As Germany Ends Draft, Fears Of A Labor Shortage

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A young man, who fulfills his alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service, supports a patient in a hospital in Stuttgart, Germany i

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 labor shortfall. Thomas Kienzle/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Kienzle/AP
A young man, who fulfills his alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service, supports a patient in a hospital in Stuttgart, Germany

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 labor shortfall.

Thomas Kienzle/AP

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.

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 organization.

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."

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.

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 program.

"Without us, the conscripts, these institutions will run into real problems. They simply don't have the funds to hire replacements," he says.

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 spring.

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