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Do internationals face discrimination in the German workplace?

When we asked our readers what working life is like in Germany, many said they experienced prejudice in the office. Here are their experiences.

Do internationals face discrimination in the German workplace?
Discrimination and racism in the workplace is a major issue across Europe. Symbol photo: Depositphotos/Syda

Working in a foreign country brings with it lots of challenges. But one thing workers shouldn’t have to deal with is racism or discrimination.

Yet many of our readers raised these issues when we asked internationals what it’s like to work in Germany, despite EU anti-discrimination laws. 

Ajay, an appliance engineer in Munich, pointed out that non-Germans are rarely promoted in his firm, and that’s illustrated by the management structure.

He said at his company “100 percent of the top management is German, upper management is German, and 99.9 percent of middle management is German”.

“Even if you speak German there is a glass ceiling,” Ajay said. “Old established German companies are not diverse at all.”

When it comes to the way foreign workers are treated, Ajay added that “sometimes colleagues can be outright racist”.

READ ALSO: ‘Language is a huge barrier’: What it’s like for internationals working in Germany

The hostility Ajay noticed led the management to implement rules encouraging German workers to be friendly to staff employed by the international company who are visiting from outside Germany.

“They had to force people to be human: to get them to take foreign colleagues out for lunch, show them around,” said Ajay. “For me this is a normal thing. If somebody comes, you show them your culture, you try to show us around.”

Ajay also said he felt in his workplace some people looked down on colleagues from other countries. That was shown, he said, through comments made by German workers regarding teams in India.

“I was shocked,” said Ajay. “They are not so open-minded to non-Germans.”

He said that in some cases bosses also treated foreign workers differently, expecting them to work harder and complete tasks quicker, while German nationals had more flexibility.

“They take advantage and the foreign teams are exploited,” said Ajay.

READ ALSO: The Local Jobs – English-language jobs in Germany

READ ALSO: 10 ways to optimize your application for the German job market

Germany’s tolerance for foreigners – in general, not just in the workplace – is an issue under the spotlight, not least because of the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric pushed by political parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD), and movements such as Pegida in recent years.

A recent report by the Interior Ministry showed that racist and anti-Semitic hate crime rose by 20 percent last year. 

According to research by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) between 2013 and 2017, German civil society sources reported racial discrimination on the basis of foreign-sounding names and differential treatment faced by people of African descent, with disproportionately lower remuneration for work in comparison with others.

The report also found that according to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s EU MIDIS II survey, 32% of respondents with a Sub-Saharan African background and 22% of respondents with a Turkish background said that they felt discriminated against because of skin colour, ethnic origin and/or religion.

Photo: Depositphotos/TarasMalyarevich

Aversion to foreigners’

Although the majority of respondents to our survey said Germany was a “good” or “average” country for international workers, many flagged up the issue of racial discrimination.

Product owner John, who is from India and lives in Düsseldorf, praised the salary and benefits that come from working in Germany. But John also called out the “blatant racism” that can be found in German workplaces, which is something he faces every day.

“The government has to make stricter laws against racism,” he said.

READ ALSO: Explained: the best and worst paid jobs in Germany

Singer Madeleine, who lives in Munich and is originally from the US, also highlighted the “racism” in German work culture, and the “aversion to foreigners”.

Julian in North Rhine-Westphalia praised the “stability” in the country, but said he does not like the “conservative way” that native Germans treat foreigners.

He said being a non-German can put you at a disadvantage at every turn. For example, when employers, doctors, landlords or schools see a foreign name they behave differently, he said.

“It feels like everybody will put you, the non-German, on a long waiting list – actually, at the end of it… you feel this attitude everyday as a foreigner.. and it will demoralise the immigrant families.”

Student Kapil in Dortmund said that aside from the big issue of discrimination, Germany “is a land of opportunities”.

‘Empathy is lacking’

A software engineer in Munich from India said he felt employers in Germany expect internationals to adapt to German culture, without putting in enough effort to making them feel comfortable.

SEE ALSO: ‘Historic day’ as Germany takes steps forward in relaxing rules for foreign workers

“The amount of empathy is lacking among Germans,” the reader added. “I was hoping for a true international experience. On the contrary, I feel like I’m living in another strong-affinity culture and not international at all.”

Several German companies, especially in international hubs such as Berlin or Hamburg, are trying to take action and fight against closed attitudes.

Initiatives such as lunch time talks, which focus on the different origin countries of employees to highlight diverse backgrounds, was one positive action introduced by a company and flagged up by a Local reader.

Many firms have also established English as the working language in their office in a bid to open up to more international employees.

But what could German workplaces do to become more diverse?

“They have to loosen up a lot, there’s a lot of global talent,” said Ajay. “We have a few thousand people working in the campus, I barely see 20 international people. And that’s not management, that’s people actually doing the work.

“Most of them (managers) are born in Germany, studied in Germany and have worked only in German companies so they don’t know anything else.

“In Germany, if they want to compete on a global level with China, India, Silicon Valley, they cannot do it like this.”

Women of colour particularly vulnerable

Georgina Siklossy, press spokeswoman with the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) told The Local discrimination and racism in the workplace was a major issue across Europe.

“In terms of access to the labour market, our analysis shows that ethnic and religious minorities have fewer chances of getting through recruitment processes,” she said.

“Discriminatory recruitment practices and structural inequalities also mean that migrants and ethnic minorities tend to have a higher unemployment rate and to be overrepresented in certain job positions or sectors, in particular agriculture, services and care.”

Siklossy added that once in a job, people with a minority background faced more challenges, “including racist incidents in the workplace, wage disparities, job insecurity and in the worst cases, exploitation and difficult working conditions”.

She pointed out that women of colour in Europe face extra obstacles as a result of the intersection of race, gender and class. They are “particularly vulnerable” to “discrimination, exploitation and sexual harassment” in the workplace.

Furthermore, women of colour also “experience high rates of over-qualification, as well as segregation in specific sectors, in particular domestic work”, said Siklossy. 

If anyone is experiencing racism or racial discrimination in the workplace, they can refer to the federal German equality body.

To find organizations who provide counselling and support on discrimination cases visit  the Antidiskriminierungsverband Deutschland.

Member comments

  1. These comments are very true, I’m glad you included a link to it at the same time you published the story of 10s of thousands of Germans taking to the street to protest racism and police brutality. We may not see police brutality here, but there is absolutely a deep culture of racism from waiting lists in day cares, who gets chosen to rent apartments, and as was mentioned the old German companies leadership down to promotions and hiring.

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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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