Guest workers at Siemens Berlin

The electrical industry paves the way for diversity in Berlin
‎‎From the 1960s onward, Siemens was the largest industrial employer in West Berlin. By recruiting so-called guest workers (Gastarbeiter) from Turkey, the company unwittingly contributed to Berlin being regarded today as “the most Turkish city outside Turkey” and to the city’s worldwide reputation for diversity in action. Although the history of “guest work” (Gastarbeit) in West Berlin is mainly limited to the years 1968 to 1973, the decisions and developments that brought people from Turkey to Berlin at that time are still having an impact today.


When the German Democratic Republic (GDR) erected the Berlin Wall in August 1961, the Siemens Group in West Berlin faced a huge problem: overnight, the company was deprived of thousands of workers from East Berlin and the surrounding area, whose former route to work as “border crossers” had now been closed. Company management looked at various options to deal with the resulting bottleneck. Its efforts focused primarily on the families of skilled workers from West Germany, who were to be persuaded to move to West Berlin by advertising measures, among other things. Many of the (mainly young) West Germans who came to Berlin were so disappointed by the local living conditions that they stayed in the city and at Siemens for only a short time. The demand for workers could not be met even through the recruitment of housewives, prisoners and pensioners.

On August 14 [1961], we were short 4,300 workers at Siemens in Berlin. That was almost ten percent of our workforce.
Siemens manager Joachim Putzmann, interviewed by the Tageszeitung (taz), 24.06.2011

Starting to employ guest workers

The recruitment of guest workers didn’t immediately work out either. The recruitment agreements (Anwerbeabkommen) that West Germany made with Italy in 1955 and with Spain and Greece in 1960 didn’t initially apply to West Berlin – not even when a recruitment agreement with Turkey was added in October 1961. Due to the city’s status as a territory under joint allied occupation, German laws didn’t automatically apply in West Berlin. It wasn’t until 1963/64 that companies in West Berlin could officially make use of the recruitment agreements. At that time, almost 500 guest workers, who had come to the company on their own accord, were already working at Siemens facilities in Berlin.

A lot is being done at Hausgerätewerk Berlin to make it as easy as possible for the Turkish people to cope in a foreign environment. Their different eating habits have been taken into consideration and also the fact that Muslims don’t eat anything at all between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. There’s even a prayer room.
Siemens News 12/1973

The employment of guest workers then boomed, primarily from 1968 onward, when the economy picked up again after a brief recession in 1966/67. Within a few years, the number of guest workers at Siemens facilities – from Turkey, in particular – increased enormously. Unlike the automotive and steel industries in West Germany, the electrical industry in West Berlin primarily sought young women, whom it recruited in Turkey to work in sometimes simple, but delicate and strenuous manufacturing processes. Historian Monika Mattes describes labor migration to Berlin as having a “much more feminine face.” The new workers were housed in company-owned or rented boarding houses, which had shared dormitories and shared kitchens. In most cases, men and woman were separated. For the guest workers, life in Germany was therefore inevitably associated very closely with the workplace and employment.

Without the Italians, Spanish, Greek and Turks, […] we’d never have achieved what we did. The rapid upswing, which we’re still benefiting from today, was also thanks to them.
Siemens News 2/1967

Ban on recruitment in 1973 – the end of guest work?

In 1973, almost 35,000 of the 202,000 Siemens employees nationwide didn’t have German citizenship, and almost 11,000 of them were from Turkey. As a result, guest workers were a prominent part of the Siemens workforce. In November 1973, the German government imposed, without prior warning, a recruitment ban on foreign workers. This measure, which abruptly suspended the recruitment agreements, came as a surprise to both the relevant official institutions and German companies. The surprise at Siemens can be illustrated in an impressive manner: starting in 1970, the company’s heavy engineering facility in Berlin (Dynamowerk) as well as other facilities had taken advantage of initiatives for training skilled workers in Turkey and had invested accordingly: guest-workers-to-be attended courses that lasted several weeks at vocational schools in order to acquire prior knowledge before travelling to Germany.


