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Well trained, poorly paid

Jeanette Seiffert / nsFebruary 17, 2014

Massive poverty-driven migration from Eastern Europe? Recent studies suggest a different situation: More than half of all immigrants from these countries have good credentials, but work for low wages in Germany.

Image: picture alliance/dpa

Well-worn clichés about Eastern European immigrants working far below their qualifications - for example, a Ukrainian doctor driving a taxi in Berlin or a Romanian doctoral candidate cleaning windows in Munich - may not be far off the mark, according to recent research published by Germany's Federal Employment Agency.

The Employment Agency's statistics show that a far larger percentage of Eastern Europeans receive low wages than their German counterparts do. In December 2012, around 52 percent were paid low-wage salaries, meaning they earned less than two-thirds of the country's average income. The share of such workers among Germans makes up just under 20 percent.

At the same time, the educational level of immigrants keeps rising, says Nina Neubecker from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW): "We found that those who moved to Germany after 2004 are considerably more qualified than immigrants from years in the past."

Neubecker says her research revealed that two thirds of Eastern European immigrants hold a university degree or have completed a vocational training course. She also found that a significant part of Romanians and Bulgarians who moved to Germany after 2007 carry out jobs not requiring their level of education. Depending on the method used, estimates of the proportion of these overqualified immigrant workers range from 40 to 58 percent.

A construction worker carries some wood (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Many Eastern Europeans find themselves in jobs not matched with their credentialsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Mere discrimination?

Members of Germany's Left party see the ongoing debate on so-called "poverty migration" from Romania and Bulgaria through the lens of what they call labor policy failures. Sabine Zimmermann, a party spokeswoman on employment issues, speaks of "the shameful inadequacy of German employment policy."

Zimmermann says she observes a general trend toward low wages, the burden of which is increasingly falling to newcomers to Germany.

Left Party politician Sabine Zimmermann (c) picture-alliance/Sven Simon
Politician Sabine Zimmermann blames systematic discriminationImage: picture-alliance/Sven Simon

"It's systematic discrimination that's taking place," the parliamentarian said in an interview with DW. "A lot of employers hire workers from these countries and underpay them."

But researcher Nina Neubecker believes discrimination alone cannot explain the notable differences between German and foreign employees, blaming instead a combination of factors that includes discrepancies between credentials earned elsewhere and those required by German employers.

"We've also seen very clearly, for instance, that many immigrants do not have the proper vocational training as compared to Germans," Neubecker told DW.

In many countries, including within the EU, classic vocational training is not as common as in Germany.

A confusing system

Another hurdle immigrants face is that many foreign degrees are not accepted in Germany and the accreditation procedure demands much effort. “That keeps us from making use of [immigrants'] potential in a proper way,” the economist complains.

A geriatric nurse assists a patient (c) GKT Service
Health care workers - lost in Germany's bureaucratic jungle?Image: GKT Service/Carework

Left party politician Sabine Zimmermann agrees work is needed on that point, saying, "I assume not enough is being done to speed up the recognition procedure for foreign credentials, although this step is urgently needed to address the skilled worker shortage."

She adds that the confusing "jungle" of who's responsible for overseeing what in Germany creates additional problems: State governments have oversight when it comes to nurses and teaching staff, while the federal government is in charge on other occupations.

At the local level, authorities claim to be working on the issue: for instance, they are trying to standardize the requirements for healthcare jobs. So far, there is much confusion in Germany on this point: the fact that a Romanian is allowed to apply for a position as a geriatric nurse in Nordrhein-Westfalen does not automatically mean he can do the same in Bavaria. In five states, immigrants are not even entitled to a review of their academic or job qualifications in order to have these accredited.