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On the new wave of social protest in Germany


This summer Germany is struck by a new wave of social protest. Beginning on 3 August, 2004 now the sixth week in turn so-called “Monday rallies” with tens of thousands of participants are taking place in 150-200 German big and small cities. The term is referring to the famous manifestations of the year 1989, when mass rallies forced the then GDR government to listen to the people’s demands for more freedom and democratic rights. To the indignation of the present Social Democratic-Green government the marchers of today want the government to listen to their protests against a package of measures to dismantle the welfare state, unseen in the whole history of the Federal Republic of Germany. For 2 October a huge nation-wide demonstration in Berlin is planned.

 

In the focus of the protests is the so-called Hartz IV law, adopted by all parliament parties, but the PDS, in July, 2004 and due to come into force on 1 January, 2005. This law is the fourth part of a whole package, worked out by a tripartite commission of capital, labour and science representatives, chaired by Volkswagen personnel manager Peter Hartz. The commission was called by the government to reform the German labour market and to fight unemployment, which is remaining on a nation-wide high of 8-10 %. Hartz IV implies a series of harsh measures designed to pressure the long-term unemployed to make more efforts for finding a new job. In fact, they amount to brutal worsening of their overall material conditions. The main changes are:

 

  • The time an unemployed can receive an earnings-related benefit (Arbeitslosengeld) (around two thirds of the last net earnings on the basis of individually paid insurance contributions) is reduced to a standard 12 months for everybody. Until now the maximum was 32 month for people over 55 years of age and the corresponding working years and insurance contributions.

  • After 12 months everybody falls into the category of long-term unemployed entitled to a new standard pay called “unemployment benefit II” (Arbeitslosengeld II – ALG II), which is on the level of the present social welfare pay, the subsistence minimum. The amount is 345 Euro for the West German lander and 331 for the lander in the East of Germany plus modest extras for housing and heating. Until now after the time of Arbeitslosengeld run out, people got an unemployment benefit of around 50 % called Arbeitslosenhilfe, dependent, partly, on the income of the spouse and of proven efforts to actively look for a new job. Now, in fact, Arbeitslosenhilfe will be cancelled and the former unemployment benefit merged with the social welfare pay on the latter’s low level.

  • Receiving ALG II is only possible on the following conditions:
    First, the income of the spouse or – with singles – every kind of property (flat, car, land, savings, life insurance, pensions insurance…) is fully taken into account. Only after having sold and consumed most of this, one has a right to ALG II. Trade unions statistics say that more than 300 000 people in East Germany will get nothing under this condition.
    Second, any job offered by the state and private job agencies must be accepted, irrespective of pay below standard levels, qualification or location, even if a long distance from the worker’s residence. Otherwise ALG II will be cut or stopped altogether. Until now the unemployed was entitled to a new job paid on standard level and corresponding in general to his/her qualification. Municipalities, welfare organisations and others are requested to create work opportunities on a pay of 1-2 Euros per hour thought as an additional income for ALG II recipients. These must also be accepted by everybody.

 

Trade unions, welfare agencies, big parts of public opinion and the PDS are unanimous in their judgement that Hartz IV will not contribute to the solution of the unemployment problem but worsen the social situation by a degree unseen in German post-war history:

 

  • Hartz IV is an austerity program entitled to reduce social expenditure at the expense of the unemployed. It will not create any jobs with living wages, but further fuel wage dumping and destroy normal jobs.

  • Hartz IV is annihilating people’s qualification. By forcing everybody to accept any job, qualified people are pushed into low level work from where there is no return.

  • Hartz IV is reducing mass purchasing power and domestic consumer demand, which is detrimental to growth rates of the German economy fuelled presently by exports alone.

  • Hartz IV will widen the gap between rich and poor in Germany by breathtaking speed. According to trade union prognoses the number of poor people can rise in 2005 from 2.8 to 4.5 million. The number of children forced to live on social welfare level will increase from now 1.5 million to 2.0 million. People will more quickly arrive at the brink of poverty because of cutting the times of receiving earnings-related unemployment benefit.

  • Hartz IV is a gross violation of human dignity. People are sanctioned for loosing work to live on not by their own failure but by the failure of the welfare state. They are arbitrarily forced under inhumane social conditions in a country where the number of millionaires is one of the highest in the world and is constantly rising.

 

The “Monday rallies” have started – as in 1989 – in East Germany and have reached here the broadest scale. While public acceptance of the marchers’ demands is 67 % in Germany, it is 85 % in the East. The reasons are:

  • The number of people concerned by Hartz IV is much higher here with the unemployment rate the double of the West’s (18 – 19 %) and the people depending now on Arbeitslosenhilfe also considerably higher.

  • Pressing the unemployed into looking for a new job by cutting their benefits is felt a bitter mockery here, where there are about 35 unemployed on one free job.

  • Establishing different amounts of ALG II for East and West Germans is seen by the people in the East as continuously treating them as second-class citizens. Having lived in the socially more equal GDR society, they are more sensitive to facts of social injustice.

 

This movement has grown from the grass-roots level and is organised by local and regional alliances of unemployed associations, citizen’s rights and welfare organisations, helped by some trade unions.   

 Now the main task is to bring to people’s minds our ideas contrary to Schroeder’s anti-social “Agenda 2010,” concentrated in our “Social agenda”, thus demonstrating that the neo-liberal course of the government is not without alternative.

 

September 2004

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