German town raises ire for scheme using asylum seekers as porters

BERLIN Thu Jul 25, 2013 9:12am EDT

File photo of luggage on a platform at the Hauptbahnhof main railway station in Berlin March 4, 2011. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/Files

File photo of luggage on a platform at the Hauptbahnhof main railway station in Berlin March 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch/Files

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BERLIN (Reuters) - A German town has halted a scheme offering asylum seekers 1.05 euros an hour to carry luggage at a station after rail operator Deutsche Bahn refused permission due to a public outcry and criticism that the project harked back to colonial times.

The southern German town of Schwaebisch Gmuend started the scheme on Monday for nine asylum seekers to help passengers get up a steep flight of metal steps erected at the station due to construction work.

The mayor originally said he hoped the program would help the integration of the town's 250 asylum seekers, but pictures of the refugees, mostly from African nations, in bright red T-shirts and straw hats unleashed an outcry.

Complaints about the hourly rate - about eight times below the level German politicians cite for a minimum wage - poured into the mayor's office and sparked a Facebook campaign.

"Having refugees as bag carriers is a shameless exploitation of the people's situation," said far-left Linke lawmaker Ulla Jelpke, who called it "colonial" behavior.

Deutsche Bahn said it had not been aware of the conditions and would pay its own employees their normal rate to do the job.

"The railway cannot support these conditions," the railway said in a statement.

A spokesman for Schwaebisch Gmuend told Reuters the conservative mayor was disappointed at Deutsche Bahn's decision and blamed misplaced political correctness.

"At a first glance, pictures of black people carrying white peoples' suitcases don't look good and conjure up images of neo-colonialism and racism, but this is not the case - the asylum seekers want to do this," said the spokesman.

He added that the 1.05 euros was not a wage as such, as asylum seekers are not allowed to be employed, but is the maximum amount it is possible to give them under the asylum seekers law.

The Bild newspaper quoted one asylum seeker from Gambia, Lamin G, as saying: "It was a good job, I could help people."

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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