German trade unions are concerned by the mass influx of cheap and low-skilled workers from the Western Balkans, as Berlin is planning to double the number of visas issued to them. So far, an annual 25 thousand people with secondary school education or lower from the region have been permitted to work in Germany. That may rise to 50 thousand in the future. According to the trade organisations, these people inundate construction sites and catering jobs, and are exploited by employers because they are not aware of their own rights.
The country now looks to the Western Balkans for a solution to its long-standing problem. The EU member state is planning to liberalise its legislation on the employment of foreigners, and to relax the rules for workers from Balkan countries such as Serbia, Albania, Northern Macedonian, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia. The most important change would be to permit the employment of 50 thousand workers from the region, instead of the current 25 thousand.
The restrictions on workers from the Balkans was introduced in Germany in 2015-2016, during the migration crisis, when millions of Syrian citizens flooded the German labour market. The Syrians received residency permits almost immediately based on their purported refugee status. Of the workers from the Western Balkans arriving in the same period, however, only 5 per cent could settle in Germany that way.
Labour shortages, however, seem to have grown so severe that Germans are open to being more liberal with people arriving from the Balkans.
The doubling of the working visas applies to people with secondary education or lower. Skilled workers have always had an easy time getting jobs and documents in Germany. Moreover, the brain drain has always been efficient, causing enormous difficulties for the Balkan countries. But the Germans also need manual workers: bricklayers, goods transporters, loaders, cleaners and, of course, factory workers. According to the German Institute for Employment Research, 260,000 permits and 98,000 work visas had been issued to Western Balkan migrants by the end of 2020. Three quarters of these people work at construction sites, in the hospitality sector or in elderly care, i.e. mostly in unskilled jobs with low wages.
Trade unions concerned that workers may be abused
The German Trade Union Confederation welcomed the news on the easement, but also voiced its concerns. The organisation fears that employers could take advantage of workers coming from the Balkans.
“As their residence permit is tied to their workplace, people who come here are very dependent on their employer and this makes them fear they will be sent back if they do not obey,” the confederation said. They also pointed out that a significant number of these labourers do not speak German and are not aware of their rights, which could lead to them being employed in worse conditions than what is legally allowed. “The whole Western Balkans programme is designed to meet the needs of employers, who can easily pick and choose workers and then just as easily get rid of them,” an official from the association explains.
They are willing to work for less
Last year, the German Construction Industry Federation did not renew the collective agreement that had been in force for decades. This allowed hourly wages for construction workers to be reduced from between 13 and 16 euros to just 12 euros. Moreover, the employer can no longer really be pressured: if one of his workers asks for a higher salary, he can simply fire him and hire another. However, those who have left their home country and family to earn money usually do not complain much and can settle for a lower salary, which is, of course, still higher than what they could earn at home with the same qualifications and in the same job, despite the cuts. In other words, there will be no increase in wages, and this will affect all workers, not just those from the Balkans.
The trade union federation now wants to see further changes to the legislation for workers in the Western Balkans, so that workers can change jobs freely without having to start the whole process again. The process of re-applying for a permit is complicated and must be initiated in the worker’s country of origin, not in Germany, so people are more likely to stay with an employer who offers unsatisfactory conditions than to lose time and money by switching to another job. The union also wants Balkan workers to be hired only in jobs that have collective agreements in place, as this would ensure some protection for workers. A spokesperson for the workers’ rights organisation warned those from the Western Balkans interested in working in Germany to make sure they know their rights, ask questions, ask for help and do not accept everything they are being forced to do.