Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on the immigration of skilled workers at the labour and skilled workers congress of the Greens parliamentary group in the German Bundestag

18.06.2024 - Speech

At the beginning of this year, I was in the Philippines and had taken a young Philippine woman with me, from southern Germany, to illustrate the issue of recruiting skilled workers. She has worked in a hospital in my country for the past seven years.

When Lola talked about her experiences, I had to take a couple of deep breaths, because the young woman was very honest. She said the following: “It’s great in Germany. I love my job.” But she also said: “To be honest, if someone had told me beforehand… I don’t know if I would have set out on this journey.”

And then she gave a very charming account. On the one hand, she talked about what it’s like to arrive in such a different culture, where people only say “Good morning!” and then rarely move on to small talk. How she first had to learn German. And she talked about what we always hear as stereotypes about Germany – unfortunately a reality: the certificates, the diplomas, the documents, the translations, the whole jungle of paperwork, the weeks of waiting for appointments at the embassy. Until she was finally on the plane. Listening to her, you thought to yourself: why on earth did she make all those sacrifices?

This made it clear to me once again how important it is that we don’t just talk about skilled immigration with the assumption that, anyway, everyone wants to come to Germany. Instead, we need to call to mind, to ask ourselves what’s attractive about us. Why should people come to Germany? Why should they come to us and work here?

We need to ask ourselves such questions because we are, of course, facing international competition.

And German is a wonderful language – we all know that. But not that many people in the world speak our language. And so, for many people, especially in an increasingly globalised world, it makes sense to work in another country, for example in English.

For us as the German Government as a whole, one of the most important tasks of our term of office – and we got this off the ground right at the outset – was therefore to usher in a genuine paradigm shift.

A paradigm shift in our attitude, not only towards the issue of skilled labour, but also towards this decades-long debate about whether or not we’re a country of immigration. After all, this debate has not only paralysed us, but it has created systems that are not appealing for people who want to work here. Systems that, throughout this jungle of paperwork, were designed to close the door to newcomers. And this was despite the fact that almost one in three people in our country already has a migrant background. This is also part of an honest debate here.

And we have to say quite clearly that we can no longer afford to have such an attitude.

We have just heard the figures, the facts.

That’s why we, as the German Government, have no longer closed our eyes to migration, but have said that we must actively take the wheel.

After all, a proactive migration policy serves our own economic interests. And we’re designing our migration policy in such a way that it combines humanitarian responsibility and economic interests, in such a way that it is economically smart, reliable and commensurate with our values.

We have launched a common European asylum system with this in mind, despite the fact that this has entailed difficult discussions. We have explicitly addressed the issue of immigration and have sorted out this constant blurring of displacement and migration.

This means that, at long last, we’re no longer leaving the issue of immigration, of skilled workers, to chance, but are approaching it in a targeted and strategic manner, just as other countries are doing. We have created the legal and digital conditions for orderly immigration so that we stand any chance at all in the field in which we’re competing internationally. Because not everyone automatically speaks German and says they would like to work in Germany.

After all, without the understanding that we’re a modern country of immigration that must actively recruit skilled workers, we won’t be able to get on top of this incredible shortage of skilled workers.

Each and every one of us experiences this in everyday life – when we go to the bakery, for example. Close to where I live, for example, there’s a sign that reads: “We’re now opening one day less each week.” The production lines at a number of industrial enterprises, where we used to talk about short-time work for other reasons, are now at a standstill due to a lack of workers. And we could go on and on about daycare centres and nursing staff.

But we won’t be able to simply magic our skilled workers out of thin air. If we do nothing, we’ll end up in a situation where we’re down 400,000 people of working age each and every year. Or we’ll manage to recruit 400,000 people internationally to work here.

And as I said, we’re facing international competition, not just in terms of language. Where it’s easier for an Indian IT specialist who speaks English as her mother tongue to go to the US or Australia. Where nursing staff in Brazil, who speak Portuguese, for instance, when it comes down to it, that Spanish is just that little bit closer.

I’m labouring the point that we ourselves have to be proactive, because that’s the main issue during all my trips. When I travel, I see how, as a result of our culture over decades, the impression has been created around the world that, well, skilled workers aren’t needed all that urgently in Germany.

This means that we’ve got to try even harder.

And we have to remember that, for decades, people have seen our strength, our unique selling point, in the fact that we’re a free country, a strong welfare state, a country where people are able to realise their potential. And that’s why they wanted to work in our country, even if it was perhaps a little more difficult with the language. Today, I’m often asked the following when I’m on trips abroad: “Is Germany safe for me if I have a different skin colour? Is it a problem if I can’t speak German very well?” That’s also a reality. Because in an interconnected world, reports about racism – or election results – are disseminated everywhere.

And then there’s another issue, which has always been one of our advantages, namely the question “can I take my children with me?” I also see this around the world because we’re in such a competitive environment. The ability to combine work and family life is also playing an increasingly important role. And here, too, our competitive advantage is diminished if we’re not working to create a welcoming environment.

