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Germany: Economists Recommend Big Inflow Of Foreign Workers

  • Roland Eggleston

A highly regarded economic research institute has warned that Germany will have to accept a major increase in immigration if it hopes to avoid a long-term labor shortage which could cripple the economy. The report comes in the midst of a politically divisive debate on whether Germany should break with tradition and become a country of immigration. RFE/RL Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston has the story:

Munich, 1 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In its report, the German Institute of Economic Research predicts the nation's labor force will shrink drastically after 2020, largely because of the falling birthrate and growing number of pensioners.

The report argues that if Germany delays until then before inviting immigrants, it would have to bring in 1.2 million workers annually to maintain industrial production at current levels. The institute says such a high number of immigrants would be extremely difficult to integrate effectively, even if most of the new arrivals come from Eastern Europe, as expected.

The institute proposes that the Social Democrat government and Christian Democrat opposition agree now to allow 600,000 immigrants a year to enter and work in Germany and perhaps seek German citizenship.

An Institute official (female), who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue in Germany, tells RFE/RL that authorities must recognize a new political reality:

"Most Germans are proud of the fact that theirs is a so-called pure nation. It is not racially-mixed like France or England. But now the political authorities must accept a new reality. The German birthrate is falling and the only way to maintain the workforce is through immigration."

Germany has not traditionally viewed itself as a country of immigration and those who do wish to emigrate face many legal hurdles. Most of the seven million foreigners living in the country are so-called "guest workers" who have lived in Germany for many years. Almost 30 percent of these are Turks, many of whom have German-born children who attend German schools, but who do not have German passports.

Even those who want to assimilate face major bureaucratic hurdles to becoming citizens. These are more burdensome, for example, than those faced by immigrants in the United States or France.

The Social Democratic government has suggested annual quotas for immigrants, but it says these could be as low as 20,000 a year. This is far below what industry says is needed.

The issue has divided the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU). Some of its leaders insist Germany is not a country of immigration and should not change its traditions.

The leader of the CDU faction in parliament, Friedrich Merz, set off a storm recently by suggesting immigrants should be forced to adapt to what he called a German "Leitkultur," or "defining culture." Some in his own party criticized the concept and said it even recalled the nationalist policies from the Nazi era. Merz said it meant nothing more than an immigrant's duty to assimilate into German life.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has appointed a bipartisan panel to examine the issue of immigration. The government hopes to enact new legislation before federal elections in 2002.

Opposition politicians who oppose the government's plans say they might make immigration an issue in the elections.

This week's report says Germany's current labor force is 40.6 million. It estimates that unless rapid action is taken, this could begin to fall after 2015 and could drop to about 27 million by 2050.

The institute says the situation could be alleviated if Germany is prepared to change some traditional practices. One would be to delay the retirement of workers. Officially males retire at 65, but in practice many take early retirement.

Others say Germany should change its attitude toward unemployment benefits. About nine percent of the labor force is unemployed. The law generally protects these people from having to take a job beneath what is considered their social level. An unemployed pharmacist, for example, can remain on the dole rather than take a job as a truck driver or shop clerk.

However, the institute argues even if such traditional practices are abolished, it would not be enough to resolve the coming labor shortfall. It sees no way out of the predicted crisis than allowing about 600,000 immigrants annually.