• Revision History

EN:Gastarbeiter (guest workers)

From Historisches Lexikon Bayerns

Arrival of guest workers at Munich Central Station. Almost all of the guest workers coming from Southern and South-East Europe arrived at Munich central Stations‘ Platform 11. They were registered here before continuing their journey to their planned destinations. Picture from the 1960s. (Stadtarchiv München – Munich Municipal Archives, RD0668A14)
A few days before christmas in 1965, guest workers are standing in line at the ticket office at Munich Central Station to buy tickets home. Over the counter, the relevant directions are displayed in four languages to make orientation easier. The lack of a German sign is striking. Photo December 1965. (Stadtarchiv München, RD0667B26)

by Maximiliane Rieder

The term "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers; official governmental term: "ausländische Arbeitnehmer” [foreign workers] or "Arbeitnehmer aus den Anwerbeländern” [workers from the recruitment countries]) refers to labour migrants of the so-called first generation who came to the Federal Republic of Germany between 1955 and 1973 under recruitment agreements. They enabled the German economy to compensate for the shortage of labour during the "Wirtschaftswunder" (economic miracle). Partner countries were mainly Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey. The image of "Gastarbeiter" in Bavaria was mainly shaped by Italians. The proportion of the foreign working population in Bavaria and West Germany rose sharply between 1960 and 1972 (Bavaria: increase from 36,979 to 371,253). At the beginning, unskilled workers were recruited as a priority, with skilled workers following later. A "recruitment freeze" in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1973 ended access for workers from outside the European Economic Community (EEC). Here the Federal Republic of Germany followed a trend that could be observed throughout Western Europe between 1970 and 1974. The success of the "Gastarbeiter" in the German economy led to many of them settling here and their families joining them later. Nevertheless, the vast majority of them returned to their home countries.

Origin and development of the term "Gastarbeiter"

When in 1964 an official welcoming committee in Cologne presented the millionth "Gastarbeiter", Portuguese Armando Rodrigues de Sà (1926–1979), with a Zündapp Mokick as a gift on his arrival in the Federal Republic of Germany, with great media attention, the neologism for the workers recruited abroad since the mid-1950s had long become established in the public debate in West Germany. The relevant official governmental term, however, was "ausländische Arbeitnehmer” (foreign employees) or "Arbeitnehmer aus den Anwerbeländern” (employees from the recruitment countries). The impartial terms "Ausländer” (foreigners) or "Nichtdeutsche” (non-Germans) can be found in official statistics. The application of the term "Gastarbeiter" at local administrative level is first mentioned in the City of Nuremberg‘s 1962/64 administrative report. The word appeared in the press as early as 19 July 1950 in the article "Deutsch-französischer Sozialvertrag" (Franco-German social contract) . The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) evaluated the introduction of this term as an improvement over the biased term "Fremdarbeiter" (foreign workers) in its article "Die ausländischen Arbeitskräfte und Wir. Gastarbeiter – eine neue Bezeichnung für die Fremden" (The Foreign Workers and Us. Gastarbeiter - a new term for the foreigners) on 3 June 1961.

During the NS era, "Fremdarbeiter" were voluntary civilian workers from abroad in the German war economy ("Ausländereinsatz"). For example, Italian agricultural and industrial workers had been recruited for the allied German Reich on the basis of short-term contracts since 1937. The repeatedly modified designations for workers from Fascist Italy in the territory of the Reich reflect the changing relationship between the two dictatorships: "Gastarbeitnehmer" (guest workers), "Arbeitskameraden" (work comrades), "Italienische Militärinternierte" (Italian military internees; for the Italian soldiers used for forced labour in Germany after Italy's change of alliance). The NS regime chose the terms "Arbeitskräfte aus dem Osten" or "Ostarbeiter" (workers from the East) for the Soviet forced labourers. The use of the term "Fremdarbeiter" as a synonym for "Gastarbeiter" was rather the exception in the 1960s (e.g. Nürnberger Nachrichten, 5 June 1964). But even social interest groups and collective bargaining parties still referred to the newcomers from the South as "Fremdarbeiter".

