In a former post on SiB about tenants’ rights, we explored all the tools at your disposal to fight back when landlords try corner you into submission. This post was well received. I thought I’d give it a follow-up by clarifying your rights at work.

Consider this overview as a first dive into the topic of worker rights in Germany. It is aimed at any employee or intern. It was based on German guides written by officials, labor law organisations & workers’ union’s knowledge bases. It does not go into specifics but it goes a long way to show your boss who is the boss.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments’ section.

employee rights germany guide

Rights & contract

What must be written in the employment contract?

When you start a job, you conclude a contract with your company. The employment contract must comply with labour law.

Every employment contract must contain this information:

  • Contracting parties: name and address of employer and yourself
  • Start date of the contract: date of the first working day
  • End date: in case it’s a limited contract.
  • Place of work: where you work (can be multiple locations, it should also mention remote work, work-from-home when available).
  • Activity: your job or tasks
  • Remuneration: how much will you be paid? when do you get the money?
  • Working hours: Number of hours worked in a week or month. how is overtime considered?
  • Holiday: vacation days per year
  • Notice period: Time between the day you give notice and your last day of work.
  • References to applicable collective agreements, when relevant.
  • Date, signature: Employer and employee

For many professions, there are collective agreements in addition to the employment contract. They are called “Tarifvertrag”. There are several types of collective agreements. They state, for example:

  • the rules for work and the wage in an occupation. For example, for workers in the automotive industry.
  • the rules for work and wage in a company.

Only sign a contract if you understand everything. You may take the contract home beforehand and read it at your leisure. You can ask friends, a non-profit help center (see below this post) or a trade union for help so that you understand everything.

There must be 2 originals of each employment contract. You and the employer sign both contracts. One contract is for you. You take it home with you.

How should my tasks be described in the contract?

The employment contract should state your role and describe your tasks. This is important for two reasons:

  • Different jobs have different wages. If your employment contract states a job description (e.g: taxi driver) and you work a different job (e.g: hotline operator), you are entitled to the right level of salary for the actual job you do.
  • You do not have to do tasks if they are not in your employment contract. If you work as a waiter and the employer requests you to work as a chef, you can say no because it’s not in your employment contract. 

What happens if something is not specified in the contract?

If something is missing, it’s usually not a problem. Instead, what is written in law prevails.

For example: there is no information about leave in an employment contract. In this case, the employee is entitled to 4 weeks of paid leave per year. This is what the law says.

It becomes difficult if you had a better verbal agreement with the boss. For example: The boss promised you a 25% pay raise. Then you have to prove that. That’s why it’s best to have everything in writing.

I started to work without a written contract, what can I do?

In this case, you can ask your employer for the written contract. They must provide it latest one month after the start date.

A verbal employment contract is also possible and technically allowed, but not advisable. This can lead to conflictual situation, for example in the case where your boss does not want to pay you for the actual amount of hours worked.

Which documents are usually requested by the employer?

A company can ask you for the following documents:

You have 6 weeks time after start date to show those documents to your employer. A work permit is the only necessary document before start date. 

If you do not have health insurance yet, you have to choose one. A lot of employers will try to pick a provider for you.

Normally, German labor law sets the minimum applicable rule. If a worse rule than the law is stated in the contract, then it doesn’t count. The law applies, even if you signed the contract. In general, if you sign something that is unlawful, it’s considered void.

What are my rights as an intern in Germany?

Unless you are in one of those situations, interns also earn minimum wage:

  • The internship is compulsory for school or university.
  • The internship is for career exploration for training or studies and lasts a maximum of 3 months.
  • You are taking part in a position organised by the Job Center or Arbeitsagentur. In this case, there is usually no wage, but it cannot last more than 3 months either and you get a job after the internship.

Apart from that, interns have the same labour rights as any other employee.

Photo by Yuri Krupenin

Salary, trial period

What is the minimum wage in Germany

Minimum is set by German labour law at 12 € gross per hour from October 2022. 

In many branches however, collective agreements sets the minimum wage at a higher level. You can find a list of the current sectoral minimum wages on this PDF (Updated Mai 2022)

If unsure what applies to you, don’t hesitate to ask a local labor agency.

What’s the difference between gross & net salary?

A distinction is made between gross and net wage.

