Refugees at Work Giving Asylum-Seekers a Chance

A glimpse into how German automaker Daimler is giving 40 refugees an opportunity to learn via “bridge internships” at factories.
Mohammed K., from Syria, is completing a three month internship at Daimler.

At the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September, Daimler AG chief executive Dieter Zetsche unexpectedly launched into a bold and courageous speech about refugees.

Those who leave behind their entire lives are highly motivated, said Mr. Zetsche, who is also head of Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz subsidiary.

“These are exactly the sort of people we are looking for at Mercedes and everywhere else in the country,” he said at the show amid highly polished car prototypes and the new S-Class Coupé.

Even if it is a herculean task, he said, the refugees “can also be the basis for the next German economic miracle.”

My two children were born here in Germany. I am safe here. Mohammed, Program Participant, Daimler

With that, Mr. Zetsche put his own company on the spot, since even Daimler isn’t allowed to simply pick the most-qualified refugees for itself.

The Stuttgart-based company contacted the German Federal Employment Agency because of the highly complex legal work involved. Since the beginning of November, 40 refugees have been able to participate in the three-and-a-half month internships combined with German language courses Daimler terms “bridge internships.”

The Federal Employment Agency assumes the costs for the first six weeks, after that, the carmaker pays the participating refugees the minimum wage.

For the first time, Daimler has now allowed a look behind the scenes and an insight into some of the participants' experiences.

Mohammed's day begins at 6 a.m. with three hours of work followed by three hours of learning German. The 32-year-old Syrian father-of-two takes axle parts from a carrier and feeds them to a robot welder in the carmaker’s plant in Metting. “They are for the S-Class,” he said.

Mohammed came to Germany two years ago with his pregnant wife. “My two children were born here in Germany,” he said proudly. “I am safe here.” He said he doesn’t want to return to Syria: “Fight? But against who? It is so complicated.”

The former law student and truck dealer accepts that he must start in Germany at the bottom. He has been granted asylum status and can stay in the country in any case until the end of 2016. In the meantime, he is learning German and has already reached the advanced B2 level. His vocabulary is best when it comes to the German words for “axle assembly,” “mounting,” and “logistics.”

His volunteer mentor at the robot welder is Aldino, whose parents came to Germany from Italy in the 1960s. “Naturally, I want to help and support when others come now,” he said.

Sameh is also hoping for a training position at Daimler after the internship. The 28-year-old Syrian had worked as a car mechanic in his homeland. “Sameh is tops. If only they all were so good,” his supervisor said. The boss doesn’t have to show the young man twice how to service a machine.

It’s apparent that many of the first Daimler interns appeared to be overqualified.

“With our ‘bridge internships,’ we help refugees with their professional and social integration and offer an un-bureaucratic entry into the labor market,” said Wilfried Porth, a member of Daimler’s board of management responsible for human resources. Mr. Porth hopes for more support through a further loosening of part-time work for asylum-seekers.

“The ban on temporary work in the first 15 months is not helpful,” he told a German press agency. It is bad, he said, when there is an employment gap for refugees after an internship.

In November, about 160,000 people from so-called asylum-admission countries were registered as unemployed. About 309,600 asylum-seekers were looking for work. Other companies are also offering training for refugees. If the Daimler project works, Mr. Porth wants to expand it to several hundred refugees in other plants.

The project isn’t completely free of conflict. Michael Brecht, chairman of Daimler’s General Works Council, doesn’t want jealousy to even arise.

“The bridge interns are not in competition with temporary contract workers or even regular full-time employees,” he said.

Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt's Baden-Württemberg correspondent. To contact the author: [email protected]