On a hot summer’s day in Berlin, Hugue Mpumpu is wearing a hair net and checked trousers as he packs up burger buns at the Bekarei, a family-run business based in Mariendorf.
Mpumpu, who’s from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled Ukraine after Russia invaded the country on February 24th.
He is grateful to be earning money, but never expected that life would lead him here.
Mpumpu, who was studying for a medical degree in Kharkiv, explains the traumatic experience of leaving his home the day after the invasian started, and trying to get across the borders out of Ukraine, through Poland and onto Germany in freezing temperatures and chaotic conditions.
“We didn’t have clothes for winter,” he says. “Everything was painful, my whole body. I just asked God to give me strength.”
Like other so-called ‘third country’ (non-EU) students who were in Ukraine have reported, Mpumpu has faced extra obstacles, from the different treatment to non-Ukrainians at borders and racism, to navigating complex migration laws.
He is dealing with the daunting task of looking for a flat in Berlin, but is also trying to liaise with authorities to find out how long he is legally allowed to stay in Germany.
‘Everyone affected’ by worker shortage
Mpumpu managed to secure a job at the bakery thanks to Fixkraft, a startup which pledges to match immigrant job-seekers with firms by connecting them to relevant jobs, and taking care of the bureaucracy involved.
Like many workplaces in Germany, the Bekarei is struggling to fill vacancies.
George Andreadis, who co-owns the business with his wife, tells The Local: “It’s a general situation and everyone is affected at the moment – we don’t have enough people. Or maybe there are enough people but just not enough people who want to work.
“The other situation you have is the people that come to Germany and would like to work but it’s just such a hurdle to get all the paperwork done and start somewhere. And we ourselves, with our own strength, are not capable of doing all this paperwork. This is a lucky coincidence that we found there is someone doing this paperwork and he brings in the people, like Hugue.”
Andreadis, who is originally from Greece, says the bakery is an “international workplace” with staff from all over the world. And one big advantage for job-seeking foreigners is that there is no requirement to speak German.
Constantin Weiss, who co-founded Fixkraft “to aid immigration into the labour market” reached out to the Bekarei who were advertising for logistics jobs.
“Our company does the vetting,” he says. “When people register we interview them and we make sure all the documents are in order.”
As The Local has been reporting, Germany is suffering from a drastic shortage of workers. A recent report by the IAB Institute for Employment Research found 1.74 million vacant positions across the country. As the older generation retires, the situation will get worse.
The coalition government of the Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats say they want to make Germany more attractive to skilled immigrants to encourage them to come to Germany and work.
Germany is also planning to relax citizenship laws as part of its overhaul of immigration policies, which will mean non-EU nationals will be allowed to hold more than one nationality.
But Weiss says there are people – like Mpumpu and other refugees or migrants – who are already in the country and ready to work. Andreadis agrees that one of the major issues is the length of time it can take for immigration authorities to approve foreigners to work in Germany.
After politicians changed the rules, refugees from Ukraine have automatic access to the labour market. But others going through the asylum system often have to wait weeks, if not months, says Weiss.
“There’s a lot of people here wanting to work, and a lot of companies who are in need of people,” says Weiss. “We take care of all the paperwork and we’re just the matchmaker. Companies can tell us who they are looking to hire and we can connect them to relevant candidates from our database.”
Weiss says Fixkraft can help all foreigners already in Germany to find jobs in Berlin, and he hopes they will expand to include the whole German job market in future.
As well as bureaucracy, obstacles for immigrants include struggling to get their qualifications recognised and not being able to speak German.
“94 percent of the people in our database have job experience,” says Weiss. “They have skills and are knowledgeable about something.
“They’re here and they’re not allowed to participate and it’s ridiculous.”
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‘Happy to learn’
At the bakery, Hugue Mpumpu talks of his sadness of leaving his life in Ukraine, his studies and part-time job.
“When I was in Ukraine I wasn’t thinking about going to Germany today or tomorrow,” he says. “I was thinking about studying in Ukraine, and after that doing my PhD programme and to go back to my country and help people.”
He describes how difficult it was for him to get a visa and leave his home country to study in Europe. For that reason he can’t just go home, he says.
For now Mpumpu wants to continue to work in Germany and find a stable living situation.
“Working in the Bekarei for me is very good,” he says. “The colleagues are very kind. They can help you, they can speak with me. On my second day I also tried to bake bread. It was interesting for me to do that. I’m happy to learn. I need to learn. I’m happy to work here, to pay tax. I’m not illegally working here.”