Etymologically, the word "Gastarbeiter" was derived from "Gastarbeitnehmer" (guest employee). Both word creations referred predominantly to Italians. The exchange of "Gastarbeitnehmer" was also mentioned in the intergovernmental "Gastarbeitnehmervereinbarungen" (guest employee agreements) that the Federal Republic of Germany concluded in the early 1950s (1951 with France, 1953 with Italy).

They are to be distinguished from the government agreements on the recruitment and placement of foreign workers that were concluded later. The encyclopaedia “Herders Konversationslexikon” lexicographically recorded "Gastarbeitnehmer" in 1953. In 1954, the German Trade Union Federation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [DGB]) used the term "ausländische Wanderarbeiter” (foreign migrant workers) – a linguistic alternative from the period of the Wilhelmine Empire and the Weimar Republic for non-domestic workers.

The change of terminology in the post-war period was to distinguish it from the earlier, negatively charged expressions. In popular parlance, the friendly sounding term used for the so-called first generation of labour migrants did not include employed foreigners from neighbouring states, such as Austrians, Dutch and French, who worked in West Germany without the basis of a bilateral agreement, or highly qualified foreign nationals. The common denominator here was the German language or higher social status. The foreigners stigmatised as "Gastarbeiter" were mostly unskilled workers from poor, agricultural regions with no or little knowledge of German. Ethnic affiliation to a country of a usually different cultural area determined the classification.

The euphemistic and contradictory composite "Gastarbeiter" as a term for the workers from the "recruitment countries" during the years of the economic miracle evokes the idea of a temporary solution. It contains the message that "guests" are only those who do not stay permanently and the expectation that they may leave again. While the first word component referred to the concept of a temporary stay of foreign workers, which was to be followed by their return to the respective country of origin (on the so-called rotation principle, see below), the second word component restricted the immigrants to their economic role, namely to perform manual work for the resulting legitimation to live in the host country.

When the inadequacy of the paradoxical slogan came under increasing criticism, the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education [bpb]) reacted by publishing the paper "Fremde, Gäste, Freunde – Gastarbeiter in Deutschland" (Foreigners, guests, friends – Guest workers in Germany) in 1966. Teaching materials on the "guest worker problem" followed in the field of compulsory education in 1971. In 1970, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) organised a competition to find a more appropriate word for foreign workers. Despite the great response to the initiative, the jury concluded that they had not found a convincing, neutral and unencumbered version for a new expression. The large majority considered "ausländische Arbeitnehmer" (foreign employees) to be the least ambiguous of the terms in use at the time, with "ausländische" and "europäische Mitbürger" (foreign/European fellow citizens) in second and third place. "Besuchstätige” (visiting workers), “Dankarbeiter” (“thanks workers”), “Deutschenhelfer” (“German-helpers”) , “Förderanten” (derived from “fördern”, i. e. “to support”) “Hilfsdeutsche” (“assistant Germans”), “Industrieeuropäer” (“industrial Europeans”), “Konjunkturisten” (derived from “Konjunktur”, i. e. “(economic) boom”), “Leiharbeiter” (temporary workers), “Mitdeutsche” (fellow Germans), “Mietarbeiter” (leased workers), “Auslandsroboter” (“foreign robots”), “Devisenboys” (“foreign currency boys") were other suggested alternatives. Discriminatory language creations such as “Helferos” ("helperos"), "Mulis” (mules) or "Kameltreiber” (camel drivers) indicate the resentment and xenophobia among the German population.

At the beginning of the 1970s, it became apparent that the original concept of employing foreign workers in West Germany for only a short time for purely economic reasons had failed. More and more "Gastarbeiter" were preparing for a longer stay and had family members join them. This situation led to a variety of problems, as the Federal Republic of Germany had not provided for the integration of foreign workers. The term lost its basis to the extent that "Gastarbeiter" became de facto immigrants and disappeared with the first integration measures.

