Sunday, June 1, 2014

Top 5 tips if you're fired from your German job as a non-German citizen

If you've been following this blog, some of you may know that I've been very lucky when it comes to the jobs area. Somehow, fate has stepped in and blessed me with employment and visas right when I needed both to stay in Europe and not be be homeless. But in December of last year, it looked like my luck ran out. I was fired from my job and faced the very real possibility that I would have to leave my European dreams behind. 

While there were some telltale signs that things weren't all that they appeared to be with my employer, I ignored them. Long story short, when I was hired, it was under the impression that I would be working in Munich. As part of the company's expansion, the company would move to an office in Munich at the end of the Oktoberfest tour. So that's where I got an apartment, obviously. However, after I signed a lease and several weeks after the tour ended, my former employer decided to purchase a brewery instead. So I would have to move, yet again, to a place that I can only describe as the Alabama of Germany, Überlingen. And when my ex-boss found out that I was investigating my rights about abruptly switching job locations, I was fired.

Totally lost and completely broke, (did I mention he did this right after the company holiday when I flew to New York) I had no idea how to proceed. But several months later, I'm still here and surviving. So here are the 5 most important things I learned that could help you should you find yourself in a similar situation.  

1. Know what's in your contract

This is actually is more about protecting yourself before the termination, but is just as important afterwards. In Germany, the contract is gold and it should spell out everything, from how much you'll earn to exactly where your job duties will take place. My contract was a very barebones one that only outlined my holiday pay, salary, and included an unenforceable paragraph stating that I'm barred from working on similar Oktoberfest events. In total, my contract was only 4 pages long while my friend's contract for an internship was over 20 pages long. Major red flag.

2. Don't sign anything

When your employment is terminated, there are several steps that have to be cleared by your employer. Failure to comply with the rules can end up costing them a lot of money, unless you unknowingly sign away your rights. For instance, if you have been working for a company for at least 6 months, it is practically impossible to be fired. Think American Teacher's Union level job protection. But if you sign on the dotted line because you think your B1 level German is good enough to understand German legalese, you may forfeit any chance you have at staying employed.

3. Speak to a lawyer

Since you're not well versed in German labor law, find someone that is. If you have no income coming in because you were fired after only working 5 months, and can't collect unemployment (like me), you can find a low-cost lawyer to help out. Where I live, the Münchner Arbeitslosenzentrum provides legal consultation for the low price of 20 euros. You can only use them once per calendar year and you'll need to bring in a translator if you're not fluent in German. They'll look over your contract and other documents you may have received and advise you on how to proceed. It was here that I found out I was entitled to my holiday pay, which leads me to tip number 4.

4. Go to the Arbeitgerich

The Arbeitgerich is the labor court in Germany and each region has their own. When my former employer refused to release my holiday pay, I filed a case with the Arbeitgerich in Munich, which stepped in. Again, you'll need a German translator with you, both to file the case and to actually go with you to court. Fortunately, my roommate is a certified translator and helped me with everything. In my case, we were required to go to mediation and would only proceed to the formal case if we failed to reach an agreement. I was told that I did not need a lawyer to represent me, although it would have been possible for me to get one for little to no cost. Since I didn't use their services, I can't provide any information, but know that it is available if you need one. 

5. Have faith

Going against a business that has a lot of money in a country where you don't even speak the language was a scary prospect. But my fears were for naught. Laws here generally favor the worker and the judge was very fair in her observations. When my employment ended, my boss kicked me out of the office, even though my contract stated that I was entitled to a 6 week notice of termination. Since I was not in the office, he argued that I had taken my vacation and was not entitled to receive any additional holiday pay. He also tried to argue that I came to Munich on my accord and he had never said that I would be working there. However, I never signed anything agreeing to take a 6 week vacation in lieu of a cash payment. And my contract did not say where my job duties would take place. So, due to these omissions, the judge recommended a settlement where I would receive 3/4 of the holiday pay. Even though it was my word against his, my chances were pretty high that I would win since it was his responsibility as an employer to get everything written down. But I was happy to take the minor loss and finally have this chapter closed. 

So what have I learned from this whole ordeal? Aside from the obvious, which is read your contract thoroughly, the lessons gained are too complex for me to neatly wrap up at the end of a blog post. One thing that I can say is the employee in Germany is not powerless. Unlike the States, the courts here are accessible, so taking an abusive employer to task for their bullying tactics is much, much easier.  So when a job is offered, it is normal and acceptable for both parties to go over the contract, down to most minute detail, so that each is comfortable with the terms and conditions. This explains why my former boss made a point of not hiring Germans. 

In the next installment of this tale, we'll discuss things to do when you're unemployed abroad and trying to plan your next step. Hope these tips help =)