Monday, November 13, 2006

“One-Euro-Job” is a Misnomer

As a solution to the scourge of unemployment, the German government has recently created new “Work Opportunities,” also dubbed “One-Euro-Jobs,” or positions that force people who have been unemployed for years to re-enter the workforce. They work in a variety of mainly low-skill positions such as cleaning litter in parks for 20-30 hours per week, for a term of 6-9 months, and earn the piecemeal salary of 1 Euro and fifty cents per hour. The goal is to supplement their state-supplied welfare income and reintroduce them to the working world, thereby readying them for long-term employment both psychically and practically.

This new measure has been attacked as taking jobs from those who are actually qualified and replacing them with under-qualified workers, i.e. spreading unemployment rather than solving it, although there are no good numbers available to substantiate this criticism. There are also claims that the measure allows workers to be fired—only to be offered their previous job back at a new low price. Others say that the requirements within the policy are not always met, especially that which requires the work to supplement pre-existing workforce conditions. Instead, so-called “One-Euro-Jobbers” are used as place-fillers where full-time workers are needed, such as a care-taker in a welfare institution or nursing home. In other words, the measure is a way to supply cheap, necessary labor that the government otherwise can’t afford. All in all, public opinion seems fairly critical; the nickname itself shows a fixation with a seemingly insultingly low wage, a ridiculous phantom of income in expensive times.

To explain the climate in which this development is taking place, let’s look at the example of Harald Ziehm, who was profiled recently by Der Tagesspeigel (under a changed name.) He receives 350 Euros a month from the government, of which 305 goes for rent, and after he divides the rest for transportation costs and health insurance, he has about nine Euros/day leftover, the newspaper reports. He spends half of this on cigarettes, and another euro and change on a daily beer, an expenditure he defends by explaining “non-alcoholic beer is more expensive.” He has been unemployed for five years and believes he will never find another job.

This sad hopelessness is not uncommon, as seen in another recent article that chronicles a family where nearly every member unemployed; only one son works, as a cook at a welfare center. Meanwhile, the grandparents, jobless, sit at home and with their other children, who are also jobless, and watch TV. The grandfather also believes his three-year-old granddaughter will be unemployed: “She’ll turn out like us.”

Mr. Ziehm and the members of this family are far from alone: unemployment in Berlin is currently 17.5%, up to 30% in certain parts of former East Germany, and mainly less in western Germany, but still high relative to what American economists consider healthy. (The average 2005 unemployment in the United States was 5.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; typical consensus is that a figure between 3-5% is ideal.) Not everyone without a job is also left without hope for the future, and it may be that the hopeless make the best newspaper features, but the numbers must be great indeed.

To those who sit at home for years, living by self-made routines of taking walks, watching TV, and smoking cigarettes, the psychic value of actual work cannot be underestimated. Work creates a sense of productivity and accomplishment which leads to self-worth; this is why Americans, with their Protestant work ethic, are so incredibly addicted to it. More importantly, work forces an individual to become part of a greater societal whole, to "make a contribution;” Mr. Ziehm spends his days alone and has dropped out of public life altogether outside of his trips to the grocery store. After years without being in some sort of social structure or larger purpose, is it any wonder that he can’t imagine himself waking up and going to work?

The value of "One-Euro-Jobs," then, is more than the derogatory nickname lets on; a better title might be the less catchy "Social-Reintegration-Jobs" or "Self-Worth-and-Confidence-Jobs." The government is hoping that this psychic energy, coupled with newly-learned skills, is enough to make long-term employment. Despite the accusations that these cheap jobs are harming the labor market rather than helping it, the real effects of this policy will only be seen in time. It may prove positive for the millions who don’t believe they count anymore.

Criticism, for example:
Anne Allex, interviewed by Cornelia Jeske, “Die Arbeit muss tatsaechlich zusaetzlich sein,” Berliner Zeitung, 7 November 2006, p. 23).
Harald Ziehm:
Philipp Lichterbeck, “Unten Durch,” Der Taggespiegel, 10 September 2006, „Berlin ist Leben“ Sonderseiten, p. V).
The family:
Maxim Leo, “Das verflixte Leben,” Berliner Zeitung, 21 October 2006, Politik, p. 3)


db said...

ok 2 things off the top of my head:

1) protestant work ethic? you know better than that...

2) that whole "social reintegration" aspect is missing a very key element: if you're earning bottom of the barrel wages to do a bottom of the barrel job, you're probably going to be treated and feel bottom of the barrel. i'm not the biggest expert on this, no doubt, but you have to have a compromise somewhere. either workfare has to be sustainable of itself (because people are not hugely incentivized to leave the system) or it has to have some built-in promotion of upward mobility. US 1940's era public works had had that kind of safeguard built in, you were not guaranteed labor (it was still a job), you worked in the arts or in construction (i.e. you learned a trade). still, i would not describe the PWA as a model program by any means. my point is this: if cleaning parks is really necessary to relearn the "social capital" needed to hold a real job, then the Berliners have a much bigger problem then they realize.

Arden said...

1) Know better than what? I think we do have a Protestant work ethic and people work a lot because it makes them feel good about themselves.
2) Good point. It's sticky because some of the job (like raking leaves) seem to offer very little in the way of incentive i.e. new skills, yet others, such as nursing home attendant, arguably provide some sort of training.