Recruitment, origin, areas of employment

Arrival of Turkish workers at Munich Central Station in 1964. The workers from Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia and Yugoslavia were sent on from Munich to their destinations throughout Germany. Photo by Felicitas Timpe (1923-2006). (bavarikon) (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek – Bavarian State Library, image archive, timp-016747)

The "Gastarbeiter period" covers the years 1955 to 1973, from the Federal Republic of Germany's first "Recruitment Agreement" to the so-called "recruitment freeze" during the global economic crisis. While the economic upswing in post-war Bavaria, which was dominated by agriculture, began with a certain delay due to above-average unemployment and below-average value creation, a shortage of labour quickly became apparent in agriculture and mining in the Federal Republic's other states. With the emigration of many Germans after the war, the unemployment figures fell as industrial production increased. The government expected a further exhaustion of the domestic labour supply (1.07 million unemployed in 1955) with the planned compulsory military service. In 1954, the DGB spoke out against the officially organised recruitment of foreigners for the Federal Republic's labour market out of consideration for the German employees' "sensitivities". Only later did the trade unions recognise the migrants as their clientele. Only a few workers were placed in West Germany in the first few years. Recruitment only rose steeply when full employment was reached in 1960 (unemployment below one percent), the influx of displaced persons and refugees from Eastern Europe and the GDR as well as internal migration could no longer balance out the demand from booming industry, and finally the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961) put an end to East German immigration – an important recruitment source for new workers.

The "sending countries", which had an interest in the transfer of employee wages for the benefit of their balance of payments, also pushed for the conclusion of "recruitment contracts". In many Mediterranean countries, there was a growing expectation that the pressure on their own labour markets would be relieved by the controlled "export" of unskilled or low-skilled unemployed people. German Minister of Economic Affairs Ludwig Erhard (1897–1977, Federal Minister of Economic Affairs 1949–1963) also feared export restrictions. The first agreement regulating the recruitment and placement of foreign workers was concluded by the federal government in 1955 on the initiative of the traditional emigration country Italy. Corresponding bilateral agreements followed with Spain and Greece (1960), Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), Portugal (1964), Tunisia (1965) and Yugoslavia (1968).

Table 1: Foreigners in the states of the Federal Republic of Germany
State 6.6.1961 30.9.1970 30.9.1976
in thousands in % of all foreigners in thousands in % of all foreigners in thousands in % of all foreigners
North Rhine-Westphalia 204,8 29,8 825,9 27,7 1.204,8 30,5
Baden-Württemberg 167,5 24,4 724,3 24,3 831,9 21,1
Bavaria 110,9 16,2 497,8 16,7 641,8 16,3
Hesse 60,7 8,8 329,7 11,1 431,3 10,9
Federal Territory 686,2 100 2976,5 100 3948,3 100

Extract from table 27 in: Bethlehem, Heimatvertreibung, 121; foreigners in the federal territory (1964), 646; foreigners in the federal territory on September 30th 1974 (1974), 767, on September 30th 1976 (1976), 724.

Destinations for "Gastarbeiter" in Germany

On November 27th, 1969, Ismail Bahadir (2nd from left), of Turkish origin, was welcomed at Platform 11 by a flurry of press flashbulbs and by the President of the Nuremberg Bundesanstalt für Arbeit (Federal Labor Office), Josef Stingl (2nd from right), as the "millionth Gastarbeiter from Southeast Europe". He received a television as a welcome gift. (Stadtarchiv München, RD0667D04)

The destinations for "Gastarbeiter" were the West German industrial areas such as Stuttgart (Baden-Württemberg), Cologne (North Rhine-Westphalia), Munich, Wolfsburg (Lower Saxony) and the Ruhr area (North Rhine-Westphalia). The "Weiterleitungsstelle des Landesarbeitsamts Südbayern" (Forwarding Office of the State Labour Office of Southern Bavaria), which was based at Munich Central Station, was responsible for organising the entry of all Southern and South-Eastern European workers into the Federal Republic of Germany and their distribution. The "Gastarbeiter’s" trains arrived here on platform 11. North Rhine-Westphalia had the highest number of foreigners in absolute terms, followed by Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria (table 1). In 1961, half of all foreigners in West Germany were accounted for by the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg alone. Immigration to Bavaria increased when economic growth was well above the average of the other states since the 1970s: in 1970 almost half of all foreigners lived in North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, and in 1976 more than two-thirds of all foreigners lived there.

