Why Germany Continues to Fail Its Migrant Workers

Migrant workers have served as the foundation for Germany’s rapid economic growth in the postwar years, but the benefits of that growth have not been evenly distributed. Today, precarious workers are pushing back against Germany’s exclusionary economic system.

A courier for grocery-delivery company Gorillas in Germany. (Tobias Schwarz / AFP via Getty Images)

For the majority of Germans, between 1950 and 1970, net real wages grew threefold. Industrial workers saw the bulk of these gains, as their salaries increased fivefold over the course of this period. The benefits of what came to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) were, however, not evenly distributed.

Between 1956 and 1966, the number of foreign workers in West Germany increased from 95,000 to 1.3 million and then, following a depression-induced lull in 1968, increased again to 2.6 million, in 1973. Many of these workers enjoyed little to no employment rights and were not covered by the strong postwar labor laws and collective bargaining agreements usually associated with German social democracy.

Although other European nations developed similar recruitment programs, West Germany’s was one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive. Starting with Italy in 1955, the federal republic would go on to set up agreements with Spain, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, and Yugoslavia to recruit workers to take up positions in the informal sectors of Germany’s economy. The drive was a response to its rapid industrial expansion in the postwar years, which generated a massive demand for unskilled and semiskilled labor.

These workers therefore served as the foundation on which Germany’s rapid economic growth in the postwar years was built. Though some fifty years have passed since the winding down of the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program in the 1970s, gaps still remain in the protections the Central European nation affords to migrant workers. Those workers continue to be excluded from the collective bargaining agreements that cover the more secure sections of Germany’s working class.

One Country, Two Systems

Germany follows a dual system of representation in which works councils and trade unions inform the state in shaping labor policy. In theory, the federal constitution grants all workers, irrespective of their migration status, the right to representation by way of joining either channel. In practice, however, not all workers can go on strike, let alone have their voices heard by the very works councils and unions that are, in principle, there to represent them. This is because laws from the Gastarbeiter era, which impose restrictions on workers’ movement and political involvement, continue to be active today.

Migrant workers have, however, always found ways of organizing in these inhospitable conditions. In 1973, the automotive workers strike in Cologne-Niehl, aka the Gastarbeiter or Turkish strike, was one of the most iconic instances of worker self-organization pushing up against the exclusionary constraints of Germany’s postwar social contract. In August of that year, the Ford automotive factory fired three hundred workers who returned late to work after their vacations to Turkey.

The works council, which refused representation from migrant workers, subsequently dismissed pleas by other migrant workers at the factory to begin talks with management in order to retract the decision. A previous attempt to form a works council was dismissed because a migrant worker on the list was deemed to not have the knowledge or language skills required to form a council.

This was not the first major grievance between migrant workers and management. The gastarbeiters at the plant had previously complained of abysmal working conditions, crammed dormitories, and lower pay relative to their German counterparts. IG Metall, the union representing the majority of workers at Ford, was well aware of these issues.

The tipping point came when management asked workers in Y-hall, the “‘hell’ of Ford factory,” who did backbreaking jobs for low pay, to make up the hours the fired workers were assigned by pulling late shifts. A number of employees stopped operations on the evening of August 24, and, in congregation with workers from other halls, blocked the main gates, effectively shutting down the factory.

They put up fliers that stated their demands: increased hourly wages by one deutsche mark, extended vacation time (to six weeks), reinstatement of the workers laid off, revision of pay grades to ensure migrant workers are paid equivalent to their German counterparts, and legal protection for the striking workers against administrative repercussions. Rather than side with the workers, the council, lacking any representation from the striking workers, and IG Metall pursued private negotiations with the management. What this meant, from a legal point of view, was that the strike was illegal. Despite being up against the law, workers chose to carry on, forming their own organizing committee.

The strike grew. Some two thousand workers slept on the factory floor, taking shifts to block the gates. Inside, the works council and IG Metall continued negotiations with management without any representative from the striking workers. Outside, the police and media swarmed the grounds in preparation to suppress and cover what it dubbed the Türkenterror (Turkish terror).

On day five, striking workers were met with resistance by their non-striking — mainly German — counterparts, which led to a commotion. This gave the police an excuse to move in and suppress the strike with violence. The works council and IG Metall did not intervene, leading to several arrests and firings by management. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees also deported some workers who they found to be in violation of the Aliens Act of 1965. This act allowed individuals who “prejudice important interests of the Federal Republic” to be deported.

After a week, the strike came to an end. The workers were defeated, but their struggle was not in vain. In the words of one of the striking workers:

After more than ten years, we still heard what traces our strike had left on those up there. As soon as management hears about discontent they come down to the shop-floor to try and appease things. We showed that we workers were a power and that nothing works in the plant without us. We didn’t get everything. But we did raise the awareness of thousands of workers about their situation.

Gig Workers as Modern Gastarbeiters?

