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23 Feb, 2010 04:51

Work discrimination – silence matter in Germany

Hundreds of thousands of people suffer from discrimination and harassment by colleagues and bosses in Germany every day. However, many do not speak out for fear of being unpopular at work or even losing their jobs.

Happy days are here again at Sedika Weingaertner’s home. But for years this wife, mother of four and former executive says her home life and health were harmed due to discrimination.

Sedika worked for Siemens in Nuremberg, Germany from 2001 until she was fired in 2009. She contends that she was mistreated because she is a woman and because she is not of German descent.

“I had a supervisor who was very rude, a very impolite person. He called me ‘walrus,’ he used insulting words like ‘dirty sloppy Arab,’ and so on,” she told RT.

A German citizen who is originally from Afghanistan, she claims the abuse began subtly, with a heavier workload than her colleagues, exclusion from meetings, constant criticism and false claims from her first supervisor. With a new boss, she says, the bullying intensified.

“No one was allowed to talk to me,” she said. Sedika’s husband Helge said that the pain changed her.

“She came home and then cried,” he said. “She was always very tough at work, so nobody could see how she felt, but when she came home she broke down almost everyday.”

The ex-exec has launched a lawsuit against Siemens. The company declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement that insists an internal investigation found no basis for the allegations.

“The company tolerates no discrimination. Suspected infringements are rigorously pursued,” the statement said.

Sedika’s case could set a major precedent. It is estimated that 1.5 million workers a day in Germany are victims of on-the-job bullying. Many suffer in silence, afraid that speaking out could cause even more harm.

Germany is watching the suit closely as it struggles with integration and discrimination.

“First of all, we seriously do have a problem with discrimination,” said an expert on integration and migration, Gunilla Fincke.

Fincke has worked to improve integration for 10 years, and points out that Germany has only had anti-discrimination legislation since 2006.

“With this kind of law and the whole discussion, we have certainly seen a number of companies taking measures on awareness training, on skills, also just on having mission statements that include diversity goals, which help a lot to make this country sort of more open,” she said.

But people of foreign backgrounds are still grossly underrepresented in both the private and public sectors. A quota system is being debated as a way to level the playing field.

“But the quota system also has a flip side to it, which is when people think ‘Oh, she looks different and she has that job. Is that that because of qualifications or because of a quota?’” Fincke added.

A voluntary quota system combined with increased training and awareness is a more palatable option and is also being considered.

Fincke believes the diversification of Germany’s work force is not only a matter of fairness but also key to innovative ideas it needs to remain competitive.