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German business sees migrants as opportunity Printer friendly page Print This
By Mihret Yohannes, Occupy
Wednesday, Oct 28, 2015

Thomas Sperveslage remembers the day Victor Onuh came knocking on his door.

Onuh, a 40-year-old Nigerian refugee, had worked odd jobs for around a $1 an hour since arriving in Germany in 2002. In 2012, he decided to he wanted a raise.

"He managed to bypass reception somehow so he could apply for a job with us," said Sperveslage, who works as a personnel manager at a construction company in the former East Germany.

Onuh's eagerness earned him an apprenticeship with Sperveslage. Today, three years later, he’s a full-time employee and an active member of the community.

"His children play soccer with our kids in local clubs, and he's as accepted as any other locals or staff members here," Sperveslage said. "Refugees present a chance and a challenge for us in Germany – we should do everything we can to help people integrate and adapt."

News headlines often depict the tensions between Europeans and refugees seeking a better life than they can find at home in Africa or the Middle East. But Onuh's positive story is one that many German businesses are eager to repeat – giving hope to those who believe inclusiveness, not division, will win out as the European migrant crisis unfolds.

The collision of Germany's booming economy and the reality of its rapidly aging population means there are not enough workers to fill the 500,000 vacant jobs in Germany, according to the Confederation of German Employers' Association.

For German businesses whose working-age talent pool is forecast to shrink from 52 million to 34 million by 2060, the 800,000 refugees due to arrive in the country this year – half of whom are under 25 – offer hope, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

"Refugees could be a basis for the next German economic miracle – just like the millions of migrant workers in the 50s and 60 contributed very significantly to the economic upturn in the Federal Republic of Germany," Daimler Board Chairman Dieter Zetsche said at the Frankfurt Auto Show last month.

More and more, it seems as though politicians agree.

"If we manage to quickly train those that come to us and to get them into work, then we will solve one of our biggest problems for the economic future of our country: the skills shortage," German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel told German parliament last month.

But not everyone sees refugees as a source of economic strength.

In a backlash against the surge of desperate newcomers, xenophobic sentiment is on the rise in Germany and throughout Europe. According to German government figures, 202 attacks against refugees were reported in the first six months of 2015 – almost equal to the total tally of 203 last year.

The wider community is also ambivalent about migrants. A survey by market research institute Infratest found that while 58 percent of Germans believe the labor market would benefit from refugees, and 47 percent think refugees could enrich life in Germany, 51 percent are frightened by the influx.

"Some people are scared refugees will take away jobs from the native population but from a scientific standpoint, there isn’t much evidence for that," said Clemens Ohlert, a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research, a think tank in the capital. "The benefits for the labor market are greater than the risks."

Most businesses are also positive about the newcomers. According to consultancy firm LAB & Company, more than half of German managers think their businesses would benefit from migrant workers despite the social risks they might present.

Nonetheless, migrants face obstacles to finding work in Germany.

Currently, refugees in Germany are only allowed to work if they have a temporary resident permit regardless of their qualifications or the severity of skills shortages in industries. Even after refugees obtain a work permit, which usually takes three months, companies are obliged to favor German and EU citizens.

According to LAB & Company, 80 percent of German managers think those hurdles are a disincentive to hiring newcomers. The Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), which represents 3 million entrepreneurs, is agitating for change.

DIHK wants to abolish the requirement to give priority to German and EU citizens in the labor market. The association also wants employed refugees and those in apprenticeships to receive extended residence permits. Those reforms would benefit the German economy as well as society, said DIHK representatives.

"Working brings with it language skills, which are key to social integration," said Christian Noebel, director of integration at the DIHK.

Sperveslage supported the DIHK proposals. Germany is better off because Onuh is working and contributing to society, he said.

"The rules that are currently in place don't make it easy, so I imagine it scares a lot of businesses off from hiring refugees," Sperveslage said. "We want these laws to be reviewed and brought up to date with the current situation, so that we can give these people who have newly arrived in our country, the opportunity to provide for themselves and to integrate and to in turn also give companies security."

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