Mattes, M.: Gender and migration in Germany: The case of female labour migration from the 1950s to the 1970s, 2009

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Gender and migration in Germany: The case of female labour migration from the 1950s to the 1970s

Today, medial discourses on migration are highly gendered by the use of culturalist stereotypes: images of women wearing, for example, head scarves attribute to migrant women cultural characteristics which describe them as 'oppressed' or as the personification of a foreign culture. In contrast, about 40 years before, the discourse on migration was dominated by the construct of the male 'guest-worker'. At that time, migrant women and their experiences were quite invisible in the public as well as in the academic discourse and became more or less subsumed under those of men. This misconception arose out of a long tradition according to which mainly migrant men were assumed to be economically active.

Through the case of the female labour migration from the Mediterranean this article will show the ways in which socio-economic processes and political practices in West German society have interacted from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The focus is on the labour market, and the gender- and ethnicity-specific patterns in its operation. The first part of this article deals with the gender specific characteristics of the recruitment policies. Secondly it will analyse the ways in which the gendered patterns in the worker recruitment have shaped migrant women's participation in the German labour market. Finally, a short outlook on the period after the recruitment stop will be given.

Recruitment policies

As a result of the labour shortage associated with the economic boom in West Germany, from the mid-1950s onwards the state initiated and promoted the immigration of foreign workers. Between 1955 and 1968 the federal government signed agreements with six Mediterranean countries in order to recruit so called Gastarbeiter ('guest workers'): 1955 with Italy, 1960 with Spain and Greece, 1961 with Turkey, 1964 with Portugal, and 1968 with Yugoslavia. Not only men but also women were recruited as 'guest workers'. The percentage of women among foreign employees was 23% in 1965 and rose close to 30% by 1973. In the early years of recruitment most of the female labour migrants came from Italy, Spain and Greece. After the recession of 1966/67 there was a rapid increase in the number of female labour migrants from Yugoslavia and Turkey.

By 1959/60 full employment had been reached on the female labour market in the Federal Republic. From the mid-1950s onwards, it had become clear that the West German labour force would shrink in the medium run due to longer periods spent in education and due to the introduction of conscription. This was also and not least a demographic echo effect from the losses in World War II and the abrupt end of East-West migration between the two Germanies after the wall was built in 1961. In (family-)political terms it was not considered desirable to make up for the gap in the labour force by mobilising non-working housewives and mothers for full time jobs. It was equally difficult to fill vacancies posted through the job centres with unemployed German women. In sectors of the labour market with a high share of female employment such as the textile industry, hotels and restaurants, in hospitals and canteens etc. employers were desperately looking for workers. An increasing number of companies placed requests for foreign female employees through the job centres.

While unskilled men could be recruited in sufficient numbers and without encountering major problems in all Mediterranean countries, until the recession 1966/67 it remained difficult for the German recruitment agency to match the rising demand for female migrant workers. The Southern European countries were mostly interested in sending young unemployed unskilled men abroad, thus exporting unemployment and preventing potential social conflicts. The recruitment of women, on the other hand, was a delicate matter especially in Catholic Mediterranean countries. In Italy, therefore, German efforts to recruit women remained relatively unsuccessful. The German recruitment agencies set up in Greece and Spain, on which companies with a high proportion of female workers had initially pinned their hopes, were completely overwhelmed by the requests for placements. The Federal Employment Services (Bundesanstalt für Arbeit) which organised the recruitment of foreign workers, remarked in its 1961 report that 'there is a large demand for foreign female employees in the German economy', half of which could not be met through successful 'placements that actually took place'.

The bilateral agreements for labour recruitment designated a long bureaucratic and selective procedure for the recruitment of workers. West German employers placed a request with their local job centre, in which they listed the desired characteristics of the job candidate such as nationality, gender, marital status, age, occupational qualifications, and the physical and psychological prerequisites for the job. The job centre would then send the request to the German recruitment agency in the respective country. All potential migrants had to undergo qualificational and medical tests. The rigorous health tests carried out by German doctors were key. Only the healthiest were supposed to migrate to Germany. Pregnant women and women who had a large number of children were excluded from recruitment. Candidates who passed these tests were handed a job contract for signature. For all recruited workers, a so-called 'authorisation card' (‘Legitimationskarte’) replaced the residence and work permit for one year.

