An insecure job may be better than no job, but does 'temp' work help integration? | Photo: Picture Alliance / dpa/ K. Nietfeld
An insecure job may be better than no job, but does 'temp' work help integration? | Photo: Picture Alliance / dpa/ K. Nietfeld

In Germany, there are more migrants working in temporary jobs as subcontractors than in secure employment. Some say this is a good thing, because it means migrants are able to get a foot in the door of the job market. But are there also downsides to temporary agency work?

For the past two decades, companies across almost all industries have been opting more and more for temporary agency, or "temp" workers. In the metal and electronic industries, security, logistics, transport, administration and office sectors, as the prospects of a "regular job" diminish – at least for some – being hired through an agency seems like a good option.

How does it work?

Temporary agency employment is where a worker is employed by an agency and then hired out to other companies that need staff. The worker signs a contract with the agency which is of limited or unspecified duration. 

The hiring company pays fees to the agency, and the agency pays the "temp's" wages. All the worker's dealings related to pay, holidays and insurance are with the agency. The temp agencies often use job search engines for recruiting and are regularly looking for employees.

Agency work became legally permitted in most of Europe in the 1990s. Since then, the highest rates have been in the UK, the Netherlands and France.

In Germany, while the number of German citizens in agency work is falling, there are more and more people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Syria in this form of employment. The head of Thuringia's employment agency, Kay Senius, said "foreign workers" were filling the gap as it had "become harder to find German staff," according to Germany's NTV.

Advantages and disadvantages

Ismail Darwich from Syria lives in Mönchengladbach, a town near German's western border. He approached a temp agency after he had failed to find work in Germany in his field of engineering. The agency got him a job with the huge online retail company Zalando, but he told InfoMigrants he feels he has no rights at the company. "Our contracts are with the, and they can fire me at any moment," he says. "That's what happened to a colleague of mine."

It is often easier to find a job at a temporary employment agency than with a company directly. So this kind of work can offer more opportunities to migrants like Ismail.

Marc Striewe, who heads a temporary employment agency in Germany, also says agencies can give migrants a chance to find their feet. "We don't just give them a job, we also make sure they open a bank account, that they have health insurance and so on," Striewe told German public radio Deutschlandfunk.

Another potential benefit of agency employment is that it often means working in several different companies, which can allow the worker to gain experience and make professional contacts.

In addition, agency workers are sometimes eventually hired as regular employees, according to Handbook Germany, a government-funded information platform for refugees and other migrants in Germany. Unfortunately, however, there is evidence that agency work is not a stepping stone to more secure employment, according to the EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions, Eurofound. 

Seasonal workers in Bad Krozingen, Germany | Photo: picture-alliance/ROPI/A. Pisacreta

Felix Hoffmann, from the German Council of Trade Unions in Hamburg, questions whether agency work is really beneficial to migrants. He told Deutschlandfunk that the Council of Trade Unions does not see this form of employment as the most sustainable or the best option to integrate refugees and migrants into the job market.

In terms of pay, temps should be paid the same but often receive less than regular staff, who benefit from collective bargaining agreements – higher salary deals from which temps are excluded. Salam Said, a Syrian academic in Berlin, says in reality, temporary workers "do not have the same rights as other employees and their wages are lower."

Temporary jobs can also present challenges which permanent staff don't have to deal with: Being shifted from one working environment to another is sometimes difficult and disruptive. It means adapting to new tasks, colleagues, workplaces and journeys to work, which may involve long commutes.

What rights do temp workers have?

In Germany, the rights of temporary agency workers are outlined in the Temporary Employment Act which was updated in 2017. Some agencies are also bound by industry agreements with trade unions which protect certain conditions for workers.

Handbook Germany lists some of the rights of temporary workers. In summary, they include:

  • The right to a written contract which states your salary, the number of hours per week and the start and end date of your employment;
  • The right to the same pay and working conditions as regular employees at the hiring company, with some exceptions;
  • The right to refuse a job that is offered to you by the temporary employment agency;
  • The right to receive a copy, in your own language, of the Information Leaflet for Subcontracted Workers at the start of your employment.

Temporary employment agencies face severe sanctions for employing migrants without work permits – perpetrators can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years. 

Handbook Germany warns that there are usually some "rotten apples" among temp agencies, meaning companies that don't abide by the law. Law-abiding temp agencies are often members of professional associations, so it is a good idea to ask the agency or check on their website to see if they are a member of any of these organizations before signing a contract.

More information: The English language version of the German Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) website can be found here.


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