Siemens had recruited several hundred skilled workers in Turkey in this way. The ban on recruitment now prevented the entry of those workers who were still undergoing training in their home country in November 1973. Siemens (along with other companies) used its special economic and political influence – with success: in the spring of 1974, the graduates of the affected training programs were granted belated official entry to Germany. The companies’ interventions ultimately brought about the only documented exception to the recruitment ban.

Economic crisis and real life – guest workers as the core workforce

The ban on recruitment deprived guest workers from countries such as Turkey that were outside the European Economic Community (EEC) of the opportunity they had previously had of temporarily returning to their home countries and of then being re-recruited and taking up work in Germany again. It was now legally impossible for former guest workers to officially re-enter the country in order to work. The freeze on recruitment indirectly made both guest workers and German companies more aware of just how insecure guest work really was. Siemens’ human resources managers were urged to check the validity of residence and work permits, which – only in combination – made legal employment possible.



Any violations were likely to result not only in severe fines, but also in the loss of employment. Up to this time, the employment relationships of guest workers had often been temporary and of short duration, and it was the workers themselves who often changed employers. The company and the foreign workers (especially those from Turkey) therefore considered each other mutually beneficial: Siemens was interested in maintaining a core workforce, of which the guest workers were a key part simply by virtue of their numbers. On the other hand, a large company like Siemens would always serve as a point of contact when guest workers needed jobs for themselves or their family members in order to avert existential hardship, at least temporarily. The connection between Siemens and Berliners of Turkish origin is also clearly reflected in the statistics: at the end of 1974, about one in ten employees from Turkey in West Berlin worked for Siemens; in 1978, the figure was still slightly more than one in twenty.

Guest workers and their children

Over the years, many former guest workers abandoned their immediate plans to return home. Instead, they began bringing over their children or started families in Germany. By the 1980s, at the latest, the children of female migrant workers had reached working age. Many had gone through the German school system (at least partially) and had better access to the labor market than their parents due to their German language skills and German school-leaving qualifications. Even in large companies like Siemens, the generation of guest-worker children was moving up, now often due to regular vocational training. This development further solidified the relationship between companies and families with migration backgrounds. In some cases, several generations now worked together at the same manufacturing locations.


Since these locations still suffered from a shortage of skilled workers, in the 1980s they offered targeted further training opportunities to employees with migration backgrounds. There was often an age limit for those who were granted access. The programs were therefore not aimed at the first wave of guest workers, most of whom hadn’t even benefited from language courses in West Germany – offerings that are now part of standard and elementary “integration measures.” The first generation of migrant workers thus became a kind of skipped generation. In most cases, those first recruits remained in the supposedly simple but physically grueling guest worker professions for their entire working lives, while their children, in direct comparison, were able to advance professionally.

Berlin – the “most Turkish city outside Turkey”

Siemens remained one of the most important employers of migrant workers in Berlin until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During the unification process, however, many jobs in Berlin’s industry were lost, and people with migration backgrounds were affected by job losses significantly more often than native Germans. Yet the occupations of people of Turkish origin continued to develop. As early as the 1970s and 1980s, guest workers were by no means employed solely in industry. They entered the world of work in the public sector as well as in academic professions or became self-employed. As a result, they created their own working worlds and – in many cases – left industrial manufacturing, for which they had originally been recruited, altogether.


In most cases of Turkish immigration to Berlin, family biographies were – in one way or another – directly connected to the recruitment agreements, guest work and specifically also to the company, Siemens. In 2011, the German daily newspaper, the tageszeitung (taz) asked former Siemens manager Joachim Putzmann whether one could have foreseen at the beginning of the recruitment drive how much immigration would change Berlin. His answer: “No, that wasn’t at all foreseeable at the time.”

Dr. Stefan Zeppenfeld




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Further information on this topic

Further reading

Stefan Zeppenfeld: Vom Gast zum Gastwirt? Türkische Arbeitswelten in West-Berlin, Wallstein-Verlag, 2021 (in German only)