Fast-forward fifty years, and we are at another major crossroads. Last year was crescendo of migrant worker strikes, especially in the food and grocery delivery sector in Germany. These walkouts also started with wildcat actions, initiated in this case by Gorillas workers.

Gorillas, a Berlin-based digitally mediated grocery-delivery platform, rose to fame when it attained unicorn status, a valuation of over 1 billion euros, in 2021. To date, the company operates in seven other countries.

Work at a Gorillas warehouse consists mainly of packing groceries and delivering them on bikes. Backpacks weigh around 8 kilograms (17 pounds), though some workers claim their packs are much heavier, and the average delivery distance is around 5 kilometers (3 miles). The company pays workers the federally mandated minimum wage, plus tips. But widespread wage theft on the part of the company reduces these already meager wages further. Orders arrive via the Gorillas app and are prepared and dispatched by distribution centers within minutes.

Many Gorillas workers are migrants who have come to Germany not just for employment but for education and leisure. They come from countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Argentina, and Uruguay. There is nothing, however, new regarding the precarious nature of their employment status (their visas are contingent on work or education) and the labor they provide.

Like the gastarbeiters, they speak little to no German and have scant knowledge of rights prescribed under the German law. Over time, they, too, have grown unhappy with their working conditions and have become disillusioned by a system that promised good pay and social security. Unable to gain legal representation, they then chose to organize on their own, and despite advice by politicians and unions against, went for a string of wildcat strikes. In response, the company fired workers en masse.

Gorillas workers’ mobilization started roughly around the time they initially conveyed their demands for improved working conditions during a glacial Berlin winter. These demands included the provision of rain- and windproof jackets, gloves, shoes, and paid time off to avoid biking on icy roads. The lack of response by management led workers, the majority of whom were still on their probationary period, to organize secret meetings, for fear of termination.

Calling themselves Gorillas Workers Collective (GWC), these workers gathered regularly to discuss ways to hold management to account, not just for deteriorating working conditions but also for missing tips and wages. High levels of staff turnover made it difficult for the GWC to work with unions, which required a higher proportion of the workforce to be signed members than the collective could ensure.

In Spring 2021, GWC members, despite the difficult circumstances, organized demonstrations ahead of a series of wildcat strikes starting in summer. These demonstrations and the wildcat strikes were crucial for the GWC to gain international recognition, which was essential to put pressure on management, unions, and politicians.

Federal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs Hubertus Heil listens to Gorillas workers in Lausitzer Platz, Berlin, July 20, 2021. (Annette Riedl / Picture
Alliance via Getty Images)

Then politicians took center stage. The Social Democratic Party’s Hubertus Heil, the federal minister of labor and social affairs, met the company and the workers in early autumn. Heil first met management in private, without seeking any representation from the GWC in this meeting. He then met the workers in public, smiling to dozens of cameras and turning the event into a public-relations stunt. He inquired about the issues the workers faced. They shared their problems candidly and, citing particular laws, highlighted how the company was acting illegally. Heil responded with patronizing amazement: “Wow, you are prepared,” he told the workers before telling them to form a works council.

Heil’s advice was not as straightforward as the casual way in which he gave it suggests. Gig workers at Gorillas have a six-month probation period during which management can fire them without due process. This makes organizing difficult. Furthermore, recognizing the precarious position of the workers and their intention to form an electoral council in summer 2021, management preemptively pursued union-busting strategies like buying out activist workers by offering them promotions and new positions.

Unable to buy off workers, management then sought to circumvent the legal process involved in organizing a works council. During the electoral council elections in autumn, managers invited workers waiting in line to leave the queue and have a beer on the company account instead of voting. These enticements proved unsuccessful, and the workers managed to organize their own council. Gorillas then sought to undermine the democratic process by suing the legally elected works council, not once but twice. Gorillas lost both cases and the workers got their works council in the end, which the company is now suing as an illegitimate representative body.

Having a works council is a necessary step in seeking representation in Germany — a step that the GWC courageously took after months of struggle and sacrifice. Whether the gains of this bold move will prove sustainable is, however, uncertain. Gorillas’s business model, which relies on an ever-changing workforce that it can easily hire and fire, makes building long-term institutions inherently difficult.

Many Gorillas employees stay with the company for only a few months, a period shorter than that required to contest management’s decisions to reject the council’s demands for improved conditions. The company, moreover, fired hundreds of workers who engaged in the wildcat strikes, a move that has weakened the organization base within the newly formed council. Many others have pending court cases in which they will seek to contest their terminations. It is questionable whether the workers have the resources (including time and patience) to continue pursuing these cases and claim their rights in courts.

Nevertheless, the struggles by the GWC, thanks to support from community organizers in Berlin, created the initial sparks for acknowledgment of platform workers and their rights. Today, just like 1973, precarious workers are pushing back against Germany’s exclusionary economic system. Going forward, the task must be to find a way not only to build on the gains of social democracy but to extend these gains to all of the working class, regardless of citizenship.