German Chimney Sweeps Face Loss of Monopoly For 70 years, German chimney sweeps have held monopolies in assigned districts, with customers required by law to pay for their services. The sweeps are about to learn if the German government will challenge an EU ruling that the arrangement blocks free trade.

German Chimney Sweeps Face Loss of Monopoly

German Chimney Sweeps Face Loss of Monopoly

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For 70 years, German chimney sweeps have held monopolies in assigned districts, with customers required by law to pay for their services. The sweeps are about to learn if the German government will challenge an EU ruling that the arrangement blocks free trade.

Tom Drust is a third generation chimney sweep in Erfurt, Germany. Here he is cleaning a chimney on an apartment building where the residents still use only wood or coal for heating. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

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Emily Harris, NPR

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To Germany now, where one of the most secured jobs in the country is about to become a little less so. The German government requires that all households use the services of a chimneysweep. And that's given the sweeps a monopoly on much more than shoveling ashes.

But that's now about to change as NPR's Emily Harris reports from Berlin.

EMILY HARRIS: Tom Drust is a third generation chimneysweep, and he's a traditionalist. He really does wear a black top hat to work. Today, he's dropping a metal brush on a rope weighted with a heavy ball down a 200-year-old chimney. And hand over hand, hauling it back up again.

Mr. TOM DRUST (Chimneysweeper, Germany): (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: Once is enough for this chimney he says.

Mr. DRUTH: (Through translator) It's not that cold. The woodstoves haven't been burning for very long, and we come regularly.

HARRIS: Regularity is what chimney sweeping is all about in Germany. The government mandates how often chimneys must be cleaned and how often modern heating and ventilating systems must be checked, those jobs are also assigned by law to chimneysweeps. A master sweep is in charge of a district of some 2,000 or more households. Customers may not shop around. This makes safety regulations a lot easier to enforce, says the head of Germany's sweep association, Frank Saber(ph).

Mr. FRANK SABER: In this case, the government has to control about 8,000 companies in Germany. And otherwise, you have to control 80 million people and the heater.

HARRIS: But European Union competition officials call the set-up illegal. Under threat of a lawsuit from Brussels, Berlin is proposing a compromise; keep the districts' monopoly for jobs involving public safety and environmental protection. For other services, homeowners would be allowed to hire any qualified sweeper. That's not enough for homeowner Paul Abahart(ph).

Mr. PAUL ABAHART: (Through translator) Every two years my heating technician checks the system, so all the checking and cleaning that he does has already been done. It's a double service that makes no sense at all.

HARRIS: Chimneysweeps are traditionally seen as bringers of good luck. But a minority of Germans really hates the sweep system. And often hate their assigned chimneysweep.

(Soundbite of music)

At a small demonstration on the outskirts of Berlin, they play a song that essentially accuses chimneysweeps of being spies. They say that was the point of Hitler era laws that required sweeps be German and lead an exemplary life.

Those rules were chucked in a 1969 revision, and now sweeps are generally forbidden from sharing personal information about customers. But the obligation to let sweeps in and pay for them riles some people to the extreme. Manfred Rickmirer(ph) has been fighting chimneysweeps for five years.

Mr. MANFRED RICKMIRER: (Through translator) They can check whether people who have a TV actually pay the fees for that, whether people with a dog pay the tax for the dogs, or if a person has an expensive lifestyle that the tax authorities might like to know about. Of course, we can't prove these, but it's possible. It happened in the Third Reich, and the DDR, so why not now?

Mr. DRUST: (Speaking foreign language)

HARRIS: We have nothing to do with spying says sweep Tom Drust. He laughs, ask the elderly owner of a 19th century restaurant, whose chimney Drust has just cleaned, how he feels about sweeps. And he pauses then tells how the original 15th century building here burned down because of a chimney fire.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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