December 24, 2010 National public radio
As Germany Ends Draft, Fears Of A Labor Shortage
The agreement by Germany's coalition government this month to do away with
compulsory six-month military service or optional community service for young
men has left many hospitals, retirement homes and other social service agencies
across the country deeply worried.
They rely on the conscripts who opt for the alternative
community service. Germany's last draft will take place early next month.
Already overstretched charities are scrambling to plan for life without their
vital, free labor.
The Catholic charity community center In Via in the eastern
Berlin district of Karlshorst provides services for troubled kids, women in
need and senior citizens. It's a warm, comfortable place for a meal. But most
of all, it's a place to go for some company, especially for seniors, says Eva
Ziebertz, the center's manager.
"To meet other people — that's the most important thing,
that's the reason why they come. They don't want to have dinner [alone] in
their homes," she says.
Prompted by pressure to cut billions from the defense budget,
the decision to effectively scrap conscription — a legacy of postwar de-
Nazification — marks a new chapter in Germany's military history as the country
continues the move from Cold War-era force to a professional army.
Financial Decision To End Conscription
Like hundreds of charities across Germany, Ziebertz relies on military
conscripts who opt for the six-month community service option to run her
Martin Huhn, 20, is one of them. Like his father and
grandfather before him, he was called up for the draft upon leaving school,
but instead of donning a uniform and rifle, Huhn today mans a washing
machine and dishwasher.
"My tasks include washing, cleaning, helping out in the
kitchen, preparing and serving breakfast for our guests, also cleaning up
the rooms, making the beds, so pretty much everything," he says.
Huhn is among a 90,000-strong army of conscientious
objectors whose free labor helps keep Germany's charities running.
But in the last Cabinet meeting of the year, Chancellor
Angela Merkel and her ministers agreed to "suspend" military conscription,
starting July 1, 2011. The bill says that conscription would be reactivated
only in a national defense emergency. The last draft notices will go out on
Jan. 3, 2011.
Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg — whose
conservative CSU party has traditionally favored the draft — called it a
"truly historical decision."
A young man fulfilling his alternative civilian service, instead of
compulsory military service, attends a patient last year in a hospital in
Stuttgart, Germany. The German government has announced plans to scrap
compulsory military service and optional community service, a decision that
has left German social service agencies scrambling to fill an anticipated
Without us, the conscripts, these institutions will run into
real problems. They simply don't have the funds to hire replacements.
- Martin Huhn, who works at a Catholic community center in
lieu of military service
Strains To Be Felt In Social Welfare, Education Sectors
But many charities now wonder how they will cope.
Ziebertz says she can't afford to replace the conscientious
objectors, known colloquially as "Zivis," with paid staff.
"If we don't have Zivis anymore, we'll have to pay for it.
And I'm not sure how we can manage it," Ziebertz says.
The government recognizes this bind, and it has announced
plans to offer young people a 12- to 23-month service duty. But this is a
purely voluntary operation, and details have yet to be worked out.
Ziebertz doesn't believe she will be able to find sufficient
volunteers willing to do the grunt work her conscripted laborers do.
"We can't set up volunteers to do the dishes or to make the
dishes or to clean up the rooms, and so on. That's not the thing they want to
do, and that's not the thing we want them to do," she says.
Even "Zivi" Huhn — who insists enthusiastically that his time
in the kitchens has been fun and even useful for future plans in business — is
skeptical of the government's plans to introduce a purely voluntary
"Without us, the conscripts, these institutions will run into
real problems. They simply don't have the funds to hire replacements," he
German Federal Family Minister Kristina Schroeder admits that
the new volunteer plan will only partially compensate for the loss of 90,000
helping hands; the new plan, even if all goes well, will still leave a shortage
of about 60,000 volunteers.
German universities are also worried. The national
association of school deans predicts an influx of some 40,000 extra
applications next fall when thousands of male high school graduates are no
longer needed by the military, and no longer obliged to help out Germany's
social service sector. Seeking to reassure universities, Merkel has vowed that
the government will try to fund half of the additional college recruits.
Silver Lining For Some Groups?
But some welcome the reforms. Rudiger Kunz with the Berlin office of the German
Red Cross says the organization sees the end of conscripted civil service as an
opportunity to build long-term volunteers. Kunz says the Red Cross has been
gradually working to replace civil service conscripts with volunteers.
Germany's largest service sector trade union, Verdi, sees the
Cabinet decision as a blessing. Union leaders are unconvinced the government
will see anywhere near 35,000 volunteers reporting for kitchen and other down-
and-dirty duties. The union now sees an opportunity to boost the economy by
replacing low-paid conscripts with full-time employees.
But trade union optimism does little to placate Ziebertz and
many other charity managers in Germany scrambling to find a solution before