German asylum workshops for disabled people violated UN treaties. Now that the European Parliament has voted to stage them, there may be 30 German seminars somewhere.
It was a sunny day when factories and cranes were climbing from all sides in the Sihafen Canal, Berlin’s industrial zone. This is the end of a working day for a seven-story concrete building. Masked personnel is coming mass to board the bus with the help of staff in high-visibility jackets or going to a nearby train station.
This is a sheltered workshop where all employees have some form of intellectual or physical disability.
These workshops have existed in Germany in some way for more than 50 years. However, this month the EU adopted a new disability strategy that called for the end of the seminar.
It is not just the workplace.
“A wide range of people work here, from people with learning disabilities to people with severe physical disabilities,” says Kiosk Gressel, CEO who sits on the channel’s grand solarium as a factory art studio.
The BWB plant is the largest factory in Berlin, with about 1,600 employees, and is one of more than 30 factories in Germany with about 320,000 employees.
Employees perform a wide range of tasks, from manual labor to metal and wood products, packaging pastries, and management tasks tailored to their experience and strength.
Gerstel says working on the store floor is care and resuscitation. The social aspects of their daily lives, as well as psychological and physical support, are as important as what they do. Gerstel describes employees as “community.”
Germany violates UN Convention
Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted by Germany in 2008. Signatories are required to “improve the work experience of people with disabilities in the free labor market.”
Catherine Langensipen, a German Green Party legislator and member of the European Parliament, said in a statement to Deutsche Welle that by not banning seminars, “EU member states still fail to meet their obligations.”
Langensippen, the first woman with obvious disabilities to elect to the European Parliament, is the author of a report calling for the gradual removal of asylum workshops. His report, approved by a majority vote in Strasbourg last week, called on EU member states to “ensure that asylum workshops are limited to temporary options for disabled people in the work life cycle and accelerate institutionalization.”
“The European Parliament has sent a clear signal against the separation of disabled people,” Langencipen said in a statement. “We are in favor of strengthening social options for people with disabilities and without disabilities rather than working together, rather than promoting an old system that makes people with disabilities invisible.
This is not a “time period” for most people.
Under Germany’s current model, the main purpose of asylum workshops is to integrate disabled people into other jobs. Actually, less than 1% changed the category. In a typical BWB year, it is likely that 10 employees, or about 0.6 percent of their workforce, will move to other jobs, Gerstel said.
One hurdle is that the workshop should act as a company for profit. This means that some economic goals must be achieved in order to pay employees and exist within the legal framework.
Mr. Gressel said some employees, “but no more,” motivated by this pragmatic approach. He sees examples of people focusing on profits and not encouraging employees to fly high, leaving the workshop, and taking higher-paid jobs.
Employees earn “pocket money”
Another major criticism of the current system is how much employees earn. Anne Gosdorf, who works for disability rights NGO Soziarden (Social Hero), described her income as “pocket money.”
The workshop’s income varies, but it usually floats around one euro ($1.20) per hour, well below Germany’s legal minimum wage, which is currently €9.35 per hour.
The German Federal Workshop Working Group called for an hourly wage increase but wrote in a statement to Deutsche Welle that comparisons with the minimum wage are unclear.
He states that this income supplemented by a publicly funded job promotion grant. “Workshop work is not directly compared to full-time work because workshops offer other services such as work and physiotherapy, speech therapy and sports and cultural activities that employees can also use during working hours.”
“In addition, people with disabilities without income other than workshops have access to government living allowances such as rent payment subsidies, nursing services, reduced income capacity pensions, and basic income support.”
Mr. Gasdorf and other activists’ say this ignores the fact that disabled people should be able to earn equal pay with other workers instead of forced to rely on protected workshops.
“Disabled people who want to take the path of personal inclusion face bureaucratic hurdles if they try their luck in an open labor market,” he said at a press conference.
A question of choice
Despite the UN Convention and the new EU strategy, German policy has not changed: according to the government, workshops should remain one of several ways to employ disabled people. Other options based on the Investment Partnership Act, which came into force in 2018 and will continue to operate phases until 2023. The new employment and apprenticeship “budget” aims to improve access to an open labor market for people with disabilities.
Of the new budget, the Federal Commissioner for Disabled Persons specifically stated, “All disabled people working in workshops for disabled people are eligible for support to help them move to the primary job market. You can also go back to the workshop if you want.
Langencipen said for some workers, protected workshops may be a good option, but not in their current form.
“If some of the people who work on the store floor are happy there and want to stay in that community, then that should be possible, but they actually need to be hired as part of the workforce,” he says.
As long as asylum workshop staff continue to treat equally with primary labor market workers, Germany will not be able to fulfill its obligations under international treaties and will not fulfill its responsibilities to disabled people.