‘Happy to work here’: How refugees in Germany are easing labour shortage

As Germany struggles with a growing worker shortage, a new startup is matching immigrant job-seekers with companies. The Local visited a bakery in Berlin which has employed several foreigners, including refugees from Ukraine.

Hugue Mpumpu, who was studying in Ukraine when war broke out, at the Bekarei in Mariendorf, Berlin.
Hugue Mpumpu, who was studying in Ukraine when war broke out, at the Bekarei in Mariendorf, Berlin. Photo: Rachel Loxton

On a hot summer’s day in Berlin, Hugue Mpumpu is wearing a hair net and checked trousers as he packs up burger buns at the Bekarei, a family-run business based in Mariendorf. 

Mpumpu, who’s from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Ukraine after Russia invaded the country on February 24th. 

He is grateful to be earning money, but never expected that life would lead him here. 

Mpumpu, who was studying for a medical degree in Kharkiv, explains the traumatic experience of leaving his home the day after the invasian started, and trying to get across the borders out of Ukraine, through Poland and onto Germany in freezing temperatures and chaotic conditions. 

“We didn’t have clothes for winter,” he says. “Everything was painful, my whole body. I just asked God to give me strength.”

Like other so-called ‘third country’ (non-EU) students who were in Ukraine have reported, Mpumpu has faced extra obstacles, from the different treatment to non-Ukrainians at borders and racism, to navigating complex migration laws.  

He is dealing with the daunting task of looking for a flat in Berlin, but is also trying to liaise with authorities to find out how long he is legally allowed to stay in Germany.

‘Everyone affected’ by worker shortage

Mpumpu managed to secure a job at the bakery thanks to Fixkraft, a startup which pledges to match immigrant job-seekers with firms by connecting them to relevant jobs, and taking care of the bureaucracy involved. 

Like many workplaces in Germany, the Bekarei is struggling to fill vacancies. 

George Andreadis, who co-owns the business with his wife, tells The Local: “It’s a general situation and everyone is affected at the moment – we don’t have enough people. Or maybe there are enough people but just not enough people who want to work.

George Andreadis, who co-owns Bekarei with employee Hugue Mpumpu.

George Andreadis, who co-owns Bekarei, with employee Hugue Mpumpu. Photo: Rachel Loxton

“The other situation you have is the people that come to Germany and would like to work but it’s just such a hurdle to get all the paperwork done and start somewhere. And we ourselves, with our own strength, are not capable of doing all this paperwork. This is a lucky coincidence that we found there is someone doing this paperwork and he brings in the people, like Hugue.”

Andreadis, who is originally from Greece, says the bakery is an “international workplace” with staff from all over the world. And one big advantage for job-seeking foreigners is that there is no requirement to speak German. 

Constantin Weiss, who co-founded Fixkraft “to aid immigration into the labour market” reached out to the Bekarei who were advertising for logistics jobs. 

“Our company does the vetting,” he says. “When people register we interview them and we make sure all the documents are in order.”

As The Local has been reporting, Germany is suffering from a drastic shortage of workers. A recent report by the IAB Institute for Employment Research found 1.74 million vacant positions across the country. As the older generation retires, the situation will get worse. 

READ ALSO: Germany looks to foreign workers to ease ‘dramatic’ worker shortage

The coalition government of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats say they want to make Germany more attractive to skilled immigrants to encourage them to come to Germany and work.

Germany is also planning to relax citizenship laws as part of its overhaul of immigration policies, which will mean non-EU nationals will be allowed to hold more than one nationality. 

But Weiss says there are people – like Mpumpu and other refugees or migrants – who are already in the country and ready to work. Andreadis agrees that one of the major issues is the length of time it can take for immigration authorities to approve foreigners to work in Germany. 

After politicians changed the rules, refugees from Ukraine have automatic access to the labour market. But others going through the asylum system often have to wait weeks, if not months, says Weiss. 

People stand in front of Berlin’s Office for Immigration in May 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

“There’s a lot of people here wanting to work, and a lot of companies who are in need of people,” says Weiss. “We take care of all the paperwork and we’re just the matchmaker. Companies can tell us who they are looking to hire and we can connect them to relevant candidates from our database.”

Weiss says Fixkraft can help all foreigners already in Germany to find jobs in Berlin, and he hopes they will expand to include the whole German job market in future. 

As well as bureaucracy, obstacles for immigrants include struggling to get their qualifications recognised and not being able to speak German.

“94 percent of the people in our database have job experience,” says Weiss. “They have skills and are knowledgeable about something.

“They’re here and they’re not allowed to participate and it’s ridiculous.”


‘Happy to learn’

At the bakery, Hugue Mpumpu talks of his sadness of leaving his life in Ukraine, his studies and part-time job.

“When I was in Ukraine I wasn’t thinking about going to Germany today or tomorrow,” he says. “I was thinking about studying in Ukraine, and after that doing my PhD programme and to go back to my country and help people.”

He describes how difficult it was for him to get a visa and leave his home country to study in Europe. For that reason he can’t just go home, he says. 

For now Mpumpu wants to continue to work in Germany and find a stable living situation. 

“Working in the Bekarei for me is very good,” he says. “The colleagues are very kind. They can help you, they can speak with me. On my second day I also tried to bake bread. It was interesting for me to do that. I’m happy to learn. I need to learn. I’m happy to work here, to pay tax. I’m not illegally working here.”

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‘€10-€15 more for groceries’: How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Russia's war in Ukraine is driving up energy and food prices. While the German government mulls new measures to protect consumers, buyers are increasingly feeling the price hikes, reports Cecilia Filas.