The German recruitment agency had to select women who could physically and psychologically bear industrial working conditions. For the recruitment of assembly workers doing delicate work in the electronics industry and in some branches of metal processing there were special eye tests. In these industries automation and rationalisation required the assembly of ever smaller parts by hand and with the magnifying glass. The job candidates also had to provide proof of the agility of their hands and fingers. The so called 'southerners' were supposed to be particularly suitable for the assembly of small parts because of the presumption that they had small hands. Big companies like Siemens organised courses for their future female employees in Turkey, which served the purpose of testing the suitability of job candidates prior to the official tests by the recruitment agency.

Apart from the state led recruitment procedure, it was possible for migrants to enter Germany with either a residence permit obtained from abroad (Sichtvermerk) or with a tourist visa. Unfortunately, immigration statistics that disaggregate according to immigration status are not differentiated by gender.

The West-German labour market

More than 90% of female migrant workers were recruited for unskilled jobs. Among Turkish migrant women, the share of skilled workers was somewhat higher: 21% in 1966 and 14% in 1968, due to the qualified dressmakers, seamstresses and spinners who were recruited to work in the low paying textile and clothing industries. In the early 1970s, most female migrant workers were engaged in the electronics industry as well as in the textile and clothing industries. In northern Germany they could also be found in highly unattractive jobs in  fishing and food processing. In services, hotels and restaurants, hospitals and the cleaning sector dominated migrant female employment. The advantages of migrant women over German women were their young age, the health based selection and the fact that they were willing to work full-time. Most were assigned to work shifts, to do piecework and work on the assembly line in the above mentioned industries, in jobs that took a toll on their health and which German women refused to do.

No doubt the West German recruitment policy helped to sustain and stabilise a hierarchical and gender-segregated labour market. This can also be seen in the wages offered to migrant women. The recruitment agreements merely specified that migrants be paid the standard wages prevailing in Germany. The reference was to the low wage groups in the German labour market, which prevailed in sectors with a high share of female workers and where wages were up to 30-40% lower than men’s. These gender specific wage differentials were a regular part of pay agreements and quite common in all industries until the late 1960s. In female dominated sectors of the labour market, the employment of 'guest workers' gave employers the opportunity to pay less than the standard wage and to employ them in insufficiently unionised branches such as hotel and restaurant services, cleaning and health care. As a result, migrant women remained stuck in poorly paid unskilled jobs on the lowest level of the qualificational and social hierarchy.

Already in the 1960s a close connection between labour and family migration became visible for West-German officials. This was owing to the fact that the need of the West German labour-market was addressed to both male and female workers. But there were even particular strategies of recruitment of the Federal Employment Services: To increase the share of female migrants married couples were recruited together. This approach met for instance with a positive response in Turkey as many young women were already married and preferred emigrating together with their husbands. The German recruitment agency contacted married applicants waiting to emigrate, and told them that they had good prospects 'to receive preferential treatment with regard to emigration if their wives emigrated with them.'

Outlook: After the recruitment stop 1973

The worker recruitment program which had dramatically increased the number of migrant men and women in Germany was ended in November 1973 by a decree of the German Labour Ministry. In the decree it was argued that the anticipated rise in unemployment due to the oil shock rendered it untenable to continue worker recruitment. But even after the economy assimilated the effect of the oil shock and growth picked up, worker recruitment did not resume.

The end of labour migration left family reunion as the only legal channel for immigration from Turkey and other countries which were not members of the European Union. However, complementary to the end of worker recruitment, migrants who had entered Germany after November 1974 ceased to be eligible for work permits. The purpose of these measures was to limit competition on the labour market and to make immigration less attractive. Women from Turkey, who had migrated relatively late were hit particularly hard by these measures. Female dependence on the male breadwinner increased and the family's plans for returning to Turkey were thwarted.

Since the 1980s migrant women who were looking for paid work in Germany had to rely on marriage migration or illegal migration. Female migrants without legal status were increasingly employed in private households as child caregivers and cleaning women. The demand for these domestic services was growing together with the employment rate of German women. The development of an informal labour market together with its specific demand for female care work has strengthened the trend toward a feminisation of migration.

Dr. Monika Mattes, Researcher at the Center for Research on Contemporary History, Potsdam.

February 2009


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