News | Labour / Unions - Economic / Social Policy - Migration / Flight - Western Europe - Citizenship Germany’s Mixed Migration Messages

Recent changes to German migration law seek to recruit skilled workers while closing the border



Gerd Wiegel,

Opening of an event series under the motto “Germany Is a Migration Country” with Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser, and the Federal Commissioner for Migration Reem Alabali-Radovan.
Opening of an event series under the motto “Germany Is a Migration Country” with Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser, and the Federal Commissioner for Migration Reem Alabali-Radovan. Photo: IMAGO / Frank Ossenbrink

The political debate over migration in Germany is currently characterized by conflicting, even outright contradictory, messages.

Gerd Wiegel heads up the Democracy, Migration and Anti-Racism Policy Department at the German Trade Union Confederation Executive Board.

On the one hand, hardly a day goes by without a politician or economist making some reference to the German economy’s dire need for skilled labour. At every level, there is a shortage of personnel, a shortage of skilled workers and of people working in “essential sectors”. Although the overall number of employees has continued to reach new heights over time, one hardly sees a shopfront or company lorry without a sign bearing the appeal: “Help wanted!”

Skilled workers from abroad seem to be the last possible source of oil to grease the sputtering motor of the economy, and politicians are travelling to faraway countries in hopes of attracting desperately needed workers for the health sector, gastronomy, tourism, and other industries.

On the other hand, the EU countries — and Germany is no exception — continue to tighten their borders to keep out migrants. Although it is exclusively the extreme right that openly calls for the construction of a “Fortress Europe”, in reality, policies tending in this direction have already long been in effect, albeit cloaked in the language of human rights.

Displacing the responsibility for conducting asylum procedures to the countries on the EU’s external borders, the effective detention of asylum seekers, and a turn away from the principle of considering asylum applications on a case-by-case basis are all current developments in European asylum policy. More than 20 years ago, Günther Beckstein, then Interior Minister of Bavaria, declared, “We need more foreigners who are useful to us and less who are just using us” — and this racist slogan still seems to be a guiding principle of Germany’s migration policy today.

The Pervasive Call for Skilled Workers

As recently as January 2023, the German government spoke of a “bottleneck of skilled workers”, rather than a shortage of workers in general, in their response to a minor inquiry by the parliamentary group Die Linke. “There can be no question of a widespread shortage of skilled labour in Germany, nor of a shortage of workers in general”, their statement read.

They went on to explain that, according to the Institute for Employment Research, there were approximately 1.82 million job openings to be filled in the third quarter of 2022, as opposed to 2.45 million unemployed, and “taking into account people participating in active labour market policies, those temporarily unable to work, and those whose gainful employment will end in the foreseeable future”, a total of 4.35 million jobseekers.

Even if the situation were to worsen during the course of 2023, the numbers do not justify the at times hysterical calls for an immediate campaign to recruit skilled labour. The problems we face today have a number of causes, many of which are of our own making; the calls for expanding the workforce, however, have other, ulterior motives.

It is quite apparent that the relationship between labour and capital has taken a turn for the worse, and this has been detrimental to the interests of those who own capital and use the commodity of labour power. The expansion of employment, of part-time work, and especially of the low-wage sector has led to a large-scale absorption of the workforce that can be employed short-term. The pandemic and lockdowns also led staff in many precarious sectors to temporarily seek new avenues of employment. In conjunction with bottlenecks among skilled workers and on the job market in general, this has led to massive difficulties in filling positions.

It is apparent that existing regulations are circumvented time and again by individual companies, and that workers who come to Germany through the Posted Workers Directive are especially at risk of egregious forms of exploitation.

The surplus of jobs available grants more bargaining power to employees, who are consequently less easily pressured into poorly paid or difficult working conditions. This heightened self-confidence of the working class is evidenced by a considerable rise in collective bargaining disputes, unions making more offensive demands, and the workers’ readiness to go on strike. For this reason, increasing the supply of the commodity of labour power is within the narrow interests of capital.

Furthermore, years of neglected vocational training and the deterioration of working conditions have caused staff shortages, even for technically demanding jobs. The Skilled Workers Immigration Act, passed in summer of 2023, is a political response to this development and is intended to attract more foreign skilled workers to Germany.

The fact that the government is simultaneously pushing to expand worker training and qualification programmes shows its willingness to take heed of repeated references made by the unions to the existing domestic capacity that could be put to good work if it had the appropriate qualifications (see the statement made by the German Trade Union Confederation [DGB] on the draft bill on further education).

