Germany's 'working poor' belie economic miracle
"In a good month, I earn 850 euros ($1,143)," says Arek Krezalek with a long drag on his cigarette, as he stands outside the job centre in Frankfurt, the financial heart of Germany, Europe's top economy.
Krezalek is one of a growing number of "working poor" in Germany -- people on temporary or low-paid job contracts who barely scrape together a living and who are seen as the hidden victims of the country's "economic miracle".
The German of Polish origin tells AFP that if he earns his 850 euros, "I lose my benefits, including my free housing."
"So, it's basically not worth going to work. But if I don't work, I get struck off (from the benefits), so I don't exactly have a choice," the 40-year-old says wistfully.
"When I do find work, it's temporary. Two or three weeks. People don't say it, but actually, I'm just employed to replace other staff who are away on holiday," he added.
He has lived like this, hand to mouth, "for nearly two years" and sees no brighter future ahead. He does manual work, industrial cleaning. "It's a slave's job," he complains.
But he is not without a dream: "I'll take any job, as long as it has a fixed contract."
Krezalek is not alone.
Germany's recent economic growth, strong relative to the rest of crisis-hit Europe, has prompted many to hail a "miracle" in the country.
However, this boom has come at a price for people like Krezalek: a sharp rise in the number of workers with an uncertain future, stuck on short-term, precarious contracts.
According to a survey conducted by IG Metall, Germany's largest union, 43 percent of job contracts inked in 2010 in the huge metalworking sector were temporary, 42 percent were short-term.
Only 15 percent were long-term and permanent.
The "German model", seen abroad as an example to be followed, also results in levels of pay that would be unthinkably low in many other European countries.
With no formal nationwide minimum wage, 1.2 million people in Germany work for a salary of five euros per hour or less, according to a study by the DIW economic institute. A further 4.6 million earn less than 8.5 euros.
Nezahat Kasap, 38, a Turkish woman working as a cleaner in a Berlin hospital has had enough. Along with 300 other staff at the hospital, she has decided to go on strike for better working conditions.
With a "very ill" husband and two small mouths to feed, her monthly pay packet of between 800 and 900 euros does not make ends meet.
"I can never go to the cinema or restaurant. I can't buy the books my children need and that really breaks my heart," she said.
"When our pay goes up, they reduce our hours, but the work remains the same," she said.
With variable hours, she is unable to take a second job and dreams of steady full-time employment.
Authorities appear to be increasingly aware of the plight of people like Krezalek and Kasap.
In a recent speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "It is true there are people who have two or three jobs and still don't have enough in their wallets to live. It's inconceivable in a society that is meant to be humane."
Her party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union, has proposed a minimum wage that would be negotiated by employers and unions for all sectors that do not yet have such a pay floor.
However, she has not suggested an amount, in line with the German tradition that governments do not get involved in salary negotiations. Unions want 8.50 euros an hour.
Kasap, the hospital worker, however, has just one very simple and unambitious goal.
"We just want to live and work like normal people," she said.
© 2011 AFP