Germany’s big scramble for Ukrainian workers

In a position paper published at the end of March, Germany's Farmers' Association called for administrative procedures to be speeded up so that refugees can take up work quickly. EPA-EFE/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE / POOL [EPA-EFE/HANNIBAL HANSCHKE / POOL]

The growing shortage of skilled labour may soon threaten productivity in Germany, and Europe’s biggest economy is now scrambling to make the most of well-trained Ukrainian refugees as Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its third month. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Germany’s labour shortage problem has been well documented for some time now.

“We have 390,000 job vacancies today and expect a ramp-up to one million and above,” Economy Minister Robert Habeck said in January. “If we don’t close this gap, we will have real productivity problems,” he added at the time.

A month after his announcement, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced many Ukrainian refugees to flee the country, with over 300,000 coming to Germany. With men aged 18-60 being banned from leaving the country, there are about 40% of underage children, but the rest are mostly qualified women.

“These people are well trained and must be employed by employers according to their qualifications,” Education and Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger explained on Tuesday (19 April).

According to her ministry, “73% of refugees from Ukraine have completed their studies, 10% speak good German”, which is why the focus is now on speeding up recognition of their qualifications.

Germany’s Institute for Employment Research has also found Ukrainian refugees to be highly desirable for the German labour market. “The level of education in Ukraine is high compared to international standards,” the institute added.

In terms of university and college enrolment, Germany even lags behind Ukraine overall. Ukrainian women, who make up the majority of the refugees, are also more educated on average than their male countrymen.

In addition, “the average age of adult [Ukrainian] refugees is much higher than that of those who fled in 2015”, economist Herbert Brücker told EURACTIV Germany, explaining that this makes them more experienced and thus more attractive hires.

Filling the gaps

But integrating into the labour market in Germany has not been easy for Ukrainian refugees, particularly with heavy bureaucracy standing in the way – especially when the war first broke out.

The “refugees from Ukraine must, first of all, apply for the title of ‘temporary protection’ at the Foreigners’ Registration Office in order to obtain a work permit,” explained Sarah Strobel, project manager of the government project Network “Companies Integrate Refugees”.

As of 18 March, this has been possible online in Berlin, for example, and “job placement is just starting,” she added.

If they are successfully placed, Ukrainian refugees can fill labour gaps in many sectors – especially the fields the coalition government said it wishes to boost in the future.

For example, the Ukrainian IT sector has developed rapidly in recent years. Before the war started, around 300,000 people were employed in the sector and thus have valuable know-how.

Ukrainian IT industry continues to operate as war rages on

Ukraine’s IT industry is currently operating at about 80% capacity compared to pre-war levels, though it is uncertain whether this trend will continue and what the consequences will be both locally and for Europe.

However, demand for Ukrainian refugees is the highest wherever Germany has the biggest shortages, explained Brückner. These include, for example, technical professions, the transport and construction industries, and the health sector.

In agriculture, too, there are hopes that Ukrainians will strengthen the workforce. In recent years, an increasing number of them have come to Germany to work as seasonal workers for the harvest season.

In a position paper published at the end of March, Germany’s Farmers’ Association called for administrative procedures to be speeded up so that refugees can take up work quickly. At the same time, the association advocated relaxing laws on temporary work by calling for the maximum duration of such contracts to be extended, for example.

Germany fears seasonal labour shortages as Ukraine war rages on

This year, labour supply bottlenecks could become a problem due to the Ukraine war and the ongoing pandemic, and while the German Farmers’ Association (DBV) calls for the rules to be relaxed, critics argue deeper issues remain.

No ‘second-class workers’

According to trade unions, however, such demands could lead to Ukrainian refugees being exploited as cheap labour in Germany.

“There must not be second-class workers,” Robert Feiger, federal chairman of the Industrial Union for Building, Agriculture and the Environment (IG BAU), stressed in a statement on Tuesday (19 April). Those who work as seasonal workers in agriculture, for example, do not enjoy social and health insurance protection for up to 70 days, Feiger added.

Meanwhile, construction workers still earn the statutory minimum wage following the failure of the recent negotiations to introduce an industry-wide minimum wage. According to the union, this is not sufficient for the hard work in construction.

The controversy shows the tightrope that has to be walked in integrating Ukrainian refugees into the labour market. “It is, first of all, a humanitarian task, only secondarily the integration into the labour market,” emphasised Brückner.

According to the economist, ensuring that the safety, health, and housing of Ukrainian refugees are a priority, but at the same time, the right course must be set to facilitate their integration into the labour market, for example, by not accommodating refugees in structurally weak regions.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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