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Article Labour mi­gra­tion

Germany started recruiting foreign workers from southern Europe and the Mediterranean region in 1955 after concluding an agreement with Italy.

Later, the government signed recruitment agreements with Spain, Greece (1960), Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), Portugal (1964), Tunisia (1965) and Yugoslavia (1968).

As a result of the economic slowdown, caused among other things by the oil crisis, the Federal Cabinet ordered a stop to further recruitment of foreign labour in November 1973. Few exceptions were made to this ban on recruitment, and few foreign workers were admitted to Germany.

Later changes to the relevant laws gradually expanded the possibilities for foreign workers to move to Germany. The most recent change in this regard was the introduction of the EU Blue Card on 1 August 2012, which makes it easier for skilled workers from non-EU countries to work in the EU. Germany’s current system of labour migration is tailored to the needs and demands of the labour market and is part of the Federal Government’s demographic strategy.

General information

Individual sections of the Residence Act group migration possibilities by their purpose, including

  • education/training,
  • employment,
  • humanitarian/political interests,
  • subsequent immigration of dependent family members.

Thus, German law makes clear that access for foreign workers to the German labour market is a cornerstone of Germany’s immigration policy.

Following amendments in recent years, the law on labour migration is now marked by openness in principle to immigration by skilled workers and is intended to provide incentives to attract workers whose skills are urgently needed in Germany.

Germany’s Act to Implement Council Directive 2009/50/EC on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purpose of highly qualified employment entered into force on 1 August 2012, creating the EU Blue Card as an important residence title which makes it simpler for university graduates from non-EU countries to work legally in Germany.

But even beyond implementing the Directive, the new legislation offers significant advantages for skilled workers from outside the EU. Required minimum salaries, the requirement that employers demonstrate that no one already part of the domestic labour market can fill the vacancy concerned, and tests to ensure that working conditions for foreigners are equivalent to those for Germans ensure that quality requirements are met. These measures are intended to prevent wage dumping and foreigners having to work under less favourable conditions than those for Germans.

The EU Blue Card

Since 1 August 2012, the EU Blue Card has made it possible for university graduates from non-EU countries (third countries) to work legally in Germany without complicated or bureaucratic points procedures. There are only two requirements:

  • Blue Card applicants must demonstrate that they have successfully completed university studies,
  • and they must have a job paying at least 48,400 euros a year (2015).

Earlier legislation requiring a minimum annual salary of more than 65,000 euros was repealed. The EU Blue Card thus makes the German labour market more attractive for persons just starting their careers. In occupations where there are a large number of vacancies in Germany, such as doctors and engineers, the minimum salary is only about 37,752 euros (2015). To prevent abuse, terms of employment for foreigners such as hours of work and salary are checked for equivalence with those of German employees.

The EU Blue Card offers privileges for immigrant workers and their families. Gaining the right of permanent residence early on allows card holders to plan a long-term future in Germany. After three years, they qualify for a permanent settlement permit; those who demonstrate good German language skills are eligible for a permanent settlement permit after only two years.

Job-search visa

The job-search visa opens an entirely new way to manage immigration into the labour market through residence law. With this visa, skilled workers from non-EU countries can come to Germany for six months to look for suitable employment.

To qualify, workers must have a university degree and enough funds to support themselves without working. If they find work within six months, they can stay in Germany and apply for the necessary work permit or EU Blue Card. This visa is intended to help small and medium-sized businesses which mainly conduct regional job searches.

Graduates of German higher education

The conditions for foreign graduates of higher education in Germany have been significantly improved in order to recruit them to the German labour market. These highly qualified first-time job seekers can already speak German and have a German degree. Many of them need a residence permit to seek employment here which is commensurate to their education. To improve their chances of finding such employment, they now have 18 months to look, up from 12 under the previous law, and they can work without restrictions during this time.

After they have worked for two years in a job commensurate to their education, they will be able to stay in Germany permanently.

Other first-time job seekers

Foreigners who have successfully completed an apprenticeship or other occupational training in Germany should be able to stay here to work in the occupation they have trained for. Now they have a year to look for work commensurate to their training. During this year, they can work without restrictions in order to support themselves.

Entrepreneurs and the self-employed

Conditions have been eased for innovative foreigners to start businesses in Germany and create new jobs. Amendments to residence law effective August 2012 offer incentives for foreigners to invest in Germany and give the states more discretion when assessing different business models’ chance of success. The new law did away with all requirements for minimum investment and number of jobs to be created, while retaining existing regulations making it easier for freelancers to get a residence permit.

Immigration of unskilled or low-skilled workers

Unskilled or low-skilled workers may stay in the country only temporarily. They cannot be granted permanent residence. The largest area is the employment of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector and the food-service industry (for no more than six months a year). This area also includes au pairs and domestic workers in households with persons in need of care.

Immigration of skilled workers

This area covers qualifications ranging from completed occupational training or comparable qualification to completed university-level education. Eligible workers will initially be granted a temporary residence permit if they do not qualify for an EU Blue Card. If they are still employed when this temporary permit runs out, their residence permit is renewed. After five years, they may obtain a permanent settlement permit. For persons with a university-level degree in particular, temporary residence may lead to permanent residence.

There is no defined minimum salary for these skilled workers. However, the salary must be the same as for Germans with comparable skills.

For example:

  • skilled workers with a university-level degree in any field,
  • skilled IT workers with a university-level degree or the equivalent (previous holders of Green Cards),
  • graduates of German universities (without checking whether German or EU citizens are available to fill the position),
  • guest researchers and research staff at universities and research institutes as well as engineers and technicians working in research teams (without checking whether German or EU citizens are available to fill the position),
  • executives (without checking whether German or EU citizens are available to fill the position),
  • teachers at public schools and independent schools (without checking whether German or EU citizens are available to fill the position),
  • professional athletes and trainers (without checking whether German or EU citizens are available to fill the position),
  • artists, journalists,
  • speciality chefs,
  • employment based on bilateral agreements such as contract workers and workers participating in further occupational and language training,
  • other skilled workers if there is a public interest.

Immigration of highly qualified workers

There is no generally valid definition for the term “highly qualified worker”. The term often includes all persons with a university-level degree. The Residence Act has a specific definition of highly qualified workers: those whose residence is of special economic and societal interest to Germany. This is the only group which is granted a permanent residence permit upon arrival.

The law is aimed at top-level figures in academia and research with outstanding professional qualifications. According to the law, these include in particular

  • researchers with special technical knowledge, and
  • teachers in prominent positions, such as university chairs.

The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs provides detailed information on employment opportunities and procedures for foreign workers from EU Member States and third countries (see link) and FAQs on the employment of foreign workers in Germany (see download).

Subsequent immigration of spouses/children of foreign professionals

Foreign professionals holding a residence title for the purpose of employment may be accompanied by their spouses from abroad if they intend to stay for more than one year. However, spouses must demonstrate sufficient language skills. As a rule, exceptions are made for spouses holding a university-level degree, spouses of highly qualified workers, spouses of holders of the EU Blue Card and spouses of nationals of certain countries, for example the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Japan.
Persons who marry after entering Germany may be rejoined by their spouses only after having lived here for at least two years. Again, exceptions are made for highly qualified workers and holders of the EU Blue Card.
Children are always allowed to accompany an immigrating parent. Special rules apply to the immigration of children, when moving to join their parents or one parent already residing in Germany (depending on their age and ability to integrate, and on whether they are accompanied by the immigrant’s spouse).
New regulations are in place for the labour market access of spouses. Any family member with a residence title for the purpose of family reunification has unrestricted and permanent access to the labour market upon arrival.

Additional information

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