Refugee apprentices fear for their future in Germany

Murtaza Tahmasebi is mere weeks away from realising his dream.

The 21-year-old, who arrived in Germany after fleeing Iran, where he belonged to a persecuted Afghan minority, has been an apprentice at Nordluft’s factory in the north-west of the country for two years and will soon sit his final exam.

But due to the economic effects of Covid-19, the family-owned company — which specialises in industrial ventilation technology and supplies carmakers such as Volkswagen — is unable to hire him, leaving him at risk of deportation.

“I have a lot of anxiety about the future,” said Mr Tahmasebi, who was stateless when he arrived in Germany. “I want to stay here, but with everything that is going on — it makes me very worried.”

Mr Tahmasebi’s residency permit, or Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, is contingent on him being in an apprenticeship scheme, and its renewal largely depends on his finding permanent employment once qualified.

More than 55,000 refugees and asylum seekers are enrolled in training schemes across Germany © Joe Miller/FT

He is not alone. The Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), which has supported the placement of refugees and asylum seekers in apprenticeships, has raised the alarm, warning that a string of insolvencies could leave apprentices stranded.

There are more than 55,000 refugees and asylum seekers enrolled in training schemes across Germany. Those whose right to remain is tied to their roles are allowed just six months to find an alternative apprenticeship or job if they lose their positions.

Yet the precise number of those in Mr Tahmasebi’s position is currently unknown.

“The extent to which the legally regulated period is sufficient in the current economic situation to find a new training place or job . . . will probably only become apparent in the coming months,” the DIHK said, although some estimate that tens of thousands could be at risk.

Netzwerk, a government funded agency that assists German businesses with employing refugees, is currently compiling data on the phenomenon, after several of its members expressed concerns.

“In our discussions with companies, we keep hearing that if an apprentice is en route to becoming a qualified, taxpaying member of society, it doesn’t make any economic sense to deport him,” said Netzwerk consultant Lorenz Lauer.

The six-month period was sufficient when Germany’s economy was booming, Mr Lauer added — especially in the hospitality sector, where foreign nationals make up more than 34 per cent of the workforce, according to the industry federation Dehoga.

“If you couldn’t continue working in your hotel or restaurant, there was another one just down the street that would give you a job,” he said. “But now, the whole industry is in crisis.”

The opportunities for qualified refugees to find a job at another firm in the sector in which they trained are also shrinking.

Nordluft said it could not hire any new staff while almost 80 employees were enrolled in Kurzarbeit, the country’s state-sponsored furlough scheme.

Andreas Zimmermann, a manager at German restaurant chain MoschMosch, which has previously trained and employed refugees, told the FT he was currently unable to do so “because I have several employees in Kurzarbeit”.

Some exceptions are being made.

Katja Kortmann, director of the Hotel Esplanade in Dortmund, said she received permission from Germany’s Federal Employment Agency to hire the company’s apprentice, a 31-year-old Syrian refugee, despite having furloughed 36 employees after the hotel was forced to close at the end of March.

Those looking to begin training, however, are likely to find fewer vacancies.

Earlier this month, the German government announced it would support companies with a subsidy of €2,000 for each apprenticeship position they maintain and €3,000 for each additional place.

Yet as of May, the number of open positions contracted by 9 per cent, according to official statistics.

By the end of the year, the total number of places will probably have dropped to 480,000, from 525,000 last year, according to Hubert Ertl, vice-president of Germany’s Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training.

“We expect that the people who usually already find it difficult to get a training place in a company will probably be hardest hit,” Prof Ertl said.

Industry voices are already warning that a reduction in the number of trainees will leave companies with a shortfall of qualified staff when the economy recovers.

Ingo Kramer, president of the German Employers’ Associations, or BDA, has urged companies not to “saw the branch on which they are sitting” by cutting apprenticeship places.

Netzwerk’s Lorenz Lauer said deportations of asylum seekers would be “short-sighted”, as well as a “tragic outcome”.

Germany, which has long found it hard to fill apprenticeship places in certain sectors and locations, could “face a further shortage of qualified workers”, he added.

At Nordluft, personnel chief Ulla Kampers said the company, which is trying to help Mr Tahmasebi find another permanent job in the industry, will continue to run an apprenticeship scheme and employ refugees.

Before the Covid-19 crisis began, she pointed out, the local town of Lohne had an unemployment rate of just 3 per cent, and finding new staff was a challenge.

“Germany needs refugees,” she said. “I hope most people realise that by now.”