With this in mind, to cut a long story short, the Skilled Immigration Act is the best thing that could have happened to us as an economic nation.

With the Skilled Immigration Act, Germany now has the most modern immigration law, at least in Europe.

And that means we’re finally making it possible for people with foreign educational qualifications in Germany to no longer have to worry whether this or that certificate will be recognised or not. Instead, we’re now entering into recognition partnerships. This means that you can start working and have your foreign qualification recognised afterwards. This is taken for granted in other countries.

For the first time, the Skilled Immigration Act is allowing asylum-seekers to withdraw their asylum application under certain conditions and to obtain a residence permit as a skilled worker instead. This is also known as switching tracks. Many people in this country have been fighting for years for this to finally be put in place. And this helps our economy tremendously and is an important step towards modernisation.

I remember back in the 90s what our perception of refugees from the Balkan wars was. A good friend of mine came here as a child, was educated here, learned everything, spoke perfect German. And then, when she reached adulthood, she moved to the Netherlands to study because she could no longer stay here.

And this perception that people who have been here for a long time, who have been trained here, who are able to work here, that they can also strengthen our economy and, above all, help us out with our lack of skilled workers, is essential.

The third point I want to mention are opportunity cards. Here, too, we’ve finally done what a number of countries have already accomplished before us: introducing a modern points system that reflects the strengths of individual applicants. Instead of making blanket stipulations about which certificates they still need. This is also something we’ve learned from Canada, for example – how important this is for our own system.

The good news is that we’ve now put in place the legal requirements for this. And I’d like to invite everyone – many representatives of companies are also in attendance today – to spread the word about this. Because just amending laws doesn’t help. We can’t undo the last few decades, when people had the impression that it was actually incredibly difficult to come to Germany. We now have to actively go out and promote this.

And this teamwork is the second important part of this. We can only tackle this as the German Government together with the Länder and the business community. No minister alone can get 400,000 skilled workers to come here; we have to do this together. With this in mind, we have coordinated our efforts between, in particular, Hubertus Heil’s Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Robert Habeck’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action and the Federal Foreign Office. And, in so doing, we’ve asked ourselves: in which professions do we need people? How can we cooperate with the business community? How can we as the Federal Foreign Office, as the first point of contact for visas and language learning with the branches of the Goethe-Institut, get this off the ground together?

There’s no blueprint for every country.

Because the attitude “we do the same thing for every country” would also be from the last century, one guided by the mentality “everyone wants to come to Germany anyway”. Instead, we need to address people in different regions, bearing in mind their specific interests.

We’ve cooperated with the Philippines for many years, where Lola the nurse comes from, in the area of care workers. There was a lot of interest because of well-paid jobs in Germany, of course, which also translated into remittances for the Philippines and its economy. However, the pandemic showed that, logically speaking, we’re not the only ones preoccupied by this. Instead, all countries around the world have rightly asked themselves what we actually need to do to strengthen our own healthcare system.

This means that we have to keep rethinking our approach here as well. And in the area of healthcare in particular, we need to take a close look at how can we do this in a way that benefits both sides. This also means a change in mentality. Not only looking at what Germany needs and assuming that the other country already understands that this is good for them as well. But we should also ask ourselves what partner countries actually stand to gain when we enter into migration partnerships. In other words, above all, we now have partnerships on an equal footing that also take into account the needs and concerns of others.

Protective measures have been put in place by the WHO that are also enshrined in law in our country, measures that ensure that the healthcare system in the country of origin is not damaged when skilled workers migrate from the healthcare sector. “Brain drain” is the keyword here. That, too, is important to me. Because it means that the countries that cooperate with us in this area have been checked beforehand according to WHO standards to see whether this is good for them or not. And you can create a win-win situation here.

Of course, the primary focus for my ministry, for the Federal Foreign Office, are the visa offices at our missions abroad. They’re Germany’s calling card, so to speak. And to be honest, I was quite perplexed at the beginning. Because by thinking that we’re perhaps not really a country of immigration, we, this country, created a system in the past that was rather geared towards shutting ourselves off. At the beginning of my term in office, I was asked questions like: “But Ms Baerbock, why does it take so long at your embassies. How can that be?”

And then I was in New Delhi at the end of 2022, and there, and I’m not joking, they were dragging visa applications around in laundry baskets – and a whole room was completely full of laundry baskets of visa applications. And that wasn’t because people in Delhi, at the embassy, hadn’t yet heard about the digital transformation, but because it was a system that was designed – I’m putting this in my own words right now – to, when push comes to shove, make life difficult for the applicants at the end of the day.

You don’t attract skilled workers that way, of course. If we have people today in 2024 who ask themselves “what are my opportunities in Germany?” and who want to study here, and the semester gets under way and they then hear from the embassy “maybe a year from now” – then we have a problem.