Table 2: Number of guest workers registered at the forwarding office at Munich Central Station
Italy Greece Turkey Yugoslavia Total
1960 93.250 9.500 102.750
1961 107.100 21.500 2.100 130.700
1962 76.690 31.930 11.040 119.660
1963 31.830 40.600 23.430 95.860
1964 26.570 40.620 54.910 122.100
1965 26.550 33.240 45.560 105.350
1966 13.405 26.876 32.538 72.819
1967 3.978 1.948 7.222 13.148
1968 10.416 24.254 41.496 76.166
1969 10.215 51.253 98.172 71.690 231.310
1970 7.405 49.792 95.660 106.462 259.319

Bundesanstalt für Arbeit (pub.), Representative Survey 1972, Nuremberg 1973.

Origin of "guest workers"

Greek Ambassador Alexis Kyrou (1901-1969) and Commercial Attaché Gerassimos Papavassiliou visit Greek “Gastarbeiter” at BMW's final assembly line for motorcycles in 1964. (BMW Group Archives, photo by Karl Attenberger)

The labour shortage was compensated first and foremost by recruiting Italians, who, unlike the seasonal workers in northern Italy during the period of the Wilhelmine Empire, mainly came from the structurally weak "Mezzogiorno" (in particular Campania, Calabria, Sicily). The largest group among foreign workers until 1970, they had a lasting influence on the image of "Gastarbeiter" and are given greater consideration in this article. In Bavaria, too, Italians were still the largest group of foreigners in 1969, followed by Turks, Yugoslavs, Austrians and Greeks (table 3). Just as in West Germany, the proportion of Italians, Greeks and Spaniards fell, while the proportion of Yugoslavs and, above all, Turks rose as a result of the 1968 and 1961 agreements. The foreign working population grew by leaps and bounds nationwide from 279,390 (1960) to 2.284 million (1972), and in Bavaria from 36,979 (July 1960) to 371,253 (1972).

Table 3: Foreign resident population and employed persons in Bavaria
1960 1970
as of March
Employed persons
as of
September 30th
as of September
Employed persons
as of
June 30th
Of which male Of which male
Italy 10.511* 14.309 13.347 79.173 48.713 38.342
Austria 23.587 12.978 7.937 57.926 39.399 27.526
Greece 3.514 1.772 1.520 63.484 42.418 23.477
Yugoslavia 7.241 899 666 99.014 67.555 44.973
Turkey 1.795 307 275 83.872 58.016 41.802
Others 84.254 6.714 4.982 114.308 36.776 24.169
Total 130.902 36.979 28.727 497.777 292.877 200.289

Own calculations based on: Statistisches Jahrbuch für Bayern 1961, 27th ed., 18: Ausländer nach ihrer Staatsangehörigkeit (Ergebnis der halbjährigen Ausländererhebung bei den Einwohnermeldeämtern); Statistisches Jahrbuch für Bayern 1972, 30th ed., 26: Ausländer seit 1969 nach der Staatsangehörigkeit (Ergebnisse der Meldungen der Ausländerbehörde), 134: Beschäftigte ausländische Arbeitnehmer nach Staatsangehörigkeit. *: The perceived contradiction between the resident population and the working population can be explained by the different surveys on March 31st and September 30th.

Sectors in which "Gastarbeiter" were employed

The rapid upswing of the young Federal Republic of Germany after 1945 would hardly have been possible in the 1960s without the numerous “Gastarbeiter”. “Gastarbeiter” were found in particular in the manufacturing and construction industries. In many cases, they took over jobs that Germans no longer wanted to do. The picture shows construction work in Munich's Kaufingerstrasse between Fürstenfelder Straße and Liebfrauenstraße. Photo taken in 1969. (Stadtarchiv München, DE-1992-FS-NL-GRO-357-093)

In Bavaria, the Italian migrants worked mainly in building construction and civil engineering – e.g. on the major construction sites in Munich for the the underground and suburban railways and the Olympic Park – and in vehicle construction and mechanical engineering.

