Equal Opportunities for all! A Dream, not a Reality - The African Community in Germany

Germany brings challenges for African migrants: they are expected to rather assimilate then to live as citizens with their own tradition and culture
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Germany brings challenges for African migrants: they are expected to rather assimilate then to live as citizens with their own tradition and culture


by Wangare Greiner

Integration is in the air in the German Republic, but the challenge that it brings for African migrants has not really been tested. In fact, the normal way of interpreting the German’s view of integration has been to consider it as assimilation, where the migrant simply conform to German laws, German ways of doing and understanding things and of course, learning the German language. This is in sharp contrast to a view of integration which sees a migrant becoming a naturalised German and having a real sense that he or she is coming with a tradition and culture that enriches the German society, rather than the normal view of becoming naturalised and not bringing anything to the table, as there is nothing valued by the society about that foreigner. It is the issue of leitkultur, that German culture is the leading and dominant culture, as well as the one which is rich and sufficient, not really needing another or in the case of African culture, preferring to appreciate it in a non-German setting, namely a zoo in Augsburg.

It is in the above context that one needs to understand the current debates following the law on Equal treatment, in that everything does not change simply because there is a law now in force. Because it is a new law, it does not mean that all the inequalities of the past have been properly addressed in this new law, which one can say has been watered down from that which was first proposed. African migrants still wonder about how one addresses overt discrimination in interviews, in which the African interviewee may simply realise that they cannot get a job because of the obvious discriminatory way in  which the interviewers are undertaking the interview process.

In the English system, one looks at the composition of an interview panel and questions the relevance of some questions asked, so that employers are forced to think of fairness and equity in the way the interviewing process is handled. In fact, there are now claims that the German laws on equal treatment will make the country uncompetitive, meaning that the wrong people will now be involved in German industry. At the heart of such a view is the reality that there was nothing wrong with the status quo, nothing should have changed in the laws. Why is there a need to recruit professionals from overseas if German industry is so self-confident? But then, I am not a specialist in the German manufacturing field. However, Germany is my home and as such, I believe our society can only move forward and get back to the top as an industrial giant when we use the best of all our talents in this society in every sphere in this nation. There is nothing in the gene pool which suggests that these talents are enshrined in any one group.
In this context, this is a lawyers’ charter, as they are the ones to benefit from any litigation that the migrant with some money might wish to undertake. Of course, there is no precedent for laws in these fields, so there is no case law to follow, hence the reality that legal firms seem to be offering training to employers and others who may be affected by all these laws. Which migrant might wish to stand up against an employer who discriminates or others in the work-place who might do so? Who will ensure that they will retain their jobs? Since organisations cannot act for a migrant, who will pay for any litigation and will the hassle be worth it?

The British laws dealing with these areas took some time to be bedded down in the system and now more than 20 years later there is an enormous amount of case law by  which different problems can be examined and legally-binding solutions implemented. In Germany, migrants may have to wait some time before the nuts and bolts in our system can be put in place, as there is much discussion that is still taking place and, we are unsure about the ability of bodies designated by the government to be truly independent, as they are do not necessarily have the competence to deal with this complex area. As pointed out before, opportunities will be available to labour lawyers as they are the ones, looking on eagerly to see how the various laws with respect to anti-discrimination will be transposed into German law. Perhaps this is a particular German approach but any body which is charged to oversee national issues on discrimination will need to be staffed by competent staff, and our federal system may well mean that at the level of the landen, further differences may be seen in our interpretation of the various laws, which could lead to confusion. Any confusion would generally leave the migrant at a disadvantage in the interpretation of new law, as this has been the experience of African migrants in Germany, whatever their status, as Germans or foreigners with a legal right to be in Germany.

Since Germany took a long time to transpose these laws unto the statute books, this was not simply a matter of the law of discontinuity, but it also spoke to the powerful elements in society that sought to impede or minimise any change. We have done very well with our laws on gender discrimination legislation in Germany, but as yet African women in this society are not seeing the benefits that their white German sisters may be enjoying, so again more work needs to be done in this area. Perhaps, the experience of people who become a hidden statistic is something that can be looked at very closely in the German system if the reality of Equal Opportunities can be properly addressed. I speak of Africans who became naturalised as Germans and suddenly disappear from the statistics now that they are Germans. Their work prospects, job opportunities, their home situation are absorbed into a wider statistic concerning Germans and no one really knows what problems they have in society because of the colour of their skin and the discrimination that we all recognise as being prevalent in our society. This writer does not have an immediate solution, but my discussion with naturalised Germans of African origin, seem to indicate that they seem to have more rights when they were not Germans, as now everyone expects them to compete despite the fact that they are not on a level-playing field in the area of employment.  

Recently, a researcher looking at the African population in Germany caused us some concern when he pointed out that a number of the Africans that he interviewed who had trained and obtained their qualifications in Germany, were not in the field for which they had qualified. This flew in the face of discussions that very often Africans do not have the language skills and qualifications to be competent in various fields. Yet when the researcher spoke to many of these trained Africans, they spoke about the discrimination present at all levels in the work-place which made it difficult for them to remain in a particular area of work. Indeed, many will admit that had they remained, their mental health would have been destroyed.  This is an area that one hopes the new laws on Equal treatment will begin to address, but again this can only be done over time, but the point made earlier needs to be re-emphasised and that is, the nation will only benefit when the entire pool of skilled employees can work for the good of the nation. At a time when there is a focus on recruiting experts from overseas, there is something that is wrong when Africans in our society with relevant qualifications are not in work in their fields of engineering, or other fields in which outside experts seem necessary.

Looking Towards 2007 – The EU Year of Equal Opportunities

It is for the reasons stated above that I have entitled my comments as a dream not a reality, because I do believe that there is a lot more that needs to be done before we can view 2007 as a success. There is hope for the future but 2007 will come too soon for us to join this EU beauty pageant. Here in Germany we will continue working solidly on implementing this programme of equal treatment which will be the foundation for equal opportunities in the future.

A Measured but uncertain look around Europe

I am not a European specialist but as the Chairperson of the African Diaspora in Europe (ADE) I can state that we do not hold up more hope that a lot more would go on everywhere else in Europe, because those newer countries who recently joined the EU will have their difficulties making equal opportunities a reality as well. Although older members, there is no reason to think that Austria and Greece will be key exemplars in this field of equal opportunities as well, as they too have struggled with transposing the EU laws into their national laws.

Wangare Greiner is Coordinator and Founder Member of Maisha, Chairperson of ADE, Health Social Worker with the Africa Health Project, the latter being a partnership with the Health Authority of Frankfurt, Maisha and the Women’s Department.