German trade union chief: ‘Integration law works with restrictions and that is populism’

Reiner Hoffmann [Tenko/Twitter]

One-euro-jobs, mandatory language courses and strict residence requirements: Germany’s new integration act is already polarising opinion. EURACTIV Germany spoke with trade union chief Reiner Hoffmann about whether the new law will solve the problems of the refugee crisis.

Reiner Hoffmann is the chairman of Germany’s Trade Union Confederation (DBG).

Hoffmann spoke with euractiv.de’s Editor-in-Chief Ama Lorenz about Germany’s new integration law, which is expected to get final approval from the government before the summer break.

“Expect and encourage” seems to be the maxim, but it’s something we’ve heard before in regard to the Harzt-IV, a reform of the German labour market. What’s your take on the draft law?

I’ll start with a few positive aspects of the planned law. There are definitely points that we at the unions support and which we have been involved with for some time. Young people with temporary residency permits and a place on a vocational course will now be granted two years in which to find a job once the training ends. When this wasn’t the case for them, employers were unwilling to train them. There was no legal grounds for this before and was one of the reasons why young people weren’t being given training places.

Currently, the percentage of young people with temporary permits who have a place on a training course is still relatively low. According to data provided by the Federal Institute for Vocational Training, the economic and social conditions for young refugees are particularly difficult when they are starting out.

Especially young, able-bodied refugees who want to quickly earn money to support their families. They often have little interest in badly paid vocational training and would prefer to work for €8.50 an hour. Resolving this contradiction is not going to be easy. Nevertheless, the venture is useful, even if it will take time to see whether it is paying dividends or not. A second positive point: the trade unions have always supported and committed ourselves to basic skills training. Again, the impact is not going to be made overnight. But, the principle that integration can be achieved through employment and the chance to support oneself independently is there.

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Countries that have traditionally welcomed immigrants, like Canada, have shown that there are at least three pillars needed for integration to work: work, education and family. Do you see these included in the draft law?

Education, unfortunately, is not there. According to the Union for Education and Science, 300,000 young people will need school places. For this we are going to need 25,000 teachers.  The problem is that even before the refugee crisis took hold, we did not have sufficient capacity to work on integration through education and provide enough facilities.

Homemade and well-known problems with the German education system are coming back to haunt us then?

The deficiencies in our education system, which the unions have long criticised, are going to hit us hard in this crisis. Leading not just to social tensions in schools, but also xenophobia. It has to be addressed urgently.

One of your board members, Stefan Körzell, said of the new law that it must be ensured that refugees are not exploited as cheap means of labour. Will the new law lead to this?

This is something we have made very clear. Especially when it comes to the expansion of temporary employment. We are in the process of preventing abuse of temporary workers in a parallel legislative procedure. We think that the integration law is wrong on this point…

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Like the residency issue?

We don’t think it is expedient and in the DGB’s view, it’s not compatible at a European level. The European Court of Justice pointed out in March the limits of such measures. Of course, work and independent organisation bring great benefits to everyday life and are incredibly meaningful.   But if these measures are rolled out in businesses, then there is the danger that normal, properly-paid work will be replaced by one-euro-jobs instead.

The law also includes integration courses and penalties for people who do not participate.

It should be checked first that anyone being threatened with sanctions had enough opportunities to take part in integration courses. If there are and it still isn’t working, then the system has to be improved. The integration law is going to function with restrictions and that, to me, is populism at work and plays into the hands of parties like the AfD (Alternative for Germany). We have a tremendous social problem with populism, which is reflected in parts of the integration law.

…And a dramatic increase in violence against refugees…

That is just an increase in crime, like the increase in attacks at refugee camps. It shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a general change in mood of the population.

So has the law marked the end of Germany’s welcoming culture?

The majority of the population continues to be helpful and engage with the issue. Over 10% of people are active when it comes to voluntary work. We have significant shortcomings in education and social housing; the refugee crisis has just shone a light on them. Is this not a good enough reason to finally change things?

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