By Nenad Radicevic
Every morning, without fail, Djordje Nikolic checks the website of the German embassy in Belgrade, hungry to find out when he will be allowed to apply for a work visa. Breakfast can wait.
Nikolic, a 40-year-old Serb, had a job waiting for him with a construction company building apartments on the outskirts of Frankfurt, but COVID-19 got in the way.
“I’m supposed to work there as a painter but the pandemic closed the borders and consulates just five days after I got a job offer,” he said. “Now my fate is at the mercy of the corona situation.”
Yet even when borders reopen for citizens of the Western Balkans, low-skilled workers like Nikolic will soon face a new obstacle.
Confronted with a deep economic downturn and rising unemployment, Germany is planning to cap the number of unskilled and low-skilled workers from the Western Balkans allowed to enter the country under a preferential scheme introduced in 2016, according to draft legislation seen by BIRN and which will likely become law in September or October.
The scheme has proven a lifeline for tens of thousands of people from a region where salaries are still stubbornly low and unemployment high. Now, however, many face missing out, just as their prospects of employment in their own countries also plummet.
“We are in a massive economic downturn and already have 600,000 more unemployed people than a year ago,” Mathias Middelberg, an MP of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, CDU, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper in late June.
“Simply letting the Western Balkans regime continue unchanged in such a situation is not an option.”
Scheme to continue, but with a cap
The so-called Western Balkans scheme was introduced four years ago to give a chance to unskilled workers in the region to legally immigrate, avoiding the need to apply for asylum.
At the height of the migration crisis in 2015 and 2016, tens of thousands of citizens of Balkan states outside the European Union poured into Germany via the asylum system. Most were fleeing economic and social woes, not armed conflict or discrimination.
In response, Merkel’s governing coalition introduced a five-year regulation allowing unskilled workers from Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo to legally immigrate even without speaking German or having any formal qualifications.
The only condition was that the applicant has a job offer from a German company and that they had not received welfare benefits in Germany over the preceding 24 months.
Tens of thousands have taken advantage of the scheme, over 27,200 last year alone. It expires at the end of this year, however, and, in the COVID era, its extension is no longer seen as certain.
The conservative sister parties of CDU and the Christian Social Union, CSU, want to curb the number of workers immigrating via the regulation, but are opposed by their junior partner in government, the Social Democrats, SPD.
According to a draft bill seen by BIRN, the governing partners have agreed on a compromise that would extend the scheme to the end of 2023, but with a cap on the number of workers allowed to immigrate at 25,000 per year.
“Our coalition partner initially wanted to let the regulation expire,” SPD MP Bernhard Daldrup told BIRN.
“In case of an extension, the CDU/CSU wanted to limit the number of workers to 15,000 per year. The SPD parliamentary group did not consider a fixed annual quota to be necessary.”
The draft bill is the result of agreement between the SPD-led Labour Ministry and the CDU/CSU-led Interior Ministry, said Daldrup.
Middelberg and other CDU MPs involved in the issue were not available for comment. The bill will likely be put to a vote after the summer recess.
Industry groups unimpressed
In the negotiations, reports say the CDU/CSU pointed to figures from the Federal Employment Agency that show the number of unemployed foreigners in Germany up 24 per cent since mid-March to roughly 840,000.
The SPD-led Labour Ministry, however, touted the scheme’s success, citing a study by the Institute of Employment Research.
“According to the study, workers from the Western Balkan states earn on average no less than comparable migrant groups, and their employment is stable,” a spokesperson for the ministry told BIRN.
“Fifty-eight per cent of the workforce from the Western Balkans is employed as skilled workers, specialists or experts.”
German construction industry representatives welcomed the scheme’s likely extension, but not the cap.
“In comparison to the alternative that the existing rule expiries, this is a very good proposal,” a spokesperson for the German Construction Industry Association, ZDB, told BIRN.
“The Western Balkans rule is an important pillar for the construction industry in terms of securing the next generation of workers”.
But the cap is not high enough to satisfy labour demand, the ZDB said.
The proposed quota is “incomprehensible,” said Hermann Schulte-Hiltrop, managing director of the Association of Construction Industry in North Rhine-Westphalia, one of Germany’s 16 states.
The upper limit would “only unnecessarily exacerbate the tense situation,” he was quoted as telling the Rheinische Post newspaper.
Without the Western Balkans scheme, scheduled retirements in the construction sector would mean the loss of some 52,000 workers in North Rhine-Westphalia alone, “in one fell swoop,” Schulte-Hiltrop argued.
“We are talking about job positions for which you won’t find anybody here,” he said.
The ZDB dismissed the arguments of some conservative politicians that refugees could be fast-tracked into employment if they have a good prospect of receiving asylum, thus meeting the labour requirements of the construction industry.
“Replacement by asylum seekers is not easily possible, as workers from the Western Balkans are extremely experienced for their positions,” said the ZDB spokesperson.
Backlog in German consulates
Even without the cap, German building firms were unable to hire as many workers from the Western Balkans as they wanted due to a backlog in applications in over-worked consulates.
According to data of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of German visas of all types issued in the Western Balkans has more than tripled since 2015 to 65,500 in 2019.
The ministry has hired more staff at its consulates in the region, but the backlog of applications is so great that applicants usually wait for as long as 18 months to receive the visa.
The pandemic has made things even worse: in the first half of this year, some 20,700 people from the Western Balkans received the green light from Germany’s Federal Employment Agency under the scheme but only 4,800 visas were actually issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
German consulates in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Pristina, Skopje and Tirana recently resumed limited visa services but still not for applications submitted by unskilled workers.
Nikolic, however, has not lost hope.
“The corona situation can’t last forever,” he said. “And they need us.”