Sacked for stealing €1.30 – how Barbara split Germany

Case of supermarket cashier ignites election debate over capitalism
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A supermarket cashier sacked for allegedly stealing €1.30 (£1.16) from her employer after more than 30 years' service is at the centre of a heated political row about the excesses of capitalism that threaten to spill into Germany's general election.

Barbara Emme, 50, worked for 31 years as a cashier at a branch of the giant Kaisers supermarket chain in Berlin. But on Tuesday a labour court upheld her employer's decision to sack her for the suspected theft of €1.30 worth of bottle deposits.

Yesterday, in what appeared to be the opening salvo in his party's general election campaign, Wolfgang Thierse, a veteran Social Democrat politician and the parliamentary Speaker, seized upon the court's decision and condemned it as " antisocial" and as an example of "barbaric" capitalism.

"It is cases like these that destroy people's confidence in democracy," Mr Thierse said. "The court could have decided otherwise and taken into account that she had worked herself to the bone for 31 years for the company."

Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Bavarian conservatives, a sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats, used the case to respond to public anger about the role of banks in the financial crisis. "I don't understand how a cashier can be fired because of €1.30, while managers who lose billions of euros are allowed to keep their jobs," he said. The Left party said the court's decision was dominated by an "uncharitable attitude" and that it has "completely ignored the existential needs of an employee". Mrs Emme's case has also become a cause célèbre for the trade unions.

The outcry has been accompanied by headlines in the popular press taking the banks to task. The front page of the mass-circulation Bild newspaper proclaimed, "This is how the banks rip off low-income earners", and attacked banks for their interest policies. There were even suggestions that Mrs Emme's case could start to dominate German politics in the way that "Joe the Plumber", an ordinary Ohio voter, served as a touchstone in the 2008 US presidential election.

Ms Merkel, asked about the court's decision, dismissed speculation that the September election could be dominated by public hostility towards big business and the banks. "I think Germany is in a strong position and will emerge stronger from the crisis than when the country went into it," she said.

Lawyers for Kaisers told the court Mrs Emme had been given the chance to come clean, after she was turned in by a colleague. They said she could have been given her job back. Instead she had blamed others for cashing in the bottle deposits and accused the company of victimising her for her trade union activities.

Kaisers admitted it had no proof that she stole the cash. But a company spokesman said they had lost confidence in her trustworthiness. Mrs Emme has pledged to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. A poll by Bild showed that 69 per cent of people thought that the court's ruling was unjust.