Guest Worker Program Offers Lessons
Bush might profit by German experience
Don Melvin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jan. 25
Berlin — Fevzi Cakir came to Germany intending to stay a year or two. It was his plan — and the German government’s plan — that he return shortly to his native Turkey.
Thirty-nine years later, he’s still in Germany. So is his wife. And two of his four children are German-born.
Cakir likes his life in Berlin.
He came as a guest worker and now is a citizen. He should be a fan of guest worker programs, right?
Wrong. Such programs, in his view, cause serious problems.
“I don’t understand why America is planning something like that,” said Cakir, 62.
As the United States contemplates a proposal by President Bush to temporarily legalize some foreign workers with the expectation they will eventually return to the land of their birth, the German experience may provide a cautionary tale.
More than 40 years after the first Turkish guest workers arrived to help the country rebuild — Germany had Marshall Plan funds and other post-World War II reconstruction money but was short of manpower — a significant number are still here.
Many of the immigrants live in ghettos. Many, even children, do not speak German. Housing and education are substandard. Crime is high. Unemployment, 18 percent among Berliners, is 35 percent among the city’s Turks.
About three of every four Turks in Germany are not citizens, even after decades in the country. Many play no role in the nation’s political life. They feel the sting of bigotry and keep to themselves.
Some, clinging to their roots in a land that remains foreign to them, practice Islam in a manner more conservative and rigid than that of many people in Turkey. Young people, devoid of prospects, have developed a hip-hop-style culture of gold chains and aggressive behavior.
“I don’t think the whole program is very good,” Cakir said. “It creates heavy problems, as we see here.”
Germany’s guest worker program began in 1955. At first, under treaties Germany negotiated with countries suffering high unemployment, the workers came from Italy. Spanish and Greek workers followed. Then, in 1961, workers from Turkey began to come, followed by those from Morocco and elsewhere.
By 1970, 3 million foreign-born people lived in Germany, making up nearly 5 percent of the population. The program ended in 1973, when the worldwide oil crisis slowed the German economy.
But as relatives came to Germany to join the workers, the number swelled to 7.3 million by late 2001.
The Turks make up the largest group. Nearly 3 million live in Germany, about 200,000 of them in Berlin. Some of the city’s neighborhoods are overwhelmingly Turkish, with Turkish doctors, lawyers, shops, eateries, salons. Many apartments are fitted with satellite dishes to pick up Turkish TV.
Citizenship, while not impossible to obtain, is difficult. Although Germany’s citizenship law was liberalized in 2000, for many years it gave preference to applicants believed to have Teutonic ancestry, required a residency of at least 15 years, and required that other citizenship be renounced, something many older Turks were reluctant to do.
Many of the problems are in part attributable to the guest worker concept, according to government officials, academics and members of the Turkish community. Everybody — the German government and the workers themselves — assumed the situation was temporary and acted accordingly. There was denial on both sides that what was taking place was immigration, said Ruth Mandel, who teaches anthropology at University College in London and is writing a book about Turks in Germany.
For decades the German government asserted that “Germany is not an immigration country,” and the word “immigrant” was never used in referring to the workers. No money was spent to teach immigrants the German language or help them integrate into German society.
Nor did the migrants themselves make much effort. Cumali Kangal came to Germany 30 years ago to work in a metal factory, assuming he was staying only temporarily. It wasn’t until seven or eight years later that it finally struck him that he really ought to learn the language.
Turkish parents have often shuttled their children between countries, enrolling them in German schools for a year or two, then sending them to school in Turkey for a while.
“Many generations of children have grown up basically as bilingual illiterates,” Mandel said.
“Language is one of the biggest problems we have,” said Michael Ried, a high school chemistry teacher. “If a student does not speak German properly we are, of course, unable to teach him anything.”
German employers, too, found a temporary program less to their liking than they had expected. They were loath to send workers away once they were trained.
“Economically, it’s nonsense for the factories to change every year the personnel,” said Safter Cinar, an official with the Turkischer Bund, or Turkish Federation, in Berlin.
For that reason, a temporary worker program makes sense only when the work itself is temporary, said Barbara John, who retired recently after 22 years as Berlin’s commissioner for migration and integration. If the workers must leave when the crops are finished, that makes sense, she said. To hire temporary workers for industry, she said, does not.
In addition, she said, it is difficult to enforce temporary programs when there is great economic disparity between the new country and the country of origin. While the program proposed by Bush is aimed primarily at workers already in the United States illegally, it would also apply to prospective workers abroad.
People familiar with the German experience say there are lessons for all concerned. Kangal, in addition to recommending that workers learn the language earlier than he did, said the host country should enter the arrangement with open eyes.
If a country needing cheap labor hires another country’s least-qualified workers, it will get poorly educated and unsophisticated people ill-equipped to learn the language and assimilate.
Though he is a Turk and experiences prejudice “every day,” he also said it was not primarily Turkey’s elite that had come to Germany. “In some ways,” he said, “the prejudice is not wrong.”
Mandel said the host country should have “an ethics of hospitality.”
The German example of making citizenship very difficult to acquire should be avoided, she said. The new citizenship law enacted in Germany in 2000 lowered the minimum residency requirement from 15 to eight years and grants dual citizenship to children born in Germany whose foreign-born parents have resided in the country for at least eight years.
“The worst thing is for a society to set up a new and separate economic class with a different set of rights,” she said. That, she said, is a “recipe for divisiveness.”