Letter: From a Concerned Brit in Germany

Dear Orkney News,

envelopeI read your article by Brian Finlay regarding free movement, Jeremy Corbyn and low paid agency work. 

I thought my perspective as a Brit living in Germany might be of interest to your readers.

In Germany temporary work and the agency work cannot be exploited by companies in the way it is in the UK. In short Tory and Labour policies are failing people. Here are some of the ways things could be better.

German law allows employers to use an agency worker for no longer than 18 consecutive months, after that time by law, the employer must offer the worker a permanent contract or let them go. Many receive permanent contracts because after a company have trained an employee and had them around 18 months, they are often happy to keep them. The argument the UK politicians give in favour of agency/ temp work is that it allows businesses flexibility to use their workforce in a way that boosts productivity, while allowing them to become more lean and shed jobs during tougher times. But instead, agency work has allowed employers to make no commitment to employees, leaving people without job security and unable to plan longer term. David Cameron made this situation worse with zero hour contracts and the work for your benefits scheme. In workplaces in Germany, I cannot help but notice the difference these policies make. Because employers are not all powerful over peoples work future, relationships between senior staff and junior staff is more relaxed. Employees can concentrate on doing the job rather than on trying to keep the job ! I am still surprised when I go into companies to find many of the workforce have been there since their early 20’s and are now around retirement age. Job security matters because people ARE the economy, and when able to plan longer term everything is better. It is hard to cope with day to day budgeting if your wages can go up, down or stop altogether, the way they can in the UK. It may surprise readers to know that until 2015 Germany didn’t even have a minimum wage, never mind a living wage. Yet unemployment has remained low in Germany, spelling out clearly that more money whilst it helps, is no substitute for secure work.

Labour’s solution we now know following the recent Scottish party conference, is to stem immigration in an attempt to stop cheap labour driving down wages. What a dreadful solution for Scotland ! How cynical of Labour to advocate this in Dundee where unemployment is higher than the Scottish average, and how disrespectful given the area voted to remain in the EU 60% to 40%. Why not argue for ending long term agency work instead? It is an ill thought out plan by Labour to win back voters in an area that has shifted to SNP. Corbyn’s argument against immigration will be a disaster for Scotland, if they fall for it.

The percentage of the Scottish population of pensionable age is projected to increase more rapidly than elsewhere in the UK over the next 25 years. Between 2016 and 2041, the population of pensionable age is projected to rise from 1.05 million to 1.32 million-an increase of 25%.

Perhaps pensioners don’t know that the state pension is paid by the people of current working age. National Insurance contributions are not put in a special bank account waiting for your retirement date, that money has already been spent. Each working generation effectively pays for the older generation above them- this is how the state pension works. Given the aging population that exists in Scotland, and that the number of children in Scotland is projected to reduce by 2% between 2016 and 2041, the last thing Scotland needs is a crackdown on immigration.

No wonder the Scottish Government is issuing baby boxes. Here’s a baby box -could do your bit for the country and have 3 more?

Tory and Labour solutions to current UK problem contain ideas that have been totally disproved in Germany and it is harming the UK.

Companies still come to Germany despite employment laws that favour employees, and Germany has one of the highest levels of immigration in the EU and the strongest economy. Despite what Tory, UKIP and now Labour are claiming, immigration fluctuations don’t need to impact the country negatively.

Relative to size of population Germany has 19 immigrants per 1000. Luxembourg has the highest at 42 per 1000 (figures correct in 2015) both countries have higher immigration levels than the UK and are nice countries to live in. So why is the UK hysterical about immigration?

It is sad to watch anti-immigration speak become the norm, in a country that has been historically more open to it and more liberal than other western countries but it is not surprising given the UK Government policy failures that have been on the go for some time. Agency work is just one area where policy change could make a difference.

Germany also has a policy called ‘Pflegezeitgesetz’ or family care time, which allows employees up to 10 days of unpaid leave if they need to take time off. Germany accepts that children catch the chickenpox and aging parents may need your help at short notice. This policy allows workers to take time off to deal with normal situations and it is accepted as part of life. By contrast UK workers have to take holiday days or work the time back, unless they have a sympathetic employer.

Another area change that could help alleviate immigration angst would be if the UK Gov adopted a system like Germany uses to track where everyone lives. When you move to another area, even within the same state, you must register your move at the Burgeramt (council office) and have your passport photocopied. You then get a certificate proving your address, and Germany gets data about what areas are growing in population and where the people are from. If you move town you often have to do it again, an inconvenience at times, but it all helps Germany build a picture of their country and identify what towns are growing and require additional infrastructure. There is no racial discrimination because everyone has to do it.  In the UK they can get that data via the electoral role, but not everyone registers to vote. They can also get some data from employers but employers can issue pay slips digitally, and if you keep the same bank account and email address, there may be no urgency to advise your company of an address move. I can’t help but feel the UK Gov would cope better if they had such a system informing them about local areas. If the direction the numbers of foreign people in an area were known early, the Government could respond before things got to a crisis point.

I have witnessed for myself the benefits of German policies. We live in an area of Germany with high immigration levels and the area responds with German language and integration courses,free art, sport and music programs for children and older people, that all help foster some kind of community cohesion. I sometimes attend the council run flea market where folk can sell unwanted items and often it is immigrants like me buying. It is a resourceful way to get your life started and it also allows locals to rub shoulders with newer arrivals. The building of a new Kindergarten in our town to absorb the increase in people will be finished this year and there is a primary school beside us with smaller class sizes to allow teachers more time with students, all because of the higher intake of foreign children. I would like to add that the town we live in voted CDU (Merkels party) and not the AFD (Germany’s version of UKIP) into the German Government. Even with high levels of immigration, and despite the occasional grumbles from the German Nationals where we live, the election result of our area says something about how immigrants including myself, can be folded into life without alarming the locals. But it is only possible when enough is done to help that process and people feel safer in their jobs.

I hope the UK public do not continue to swallow the political nonsense being fed to them. There are ways that the very real problems in the UK that led to the Brexit result can be overcome. But only if party leaders examine policies and look at how policy is used to good effect elsewhere. Germany is not without its problems, it is not immune to job insecurity thanks to outsourcing, automation and globalization, but workers are at least not trapped in a cycle of low paid agency work. The UK needs to abandon it’s current mimicking of US style policy and take a different route. Things could be changed for the better without the upheaval of Brexit if they did. So far it seems only the Scottish Government is prepared to put the work in and demonstrate what could be offered to the public instead, good for them !

While folk consider abandoning social media to avoid politics and the echo chamber let’s point out the chamber echoing the most right now is the House of Commons. The 2 largest parties going in ever decreasing circles repeating what each other say.

Scotland has a way out,I hope they take it.

Yours, Concerned Brit Abroad , Germany

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