GERMANY: A new identity — a nation of immigrants

April 19, 2000

FRANKFURT, Germany — Twenty-six years ago, a young theology student, Manuel Campos, fled Portugal one step ahead of the secret police. Campos suddenly found himself in Germany, a young man with no prospects, few skills, and a head filled with radical ideas.

He arrived at the end of a long wave of immigration, promoted by employers who advertised for contract workers throughout southern Europe. Asylum seekers like Campos were part of the mix, welcomed at a time when Germany's labour supply was low, and the need for educated workers high.

He spent a few months working in an auto plant. "I saw the lines filled with immigrants like myself", he remembers. "The job was so hard and repetitive that I still marvel at the ability of people to come to work every day".

Campos didn't forget the experience. Today he heads a unique department in the big German industrial union, IG Metall, where he organises immigrant workers and tries to build up their voice in the union and workplace. Immigrants, he says, have had a big impact on IG Metall.

With the help of Campos' department, IG Metall has fought with some of Germany's largest corporations to develop unique agreements combining affirmative action with protection against discrimination and harassment.


Like their counterparts elsewhere, German factories are hardly discrimination-free.

Mahmut Aktaz, who came to Germany from Turkey when he was a teenager, and went to work in the auto factories straight out of school, says discrimination against immigrant workers is common.

"I started out as a skilled worker, but to my foreman, I was just a foreigner. He didn't treat me fairly at all", Aktaz says.

"Discrimination in the plant is a whole range of everyday things. Officially, they say it doesn't exist, that we can go into any job in the factory. But if you want to get into a really skilled position, like a master mechanic, they discourage you".

Germany has an overall federal law which forbids discrimination. But Campos says the law doesn't really protect immigrant workers, who are still referred to officially as foreigners. Until the law was finally changed this year, the child of an immigrant, born in Germany, was still ineligible for citizenship.

"It's almost impossible for immigrants to file complaints and get them enforced", Campos charges. "The court system is very conservative, and many judges are racists. As a result, it's much better for workers to negotiate these agreements, which are then enforced in the workplace."

IG Metall has gotten four major German corporations, including Volkswagen, to adopt stand-alone agreements covering a variety of discrimination issues. They outlaw discrimination or harassment based on immigrant status, along with other forms of racial and sexual mistreatment. But they also go further, to require the company to provide training to workers in unskilled jobs at the bottom of the work force, and then to actually hire them into new positions.


IG Metall has an organisation in each city and region. In most of them, workers have elected immigration commissions, which examine the situation of immigrant workers. There are over 1000 such elected commission members throughout Germany.

"We just had a meeting in Hattingen for two days, involving Turks, Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians and Yugoslavs, talking about the problem of job training and qualification. This is becoming a crisis for us", Campos says. "Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers are trapped at the bottom in jobs which are likely to disappear".

About 7.1 million of Germany's 80 million people are immigrants, who make up about 2.1 million of its 34 million workers. In the metal industry, which IG Metall represents, the percentage of immigrants is slightly higher — about 11.5%.

Although IG Metall remains the largest single union in the world, with 2.8 million members, its membership has been declining as industry restructures. Still, the number of immigrant members has remained relatively constant — about 275,000.

It is a significant indication of the important role union membership has played historically in immigrant life here. The first wave of "foreign workers", who arrived in the early 1960s, had it the hardest. They were called guest workers, and worked under contract.

Political homeland

Campos says life as an immigrant either defeats people or makes them stronger. "When a worker is in a difficult situation, as immigrants are, they have a choice", he says. "They can just leave, or they can stay and decide to fight. That choice makes a lot of us fighters.

"We have the worst jobs, and the lowest pay. The jobs that are disappearing the fastest belong to us. But we remain union members in much greater numbers than others because we've come to look at the union as our political homeland."

As a result, immigrants make up a much larger percentage of the union's stewards than their percentage in the general membership.

Aktaz is one of them — a chief steward at Daimler-Chrysler. Yet of the 36,000 workers in his plant, only 2,500 are Turkish or Kurdish.

He describes his experience as very contradictory. On the one hand, discrimination is something he confronts every day, from his employers and even from workmates. Yet as steward, he believes he fights for the interests of all his fellow workers, of whatever nationality, sometimes in the face of considerable company hostility.

"I've been a steward for seven years", he says. "I've been elected three times by my co-workers, and I've taken on their cause. But my foremen and supervisors don't like this one bit, and they make it clear they don't like it. They don't like the fact that I'm a steward, because they don't like the union itself. But they particularly don't like the fact that I'm a Turkish shop steward."


IG Metall is a political home for another reason. In the last decade, since the reunification of Germany, unemployment has soared, particularly in east Germany.

And with rising unemployment, groups of young neo-Nazis have attacked, and even burned, the hostels in which recently arrived immigrants live. Immigrants have been blamed for taking the jobs of native-born Germans.

IG Metall has participated in demonstrations to denounce these actions. Every year the union mounts a campaign to coincide with the UN International Day of Action Against Racism.

"The danger to immigrants in Germany is constant — you feel it in the streets every day", Aktaz declares. "And the reason is that on the political level, nothing is being done to counteract it. When the neo-Nazis organised a march in Berlin last week, the judges allowed it".

Campos was one of many IG Metall members who went to Berlin to demonstrate against the march. "I don't think Germany is about to become fascist again", he says. "But these groups, although they're small, are very aggressive, and protected by the police. If there's no visible opposition, it's a signal that hating immigrants is an acceptable part of the political process."

Not all German labour is equally committed to defending immigrants however. Even within IG Metall, immigrants see a problem in their representation, especially in the upper levels of the union.

Other German unions still see immigrants as a threat. In Berlin the federal government is building a new centre for the city, with numerous government buildings. But German construction unions, for the first time, are finding themselves locked out of the country's largest construction project.

Wages wall

Instead, the work is being performed by a network of contractors and subcontractors. At the bottom, the work force primarily consists of immigrants recently arrived from the countries of Eastern Europe, where unemployment is even higher, and wages much lower. These workers are almost all undocumented.

"On our side, a worker can earn as much in an hour as the same person can earn in a day over there", says IG Metall cultural affairs director Kurt Schmitz. A wage wall has replaced the old brick wall which used to divide the east from the west in Berlin.

German sociologist Boy Leutje, who has made comparative studies of labour in the US and Germany, says that construction unions in both countries confront the same choice.

"Are they going to fight a losing battle to keep immigrants out of their trade and their country, or are they going to see them as potential union members, and try to organise them?" he asks.

Germany is only now beginning to see its immigrant population as permanent residents, rather than foreign workers who will some day go home. "My children were born here", Aktaz says. "My wife and I feel as a family that our future is going to be here in Germany."

For Campos, "what we've had here is a law for foreigners, and that's what we're called. The concept of immigration, of Germany as an country of immigrants, doesn't exist. So we need an immigration law instead, and not only one which sets out the conditions under which people can immigrate, but one which also spells out the rights the government is willing to guarantee us."

Campos clearly sees Germany as a country that will eventually change its identity, its own sense of who Germans are, and what it means to be German. Outside of his union job, Campos is a musician and a composer. When he sings the title song on his new CD, the words remind his audience that "People come in every colour".


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