Out of a total of 21,522 employed Italians (1961), 19,502 were employed as manual workers, the remainder were salaried employees (942), self-employed (823) and apprentices (231). Italian immigration increased sharply, especially to Munich: between 1960 and 1961 the number of registered Italian citizens rose from 5,319 to 9,789 inhabitants. In 1963, there were already 20,471 Italians of both sexes registered, making up the highest proportion of foreigners in the Bavarian capital at 18.3%. At the end of 1972 there were only 4,677 women among 25,906 officially registered Italians. In September 1961, the statistics for the city and district of Munich recorded 10,075 employees from Italy. Two years later, their share of foreign employees reached 33.6% with 13,332 workers (Munich Labour Office statistics). Among the branches of the economy, building construction and civil engineering (6,613) ranked first, followed by vehicle construction (1,643), mining and quarrying (611), trade and auxiliary trade (563) and catering (451). In 1972, the Italian workforce was mainly distributed among the sectors of building and civil engineering (6,551), trade and auxiliary trade (1,635), catering (1,610), vehicle construction (1,579) and electrical engineering (1,202). The catering sector therefore moved from fifth to third place in terms of employment within nine years, not least due to the boom of tourism since the early 1960s, which made Mediterranean cuisine famous.


Language remained a major problem, at least initially, so that multilingual signs found their way into everyday life at the authorities for the first time. Door sign of the Munich Labour Office, April 1963. (Stadtarchiv München, RD0667A10)

The "Gastarbeiter" often occupied the lowest ranks in the employment hierarchy of the West German host society (rubbish collection, street cleaning). As was already the case in the German Empire, the foreign labour force developed into a social and professional underclass to the German working population, which also benefited the displaced persons and refugees. The "Gastarbeiter" were primarily employed in areas that required them to perform heavy physical labour, combined with piecework and shift work, as well as health risks. At the beginning of the recruitment process (1955), the business community did not demand professionally qualified personnel; the focus was on unskilled or semi-skilled work, mainly in the low segment of industrial production. Only later did field offices of the Bundesanstalt für Arbeit (Federal Labour Office), the so-called Deutsche Kommission (German Commission), which took over recruitment and placement in the respective home countries in consultation with German companies, recruit skilled workers.. Vocational training qualifications were often not recognised because they did not correspond to the German parameters. The Nürnberger Nachrichten wrote in the article "In fremdem Land. Gast ohne echtes Gastrecht" (“In a foreign country. Guest without true right to hospitality”; NN, 16./17.5.1970): "There are few signs indicating that "Gastarbeiter" are regarded as more than relatively cheap labour machines." In this year, the Bundesanstalt für Arbeit recorded less than one percent of all "Gastarbeiter" in its statistics as salaried employees. Significantly, there is therefore no such term as "guest employee".

Rotation and "recruitment freeze"

Recruitment was originally guided by the principle of "rotation", an analytical term for one-year contracts that only appeared in the 1970s. The young and single workers who were in demand because of their mobility – initially there were few female workers – were to stay in the Federal Republic of Germany only for a limited period. The foreign workers did not have any plans to look for a permanent new home either. Their continuing high level of voluntary return migration to their countries of origin seemed to confirm the "rotation principle" as a key element of "Gastarbeit".

However, it was not applied consistently, as trained permanent staff is indispensable for industrial companies. Frequent change was associated with economically expensive training periods for new workers speaking a foreign language. In view of the continuously strong economic growth, employers were interested in longer working stays and in most cases applied for an extension of their approved foreign employee’s work permit, which was almost always granted. When companies, on the recommendation of their foreign employees, requested relatives from the employment office, the chain migration that began as a result led to the gradual emigration of almost entire southern Italian villages to German industrial cities.

Economic buffer

The labour offices were able to flexibly control the duration and scope of employment of foreigners. As long as German industry was not able to recruit enough workers through the domestic labour market, the recruited foreigners were to be used as a mobile labour reserve. This fluctuating labour potential temporarily balanced out seasonal or cyclical bottlenecks on the labour market. In the alternation between upswing and crisis, they took on replacement and expansion or buffer functions on the labour market. The "economic buffer" of foreign employment, already known from the period of the Empire, was already validated during the first recession in 1966/67. Nationwide their employment fell from 1.3 million (1966) to 0.9 million (Jan. 1968). The effects were particularly striking in the construction industry, which is highly dependent on economic cycles. In Bavaria, the recession mainly affected Italian construction workers.

Recruitment freeze

When the energy crisis triggered a stagnation in growth, the German government decided in November 1973 to impose a "recruitment freeze" in the foreign workers' countries of origin in order to relieve the labour market. Due to a gradual informal exchange with countries of parallel industrial development and similar worker recruitment (Switzerland, France) on the consequences of a permanent establishment of these workers with their families, the measure that had been prepared for some time was motivated not only by economic considerations, but also by the administrative recognition of a need for social and legal policy action on how to deal with immigration and new migrants. The recruitment freeze affected workers from countries outside the European Economic Community (EEC).

