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Opel workers protest against General Motors

Tens of thousands of angry German auto workers protested on Thursday against General Motors' decision to keep its Opel unit – a move called a slap in the face for Chancellor Angela Merkel by the country's media.

Opel workers protest against General Motors
Photo: DPA

Around 10,000 Opel employees gathered in Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt with banners and a fake coffin to express their rage at General Motors, which torpedoed the planned sale of its European operations to Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna earlier this week.

“We want to show that we workers won’t simply take this and accept it,” said Alfred Klingel, the head of the workers’ council at the Rüsselsheim plant.

But Uwe Raubert, who has worked at Opel for 33 years, said he is not expecting to have a job much longer.

“I’m going to laugh myself sick if GM restructures us. It’s not going to work, it’s all going to go down the drain,” he said. “Everything is up in the air. There is huge scepticism among workers about GM’s plans.”

Thousands of his colleagues took part in other protests at Opel plants in Bochum, Eisenach and Kaiserslautern

The US carmaker’s shock announcement late on Tuesday stunned Germany and came just hours after Merkel gave a historic speech before a joint session of the US Congress. Accordingly, the German media has been scathing in its commentary on the turn of events.

“Opel – the big piss-take,” screamed the front-page headline of the mass-selling Bild newspaper on Thursday. “The Americans duped everyone.”

“It is truly tragic,” wrote the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, calling the decision a “stinging slap in the face” for the chancellor.

“On the same day Merkel enjoyed her great triumph she also experienced her worst embarrassment. It’s a disaster for German-US relations.”

Merkel’s government had invested major financial and political capital in saving Opel from insolvency before a September general election which she handily won. About half the company’s employees work in Germany.

Beyond pledging €4.5 billion ($6.6 billion) in German state aid for the ailing company, Berlin spent months shepherding a rescue deal.

Economy Minister Rainer Brüderle fumed that GM’s U-turn was “totally unacceptable” while North Rhine-Westphalia state premier Jürgen Rüttgers said the move showed “the ugly face of turbo-capitalism.”

But General Motors, which was struggling with a bankruptcy reorganisation backed by the US and Canadian governments, said it was abandoning the agreed plan to sell Opel to Canadian auto parts manufacturer Magna and state-owned Russian bank Sberbank, and would restructure the unit itself.

GM also warned employees and unions that it could still allow Opel to flounder if the workforce upholds its threat to refuse wage concessions – a move blasted as “blackmail” Thursday by the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The company also estimated it would need €3 billion in state aid, and was confident it could secure the sum from the German government and other European countries where Opel and the British Vauxhall division have plants.

US President Barack Obama’s spokesman insisted his government had nothing to do with the about-face.

“Business decisions by GM are made by the corporate leadership at GM and not by anybody at the White House,” spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

But the Süddeutsche newspaper was sceptical.

“Perhaps (US President Barack) Obama genuinely wasn’t in the picture when he received Merkel in the White House (on Tuesday), although this doesn’t say much for him,” it said.

“Perhaps he did know something, and that would put him in an even worse light. In any case, with their inconstancy the GM managers have caused serious damage to German-US relations.”

GM vice president John Smith acknowledged that “the German government had a very strong appetite for the Magna proposal, so I can well imagine and well understand” the German reaction. “I am hopeful they will find merit in our plan.”

Smith contended that there had been very little difference between the offers put forward by Magna and a rival bidder, the Belgian investment firm RHJI, and what GM has in mind for Opel.

But he added: “We continue to believe that we can restructure Opel with less money than any other investor.”

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WORKING IN GERMANY

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network. 

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