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Germany’s Sinking Job Market: Women with Children Fired First

November 12, 1990

BERLIN (AP) _ They sit on plastic chairs in a dimly lit corridor, some cradling children, some reading books, all of them killing time. Most are waiting for an answer they already know.

Walk into any employment office in what used to be East Germany and the women outnumber the men. They are losing their jobs at a faster rate - and finding new ones far more slowly.

They are not alone. Foreigners, young people, older people and the handicapped are also finding it harder to find or keep jobs in a quickly sinking economy, experts say.

The former nation’s job market has become a Darwinian proving ground, a battle for survival in which people in the most fragile financial and social situations are the first to be fired.

″A method of dismissals is at work that is distinguished solely by its mercilessness,″ said Ulrike Peretzki-Leid, a board member and social expert for Germany’s Public Service, Transportation and Traffic Union.

Employment experts say former state-run businesses, desperate to survive the painful transition from a socialist state to a market economy, are getting rid of the workers they believe are most likely to hold them back.

Women of childbearing age - particularly single women with small children - are the most vulnerable because of traditionally high rates of absenteeism to care for children.

″Women are the first to be given their notice, and the last to be hired,″ said Peretzki-Leid.

At Berlin’s main jobless office, in the former headquarters of the Communist secret police, women outnumbered men at least 5-to-1 on a recent day. About 60 people crowded the long corridor, some waiting four hours for their names to be called.

″I’ve been looking for work since February,″ said Eve-Marie Schmidt, 35, a former saleswoman at a clothing store. Ms. Schmidt, who is divorced, has a 12-year-old son at home and draws about $400 a month in unemployment.

″For women like me, the situation is terrible,″ she said.

Karin Wernecke, who has a degree in political science from the old Communist school system, worked as a prison counselor but has been looking for work since March.

″I’ve tried to get job training for factories, for computers, even to work as a hairdresser, but I can’t even get into a training program,″ she said. ″My last chance will be to try to get a job as a cleaning woman in West Berlin.″

Mrs. Wernecke, 30, said her husband left her this year. She has an 8-year- old son at home and lives on $330 a month in unemployment benefits.

Kirsten Sell, a caseworker at one of several eastern Berlin social services offices, says she handled 1,227 new welfare cases alone in October, about half of them single, unemployed women with children.

According to government statistics, 90 percent of the women in what used to be East Germany held jobs, compared to about 50 percent in the former West Germany.

Although they comprised nearly 49 percent of the 8.4 million-member work force, women made up 54.2 percent of the 537,799 jobless last month.

Nationwide, another 6 percent of the unemployed were under the age of 20, 1.9 percent were handicapped and 6.6 percent were part-time workers, many of them believed to be women.

That means only 31.3 percent of the jobless were able-bodied males over the age of 20.

Klaus Grehn, president of the Unemployment Society, an activist group representing eastern Germany’s jobless, says the organization’s own research shows that only about 25 percent of the relatively few new hires in the region are being filled by women.

He also said dismissals are disproportionately high for younger workers, who are usually the least experienced, and handicapped and older workers.

Gabriela Endert-Reinhart, spokeswoman for the central employment office in Berlin, said jobless information in the former East Germany is compiled by hand and that no statistical breakdowns are available to back up those claims.

But she said the available information does indicate that women are being laid off at a faster rate.

″An enterprise has a male mechanic and women mechanic and one must be fired. Naturally, a woman with a child is going to be the one fired,″ she said.

Even though East Germany was a Communist police state, the high employment among women was credited to the remarkable social benefits they were given.

Women were guaranteed 20 weeks paid maternity leave, single parents got four weeks paid leave and unlimited unpaid leave to take care of sick children.

There also have been widespread reports of soaring unemployment among the former nation’s foreign work force.

Lien Nguyen Phuong, who came to East Germany three years ago, said she was among the entire 110-member Vietnamese work force fired on Nov. 1 at a textile factory in Dresden.

She said she wants to remain in Germany, but has to find work within a year.

″It’s difficult enough being Vietnamese, but a Vietnamese and a woman ...″ she said. ″At least I don’t have children.″

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