"Gastarbeiter" were now considered competitors for jobs. The Bundesanstalt für Arbeit ordered that new work permits should only be issued after a strict assessment of the primacy of German nationals. However, despite the requirement not to renew existing employment contracts, in practice the labour offices left the companies with their trained staff.

Right of residence, return, immigration

In fact, the halted influx of foreign workers expedited an unintended development: the measure reinforced the growing tendency of "Gastarbeiter" to shift the centre of their life from their country of origin to the Federal Republic of Germany. As a result, an immigration situation has developed with fluid transitions since the mid-1970s. Since the "recruitment freeze" meant that some of the labour migrants' previous freedoms on the labour market were lost, a voluntary return for a limited period of time to a state outside the EEC, such as Greece, could mean the loss of the acquired residence and labour permit. The "Gastarbeiter population", who did not want to live permanently separated from their families at home, faced the alternative of a permanent return to a future that was often economically and sometimes politically uncertain, or their family joining them in the Federal Republic.

The status under residence law had particularly improved for nationals of member states of the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC; from 1961 OECD) and the EEC. As early as 1966, over 90% of Italian workers entered the Federal Republic of Germany by the "second approach" as privileged citizens of the EEC founding state. Among the recruited foreigners, their share dropped to below six percent. The EEC Council Regulation of October 15th 1968 granted workers freedom of movement within the Community. After the "recruitment freeze", the EEC provisions which continued to apply reinforced the legal difference between EEC foreigners and other foreigners.

Since EEC migrants were granted a right of residence, state’s influence and scope for action regarding the course of the migration process was limited. The government had anticipated only a provisionalarrangement, and long-term concepts of a "Gastarbeiter policy" that included the social consequences of longer working stays did not exist in the 1950s or 1960s. Valentin Siebrecht (1957-1972), the director of the Southern Bavarian labour office district, publicly criticised the lack of a concept for the federal government's employment policy for foreigners as early as 1964: "We must plan for the long term, see the problems of foreigners’ work in the larger framework of our social development". Since the majority of migrants returned, as the example of the Italian "Gastarbeiter" shows (table 4), the accusation that the government should have prepared itself much earlier for the permanent integration of foreigners is not justified: of the 14 million or so foreign workers recruited up to 1973, 12 million returned to their home countries with no intention of integration. Nevertheless, it can be noted that it was precisely the termination of recruitment that led to "Gastarbeiter" remaining in Germany so as not to forfeit their right to continue working on the German labour market after a temporary return to their home country.

Table 4: Italian emigrants to the Federal Republic of Germany and returnees 1958-1975
Year Emigrants Returnees Returnees
per 100
1958 10.551 6.145 58.2
1959 28.394 15.295 53,9
1960 100.544 34.088 33,9
1961 114.012 48.016 42,1
1962 117.427 69.600 59,3
1963 81.261 73.266 90,2
1964 75.210 58.899 78,3
1965 90.853 69.485 76,5
1966 78.343 78.885 100,7
1967 47.178 56.876 120,6
1968 51.152 43.402 84,8
1969 47.563 40.462 85,1
1970 42.849 36.755 85,8
1971 54.141 36.241 66,9
1972 43.891 41.331 94,2
1973 41.386 37.751 91,2
1974 33.485 36.809 100,6
1975 28.233 36.789 130,3

The figures represent the annual balance (according to ISTAT). It does not include Italians who returned within a year (high proportion). Extract from table 5 in: Rieker, Ein Stück Heimat, 106.

Since the migrant workers had acquired rights under labour and residence lawover time, the state was increasingly losing control over their employment. As early as 1959, the Ninth Ordinance for the Implementation of the Law on Employment Placement and Unemployment Insurance had stipulated that foreign employees acquired a legal entitlement to a work permit without restriction in terms of occupation or business after five years of uninterrupted, dependent and permitted activity in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany or after eight years of uninterrupted legal residence. After ten years of legal uninterrupted residence in West Germany, a permanent work permit could be issued.