'€10-€15 more for groceries': How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Consumer prices are rising in Germany – and people are noticing it in their wallets. In May, inflation rose by nearly 8 percent year-on-year, the highest level since the country’s reunification in 1990. First, it was the pandemic and the resulting disruption of global supply chains that pushed up prices, now, it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that is driving energy and food prices to record high levels. 

Olaf Scholz’s coalition government launched a €30 billion plan to help German consumers, especially the most vulnerable. The measures included the €9 monthly ticket over summer; fuel tax cuts; energy subsidies; and a one-off €300 payout for all taxpayers, plus a €100 ‘Kinderbonus’ for children.

But while the measures provided temporary relief – in June inflation fell to 7.6 percent – experts fear another surge is around the corner. The numbers could get significantly worse in the coming months when some of the measures end and Germany will face the winter with a reduced amount of Russian gas – or none at all. 

READ ALSO: Who gets Germany’s €300 payout – and when?

Thinking carefully about bigger purchases

People living in Germany are feeling the pinch.

At the supermarket, a shopping bill that used to be between €70-€80 is “now €10 or €15 extra,” says Nicolás, an Argentine expat in his 30s who lives in Berlin.

Unlike in Argentina, where consumers are used to offers and different forms of financing to cover themselves against inflation, Nicolás says he has no strategy and has not reduced his consumption because of the rising prices, although it is impacting him. “You don’t need to pay in instalments (for items), but you do feel the difference. You save less,” he says.

Federico, another Argentina native who has been living in Germany for more than 10 years, agrees.

“It’s not that you have problems making ends meet, but that you save a little less,” he says. “Or if you have to make a big purchase, you might think about it a little bit more.”

He says everyday food products in Berlin have also noticeably gone up. 

“The most classic thing – to buy a kebab which is something everyone eats – you can see how much it has increased,” he adds.

“There is a lot of advertising on TV and radio showing you ways to save, and years ago there was no advertising or products with so many promos. Now, this has become more visible, as there is a much greater variety of bargains and people tend to go after that a little bit more than they used to.”

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg.

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

‘Price shocks’

Chancellor Scholz has promised more measures in the coming months to cushion the burden, especially on lower-income families. The Chancellor plans to meet with employers, trade unions and the Bundesbank team in September.

Bundesbank President, Joachim Nagel, said recently that there is a risk of inflation remaining high in the medium term, and the German central bank is forecasting an average rate above 7 percent for 2022.

“For this year, we think that we can really manage the inflation headwinds we see on the energy side but also on the salary side,” Bettina Orlopp, CFO of Commerzbank told Bloomberg TV.  “Next years – 2023, 2024 – the story will be different, becoming more difficult”, she said.

But is Germany really experiencing an inflationary process? Dr. Silke Tober of the Hans Boeckler Foundation’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK) doesn’t think so.

“The inflation we are experiencing in Germany at the moment, and in the euro area as a whole, is not inflation in the real sense. What we have are price shocks”, she tells The Local. “What really makes an inflationary process is that wages and prices rise, and then you get persistent inflation.

“We are not at that stage. What we are really seeing instead is that the energy price hikes and the increase in food prices are pushing up prices.”

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s rising cost of living slow down?

Tober adds that there are assistance measures which make a difference.

“The government has put in place several transfer payments to households, especially low-income households, and other measures that reduce the burden of inflation,” Tober says.

She expects price rises to come down “substantially” next year, provided the war in Ukraine does not escalate.

However, Tober says: “If we have a gas embargo and no more gas from Russia, we will have another jump in energy prices, and then inflation will stay high next year as well. And then we have the problem that there may be second-round effects, meaning wage increases might be excessive and then will have persistent inflation.”

The expert from IMK says that rising prices are especially affecting lower-income households, who must “cut back on other expenses to pay for food and energy” because they tend to have fewer savings to fall back on.  

“Households with higher incomes tend to have wealth and a high savings rate, so they cope with it by reducing their savings rate or maybe even reducing their savings,” Tober says.

“But low-income households usually, in Germany at least, they don’t have a positive savings rate – that means they’ve already spent all of their money or most of it – and have very little wealth, so what they have to do is actually reduce consumption to deal with the current [price] shocks.”

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s new gas ‘tax’ and who will pay it?

Money lies on a radiator.

Money lies on a radiator. People with gas heating will face much higher costs. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Patrick Pleul

Ongoing concerns about price hikes

Indeed, June retail sales plunged 8.8 percent year-on-year, the biggest drop since 1994, according to Destatis. Non-essential items such as furniture, household appliances, clothing and shoes were the hardest hit.

On the other hand, to avoid passing on cost increases to customers and remain competitive, several companies are maintaining prices (or raising them at a very low rate) but reducing the content of their products, warned Verbrauchenzentrale Hamburg, a consumer advice centre. These are hidden price increases, generally referred to as ‘shrinkflation’.

With an interest rate of just 0.5 percent, credit or financing purchases in instalments might seem an attractive option to protect from inflation.  However, Verbrauchenzentrale Nordrhein Westfalen, the consumer protection association in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, says that there hasn’t been, at the moment at least, “increasing demand in our debt counselling service as a result of the current inflation, although we notice ongoing concerns about the price increases”.

“Normally excessive debts and consumer insolvency are not seen immediately but with a time gap -they follow a crisis,” the agency told The Local. “Therefore, it is just possible that in the end, we will see more consumer insolvencies due to these general price increases.”