Pensioners left to top up incomes from German bins

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

While the country has made a remarkable turnaround, German recovery has come at a price, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

YOU HEAR Frank before you see him. More precisely, you hear the sound from his battered, two-wheeled shopping cart.

If you’ve visited Berlin recently you may have seen the balding 64- year-old, eyes peeled, prowling the streets of the Mitte district from morning to night.

Perhaps you saw someone else skulking around park undergrowth or reaching into public bins to retrieve empty glass bottles.

“There was a time when it took a lot out of me to reach in but I got over that a long time ago,” says Frank, who worked as a train conductor in East Germany and later in a restaurant.

His story sounds more like something from crisis-hit Greece, not Germany with its powerhouse economy and 6 per cent jobless rate.

While European Union leaders discuss bailout millions, billions and trillions, Germans like Frank think in very different categories.

An empty glass beer bottle has an eight cent deposit, other glass bottles are worth 15 cent and large plastic bottles bring 25 cent.

On a good day a full cart – after several hours’ hunting – brings him €2 or €3 to buy bread and cheese. For Frank, it’s a necessary supplement to his monthly pension of €620; after paying rent and other monthly outgoings, he’s lucky to have €50 a week left.

A decade after Germany’s bottle deposit system was expanded as a green initiative, it has become something else entirely: an ersatz currency for Germans struggling to make ends meet.

“At first it was just homeless we saw collecting the bottles, people you’d see at soup kitchens,” said Renate, manager of one of Berlin’s many Caritas charity centres. “Now you see a lot of pensioners collecting bottles, trying to top up their income.”

With her short grey hair and tinted glasses, Hannelore looks like any other Berlin grandmother. She raised her three children alone and worked for 34 years, first on a farm and then as a shop assistant. After paying rent and utilities from her €690 monthly pension, she has €60 left a week for food, clothes and the rest.

At the local playground, while her grandson enjoys the swings and slide, she checks out the bins. The bottles she fishes out vanish into a plastic shopping bag.

“Sometimes people stare but I’ve learned to look away,” she said.

People like Frank and Hannelore are just the start of what welfare organisations and unions here describe as Germany’s ticking poverty time-bomb.

A decade ago, with a sclerotic economy and chronic jobless rate, Germany liberalised its labour market. At face value, the reforms were a huge success – firing up the economy and cutting the national jobless rate in half to just 6 per cent.

Of the remaining dole claimants, however, some 1.4 million – 28 per cent of the total – are actually working, but earn so little that they top up their earnings with social welfare.

A study by the German Union Federation (DGB) found that these top-up workers, so-called Aufstocker, earn an average hourly rate of €6.50; one in four of them earns less than €5 an hour. Germany has no across-the-board minimum wage.

The number of such workers continues to rise year-on-year and the top-up bill now costs the federal government €2 billion annually.

That total doubles to €4 million, the DGB says, if you include the top-up bill for Germany’s growing army of “mini-jobbers”, some 7.4 million people working in casual, mostly part-time, jobs for €400 a month.

The mini-job system was devised as a stepping stone to full-time employment. Its defenders say the sector’s low wages come from three-quarters of mini-jobbers working part-time.

Critics say these many have no option but to accept part-time mini-jobs from employers anxious to save on non-wage costs while letting the state top up their employees’ incomes.

The consequences can be seen in the recent insolvency of German drugstore chain Schlecker.

To stave off total collapse, the company has closed 2,200 branches and laid off 11,000 store assistants, the vast majority female mini-jobbers.

The dole entitlement for an unmarried, childless mini-jobber is the basic €374 monthly payment. For Schlecker workers still with jobs, the future is not much brighter, a study out yesterday suggested.

It found that mini-jobbers – at Schlecker or elsewhere – could work for 40 years and be entitled to a contributory pension of less than €200 a month.

Expectations of Germany in the euro zone crisis are high, reflecting the country’s remarkable economic recovery. But it has come at a price.

Nearly a century after the premiere of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera – a critique of capitalism featuring a professional beggar army – a new underclass army is on the rise in Germany. They don’t want your change; they want your empties.