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Motif series "Migration history in images"

"Contract worker" in the GDR

Due in part to the emigration of millions of people from the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic, a shortage of skilled workers developed in the GDR in the 1960s. From 1967 to 1986, agreements on the training and employment of foreign workers were implemented with various so-called brother states. The migrant workers came from various regions such as Algeria, Angola, China, Cuba, Mongolia, Mozambique, Poland, Hungary and Vietnam. At the time of the fall of the Wall in November 1989, more than 192,000 foreign nationals were living in the GDR. The exact number of "contract workers" has not yet been conclusively researched.

The frequent prejudice about the GDR that hardly any people from other countries lived there thus does not seem to be true. Not to forget the many other people who found their way to the GDR through other channels (studies, asylum or other). But in which conditions did the "contract workers" really live and work in the GDR?

Foto: Jan-Ouwerkerk / DOMiD-Archiv, Köln

Racism in the GDR - marginalized housing and contact barriers

Many of the people who came to the GDR between the 1960s and 1980s came with the hope of good training and jobs. However, these people were often simply used as cheap labor for the state.

Most of the migrant workers lived in very confined spaces in separate dormitories and were thus separated from the rest of society. The GDR government wanted to prevent contact between its own citizens and migrant workers and thus withheld any information about them. The stays of "contract workers" were strictly limited to a period of two to five years, and the subsequent immigration of family members was generally prohibited. Until 1988, women who were pregnant threatened with direct deportation. The only alternative to deportation was abortion. In the case of advanced pregnancies, women were obliged to be deported because of their inability to work. The state supplemented the principle that "GDR citizens and foreigners enjoy the same rights" with a decree stating that permits could be withdrawn, limited and approved without justification. As a result, an equal position in society was not possible for many of the foreign workers. Racism was thus a major issue in everyday life even in the socialist state.

The search for family members - children of deported "contract workers

But of course not all encounters were excluded. Life lets people come together and so many binational families were created in the GDR. In some cases this was not easy. From social taboos to the mass deportations of many migrant workers after the fall of the wall in 1989, binational families were exposed to particular pressure. Those who had children in Germany had to leave the GDR. So often the children grew up without contact to their deported fathers or the contacts broke off and traces were lost. Even today there are still people who are looking for their family members.

Foto: Jan-Ouwerkerk / DOMiD-Archiv, Köln
Foto: Jan-Ouwerkerk / DOMiD-Archiv, Köln

"Madgermanes" - why many Mozambicans are still waiting for their wages.

A striking example of how the state propaganda of "friendship among nations" turned out to be economic exploitation is shown by the example of the Mozambicans who came to the GDR from the mid-1980s.

Officially, the "contract workers" were to be paid a portion of their wages directly and another substantial portion upon their return to Mozambique. This agreement was not kept in many cases. Instead, the GDR withheld part of their wages to pay Mozambique's debts, or the Mozambican state did not pay the money to its workers in full. For many years, the former "contract workers" have been taking to the streets in Maputo, fighting for their right to the payment of their wages and other claims such as their reserves, which are still missing today. The term "Madgermanes" is an allusion to "Mad Germans" ("Crazy Germans") and "Made in Germany". Activists estimate that the former labor migrants of the GDR are still entitled to the equivalent of more than 600 million euros.

Vietnamese "contract workers" - an example of the effects of the fall of the Berlin Wall

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the so-called reunification, the bilateral state treaties lost their basis and about 50 % of Vietnamese* women lost their jobs. Many returned to Vietnam shortly afterwards. But for those who wanted to stay, it became very challenging. Although people were granted some rights in these times of upheaval, in practice they had to fight for their social rights and right of residence for many years. Structurally, they were severely disadvantaged. At the same time, many of the migrant workers became the target of racist attacks in the early 1990s. It was not until 1997 that the former "contract workers" were legally equated with migrant workers in the FRG. With the clarification of their residence status, they could now finally begin to build a new life for themselves in the FRG. An adaptation strategy of many Vietnamese women living in Germany was to become self-employed.

Foto: Jan-Ouwerkerk / DOMiD-Archiv, Köln

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Order and legal notice

This and all other motifs from our series "Migration history in pictures" are available as postcards from us at the DOMiD office. You are welcome to pick them up or order them at: presse@domid.org. We would be happy to send you a set free of charge. In our anniversary year 2020 (30 years of DOMiD), a total of twelve motifs with stories from our collection will be created. DOMiD has endeavored to find and contact all rights holders regarding the motifs. If this is not successful in one case, we ask potential rights holders to contact us.

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