Germans taste trauma of the dole

Imre Karacs looks at the results of a collapsing economic miracle
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The Independent Online
Duisburg - Dieter Held did not pay much attention to the man with the clipboard who kept coming around to the workshop, watching, never asking a question, yet taking copious notes. Two weeks ago the visitor's purpose was revealed. He was a member of a team of management consultants hired to root out inefficiency, and the fruit of their labour was a report 2,200 names long, headed "surplus to requirements". Dieter, a fitter aged 30, found his name on the list.

"It felt like a roof collapsing over your head," he said. Dieter had been unemployed before, but had learnt his new trade during a previous recession and was confident he could ride out the next one.

Now he is not so sure. He has fired off some 40 job applications, but all he has had back are straight rejections. He is now widening the search beyond Duisburg, a city of half a million where one in five is out of work, but employers in the neighbouring towns do not even bother to reply. Duisburg has the highest jobless rate for a big city in western Germany, but the situation in the rest of the Ruhr is only marginally better, and what vacancies exist tend to be in fast food restaurants. The steel industry, where Dieter used to earn his daily bread, is down-sizing everywhere.

While he is idle, the state will pay him about DM2,500 (pounds 915) a month - 63 per cent of his last take-home pay. After a year, the dole falls to 53 per cent, and after two years he will only be entitled to supplementary benefit. "Money will be tight," he says, but that's not what worries him most.

No society holds the unemployed in high esteem, but German society is especially harsh in its judgement. "When you lose your job, friends tend to take a step back," Dieter said. "No one wants to hang out with a loser." Dieter will only confess to his friends if has not found work by the end of March.

He will then disappear, following millions of others who have already shut themselves away to hide their shame. "They become anonymous," said Gisela Averkamp, who runs a charity which helps people on the dole. "Most stay at home and watch television all day. It is unbelievably difficult to persuade them to come to the unemployment centre."

The unemployed vanish from their favourite pubs, sever trade union links and disenfranchise themselves from public life. The gradual decline in voter turnout matches the rising rate of joblessness. Behind those closed shutters there is seething resentment, but it is yet to be articulated. Demonstrations, such as the 60-mile-long human chain formed in the Ruhr yesterday in protest against unemployment, are staged and manned mostly by union members desperate to avoid the fate of their ostracised former workmates.

The state, paranoid about provoking the unemployed, goes out of its way to keep them sweet. The jobless are summoned by courteous civil servants every three months for an interview, but are otherwise left alone. There are no queues at the labour bureaux, and the cheques arrive regularly without fuss. Because working Germans contribute to a state-run insurance scheme, the dole is a pay-related entitlement irrespective of personal savings and the earnings of family members. The jobless are even allowed to earn DM580 (pounds 214) a month in part-time work.

Thus does the Federal Republic preserve social peace at a time of Weimarian unemployment levels. There are no stone-throwing youths lurking in Duisburg's neatly kept parks, no graffiti defacing public buildings on its litter- free streets. Factories that fall empty are rapidly converted into concert halls and theme parks. School-leavers, potentially the most explosive segment of the emerging under-class, are kept off the streets by a wide range of interminable retraining schemes. There are an estimated 2.5 million Germans on various projects who are not counted as unemployed.

What trade they should be taught is not clear, however. Ms Averkamp, whose centre provides courses for the young, says she tries to steer the new generation of Duisburgers away from metal-bashing towards the gardening domain. There are still jobs to be had in health care and in retail, and management consultancy is booming.

Where a school-leaver's certificate might have sufficed a few years ago, employers now demand more impressive bits of paper - which often count for more in Germany than experience - even for the most menial jobs. Those who cannot keep up face the prospect of permanent unemployment.