History of guest workers

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-77050-0002, Berlin, tsch...
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A primer on the history of Germany’s guest workers.


  • Picked up the most unskilled and educated labour from backward parts of Turkey, on purpose, to fuel its industrial expansion
  • Kept them in factory dormitories, isolated from mainstream German society
  • Idea was to keep them on rotation of a few years, send them back, and get another roster in
  • Industry rebelled at the high training costs of such interruptions, so same groups of workers were kept
  • Built schools and educated workers’ children for eventual “repatriation” back to Turkey
  • Even after an entire generation has elapsed, still refused to acknowledge the permanent nature of the migrants
  • Up until 10 years ago, had no skill-based, active immigration scheme

While the Turkish migrants:

  • Were from the most backwards parts of Turkey, mostly illiterate and highly religious
  • For decades, in states of limbo, many had bags packed to go home, but uncertainly over Turkey’s political situation kept them
  • Kids educated mostly in Turkish, although in reality had poor literacy skills in both languages
  • Lack of integration and education means little employment prospects for many second and third-generation Turkish immigrants children

So is it any surprise that a homogenous and rigid society has trouble incorporating another equally homogenous and rigid community?

It’s not just Germany, but to my knowledge, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and probably most of western and northern Europe, all had some version of the guest worker scheme.  All are now lying in the thorny beds they made themselves decades ago.

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