The number of people out of work has halved in Germany since 2005, but a core of around 900,000 who have been looking for a job for more than a year have proved difficult to place.
What's more, they have become a campaign issue in elections slated for September 24th, as Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised the economy can reach full employment by 2025 — in part by improving support for long-term unemployed people. And Social-Democratic rival Martin Schulz has vowed to free up public cash for professional training to get the jobless fighting fit.
Reactivating workers is as big a challenge in Duesseldorf as anywhere. It is the capital of Germany's most populous North Rhine-Westphalia region, in recent years a byword for rusting industrial infrastructure. Some 7.5 percent of people in Duesseldorf are out of work, higher than the national average of 5.7 percent. And around 64,000 people, one in eight of the city's inhabitants, eke out a living on social benefits.
The church in Garath hands out food to 220 households, and new registrations are tightly controlled by 63-year-old pensioner Burkhard Schellenberg. More than half — 55 percent — of visitors are unemployed.
“As an unemployed person, you don't get much money” to live on, said Jan-Erik Flory, a tall, stoutly-built 21-year-old.
Since leaving school aged 17, Flory has ricocheted between temporary jobs and work integration programmes. He hopes to become a gardener, but “no-one has offered me a job in the region,” he grumbled.
Tanja, a 45-year-old former communications executive hobbling on an inflamed knee, stopped work to raise her children.
“I've been looking for a new job for six years,” she said, complaining that the job centre has been little help.
People visit a Jobcenter in Duesseldorf-Mitte. PHOTO: PATRIK STOLLARZ / AFP
The job centres created in Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's far-reaching 2005 labour market reforms are a one-stop shop for social benefits.
Single people receive €409 ($490) per month, plus contributions to rent and energy bills and coaching supposed to help jobseekers find work.
“Two-thirds of our clients have no professional qualifications, and a third have no school leaving qualification. That makes integrating into a society where qualified workers are most in demand difficult,” said Ingo Zielonkowsky, director of the Duesseldorf job centre.
Refusing to be discouraged, Zielonkowsky happily recounts how he has reduced the number of long-term unemployed people registered at his centre by 25 percent in two years.
Sending jobseekers for trial runs at companies while keeping up social benefits payments has proven successful, as “half of the trials are followed by a job offer,” he explained.
Federal labour agency head Detlef Scheele hopes to reorient the job centres towards reintegrating the long-term unemployed, an area where resources have been tight to date.
Some 75 percent of the Duesseldorf job centre's budget is allocated to social benefits, while just 10 percent goes towards integration programmes. The parliament now drawing to a close has “frozen funding from unemployment insurance for preventive training against job loss” even as the tax take has brought bumper surpluses to the government budget, said Alexander Spermann, labour economics professor at the University of Freiburg.
Those hoping for better from the next federal government have a range of options on offer from the largest political parties.
On the left, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) wants to ensure all workers get the right to lifelong training, while the Left party calls for 200,000 subsidised jobs. On the right, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) want to boost “socially valuable” job openings.
Meanwhile, the economically liberal Free Democrats propose raising the amount people can earn in so-called “mini jobs” before having to pay higher taxes and social contributions. Attacks on such part-time openings, which workers can hold without losing all of their unemployment benefits, are a staple of left-wing critiques of Germany's economic setup. They pay up to €450 per month and are presently used by some 7.8 million German workers, including many unemployed people, to make ends meet.
For her part, Tanja simply wants to free herself from the crutch of social benefits.
“I have a trial day for an office job at the Red Cross,” she said hopefully as she left the Garath church with a trolley full of groceries.
By AFP's Jean-Philippe Lacour