Grading Germany's 'green card'

Even as a foreign-worker program begins, neo-Nazi violence highlights an anti-minority climate.

Skinheads and business leaders are anything but in agreement, yet neither group is happy about the new initiative to lure foreign computer experts to high-tech jobs in Germany.

The government of Chancellor Gerhard Schrder issued its first "green card" to an Indonesian programmer Aug. 1, just as right-wing extremists nationwide were going on a summer spree of intimidation of minorities - at least three with fatal consequences. The unfortunate juxtaposition caused business leaders to call for decisive action against right-wing rowdies, warning that further incidents could damage Germany's economic attractiveness abroad.

"The right-wing thugs are threatening to become a serious disadvantage for Germany as a business location, especially in the East. Which dark-skinned scientist, which colored student, which high-tech expert from another culture would want to work here?" asked the Munich daily Sddeutsche Zeitung.

In a society that for decades has viewed immigration as a necessary evil at best, Germans are only now waking up to the concept of foreign workers as an economic boon. The business elite has long realized that globalization includes their domestic labor market, but hard-core extremists are resisting the trend with steel-tipped boots and baseball bats.

Unemployment and neo-Nazi crime rates in Germany's east are both higher than in the western states, and there are fears that neo-Nazis are dominating the youth culture in the east.

"It's not like there's a little neo-Nazi in every German," says Helmut Haussmann, a former economics minister. Instead, German society has failed to reach out to those who've yet to see benefits from the global economy, he says. "A part of right-wing extremism is simply the fear of change, and this point hasn't been regarded enough in the current debate."

Applicant response

While Dr. Haussmann says that recent violence against foreigners is unlikely to scare off white Eastern Europeans, it could prevent Asians and Africans from applying for the German green card.

On Friday the Federal Institute for Employment reported that more than 100 work permits had been issued daily since the beginning of August. But critics say that there are far fewer applications than the 20,000 available slots.

"It would be a bit too early to say it's a success," says Elisabeth van der Linde of the Ministry of Labor. Yet she adds that putting an end to right-wing terror "is a top priority in all the ministries. The fear of the image abroad is certainly the motivation behind that."

Academics are also concerned about the country's future as an international center of research and development. "The present image of Germany damages our worldwide recruiting capabilities," Bernd Ebersold of the Max Planck Institute said in a published interview. Especially threatened are top research institutions in eastern Germany, where right-wing ideology is widespread.

Yet foreign specialists such as Sakattar Singh Dhillion, a mechanical engineer from India living in Berlin since 1994, say that prevailing attitudes - not isolated extremist attacks - are making them think twice about staying in Germany.

Mr. Dhillion, who is completing an international MBA, worked on a research project for 1-1/2 years. "The problem wasn't only the language," he says, taking a long pause. "Sometimes it seemed that Germans didn't like foreigners to have a position the same as theirs or higher."

Dhillion notes a lack of foreign professors at German universities. And he says he has many classmates from abroad who studied here but now are working in restaurants because they are not encouraged to stay and research in their fields. "You will not find that experienced people come here," he says. "The top guys go to America or just stay in India. Would you want to come here if you knew you had to go back after five years?"

Currently the green card is restricted to computer experts and valid for five years. Its limitations have not been lost on business leaders, who are saying that the government's work permit doesn't go far enough.

Beyond high tech

"Green cards shouldn't be a privilege for the fashionable high-tech industry. Rather, we want broad, regulated immigration for other industries as well," says Haussmann, a member of parliament for the opposition, pro-business Free Democratic Party. He says that in his constituency in southern Germany, dozens of medium-size companies would benefit by employing foreign experts, because additional jobs for low-skilled German labor would be created as a result.

The Schrder government has rejected such arguments, replying that it first wants to test the success of the high-tech green card before considering an expansion - and that industry should make greater efforts to train domestic workers. The powerful unions are quick to point out that Germany still has 3.8 million unemployed.

Critics say the real issue is that the green card is a poor substitute for a comprehensive immigration program. Given its size, economic clout, and rapidly aging population, says Haussmann, "Germany must fundamentally open itself to other talents and mentalities."

Until that happens, professionals like Dhillion may pick up and go. Currently he and his Belarussian girlfriend are debating where they want to settle down. He's leaning toward Canada, which welcomes engineers with open arms. "There's no future for a family here," he says. "My kids will get a German passport, but here they will always be regarded as foreigners."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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