Stark divide in wages between east and west Germany persists 30 years on

Almost 30 years after reunification, employees in east Germany earn significantly less than employees in western Germany, even with the same qualifications.

Stark divide in wages between east and west Germany persists 30 years on
Employees at the BMW plant in Leipzig earlier this year. Photo: DPA

Wages for employees of the same gender, occupation and level of work experience stand at 16.9 percent higher in the west than in the east, according to a study by the Hans Böckler Foundation, which works closely with trade unions. 

The foundation’s Institute of Economics and Social Sciences (WSI) evaluated almost 175,000 data sets comparing wages across various professions and levels of training in 2018. 

In addition to differences in economic strength, the WSI researchers believe that the lower number of collective agreements in eastern Germany accounts for lower pay.

READ ALSO: Working in Germany: Should you join a trade union?

Full-time employees in eastern Germany still earned around 16 percent less per month than those in west Germany, according to the report.

However, the wage gap between east and west is becoming smaller: in 2017, wages were on average 19 percent higher in the western states. 

A gap between eastern states

There is also a gap in wages between the eastern German states themselves, according to the WSI report.

In Brandenburg, likely due to its neighbouring proximity to more prosperous Berlin, the gap of 13.9 percent was the smallest in comparison to the west.

A recent report found that the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is where employees earn the least in Germany (on average €2,496 per month).

It was followed by the eastern states of Thuringia (€2,553), Saxony (€2,587), Brandenburg (€2,593) and Saxony-Anhalt (€2,595).

READ ALSO: Here's where employees earn the most (and least) in Germany

According to the WSI study, the wage arrears are particularly large among employees who have completed a commercial training or a further technical qualification following an in-company training. 

Here, employees in eastern Germany earned 18.4 percent less than in the west. In the case of jobs for which a university degree is generally required, however, the gap stood at 15.4 percent.


study – (die) Untersuchung

evaluated/analyzed – ausgewertet

wage gap – (das) Lohnabstand

arrear – (der) Rückstand

In-company training – betriebliche Ausbildung

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Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?