History of the Guest Workers – Immigration of Foreign Workers

An Italian guest worker (right) with his German colleague working on a VW bug at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg in 1962. © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image An Italian guest worker (right) with his German colleague working on a VW bug at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg in 1962. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) In 1960, the Federal Republic of Germany entered into a recruitment agreement with Spain and Greece for foreign workers.  At that time, approx. 200,000 Italian workers were already living in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Yet the booming economy required hundreds of thousands of additional workers.  Social and political factors, such as a reduction in working hours, low-birth years, and later the construction of the Berlin Wall, contributed to the labor shortage.

The job supply far exceeded the number of employable German workers. The federal government under Konrad Adenauer (CDU) thus saw no alternative but to recruit foreigners.

The “guest workers,” as the recruited workers were initially called, came exclusively from the Mediterranean countries. On December 20, 1955, the FRG and Italy signed their first recruitment treaty.  Agreements similar to the accord with Spain and Greece were concluded with Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), Portugal (1964), Tunisia (1965), and Yugoslavia (1968).

Most of the guest workers took on jobs in construction, mining, heavy industry, and the auto industry. They came from the less developed, rural regions of their countries of origin.  Poverty and unemployment were the driving forces for the move to Germany. In comparison with the wage levels of their countries of origin, they received good compensation. To be able to support their families back home, most of the workers lived very modestly.

The one-millionth guest worker, the Portuguese Armando Rodriquez, is welcomed in Cologne in 1964. © picture-alliance/ dpa Enlarge image The one-millionth guest worker, the Portuguese Armando Rodriquez, is welcomed in Cologne in 1964. The moped which he received as a gift now stands in the Museum of Contemporary German History. (© picture-alliance/ dpa ) Employers, unions, and the federal government were agreed that the employment of foreigners should be only temporary in nature. This stance also explained the then-commonly used designation “guest worker.”  Work permits were limited in time and had to be renewed. The recruitment treaties and agreements focused purely on the workforce and not on a complete relocation of the guest workers or their integration into Germany. The guest workers themselves also assumed that they would return to their native countries after a few years.

In 1973, the peak of the migration, the Social-Democratic-Liberal coalition government under Helmut Schmidt (SPD) ordered a halt to recruiting workers from non-EC countries due to the oil crisis and the worsening economic situation. That affected all the countries except Italy, which had been a founding member of the European Economic Community. EU enlargement in the ensuing years ultimately enabled the citizens of Greece, Spain, and Portugal also to enjoy freedom of movement. That meant they could look for work in Germany independently.

Already by the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, there was a trend toward subsequent immigration of family members, which accelerated following the halt to recruitment. For many, their temporary employment became a permanent stay. Others were long undecided whether they should return or immigrate, which made integration more difficult. The children of migrants who grew up in Germany have, in most cases, become fully integrated. Today, the descendents of guest workers have been living in Germany for four generations. According to estimates of the Federal Statistical Office, some 14 million guest workers and their families have come to Germany since 1955.

Arrival of Vietnamese Workers in the  German Democratic Republic © picture-alliance/ ZB Enlarge image Arrival of Vietnamese Workers in the German Democratic Republic (© picture-alliance/ ZB) The German Democratic Republic (GDR) also employed foreign workers in their state-owned enterprises. They were called “contract workers” and came from “fraternal socialist countries,” primarily from Vietnam, Cuba, Mozambique, Poland, and Hungary. Nearly all of them lived in dormitories and had little contact with the German population. However, their total numbers were considerably smaller than those in the Federal Republic of Germany. The Vietnamese living in the GDR mostly remained in Germany after reunification.

Over time, the term “guest worker” was replaced by the phrase “foreign worker.” The entire group of foreigners living in the Federal Republic of Germany is now referred to as migrants. Many no longer come just to find work. Migrants now make up nearly 20 percent of the German population. In 2008, the Turkish population represented the largest migrant group and has grown to 2.5 million people, followed by Italians, Greeks, and Poles. In the future, their importance with respect to their numbers will continue to grow, because the German population is shrinking.

Social affairs and integration minister of Lower Saxony Aygül Özkan is the first decendent of a foreign worker to become a state minister. © picture alliance / dpa Enlarge image Social affairs and integration minister of Lower Saxony Aygül Özkan is the first decendent of a foreign worker to become a state minister. (© picture alliance / dpa) The integration of these families revealed problems but also success stories. Being a migrant means a radical change in one’s living circumstances. A migrant has to learn to adapt to a new culture. Many groups fear rapid assimilation and try to preserve something of their own cultural identity for their children's generation. Competency in the German language, a school diploma, and vocational training have proved to be key components for social upward mobility.

Over the past years, much has also changed politically with respect to immigration and integration in Germany. In 2000, nationality laws were reformed; in 2005, an immigration act was adopted. Integration summits and Islam conferences were held, and a host of German private organizations are now dedicated to the study of migration and integration.



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History of the Guest Workers

Guest workers reading the Remscheider Generalanzeiger newspaper, which in 1965 was also published in Italian and Spanish. © picture-alliance/ dpa