The German government has passed an immigration law focused on attracting skilled workers from outside the EU in an attempt to remedy a chronic shortage.
Business leaders have long lobbied the government to ease immigration legislation, arguing that parts of the economy are being stifled by a lack of workers and that the long-term effects could be irreversibly damaging.
The Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz – or skilled labour immigration law – will make it easier for employers to recruit from outside the European Union, amid clear evidence that there are not enough German and EU workers to fill demand.
It will also mean that existing asylum seekers who have found work but face deportation because their claims have failed can stay in their jobs.
The law has been rigorously debated, and changes were being made up to the last minute of Wednesday’s cabinet session, the final one of the year. Some cabinet members thought there would not be consensus on the law in Germany’s governing grand coalition.
Parts of Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance and the rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland party have repeatedly said they fear the law will encourage low-skilled migration. Unlike the UK debate on skilled worker migration, the issues of salary thresholds and quotas have barely been mentioned.
The legislation will ensure it is easier for employers to bring workers in from outside the EU. About 1.2 million jobs remain empty in Germany, according to the Federal Labour Office, from lorry drivers to carpenters and care workers.
Employers will no longer have to go through the time-consuming and bureaucratically burdensome process of having to prove there is no domestic worker who could fill a particular role. Nor will they be restricted by an official list of which jobs are in short supply.
Anti-immigration sentiment is high in Germany, and has posed a threat to the survival of Merkel’s government. She has stressed that the asylum and refugee policy will be unaffected and kept strictly separate from the new law, in order to assuage fears refugees and unskilled migrants will view it as an invitation to come to Germany, triggering a repeat of the refugee influx of about 1 million people in 2015. Experts have said it may be difficult to make this distinction in practice because no salary thresholds or quotas have been set.
The AfD has repeatedly argued the law will fuel rather than control immigration and will suppress German workers’ wages, which have already been restrained over the past decade.
Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of the AfD, has called it “a fresh incentive for people from around the world to come to Germany”.
The German Economic Institute (IW) has estimated that not being able to fill vacancies has cost the economy around €30bn.
Mathias Middelberg, the interior affairs spokesman for the parliamentary group of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said the acceptance of rejected asylum seekers into the workplace “sends the wrong signal”.
Joachim Pfeiffer, an economics expert from the CDU, welcomed the law, saying: “It makes clear that in Germany we need more skilled workers … we have more than 2 million unemployed, more than a million of them with insufficient qualifications. We need qualified workers and this law makes it easier to have access to them.”
But he also warned against incentivising what he called the “wrong type of workers”.
“We want to be able to be able to choose who comes here – those who are good and who we need … but we don’t want to encourage everyone to come to Germany just to be able to take advantage of the welfare state,” he said.
Gauland said that just as his party had long warned, “illegal immigrants will now be allowed to stay for ever as soon as they’ve stepped over the border … it is a fresh incentive for people from around the world to come illegally”.