Labor Treaties Between the GDR and Non-European States

1966 — 1976


Citizenship Labor & Economy

Because Hungary, Bulgaria, and Poland alone can not export the workforce required by the GDR, its government ratifies additional labor treaties with several non-european states.

The GDR initially signed labor treaties with Algeria (1976), Cuba (1978) and Mozambique (1979). In 1980, Vietnam was added to this list; by the end of the GDR, the Vietnamese represented the largest group of foreign laborers in the country. In 1982, the People’s Republic of Mongolia became another treaty partner, followed by Angola in 1985 and China in 1986.

The conditions under which these migrant laborers were permitted to reside in East Germany were tightly regulated. Laborers could not be accompanied by family members; their period of stay was set at four to five years (for laborers from China and Mongolia no longer than two years), with the possibility of extension. Violations of socialist disciplinary order, accidents or prolonged illness would result in early deportation. If fallen pregnant, female laborer were also deported unless assenting to a state-financed abortion, as migrants were contractually prohibited from giving birth.

The laborers who arrived in the GDR were between 18-35 years old, and were meant to receive German language instruction as well as training within the firm for which they worked. However, as labor shortages continued to mount, less emphasis was placed on educating migrant workers. The language skills acquired by contract workers were thus largely limited to the technical vocabulary required in their jobs.

Especially difficult working conditions prevailed–including shift work, excessive noise levels, constant oversight, physical exertion, and pollution–under which few GDR citizens themselves would have worked. Group accommodation was granted in the form of small dormitories or housing units, in which men and women would be separated and rooms shared by up to four people at a time. Five square meters were allocated per person. Because the states sending migrants were indebted to the GDR, a portion of each laborer’s income was automatically deducted and diverted to the GDR without their knowledge.

Contract laborers were nonetheless entitled to remit a portion of their income to their families at home as well as to send a certain, limited quantity of goods. Because the East German population was not informed about the conditions of their stay, migrants were held partly responsible for the chronic shortages in the GDR, although these were in fact due to the moribund economic situation. Many contract laborers experienced harassment, abuse, and racist discrimination, which in fact led to Algeria terminating its labor treaty with the GDR in 1984 and withdrawing those migrants it had sent there.