"Gastarbeiter" recruited via the "German Commission" were already in possession of an employment contract before they emigrated and could therefore claim social rights in some cases. Integration problems already arose with the plan to temporarily swap workers in and out as required without having to pay for their education and pensions, and finally with the arrival of children and wives. Since the initial influx was mainly seasonal workers, those responsible for language and social integration measures did not take any precautions.

Most “Gastarbeiter” lived in communal accommodation during their stay, where hardly any privacy was possible. This was the only way they could send most of their earnings home. Photo: July 1963. (Stadtarchiv München, RD0667A29)
Many “Gastarbeiter” were accommodated in the simplest of conditions in shared rooms in hostels. Here they largely maintained contacts within their own cultural circle. Photo July 1963 (Stadtarchiv München, RD0667A14)

For the time being, the immigrants' life planning also corresponded to the system of "Gastarbeit". For example, the transfer of money to the countries of origin played a central role in the "Gastarbeiter era". In their everyday lives, which were governed by work and abstaining from consumption, many "Gastarbeiter" of both sexes saved up to two thirds of their income to transfer to their home country. The sums involved were sometimes considerable: in 1972, for example, Turkey made up its trade deficit with the Federal Republic of Germany through bank transfers of DM 2.1 billion from Turkish "Gastarbeiter". Life between the workplace and the residential facility was entirely geared towards return at first. Simple shared accommodation in company-owned barracks or in 4- to 6-bed rooms in residential facilities was often the recruited workers' first "home" in the Federal Republic. They were usually housed in isolation from the locals. In addition to the employment sector, the housing sector also shows that "Gastarbeiter" replaced German expellees and refugees in that, until well into the 1960s, they sometimes moved into residential barracks that had previously been occupied by those groups and in individual cases had also functioned as foreign or forced labour camps during the war.

The "sending countries", which needed the wage transfer to balance the trade deficit with West Germany, supported the emigrants' focus on areturn, but neither their actual return nor their integration. Also because the economic situation in the regions of origin had hardly changed – European integration (Greece, Spain and Portugal only joined the EEC in 1981 and 1986 respectively) and migration flows only slightly reduced the prosperity gap at first – many workers stayed longer than planned and spent more and more of their wages on everyday consumption, mortgage savings plans and real estate. Savings rates and money transfers to the home countries decreased. The "Gastarbeiter" now also boosted German economic growth from the side of purchasing power, and after several years of working in West Germany, some succeeded in acquiring a business or a piece of land in their home country and building a respected existence for themselves and their family. If family was an important reason for return, family members who had followed to or were born in the Federal Republic of Germany or the founding of a family became an important reason to stay. The influx of non-working relatives reduced the immigrant population's employment rate. Job losses due to economic crises or structural reforms in companies increased the unemployment rate and transfer dependency especially for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Unemployment among the immigrant population increased in the mid-1970s: for example, between 1973 and 1976, the number of domestic construction workers fell by 15% and that of foreign workers by 41%.

The "recruitment freeze", the most important political measure with regard to foreigners in the 1970s, therefore initiated the second phase of the immigration process, which is characterised by family reunification, the expansion of self-organisation and the establishment of small-scale businesses, particularly in the catering and trade sectors. More and more relatives of the descendants of the "Gastarbeiter" gave up their nationality and acquired German citizenship, although immigrants of Italian origin rarely applied for it because of the comprehensive legal equality as citizens of the Union with the German population. The predominantly negative image of the tolerated and suspicious "Gastarbeiter" changed to more positive clichés in the host society. Touristic experiences of many West Germans in the Mediterranean countries favoured the social integration of foreign labour migrants from the South. However, the stigma of "Gastarbeiter" was still attached for a long time even to those who rose in growing numbers to become skilled workers and small entrepreneurs in “ethnic business”. After a long and hard integration process, the former "Gastarbeiter population" became "native foreigners" (Bade) in a state that did not declare itself to be a country of immigration for a long time. In the meantime, "the generation of pioneering migrants" has long since reached retirement age.


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Maximiliane Rieder, Gastarbeiter (guest workers), published 26 June 2019, English version published 21 February 2024; in: Historisches Lexikon Bayerns, URL: <https://www.historisches-lexikon-bayerns.de/Lexikon/EN:Gastarbeiter_(guest_workers)> (13.07.2024)