As foreign workers flow to Germany, tensions on both sides


From left, Rafael Montoya, Paula Bernedo and Wolfgang Duerr at Binder manufacturing in Tuttlingen, Germany. (Patrick Seeger/EPA)

More than three years into an economic crisis that has threatened to tear Europe apart, one country is still on a hiring spree, and it is pulling away the best and the brightest workers from its neighbors along the way.

Thousands of professionals from recession-struck Spain and Greece have been streaming into Germany, where joblessness remains low, and some say they may never leave. The migration is the biggest test yet for the European Union’s promise to wipe away economic barriers between nations, as the best-trained workers from weak countries leave home in the greatest numbers since the bloc was forged.

Now, the new right to work anywhere is bumping against old prejudices about crossing national lines. There are new strains in the partnership, with some Germans fretting about the influx and Spanish and Greek policymakers worried that their best hope for recovery is vanishing one plane ticket at a time.

The movement into Germany — a flow that has become so intense that the country has halted a decade of population decline — is just the latest development in a process that has seen Europe’s richer countries strengthen even as the poorer ones become increasingly hollowed out. While Spain, Greece and Portugal struggle to create new prospects at home, the people and companies best able to help them are fleeing for more stable opportunities elsewhere.

The creation of the European Union provided workers in its member nations with freedom of movement. Citizens of West European countries can live and work anywhere in the 27-member union without special permits or visas. The same rights are rapidly being phased in for citizens of the new East European members of the union.

For Paula Bernedo, 37, an engineer from the Canary Islands, an autonomous region of Spain, the billowing snow in the Black Forest town of Tuttlingen has been the least of her adjustment worries. She is one of 100 Spanish engineers who flew to Germany’s industrial heartland for a visit over the summer. Thirty stayed. After losing a job in Spain, Bernedo decided to take her chances in Germany, where she had lived briefly as a student years before.

In Spain, “you’ve got 800 people, 900 people applying for the same job,” she said. Many German companies, by contrast, say they cannot find enough qualified workers at home.

In the prosperous southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, where Bernedo’s firm is located, regional officials say companies could use 30,000 more engineers.

Germany’s unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in October. In Spain, it stood at 26.2 percent — and German-language courses at the Goethe Institute are overflowing. In Germany, overall immigration was up 17 percent in the first half of the year over the same period last year. Migration from Greece is up by more than three-quarters. From Spain and Portugal, it is up by half.

Those workers are plunging into a world of steady jobs and formal work relationships, where colleagues call one another “Herr” and “Frau” for years on end, rather than using first names.

“The way people work on projects, it’s totally different,” said Bernedo, who has worked at Binder, a laboratory-equipment manufacturer, since September. “Here you have to get appointments with other people. In Spain, we say, okay, let’s get together and do it. It’s so serious here.”

Germany’s gain is Spain’s loss, and Bernedo said that she has no plans to return — for now. In a few weeks, her husband and 5-year-old son will move to Germany, too. The Spanish Embassy has collaborated on programs to find work for its citizens in Germany, and every emigration eases the pressure on Spain’s frayed safety net. But some who stay put in Europe’s struggling countries have expressed frustration with Germany, saying it pushes austerity on its neighbors and reaps rewards for itself.


Unemployment ascent in Spain

“Our country is really upset” about workers leaving, Bernedo said. “They’re thinking, ‘We’ve paid for their education, and now they’re producing for Germany.’ ”

‘Of existential importance’

German economists, by contrast, look at their country’s shrinking, aging population and say that attracting immigrants is the only way they will be able to pay their bills in the years to come. But just as Spain is not fully comfortable giving up workers, Germany isn’t fully comfortable taking them in. That would require a deep shift in attitudes in a country that doesn’t have much of a tradition of multiculturalism or openness to outsiders.

“For us, this is of existential importance,” said Heinz-Rudi Link, the head of a regional development group that organized the Spanish engineers’ initial trip to the Black Forest. “In five to 10 years, we will have a lack of 500,000 people. Because there is nobody.”

At the Maurer heating and cooling company in the nearby town of Villingen-Schwenningen, the owner said he tries to pin down qualified workers the moment he can.

“We list jobs in the newspaper, and we don’t get any applications,” Clemens Maurer said. “If people come to the company and show us that they’re properly educated, we take them straight to the office and we sign a contract.”

His company has to turn down jobs because it cannot find enough workers, he said, calling it a “bottleneck for growth.” Maurer just hired an engineer from Spain and is interested in finding other workers.

But many ordinary Germans view their new neighbors with caution. A recent local television show about some of the Spanish engineers was called “Dr. Guest Worker,” a reference to a 1960s program that brought Turkish manual laborers to Germany without granting citizenship to them or their children. The Turkish workers never returned home, but many Germans never welcomed them, creating an underclass with fewer rights and fostering resentments that persist to this day.

“The friendly behavior depends on the number” of workers who come, said Hartmut Reichl, the director of foreign economics at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Finance Ministry. But given time, he said, skilled foreign workers would win German hearts.

“Germans like to see others work. And when they work, they are loved,” Reichl said.

Figuring how to fit in

Meanwhile, the new arrivals are finding strategies to fit in, sending e-mails to ensure clarity if they don’t understand the thick regional accent that sometimes trips up even native German speakers, and using extra tact on the production floor, where workers sometimes don’t take kindly to foreigners telling them what to do.

“I tried to get some people here to go out and get a beer with me, just chat,” said Rafael Montoya, 30, another engineer at Binder, who moved from the Mediterranean city of Valencia in mid-August. No one took him up on the offer.

Now he has a new plan: a capoeira studio in the middle of Tuttlingen, a town of 34,000. So far, Montoya has no one with whom to practice the Brazilian martial art, but he hopes to find some people soon. He’s ready to stick around, even if his neighbors seem a bit old.

“There are so many pharmacies here,” he said. “There’s one on every corner. It’s like Spain with bars.”

Petra Krischok contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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