FECL 21 (December 1993/January 1994):


Like most other European countries, since the late 60s, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) tried to raise economic growth by recruiting foreign workforce. The so-called "contract workers" came not only from European countries within the socialist/communist block but also from "friendly" countries in the Third World, such as Angola, Mocambique, Vietnam and Cuba.
With the re-unification of the two Germanies and the following brutal deregulation of the former Eastern German economy the remaining contract-workers face unemployment, social exclusion and deportation.


The situation of contract workers in the former GDR

Since the 60s, the GDR's internal labour market was chronically dried out. As a consequence, the country began recruiting several thousand contract workers from Hungary in 1967. Graduously, recruiting was extended to other socialist countries all over the world. In 1977, some 50,000 contract workers were living in the GDR. At that time, most of them returned to their home countries after 3 years at most.

As late as 1987/89 the government made a new recruiting effort. More than 50,000 new contract workers came to the GDR, among them 18'000 Algerians.

The GDR's contract workers policy was based on bilateral agreements with the workforce exporting countries. Contract workers were to be granted professional training at their work place and had full access to social security and labour protection.

Since 1985, however, the provisions of the bilateral agreements were amended according to the genuine interest of the GDR. Eastern Germany's need of labour rather than professional training for the foreign workers became the main item of the contracts.

Yet, this did not slow down the influx of contract-workers. Indeed, the labour-exporting contract-states were all too keen to reduce massive unemployment at home by sending excedential workforce to the (comparatively) booming GDR, and - last not least - many of the Third World contracting states were debitors of the GDR. Providing young work force was seen as a means of dept reduction.

Soon, almost all contract-workers were employed in basic industrial production (automobil and chemical industries, textiles and laundries). The contract-workers had no right to change these low skill and low wage jobs against other employment.

The foreign workers were paid salaries equal to those of their German colleagues, but their real income was often much lower. Vietnamese workers, for instance, were compelled to transfer 12% of their gross income to their home state, and Mocambicans were supposed to receive half of their pay only after returning home. Many of the returnees are stiil waiting for the payments.

In accordance with the bilateral agreements contract workers were granted certain privileges, such as the right to buy certain goods lacking in their home countries with up to the half of their salary (e.g. bycicles, sewing machines, fabric) and the right to one visit payed by the employer to their home country under a 5 year contract.

On the other hand the contract-workers were submitted to a sophisticated system of disciplinary sanctions for "misbehaviour". Sanctions included forcible early return and the withdrawal of certain privileges.

Foreign women workers were subject to a particularly inhuman form of sanction.

They were prohibited from having children while under contract in the GDR. In case of pregnancy abortion was compulsory for women refusing to return to their home country.

Foreign workers had no right of permanent residence. Once the contract had expired they had to leave the country immediately. Prolongations of stay permits for a further contract period were however frequent.

Marriages between citizens of the GDR and foreign workers were made practically impossible, as contract workers had to pay a discharge amounting to at least 8000 GDR-Marks to their home state for breaking the contract.

Contacts between contract workers were sparse, due to language problems and the accomodation of the guest workers in isolated particular hostels. Moreover, as a quotation from a GDR magazine indicates, many workers from Third World countries found it hard to adjust to a society marked by generalised bureaucratic control: "Adapting to unfamiliar conditions will cost [the foreign workers] new energy every day, sometimes pertaining to things which seem simple to us. Thus, they are, for instance, not used to permanently carry four different ID-cards. This is one of the reasons, why they are frequent 'guests' at the police".


The consequences of the German "revolution" and of reunification

The downfall of the communist government and the following efforts to restructure the country's economy led to massive unemployment in the GDR. Indigenous workers suddenly saw the contract-workers as rivals on an ever more strained labour market and public expression of xenophobic ideas was no longer repressed by the "post-revolutionary" government.

The new government's efforts to rationalise industrial production soon affected the situation of the contract workers. In the first four months of 1990, 14,000 foreign workers were prematurely dismissed. The bilateral agreements with Vietnam, Mocambique and Angola were amended once again. Among other things, 5 year contracts were retroactively reduced to 4 years and privileges as visits to the home country and training courses were simply abolished.

In June 1990, the GDR government emitted an "Ordinance on the changes in labour relations with foreign citizens". This document permitted the termination of contracts through means in breach of legislation against unlawful dismissal in force both in the GDR at the time and subsequently in the "acceding territories" in the process of reunification.

As a compensation, dismissed workers were given the option to either receive severance pay and travel expenses back to their home country, or remain in the GDR until the originally agreed upon expiration date of their contracts.

As a further compensation for extraordinary dismissal, foreign workers wishing to remain in the GDR were granted housing equal to that of GDR citizens, and the right to obtain work permits and to pursue further educational goals, to obtain a trade licence, and, finally, to receive social security benefits.

The ordinance was included in the German agreement on reunification as an effective right with no time restrictions and valid on all the territory of the former GDR.


