Vietnamese-German UniversityImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

When German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Labor Minister Hubertus Heil turned up at the Vietnamese-German University (VGU) in Ho Chi Minh City, they were caught by surprise: Screaming students greeted them like rock stars.

Some of those students will go on to work for German companies. 

Further acclaim awaited the German political VIPs at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi, where about 6,000 young Vietnamese people per year learn the German language. Seven times that number register for language tests that qualify them for professional training or study in Germany.

 Group of people surrounding a bed with a patient
Steinmeier and Heil also attended a presentation given by trainee carers who want to work in GermanyImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

At the end of 2023, Germany began implementing its new Skilled Immigration Act, using a point system to lower the obstacles facing skilled workers who want to move to the country.

Since then, high-ranking German politicians have stepped up efforts to woo skilled workers in other countries: Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was recently in the Philippines, for instance, and Development Aid Minister Svenja Schulze is in Morocco. In Vietnam, Steinmeier and Heil signed a memorandum of understanding that improves the regulation of labor immigration to Germany.

Vietnam steps in to help

In communist Vietnam, there is significant interest in working in Germany — where the Vietnamese diaspora has grown to more than 200,000 people. Vietnam is a young country demographically speaking and is thus less threatened by the kind of "brain drain" that affects many other nations. Vietnam's leadership was also very interested in finding a joint agreement on improving control of labor migration to Germany by its nationals.

The Goethe Institute is important in this regard. For example, it is there that Phuong Phan, 22, is receiving the language training she needs to later work in the hotel and gastronomy industry in Thuringia. The eastern German state is among the first to have signed bilateral contracts with Vietnam.

Picture of six people at a yellow-covered table with flowers and flags in the background, two men signing a piece of paper
Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong (3rd from R.) was also present at the signing of the agreementImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Phuong Phan said she hopes her training in Thuringia will give her a "practical apprenticeship" while aiding her personal development. Her parents support her in the endeavor, and she combs the internet daily for information on "lovely Germany."

Recently, however, she came upon something that was not so lovely: reports detailing the xenophobia that is sometimes encountered in Germany, particularly in the east. She does not want to talk about it in her conversation with DW but says the topic has also been dealt with in her language courses.

"Yes, we are watching developments. And gradually, we are starting to have reservations as we take on responsibility for these young people, with regard to their parents as well," says Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam, a placement officer for Thuringia.

She is currently training another group of young Vietnamese in Hanoi and confirms that the topic of "racism in Germany" has been clearly discussed in recent lessons.

"We want the students to be prepared for unpleasant situations in this regard in Germany," she says.

Germany seeks to attract foreign skilled workers

400,000 skilled workers needed annually

According to Germany's Federal Employment Agency (BA), the country has 1.73 million vacant jobs.

Unlike Germany's campaign to find workers 60 years ago, today's efforts are not focused on industrial laborers but on highly qualified professionals and people with service-sector experience.

Back then, just under 300,000 people came each year. Today, studies say Germany needs around 400,000 a year. 

Three young trainee carers — one man, two women
Many young Vietnamese working in the care sector see Germany as a good work destinationImage: Rosalia Romaniec/DW

Recently, Labor Minister Heil traveled to Brazil, India and Kenya to promote Germany as a work destination, and now he's in Vietnam. "We have improved the conditions with the Skilled Immigration Act; now it's down to putting things into practice," he told DW in Hanoi.

Poor coordination

Officially, the Interior Ministry oversees the immigration of skilled foreign workers. But in practice, the responsibilities in this area overlap. One example is the some 350,000 asylum-seekers in Germany, who, if they are rejected, are not integrated into the labor market and many of whom have to leave the country.

More than 17% of people who applied for German asylum in 2023 are now Turks — mostly young, well-educated, liberal-thinking people who wanted to escape from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regime. But only one in 10 Turkish asylum-seeks receives protection in Germany. And, at the moment, instead of permitting the rest an opportunity to look for work, Germany orders them to leave the country.

Man holding an electronic weapon to combat drones
The German leaders' visit to the Vietnamese-German University was amid high securityImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

The Foreign Office, on the other hand, is known for its lengthy procedures to obtain a visa — something that also deters skilled workers. The Economy and Labor ministries and the Employment Agency also bear responsibilities, in addition to organizations such as the GIZ development agency and various foundations.

Many companies have their own recruitment and training programs because the bureaucracy prevalent in the public sector is too slow to meet their hiring needs.  Toan Nguyen, the managing director of the TY Academy, which acts as an agency for caregivers who want to go to Germany, complains that there are "too many people to go through and still a lot of obstacles to having qualifications recognized."

Human trafficking another problem

This makes things difficult for interested skilled workers — and easy for dubious agencies and human traffickers. In Southeast Asia, women are the main prey of the latter, being smuggled into Germany and ending up in low-wage employment or even brothels.

"We must use legal immigration to suppress this practice," Steinmeier said in Vietnam. The bilateral agreement that has just been signed is meant to provide trustworthy advice about fair working conditions and reputable employment agencies, as well as regular roundtables on work migration involving specialists from both countries.

Germany's new citizenship law, however, makes the country more attractive to potential immigrants. "In comparison with Japan, where many Vietnamese also migrate but are allowed to work only temporarily, Germany now offers a longer-term perspective," says Viet Huong Nguyen from the TY Academy.

Xenophobia a deterrent

In light of these positive developments for labor migration, current reports about racist groups in Germany are all the more disturbing.

Labor Minister Heil told DW that no one had spoken to him directly about the issue but that action needed to be taken before it was too late.

"We have to make it clear in Germany that we cannot maintain our prosperity without labor from abroad," he said.

Crowd in the market square in Bremen at a demo against right-wing extremism
Racism may be on the rise in Germany, but so are protests against it, as here in Bremen on January 21Image: Carmen Jaspersen/dpa/picture alliance

Vietnamese already living in Germany are also worried. One of them is Huong Trute, whom President Steinmeier invited to accompany him on his Vietnam trip. She has lived in Germany for 40 years and works in the gastronomy sector.  

She says she has recently had to answer more and more questions from worried compatriots in Vietnam. After seeing how another group was being prepared for jobs in Thuringian hotels and restaurants at the Goethe Institute, she said: "Honestly? If I had the chance to take these young peopole somewhere else, I would do it."

She says the developments in Thuringia are coming to a head, and that frightens her.

This article was originally written in German.

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Rosalia Romaniec
Rosalia Romaniec Head of Current Politics/Hauptstadtstudio News and Current Affairs@RosaliaRomaniec