Workplace universalism

The function of German industrial relations for the integration of migrant workers and refugees

Werner Schmidt, Forschungsinstitut für Arbeit, Technik und Kultur (F.A.T.K.)
Andrea Müller, Forschungsinstitut für Arbeit, Technik und Kultur (F.A.T.K.)

When the number of asylum seekers entering the European Union peaked in 2015 and 2016, 1.1 million of them arrived in Germany. Although Germany managed to incorporate great numbers of migrants in the past, recent forced migration is widely considered to be a big challenge. And while on the one hand right-wing populism is growing, on the other hand, refugees are supported by relevant parts of the public and a variety of measures to promote the integration of refugees have been launched in the last three years.

A major field of integration is the workplace. Comparing earlier labour migration with recent forced migration, we will pursue the following questions:

  1. How has the integration of workers of different origin worked in the past, and what role did industrial relations play in this process?
  2. What differences or what similarities can be found when comparing the integration of former labour migrants and today’s refugees into the labour market and at the workplace?
  3. What is German industrial relations’ contribution to integrating refugees into the workforce?

We will draw on the findings of three research projects: (1) Employees’ origin and industrial relations at the workplace level (2003-2005) which used a mixed methods approach and carried out three comprehensive company case studies (Schmidt/Müller 2013). (2) Company measures for integrating refugees (2016) examined integration measures in 12 large companies (Müller/Schmidt 2016), and (3) Co-determination and internal social integration of refugees (2016-2019), investigated social integration in 15 companies in different industries (final report pending). Altogether, the projects are based on more than 150 interviews or group discussions, document analysis, and three employee attitude surveys.

With reference to Lockwood’s (1964) distinction of system integration and social integration, we distinguish two dimensions of workplace integration. Structural incorporation, i.e., the matching of person and job, including the internal social positioning with respect to job position and pay, and workplace social integration, the development of social relations between organization members, including everyday encounters, cooperation, and communication.

Although the focus of our paper will be on workplace integration, we will take external factors also into consideration. Differences in social and cultural capital between migrants, like language proficiency, qualifications and work experience, health and living conditions, cultural differences, networks of support, or distance to industrial work culture, may be of relevance as well as the legal status, and societal acceptance or non-acceptance of migrants and the respective discourses. Against the background of this ‘environment’, we examine how workplace integration of refugees takes place in comparison to that of other migrants.

Because their recruitment was supported by state and industry, former ‘guest workers’ usually had no problem to find a job, e.g. at the assembly lines of the automotive industry. Under the assumption that they would only stay and work temporarily, their positioning and social integration at the workplace were hardly seen as a problem. However, many of these workers stayed for good and yet remained ‘locked-in’ in the segment of unskilled or semi-skilled work, which was often reproduced in the subsequent generations.

Nevertheless, our studies suggest that social integration works rather well at the workplace. This is not only because cooperation is a requirement. We have found that even if workers just pretended to be collegial, they develop true feelings of collegiality in the course of time. However, reservations towards one another often persist and political and cultural differences are only banished from the workplace. This ‘externalization of difference’ has a function for employees, because this way potentially contentious discussions of their cultural and political differences can be avoided at the workplace. Crucial for social integration is that neither workplace-related law nor collective agreements differentiate between German and foreign employees, and all workers can be elected and elect works councils as a common institution of representation.

We call this modus of treating employees equally at the workplace, regardless of their origin and offering the same institutionalized channels of interest representation for all, ‘workplace universalism’. Backed by collective agreements and co-determination, this universalistic approach helps to foster a ‘workers identity’ beyond identities based on ethnicity or other features.

In some respects, refugees face a different situation. In addition to stresses and strains related to forced migration, insecure legal status and mass accommodation, many refugees have difficulties to match the requirements of a labour market demanding a certain level of language and occupational skills. However, compared to former labour migrants, there are advantages such as support by volunteers, better opportunities to learn German and to participate in assistance measures and – already in the first generation – vocational training. Nevertheless, it is still not decided how long the workplace incorporation of refugees will take. Another uncertainty factor is that ‘workplace universalism’ is under pressure. On the one hand, special support for refugees is not provided by the rules of workplace-restricted universalism and needs a wider understanding of universalism which also includes the world outside the workplace. On the other hand, right-wing, anti-refugee discourses have grown more obtrusive, making it harder to prevent them from affecting the workplace. A crucial question will be whether ‘workplace universalism’ can be extended by taking into account external differences and disadvantages guided by a concept of solidarity or whether it will be destroyed by group particularism and right-wing populism.

  • Lockwood, D. (1964): Social Integration and System Integration. In: Zollschan, G. K., Hirsch, W. (eds.): Explorations in Social Change. Routledge & Kegan, London: 244–257.
  • Müller, A./Schmidt, W. (2016): Fluchtmigration und Arbeitswelt. Study der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung 339, Düsseldorf.
  • Schmidt, W./Müller, A. (2013): Social Integration and Workplace Industrial Relations. Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations 68 (3): 361–386.