A Step Forward for Migration Policy

The Skilled Workers Immigration Act is a step in the right direction, as it acknowledges the realities that any country with an influx of immigrants must face. Of course, a skilled worker immigration policy like this one prioritizes the needs of Germany and of German capital, but people seeking better working and living conditions in Germany stand to benefit from it as well. Two exemplary steps provisioned by the new law include the broader recognition of the qualifications held by people with foreign degrees and a “lane change”, which allows people to switch from an asylum process to work-based immigration.

The same pay for the same work at the same place is one guiding principle unions use to assess this type of immigration (see the DGB’s position on the immigration of skilled workers from third countries). Another demand made by unions is that labour migration must not undermine good working conditions and collective bargaining agreements. In reality, however, the legal changes are facilitating exactly this.

This latest revision to the law does not prevent immigration for precarious employment opportunities, though it does strengthen the requirement that recruiting companies abide by collective bargaining agreements. The revised law also expands seasonal work, where exploitative working conditions are particularly prevalent. While an expansion in immigration for temporary work was prevented, the extension of the West Balkan Regulation, which allows entry without requiring formal work qualifications, has expanded a sector that often offers little worker protection and is characterized by extremely exploitative conditions (see the DGB on the West Balkan Regulation and immigration for temporary employment).

Risk of Exploitation

However, the criticisms made by unions of these elements of skilled labour immigration ought not to be levelled against individuals prepared to immigrate. They should instead be directed against the state and the economy, which are responsible for shaping the conditions of skilled worker immigration so as not to lead to exploitation and cheap competition, which could exacerbate social divisions among workers. Even the best legal regulations are of little use if compliance is not strictly and consistently enforced.

Trade unions and workers have a vested interest in labour immigration being governed by mechanisms other than just competition and the market.

Networks such as Fair Mobility and Fair Integration, run by the DGB to advise workers from Central and Eastern Europe and from non-EU countries, continue to document cases of exploitative working conditions. These show just how far the daily reality of migrant workers in Germany is from the Willkommenskultur (“welcoming culture”) the country boasts of. In practice, it becomes clear to what extent the professed “win-win situation” for both workers and the economy truly corresponds to reality.

For example, in the spring and summer of 2023, lorry drivers went on strike at service areas in Gräfenhausen in the German state of Hessen. If we take these strikes as a benchmark, it becomes clear that existing regulations are frequently undermined by groups within the EU. In this case, drivers from non-EU countries (especially Georgia and Uzbekistan) were cheated out of part of their wages by a Polish company that carried out orders for German businesses, among others.

It is apparent that existing regulations are circumvented time and again by individual companies, and that workers who come to Germany through the Posted Workers Directive are especially at risk of egregious forms of exploitation.

Recruiting Skilled Workers Is Not Enough

Experts are sceptical that the current legal changes to skilled worker immigration will be an adequate solution to the problem, because Germany is not well positioned among the countries competing to recruit labour power.

Leaving aside the endless trouble of dealing with bureaucracy, taxes, and duties, there are many areas in need of vast improvement from the perspective of workers. Good wages, collective bargaining agreements, and good labour conditions are at the top of the list, but so is a socio-political climate that does not merely claim to be welcoming to foreign workers, but actually is in practice.

In 2022, a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation found that 300,000 additional full-time healthcare workers could be obtained through re-entry into the profession or increased working hours, if working conditions in healthcare were significantly improved. The same is true in many other fields: low pay, precarious working conditions, or increased workload due to staff shortages are the primary reasons for the difficulties in filling positions. This is why the DGB launched a major collective bargaining campaign.

Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of people have come to Germany to live and work. A renewed surge of immigrants came in the wake of the war in Ukraine. While many companies continue to focus on isolated cases in which well-integrated, qualified employees are to be protected from expulsion and deportation, the political debate is going in a very different direction. Deportation, repatriation, and tightening borders are keywords contributing to a climate where Willkommenskultur is quickly becoming nothing more than a buzzword.

The rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the polls and the attempts by the CDU/CSU and the interior minister to take the fuel out of the AfD’s fire by taking a hard-line stance on migration, certainly do not make the country more attractive in the international competition for skilled workers.

Still, the citizenship law is set to be modernized in autumn of 2023, and with it, the barriers to attaining German citizenship are to be lowered. Participation in political and social life is an essential precondition for successful immigration, and citizenship is in many cases key to accessing (protective) rights and exerting influence.

Trade unions and workers have a vested interest in labour immigration being governed by mechanisms other than just competition and the market. Class divisions lead to worsening conditions for all employees over time; the exploitation of migrant workers is often the first step in a lowering of standards for everyone. Worker migration is therefore a central issue for union activity, and union organizing and support in this area could reap significant rewards.

Translated by Anna Dinwoodie and Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective.