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Global Economy

Are sheltered workshops fair?

Katrin Langensiepen has been a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels for the Greens for two years. Langensiepen fights for inclusion, for equal treatment of people with disabilities in employment and work. "Germany does poorly in Europe when it comes to inclusion. Unfortunately, inclusion stops in this country after elementary school," she says in an interview with

The right of people with disabilities to self-determined work, from which they could live, is not sufficiently implemented in Germany – although the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been demanding this for more than ten years. According to Langensiepen, the workshops for the disabled are part of the problem. That is why she calls for a rethink and a concrete exit plan from employment in the workshops.

No real chance on the "first job market"

Across Germany, around 320,000 people with disabilities are employed in workshops – without entitlement to minimum wage. On average, they earn around 220 euros a month there, according to the latest study by the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The workshops are obliged to distribute 70 percent of the work result to the employees.

In the Hainbachtal workshops in Offenbach, it is even 90 percent of the profit. Nevertheless, the employees are not left with much. Christa Kaiser gets 200 euros plus disability pension for 35 hours a week. The slightly disabled 49-year-old has been working in the facility for people with mental or psychological disabilities for 20 years. She lives alone and independently. At the end of the month she has 100 euros, she says. Although she feels comfortable in the laundry, she would immediately work elsewhere, outside of the sheltered workshops, if she could earn more there and her pension would be secure.

Christian Sobtke did his training in a normal company. His boss couldn't cope with his limitations, he says. After completing his training, he was unemployed for two years before he came to Hainbachtal. That's 14 years ago now. Again and again he tried to leave the workshops. Again and again he failed and came back. Thanks to internal performance bonuses, he comes to 590 euros a month. He would like to be paid minimum wage for his work, he thinks that would be fair.

Workshops for the disabled as a protected space

Statutory minimum wage or higher basic amounts: There are different schools of thought on the part of politicians or interest groups that are currently concerned with how people with disabilities will be paid in workshops in the future. For EU politician Langensiepen, these considerations do not go far enough. "We have to fundamentally question the image we have of people with disabilities in society. Let's finally stop telling people: 'Be grateful, you've got it good here in the workshops'."

"Where do I want to work?" – Choice and decision, conflict and failure in the workplace: all experiences that people with disabilities are deprived of. That has to change. Integrated, together with non-disabled people: That is contemporary. Langensiepen fundamentally rejects closed facilities and demands a minimum wage and a gradual exit from the workshop system.

Frank Hofmann also sees that something has to change. He is the managing director of the workshops in Hainbachtal. But: "What happens to the people who aren't strong enough, who can't articulate themselves that well, who might not be able to perform this well? Do they also have a place in society?" He thinks it is right and important that the workshops have to develop and reform and that payment has to be more transparent. In Hainbachtal, one or two employees make the leap to the "primary job market" each year. That's just not enough.

Traffic light coalition wants reform of the system

Leonardo Stiplovsek has made the leap. He has a congenital chromosome defect and works in the dairy section of a supermarket. As a permanent employee working 30 hours a week, he earns just as much as non-disabled employees – also thanks to a subsidy from the State Welfare Association of Hesse. Leonardo feels recognized, he earns his own money; he and his family are proud of that.

Self-determined, integrated, that's what Langensiepen wants too. "We urgently need to talk about concepts, about getting out of workshops for the disabled," she says. "Young people with disabilities want prospects for a self-determined life. They don't want to be driven to workshops in the morning and picked up again in the afternoon." There just has to be more. This is also the aim of the traffic light coalition. In the coalition agreement, she promises to focus the workshops' offers more on inclusion and with a view to the general labor market.

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