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Germany: Jobless Take To The Streets

By Joel Blocker and Esther Pan

Prague, 6 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time since the early 1930s, Germany's jobless took to the streets today in nation-wide protests. They did so as official statistics released this morning showed that the number of the country's unemployed surged last month to a new post-World War Two record high of 4.8 million, or 12.6 percent of the work force (compared to 4.5 million, or 11.8 percent, in December).

The protests were timed to coincide with the release of the January figures --and to a debate this afternoon in the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) on a new jobs initiative hastily pieced together by Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative Government. Organizers of the protests said that tens of thousands of unemployed would hold rallies in as many as 100 cities and towns across Germany. But by mid-afternoon, only 10,000 of the country's nearly five million jobless turned out to protest, with a fifth of that number (2,000) demonstrating in Berlin alone. One of a dozen protesters at the stock exchange in the Rhineland city of Duesseldorf (Hannelore Walde, as quoted by Reuters) explained: "The unemployed here would rather remain anonymous." Another Duesseldorf demonstrator (unnamed) said: "The overall feeling (among the jobless) is one of complete resignation."

In Berlin this morning, more than 300 people rallied outside an unemployment office. They blew whistles and chanted, "Kohl Must Go." In the northwest city of Oldenburg, about 100 protesters blocked the entrance to a state-run employment agency. In Berlin and the eastern city of Sachsenhausen, some French workers participated in the protests.

Protest organizers in Berlin and in the central German city of Bielefeld said they were inspired to act on a national scale by similar demonstrations that have taken place throughout France in the past two months. The French demonstrations have won only limited concessions from the ruling Left Government. Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has so far refused the protesters' chief demand for an increase in welfare payments to the long-time jobless no longer eligible for unemployment benefits.

Today's German rallies are aimed mainly against new government measures to tighten unemployment claims. Applicants must now re-register every three months and prove they have seriously looked for work. Protest organizers say that, far from encouraging the jobless back to work, the new rules simply will save the government money by making it harder for the unemployed to receive benefits.

German government officials are quick to point out that the long-term unemployed are better off in Germany than in France. They note that an unmarried long-term jobless person in France receives less than $500 a month (3,000 francs), while his German counterpart gets at least $635 (1,150 marks) and often substantially more.

Nevertheless, the Kohl Government was expected to introduce legislation today calling for federal funding to help local communities offer jobs to both long-term and youth unemployed. The author of the plan, Ulf Fink of Kohl's Christian Democratic Party, says he is hoping that each municipality receiving assistance can contribute about five job openings. This, he believes, will eventually put up to100,000 unemployed welfare recipients back to work.

But few government officials claim that Germany's escalating unemployment can be stemmed in the foreseeable future. Some officials, as well as some economic analysts, say that the rate will continue to rise until late this year. But all agree that the recovery, whenever it comes, will be both slow and weak.

Commenting on today's data Bernhard Jagoda, the head of Germany's federal employment office, predicted that Germany was again in for what he called "a very difficult year" on the job front. Earlier this week, Jagoda acknowledged that --because of recent seasonal factors-- the average unemployment rate for the current year is likely to exceed that of last year. There was only one relatively positive statistic released today: seasonally adjusted joblessness actually fell by 72,000 to 4.5 million.

Bernhard Jagoda, the head of Germany's federal employment office, acknowledged earlier this week that --because of recent seasonal factors-- the average unemployment rate for the current year is likely to exceed that of last year. But the figures released today did show one relatively positive statistic: Seasonally adjusted joblessness actually fell by 72,000 to 4.46 million. (The overall unemployment figures, showing the big January surge, are based on unadjusted data.)

Today's figures showed that the radical difference between joblessness in eastern and western Germany continued to grow last month. West German unemployment was reported at 10.5 percent compared to almost double --21.5 percent-- in the eastern half of the country.

France's current official unemployment rate is 12.4 percent, although that figure does not include the hundreds of thousands either doing part-time work or receiving training or other partial support from the government. Many analysts believe that, in both France and Germany, no substantial progress can be made in reducing chronic joblessness without what is known as "structural" changes in both government unemployment and welfare policies.

The analysts emphasize that a reduction in social charges that employers must pay on behalf of their workers is one of the key reforms needed. Another, they say, is the loosening of tight labor-market regulations in both countries that would allow for the kind of flexible arrangements that have permitted both the U.S. and Britain to create jobs and reduce their unemployment rates to less than half of those of Germany and France.

None of these measures are likely to come either from France's seven-month-old Left Government or Germany's long-time conservative coalition, which faces general elections in September. In France, Jospin has introduced legislation to reduce the work week from 39 to 35 hours, without reducing pay, which he says will create jobs but many analysts believe will discourage employers from new hires. In Germany at least until today, according to several analysts, the Kohl Government has not done much more than just muddle through.