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Labor migration has always existed

by Jochen Oltmer Friday, Jun. 14, 2024 at 12:57 PM

Labor migration to Germany has a history: Italian guest workers in the 1960s The labor shortage in the countryside is becoming increasingly noticeable, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find local workers; on the other hand, the demand for migrant workers, mainly foreigners, is increasing. (...)

Migration researcher Jochen Oltmer: “Labor migration has always existed”

In conversation Jochen Oltmer researches the history of labor migration to Germany, from the Huguenots to the present day. A conversation about historical migration movements, the shortage of skilled workers – and so-called “poverty migration”

by Sascha Lübbe

[This article posted on 6/2/2024 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Labor migration to Germany has a history: Italian guest workers in the 1960s

"The labor shortage in the countryside is becoming increasingly noticeable, and it is becoming more and more difficult to find local workers; on the other hand, the demand for migrant workers, mainly foreigners, is increasing. (...)

There are abuses in the treatment and accommodation of workers, in their sleeping and living quarters. In many cases, even the most basic regulations and protective measures in terms of morality and hygiene are disregarded. (...) The legislature takes a defensive position towards workers immigrating from abroad, seeking to protect the interests of the homeland and to tolerate immigration as a temporary necessity to replace the labor force."

These sentences are around 100 years old, taken from the dissertation “Foreign Migrant Workers in German Agriculture” from 1914. The author, Andreas Mytkowicz, describes the working and living conditions of Polish-speaking people who came to Germany to work in the fields – to compensate for the lack of local workers. The parallels with today are obvious. Even then, foreigners were taking on work for which there were not enough people in Germany. Even then, they were living under sometimes precarious, exploitative conditions. A conversation with the historian Jochen Oltmer about the history of German labor migration.

The gap between the rich and poor in Germany is widening. The broad middle class that once characterized our country and supported our society is eroding

der Freitag: Mr. Oltmer, how long has there been migration to Germany?

Jochen Oltmer: There has always been geographical mobility for the purpose of employment in the area that is now Germany, usually limited to small and medium distances. Transportation was expensive. For a long time, people who had to leave their home for work were therefore usually on foot.

One of the first major migratory movements was that of the Huguenots in the 17th century. Protestants who were persecuted in their homeland, France, which was predominantly Catholic, and fled to Prussia. What kind of people were they?

Many specialized craftsmen, merchants, officers. In Prussia, they often worked in the emerging luxury segment. They made gloves and hats, wove silk, built furniture. In doing so, they were mainly in contact with the social elite, who spoke French.

Many Huguenots were “skilled workers”, as we would say today. Their integration was therefore long considered to be relatively problem-free.

That's true. But there were also conflicts. The Huguenots were exempt from taxes, they received building land and favorable loans. This privileged status was also viewed critically.

In the 19th century, the focus shifted towards the east. The main arrivals were Polish-speaking people.

On the one hand, there were the so-called Ruhr Poles. People from the mining areas of Upper Silesia, but also from East and West Prussia, who moved to the mining areas of the Ruhr region because of the higher wages. On the other hand, there were Polish-speaking people from abroad, from Russia and Austria-Hungary, who came to Germany at harvest time. They met with considerable resistance here, especially from the political elite.


They feared that they would strengthen the Polish minority in the country too much. For this reason, Polish-speaking agricultural workers were also subject to a compulsory return policy. After the harvest, they had to leave the country again. These conditions did not apply to other groups, such as Italians and Dutch people, who were working in German brickworks, in mining and in industry at the same time.

What is often overlooked in the discussion about migration: Germany, or rather the area that became the German Empire in 1871, was itself a country of emigration for a time, especially in the 19th century.

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The German population had grown enormously in the 19th century, almost tripling, and this was out of proportion to the employment opportunities. Over six million people emigrated across the Atlantic at that time, 90 percent of them to the USA, where they formed the largest immigrant group for a while. The development ended with the American economic crisis of 1893, which was a significant turning point for the USA. In the meantime, the situation in Germany had changed: Industry had grown, agriculture had been modernized. There was now a shortage of labor. Germany went from being a country of emigration to a country of immigration. Before the outbreak of the First World War, 1.2 million people from abroad were working in Germany.

One of the most significant migration phases in Germany began in 1955 with the recruitment agreement with Italy. Further agreements with other countries followed. An exception?

Germany was not the first or only industrialized country in Europe to conclude this type of agreement. By the mid-1950s, almost all European industrialized nations had negotiated agreements with southern European countries. Italy, for example, had already concluded other agreements with other countries before the agreement with Germany.

By the time the so-called recruitment stop was introduced in 1973, 14 million people had come to Germany. Unlike today's migrant workers, the so-called guest workers in Germany at that time were also permanently employed by large companies, and many initially worked alongside German colleagues. And yet it was difficult for them to gain a foothold in society. There were no language courses, and the workers were initially housed in separate barracks. Why?

Because it was assumed that their stay would be limited. This applies to all parties involved, including the sending countries. They hoped that the people would return with new know-how and boost the domestic economy. But by the end of the 1960s at the latest, it was clear that the people were staying in Germany. They had built up social relationships here, while the economic prospects in their home countries were not improving.

More articles on the subject

Exploitation, wage dumping, illegal employment: the dirty foundations of the German economy

Lucian works hard on a construction site, Samim is a truck driver, Petar cleans slaughtering machines – without their work, the German economy would collapse. Nevertheless, they are tricked and forced to work illegally. About exploitation as a system

By Sascha Lübbe

“Just because we do this hard work doesn't mean we're third-class citizens”

Mariana* is 72, comes from Bulgaria and had to fight in court to get paid for her work as a carer for the elderly in Germany

By Freitag

Anti-Semitism at the Documenta: A mental void

How can the international art show hold a dialogue on anti-Semitism without it seeming like a German educational measure?

By Hannes Klug

How was this received in German society?

No one had seriously considered the prospect of these people staying. But now they were there and seemed to be causing costs: more daycare places, more school places, more apartments were needed. Only now did the discussion begin about what immigration actually means for German society. This also involved its self-image: the Federal Republic, generally perceived as homogeneous, had become more colorful. Societies that see themselves as homogeneous generally perceive immigration as a threat. In such cases, migration is sometimes allowed, but attempts are made to prevent settlement.

This also applied to the so-called contract workers in the GDR. People from socialist brother states such as Vietnam, Mozambique or Angola. Their stay was limited to five years, they were not allowed to bring their families with them, and women who became pregnant had to have an abortion or were deported.

GDR society saw itself as extremely homogeneous. The government treated anyone who had not been socialized in the country with suspicion. They feared that he or she could disrupt the political order.

You say that the majority society's view of certain migrant groups is changing.

Yes. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, there were lively debates about Italian immigrants, with a lot of talk about crime and sexuality. At the same time, Italy became a popular destination for Germans. Migration from other countries increased rapidly, and new immigrants were now perceived as particularly foreign. Italians were now seen as an enrichment.

What about migration from Eastern Europe?

Even before the eastward expansion, in the 1990s, many people from Poland came to Germany to work. The media reported a lot about them. They were mostly classified as illegal and criminal. This was associated with strong political defense mechanisms. Later, people from Romania and Bulgaria came to the public's attention. There was a lot of discussion about “poverty migration” from both countries and “immigration into the social systems”. The discussion ended in 2015 because there was a more pressing issue: the increased number of refugees. Romanian and Bulgarian workers only reappeared in the media in the wake of the corona pandemic.

Jochen Oltmer (born 1965) is a professor at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück. He has written many books on migration, most recently Die Grenzen der EU. Europäische Integration, “Schengen” und die Kontrolle der Migration

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