Jobs drying up for women in eastern Germany

March 16, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Contributing writer

BERLIN -- Used to a job and independence hardly matched in western German society, women in eastern Germany now are being told that they must become more the docile housewife than the working women they were before unification in 1990.

Those who prefer to work are finding jobs scarcer and enrollment in job retraining programs harder to come by.

Some 62 percent of the 1.34 million unemployed in eastern Germany are women, but only 43 percent of the participants in training programs are female.

At the same time, it has been harder for younger mothers to work because they have lost social benefits they enjoyed in East Germany, such as a guaranteed day-care center, long-paid pregnancy leaves and the right to take off up to 60 days a year to look after sick children.

For older women, such as Helga Rueding, 54, the hardest part is being without work. After a 33-year career, she has struggled for 18 months against idle days and the unspoken assumption that her unemployment is less traumatizing because she is a woman.

"I looked and looked, but after a while I almost had to excuse myself. Many think that men need the jobs more because they're supposed to be the chief earners," said Ms. Rueding, who had been in charge of standards for 18 textile factories around Berlin before unification.

One reason so many women have become unemployed is that they worked in labor-intensive industries that now face overseas competition. The textile industry once employed 320,000 people, including 250,000 women. Only 10 percent of the workers are expected to keep jobs.

Nora Bieback, head of the workers council for Becon Classic, a Berlin menswear manufacturer, said the adjustment is hard for women.

"The work has become harder -- a lot more of it is piecework. And they can't take time off for sick children. But the ones with jobs are lucky," said Mrs. Bieback, who has seen all but 650 of the company's 6,000 employees laid off because Becon Classic's clothes have failed to compete against cheaper imports.

Beyond the unemployment and loss of benefits are the intangible changes, some of which were revealed in a study released last month by the German Ministry for Women.

While more than half of western Germans believed that women should stop working for several years to care for small children, only 16 percent of eastern Germans thought this was a good idea.

As for the kind of work they wanted, 70 percent of western German women favored a part-time job, compared with 45 percent of eastern women. The rest said they wanted full-time work, a reflection of the fact that in East Germany 95 percent of women used to work.

The tendency of the western German society to view a woman's primary task as child-raising also is reflected in store hours. Western German stores usually close at 6 or 6:30 p.m. weekdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays. Stores are closed Sundays.

Unions and the owners of small shops strongly support the short hours, arguing that longer hours would make it impossible for corner groceries to compete with big chains and for families to have time together in the evenings and on Sundays.

Many eastern German women -- including the federal minister for women and youth, Angela Merkel -- have argued that the short hours don't allow working women the time to race to the stores between quitting time and store-closing time.

But after declaring that the hours were prejudiced against women, Dr. Merkel became the target of union protests and was forced to back down on her suggestion that stores stay open an hour later, as they did in East Germany.

More difficult to reform are the assumptions guiding western German society that are being grafted onto eastern Germany. Hannelore Block, 45, an unemployed economic planner, said she recently wanted to buy an insurance policy but was told by the representative that it would not be possible to do so until the "head of the family" signed.

Despite the changes, Mrs. Block said everything is not for the worse. Her old job, implementing the government's five-year production plan for Becon Classic, seemed at times "pointless," she said, because everyone knew that government planning was failing. Now she is in a retraining program to be a clerk.

"There's no doubt that we're living in a man's society now, but I'm not pessimistic," she said. "I'm used to working and am not going to stay home all day. Someway or another, I'll get a job and start a new career."

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