We had to overhaul the visa system with the understanding that a modern country of immigration needs a modern visa system. Our goal is therefore to implement the digitalisation of the entire visa process by the end of this legislative term.

This not only means that applicants will finally be able to submit their visa applications online from home via the Consular Services Portal and that there will be no more laundry baskets, but also that we will reduce unnecessary procedural steps. And this also requires cooperation between the federal and Land levels.

Up until now, if someone wanted to study in Germany, for example, then the embassy would check their application. That’s the job of the embassy, which knows the country well. Nevertheless, there was still the procedural step in which the foreigners authorities were able to have their say about whether this university or that lecture or course was a good fit. How a foreigners authority in a small town far from India is supposed to know what the degree situation is like in Delhi is a bit of a mystery. And, in practice, it has led to excessive workloads on the part of the foreigners authorities, which then submitted pro forma objections to push back deadlines. Because they already knew that they wouldn’t be able to get this done in the short amount of time available.

When I asked them “how can it be that we have such long waiting times for students?” their answer was simple: because we’ve got a system that was actually designed with the mentality: well, actually, we don’t really want foreign students that much.

We’ve also changed this state of affairs. And this is another example of teamwork. In this case, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior. We tackled this issue and got rid of this step of involving the foreigners authorities. This also relieves the local foreigners authorities, who have enough on their plate in Germany.

Thirdly, and I’d like to bang the drum for the Federal Foreign Office here, we also have a shortage of skilled labour! To speed things up here, my predecessor Heiko Maas, and I’m most grateful for this, created the Federal Agency for Foreign Affairs, which is based in picturesque Brandenburg an der Havel, in Land Brandenburg. I must say it’s wonderful there. Visa applications are now also being processed here in Germany so that we can work faster and in a more focused manner. We’re centralising the processing of certain application categories there because we can’t do everything all the same time. We can’t bring all of the missions abroad up to speed just like that.

And so the Federal Agency for Foreign Affairs is the biggest visa office for national visas worldwide already today. And we urgently need skilled workers also here who can continue to support this.

In India, in Delhi, we have thus been able to reduce waiting times for national visas to two weeks. That used to take nine months.

This is what we’re aspiring to do in view of the 400,000 people who we actually need.

However, our forecasts predict that the Skilled Immigration Act will increase the number of national visas by around 63 percent. That’s why I’m banging the drum quite loudly here. We must, of course, be able to continue to implement this with personnel. That’s why right now – we’re in the midst of budget negotiations after all – investment in IT and staffing levels is such an important task for us. Not for the Federal Foreign Office, but for Germany as location for business and investment. After all, if we don’t speed up here, then, from bakers to IT companies, we will all have big problems on our hands.

We can only take on this task together. I’m therefore most delighted that so many members of the business community are with us today. During my visit to the Philippines, we had a meeting not only with Lola, but also with leading German car manufacturers and other companies doing business there. That’s the great thing: we don’t just have embassies, we also have many companies that are ambassadors for Germany. But we could work much better together also there. After all, the Federal Foreign Office, the German Government, cannot get their hands on skilled workers by themselves. We can only do this in combination with others, especially with companies. We have a great many German Chambers of Commerce Abroad around the world. Some of them are working extremely well, but I’d say that there’s still scope for improvement for others.

With this in mind, I would like to mention an example, namely a construction company from Hanover, where I also met members of the business community. The company has said that it cannot wait any longer, that it needs construction site workers so badly that it’s recruiting them itself on the ground in Uzbekistan. Acknowledging that it’s not enough to say “come to Germany, work here!” But rather in cooperation with the local language school.

That’s my appeal also to the federations, to the Federation of German Industries and others, to also think within the federations about how we can actually create such platforms abroad together with the German Government, across sectors.

Because that’s what we need to do to get our hands on 400,000 people. Because we can only do this together.

We’ve seen what we’ve achieved with legal amendments. A change in mentality, the understanding that people are supporting us here. People like Lola – and people like Mohammed.

I don’t know what it’s like for you when you’re staying in hotel rooms. I’ve recently sometimes seen cards telling me to “sleep well”, also adding who has made the bed. And I recently got a card in Munich, which read as follows: “I hope you slept well, Ms Baerbock. I’ve finally been able to sleep really well since coming to Germany. Kind regards, Mohammed. P.S.: the hotel boss here gave me a real opportunity to find this job.”

And this understanding that, on the one hand, we need to recruit skilled workers from abroad and, on the other hand, harness the potential of those who have been living here for a long time – especially when it comes to the employment of women; that we need to think of these things as two sides of the same coin and not play them off against each other – that will help us move forward.

With fully digitalised and efficient immigration procedures.

With active companies and applicants from abroad.

With strong branches of the Goethe-Institut at which people can learn German.

And, above all, with an open society, with a genuine culture of welcome.

One that starts in our embassies and visa offices, but which stretches as far as the kindergarten around the corner.


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