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Welcome workers

M;arina Martinovic / db
October 16, 2012

When, in 2011, the German labor market opened to most of the new EU member countries in eastern Europe, there were concerns about an onslaught of cheap labor. In fact, the new workforce is an asset.

asparagus field from above Foto: Michael Hanschke dpa/lbn +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"In Poland, I can survive for half a year on what I earn here in two months," says Danuta Jasionek as she washes the dishes on a strawberry and asparagus farm in the small town of Bornheim in western Germany.      

The 45-year-old is a regular on the farm - she has come to Germany for this type of seasonal work for nine years. Claus Ritter, who runs the farm, says they used to search for workers for about a month. "Now, all it takes is one call - and within a week, the workers are here."

That is thanks to the European Union's policy of freedom of movement for workers: as of May 1, 2011, citizens of the EU's central and eastern European states - with the exception of Romania and Bulgaria - have been allowed to work in Germany without any restrictions. 

The Ritter farm employs about 1.000 seasonal workers every year from spring to fall. An increasing number of people come from Bulgaria and Romania, but there are Germans, too. Gisela Klein, 61, has worked on the farm for six years and says she gets along well with the foreigners. "Sometimes there are language problems, but everything else is fine," she says and points out a sheet of paper tacked to the wall in the kitchen with Romanian, Bulgarian and Polish translations of German words.

Work in Germany, live in Poland

The women will go separate ways when the harvest season ends: Danuta Jasionek will return to Poland, like many of her fellow countrymen and -women. They come to Germany to work for a month or two, but they prefer to live in Poland. Many of the more highly qualified new EU citizens from central and eastern European member states share that attitude.

"20 years ago, the wage differential between Germany and their native country was an incentive to move to Germany," Beate Raabe, spokeswoman for the central foreign placement department at Germany's Federal Employment Agency, explains. Today, the differences are no longer so pronounced, there are better opportunities to earn money in Poland, so the desire to find employment in Germany is less common, she told Deutsche Welle.

German border sign, blue with stars. Foto: Armin Weigel dpa
People did not flood the West looking for workImage: picture-alliance/dpa

When the German labor market opened in 2011, Germans feared a deluge of eastern workers to western markets, despite improved standards of living in their own countries. Gisela Klein, however, is convinced people like her seasonal colleagues from Poland are by no means "taking work away from Germans."

Oliver Koppel of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) says fear of eastern workers flooding the labor market was completely unfounded. Fewer people than expected came west and their numbers are manageable, he told Deutsche Welle: "In addition, we have the advantage of a labor market that is doing well - workers are in high demand."

In 2010, the year before the freedom of movement came into effect, about 130,000 immigrants came to Germany from Poland, 75,000 from Romania and 39,000 from Bulgaria. In 2011, says Koppel, the figures were almost the same. In 2012, between 63,000 and 89,000 people from the new EU member states had come to Germany, the Employment Agency and Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) say.

Filling gaps

Germans not only feared the new EU citizens from the east would flood the labor market, they also feared eastern European workers would work for less money than Germans, and thus reduce wage levels.

worker with hat at construction site. Foto: Wolfgang Kluge
Fear of Polish workers taking away jobs is unfounded, experts sayImage: picture alliance/ZB

That scenario also never came to pass: on the contrary, the new labor market mobility has worked to Germany's advantage, say the Employment Agency and German economic experts say. "The fact that people came to Germany from the new EU member states to work contributed significantly to relaxing the situation on the German labor market," Oliver Koppel says.

In eastern Germany, for example, there was a drastic fall in the birthrate following the fall of the East German regime. That means there are about 50 percent fewer young people available to begin an apprenticeship or on-the-job-training than there were 20 years ago. Koppel says, "This large gap means there are many unoccupied training positions. Young Polish trainees could now easily fill those vacant positions."

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