Discrimination, exclusion and deportation

Yet, after reunification, the provision regarding the right to receive social security benefits was amended. According to the new rules, former contract workers received only unemployment pay and no longer benefited of further compensation for extraordinary dismissal. Moreover the amendment provided for the deportation of all former contract workers who applied for social assistance.

Since reunification, the cases of deportation as a result of such applications for assistance have actually been few. All the same, the new regulations have attained their goal: despite incomes often well below the poverty line which ordinarily would entitle them to assistance, most former contract workers relinquish state assistance for fear of deportration.

On January 1, 1991, the "Work Permits Ordinance" was introduced as part of the new federal law on foreigners (Ausländerrecht). It grants both dismissed and still employed foreign contract workers a Restricted Residence Authorization valid until the expiration date of their original contracts. Yet, this authorization can not be transformed into a permanent residence permit.

Only employees who, on the key date of 1 January 1991, were still employed and had been in Germany for at least eight years, have a right to an unrestricted residence permit. Most foreign workers have been unable to meet these requirements.

The above measures' effect was that the vast majority of foreign workers and students were forced to leave the GDR. This and nothing else was their obvious goal. The GDR's last government's ambition was to hand over a "foreigner free" Eastern Germany upon reunification.

The above ordinance establishes a manifest discrimination of contract workers of the former GDR as compared with foreign "guest workers" in Western Germany. Instead of a Restricted Residence Authorization, the latter are granted a Restricted Residence Permit which can be exchanged for an Unrestriced Residence Permit after five years.

The social situation of former contract workers during the reunification process can be summarised as follows:

After reunification the situation further deteriorated due to the further rise of living costs and the de facto impossiblity for former contract workers to apply for welfare assistance.

Once their Restricted Residence Authorization expired the former contract wor-kers are under permanent threat of deportation. The immigration authorities may grant extensions of stay, but these are often restricted to a few months, lead to a further loss of social assistance and are often combined with an interdiction to work.


Bureaucratic harassment, racist attacks and police violence

All these measures have contributed to further socially excluding, marginalising and criminalisning the former contract workers.

In order to survive, many try to find some independent, some times illegal work or commit petty crimes immediately drawing massive police repression.

Alone in Berlin, 3'000 deportations were ordered because of petty offences.

Violent attacks by German racists against former contract workers trying to survive as street workers have become innumerable in Berlin and elsewhere.

The police in Berlin systematically hunts street vendors. In one case, the police without any reason beat up, arrested and severely injured a Vietnamese. The man suffered permanent eye damages.

In Berlin, raids of the police and the Border Protection (Bundesgrenzschutz) occur every day at any time in the homes of former contract workers.

According to victims' reports, the police regularly show up without search warrants, fail to identify themselves when wearing plain cloth, kick doors in even when inhabitants are present and keys available, force pregnant women out of bed at gun-point, etc...

Some victims stress it is sometimes difficult for them to make out whether the aggressors are policemen or nazis. On several occasions victims of police raids called for police help through the window, assuming that they were attacked by racists.

In a comment of the current treatment of former contract workers the Berlin based Aktionsbündnis, an alliance of organisations in support of the contract workers, emphasises that in their strive for swift deportation of the former contract workers the German authorities fail to take into account obstacles to repatriation. Thus, Vietnam refuses to take back the deportees and in Angola, returnees face political persecution and civil war.

The committee further notes that former contract workers trying to regularise their situation are submitted to bureaucratic harassment obviously aiming at discouraging them from making applications.

The Aktionsbündnis calls on the government to put a stop to the discrimination and exclusion of the former contract workers.

Among other things it demands that consideration must be taken of possible obstacles to repatriation, that welfare claims should not justify deportation, that, in evaluating minor offence cases, the individual's social and material condition should be considered and that the entire length of an individual's stay in Germany must be taken account of when considering applications for residence.


Sources: information published by Beratungszentrum f. ausländische MitbürgerInnen e.V., Neue Bahnhofstrasse 19, D-10245 Berlin, Tel/Fax: +49/30 5881154; Basic Document on Former Contract Workers' Residence Rights, published by Aktionsbündnis.



Urgent action

The student council (Allgemeiner Studentenausschuss AStA) of the Freie Universität Berlin has called for urgent action in support of the contract workers.

In an appeal addressed to the European public AStA i.a. emphasises the immediate threat of deportation facing foreign workers from war and/or poverty torn Angola and Mocambique. According to AStA some of the former contract workers returned to these countries this year have been killed.

AStA mentions internal documents which state that guest workers who are to be deported should be imprisoned pending their deportation in order to prevent them from staying illegally.

If the German government's palns cannot be altered, AStA expects that alone in Berlin 2,000 deportations will be carried out beginning with 17 December and another 2,000 by the end of the year.

AStA calls on you to demand that the German government put a stop to the deportation and social exclusion of former contract workers, most of whom have lived in Germany for several years (some of them more than 10 years).

Letters should be sent to


For further information contact: Michael Pannwitz, AStA - Freie Universität Berlin; Tel: +49/30 8314008, Fax: +49/30 8314536