Rhetorical Skirmish

Labor, Employer Discord Mounts

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Andrea Nahles and Ingo Kramer don't have the best relations these days.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A controversy has emerged over whether employers could have prevented new regulations that they now publicly criticize as excessive and senseless.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The cabinet and Bundesrat weighed health and safety rules in October.
    • A rule would require employers to monitor lighting at home offices.
    • Ingo Kramer heads the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Two months ago, Ingo Kramer, the president of Germany’s employers association, and Andrea Nahles, the minister of labor, were still on the same page – at least in public. Together with labor unions, they put their stamp on the “partnership for skilled labor” initiative.

Since the beginning of 2015, however, relations have soured over the country’s new minimum wage, which employers call a “bureaucratic monster.” On top of that, German industry objects to plans to regulate temporary employment and service contracts and introduce new workplace rules.

At a New Year’s reception, Mr. Kramer ridiculed Ms. Nahles and took a shot at what he considers unreasonable interference by the German government. “It feels like we’re in ‘Absurdistan’,” he said, firing off a letter of protest to the labor ministry.

Ever since, sources say, the relationship has been poisoned.

In a reply letter to Mr. Kramer, the minister wrote that she could “not help but be appalled” at the criticism.

“I consider it an attack on my person and on the colleagues of my ministry who work with deep commitment and extensive expertise,” wrote Ms. Nahles, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, which is the minority coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.

New rules require employers to monitor workplace lighting for employees who work from home.

Handelsblatt has obtained a copy of her letter. It claims that the employers group misrepresented the proposed workplace regulations to “deliberately and publicly discredit” the ministry of labor.

Mr. Kramer heads the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, known by its German abbreviation BDA.

He objects to new rules that would go as far as to require employers to monitor workplace lighting for employees who work from home. The new rules would also force employers to heat archives and storerooms, and provide break rooms with windows. And under pressure from the state of Saxony, another regulation has been added: Employers must also provide each employee with a secure clothing locker.

The controversy now revolves around whether German industry could have prevented new health and safety regulations that it regards as excessive and senseless.

The ministry of labor argues that employers have been involved in working out the regulations since 2012. Two employers group representatives sat on the crucial workplace committee of the Federal Institute for Work Safety and Occupational Medicine, according to ministry officials.

BM Minimum Wages No 1-01 changed

The ministry points out that after pressure from employers, for example, exceptions were made for shopping centers regarding the requirement for windows in break rooms.

Politicians and government officials are indignant that fierce criticism from the employers association is coming only now. The issue was considered in October by the cabinet and subsequently by the Bundesrat, the upper legislative chamber that represents Germany’s 16 states.

The employers group claims it criticized the planned regulations loudly and repeatedly, including in hearings before the workplace committee. Employers say they proposed various changes, but were ignored. Also, they claim that the ministry of labor has refused since July 2014 to consult further on the rules.

“The new workplace regulations are all botched up.”

Lutz Goebel, Head of the association of family businesses

“Whether or not the BDA was completely involved from the beginning or not, the new workplace regulations are all botched up,” said Lutz Goebel, head of the association of family businesses. Mr. Goebel also said the employers group must have hit a sore spot with its criticism, considering Ms. Nahles’ reaction.

An official with the employers group said the organization still hopes to discuss the matter with the ministry “so that outstanding issues can be resolved as amicably as possible.”

For now, it’s unlikely that the cabinet will take up the draft legislation on February 4, as originally planned.

All signs indicate the ministry of labor will not give in. Ms. Nahles’ department has already sent out an argument paper to rebut the employers’ criticism. One chapter is titled: “Ammunition from the Specialist Department.”

Ms. Nahles may have another battle on her hands as well. Her party, the SPD, is unwilling to make corrections to the minimum wage law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year. The Christian Democrats, senior coalition partner in the government, would like to make some corrections – the sooner the better.

 

Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the author: specht@handelsblatt.com

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