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UNIONS

Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

For anyone working in Germany, it’s important to consider joining a union. Here are some points to think about.

Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?
Members of the IG Metall Union at a rally in Berlin in June. Photo: DPA

Settling into a new job can be tricky – and it’s even harder if you’re in a new country where you are less familiar with your rights as an employee (or a freelancer). 

That’s why joining a union can be helpful. But it’s not for everyone. Here we give you an overview of trade unions in Germany and what they could provide. We also look at works councils in Germany. 

What are trade unions?

Trade unions are groups that aim to advance workers’ rights, and lobby for fair working conditions and improved pay.

In Germany they have a history stretching back to the German Revolution in 1848. Unions still have an important role in German society today. They also have strong influence at the political level, although as membership is declining, they do not wield as much power nowadays. 

The biggest organization is the German Confederation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB), which is the umbrella association of eight single trade unions, including the powerful IG Metall and Verdi. 

Unions offer a variety of services to their members, such as reviewing employment contracts and other legal support. They are generally focused around a specific profession or trade, such as the GEW (German Education Union), which supports teachers in schools, universities and kindergartens.

One of the biggest modern day milestones achieved in the recent past thanks to pressure from unions is the introduction of the minimum wage in Germany, which stands at €9.35 per hour.

Unions also negotiate contracts with state authorities over employment terms for their members, which can often constitute most of a sector’s workforce – so industrial disputes can become wide-ranging and serious.

Teachers in Germany are often part of the German Education Union (GEW). Photo: DPA

What else can they offer? 

Trade union membership can offer lots of benefits, especially when it comes to legal matters. 

Members receive free legal advice and representation by a lawyer on issues relating to labour law (for example, regarding pay, holiday leave, parental leave or dismissal). 

They can also advise on health insurance and long-term care insurance funds, unemployment insurance, pension insurance (illness, accidents at work, accidents on the way to or from work).

Unions can also get involved in topics related to social law and administrative law, and review employment contracts.  

Note that you need to have been a member of a union for three months before you are entitled to free legal advice and legal representation. 

Collective agreements

They also negotiate contracts with state authorities over employment terms for their members.

In Germany these are called collective agreements (Tarifverträge). This is a deal reached between a trade union and an employers’ association or an individual employer.

This agreement regulates the working conditions for the employment contracts to which it applies.

The working conditions regulated in these deals include, in particular, pay levels, working time, holiday leave and entitlement to bonuses.

In addition, collective agreements also contain provisions on breaks, probationary periods, notice periods and time limits for the enforcement of rights.

A collective agreement applies to you if you are a member of a trade union which concluded the agreement and your employer is bound by the agreement.

Rounds of collective bargaining in recent years have taken place in Germany’s public sector, and led to strikes as unions made demands for better pay and conditions.

How many people are members of unions in Germany?

According to recent figures, around a fifth of employees in Germany are union members, around 7.4 million people. 

The vast majority of union members are part of a union within the main union confederation, the DGB.

Research has shown that the number of people belonging to unions has fallen sharply since the early 1990s, partly due to the fall in manufacturing employment in eastern Germany following reunification. 

The largest single trade union in Germany is IG Metall, which, which as of 2014 had about 2.3 million members in metal (including automobile and machine building), electronics, steel, textile, wood and synthetics industries. 

Statistics for 2018 showed the the DGB’s eight member unions had a total of almost six million trade unionists. 

READ ALSO: German workers should be paid overtime: EU court

Do I have to pay?

In general, the monthly fee is 1 percent of the average gross monthly income.

There is, however, a discount for students, pensioners and job seekers pay lower fees. Those discounts are calculated differently depending on the trade union in question so remember to check when you are inquiring. 

What is a works council?

In Germany, trade unions do not have branches in the workplace. Instead, works councils (Betriebsräte) are the most important points of contact concerning problems in the workplace. Works councils also work closely with the trade unions.

The works council represents the interests of an organisation’s workforce. It checks whether the employer is complying with laws, as well as keeping an eye on occupational safety and health provisions, collective agreements and organisation-level agreements.

The works council also aims to promote the equal treatment of employees and the integration of foreign employees.

If there is no works council in your organisation, you can set one up. 

For more information on various unions in Germany visit the Arbeitsrechte.de website.

Member comments

  1. “What are trade unions?” This section was added for those Anglo-Americans born after the reigns of Regan & Thatcher who would probally not know that workers (as oposed to employers) are allowed to form collective groups. Once, a long time ago, in a kingdom not so far a way, this was also allowed.

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For members

READER QUESTIONS

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?

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