Gross wage is the amount of money earned before taxes and social contributions. Once those are applied, you will get your net wage. That’s the amount of money to go into your bank account.

  • Social contributions: health, care, pension & unemployment insurance.
  • Taxes: income tax & solidarity surcharge/church tax if applicable.

You can find a detailed guide about how to calculate your net salary in Germany here.

Am I entitled to my salary even though I’m ill?

You get full pay for up to 6 weeks following the start of your illness. If you are sick for longer than 6 weeks, the company no longer pays your age. Instead, you have to claim sick pay from your German health insurance company. That amounts to 70% of your gross salary.

If you fall ill in the first 4 weeks after starting a job, you have to apply with the health insurance company directly.

I haven’t been paid at all or only partly paid, what can I do?

You need to react asap and demand your wage in writing to your employer. This is called “Geltendmachung”. You can use this sample letter.

Payment deadlines are stated in the employment contract and collective agreements.

Work time, holidays

How long are working days in Germany?

German labour law states the following:

  • A normal working day is 8 hours per day. 
  • If there are 5 working days per week, this means 40 hours.
  • If there are 6 working days per week, this means 48 hours per week.

Working time can sometimes be extended to a maximum of 10 hours a day, as a temporary measure. You cannot work more than 48 hours per week.

Am I entitled to breaks?

Breaks are compulsory if you work more than 6 hours a day. The boss is not allowed to forbid breaks.

  • If the working day is longer than 6 hours: you must take a break of at least 30 minutes.
  • If the working day is longer than 9 hours: you must take a break of at least 45 minutes.
  • You can take the breaks all at once or take several small breaks of at least 15 minutes.

Do I have to work overtime?

Whenever overtime is requested by your employer, keep this request in writing to be sure to record when this has been requested & when this overtime should happen.

Your employment contract can mention how overtime is handled. If there is nothing about it, you don’t have to work overtime.

Please note that even if you work overtime, you work day should not be longer than 8 or 10 hours.

How does overtime work in Germany?

If you have to work over time, here are the 3 main possibilities:

  1. Overtime is paid like normal hours of work. This means that your wage for the month will be higher. This wage must be on your pay slip.
  2. Overtime hours are accounted for in a report over the course of the year. At the end of the year, the report will show the balance of overtime hours. You will get paid extra at this point. This must be mentioned in your employment contract.
  3. If you agree, you will not get paid for overtime. Instead, you will get time off on another working day. This means you work less on another day but get paid in full.

Am I free to pick when I take holidays? What rules apply?

The common case is the following: 

  • You are allowed to take at least 4 weeks’ holiday per year, by law.
  • If you work 5 days a week, you get 20 days of holiday. 
  • If you work 6 days a week, you get 24 days of holiday. 
  • In many collective agreements there is more holiday than 4 weeks. 
  • When you are on holiday, you get full pay, just like when you work those days.

Do you have a new job? You can only take the full annual leave after 6 months. Before that, you can still take some time off. Take the total yearly amount and divide by 12 to get the monthly amount.

You cannot take the days you already had again at the new job. Your old boss has to give you a certificate of leave. This is a paper that says how many days of leave you have already taken.

You can take time off at any point during the year and your employer has to respect your wishes. You must take the leave in the calendar year (January to December).

Photo by Nothing Ahead

Job termination

What rules govern job terminations?

Notice of termination must always be in writing. Notice periods are:

  • 4 weeks before the last day in a month or 4 weeks before the 15th day in a month.
  • Some collective agreements have a shorter or longer notice period.
  • The notice period during the probationary period is shorter (14 days usually).

During this time, the company must continue to pay your wages and you must work. The notice period is usually written in your employment contract. 

Some remarks:

  • You can also be fired without notice on the spot, but that’s in rare serious cases involving accidents, violence, harassment, etc.
  • It is possible to appeal against a wrongful termination. You can have the dismissal reviewed by a labour court. For this, you have to file a complaint. You must act quickly: You only have 3 weeks to file a complaint after you have been dismissed!
  • Oral/verbal terminations are not legally valid.
  • You can still take holidays during the notice period. If you cannot take them, the boss must pay extra for those days with your last pay.
  • Sickness may not be the reason for dismissal. 
  • The company is not allowed to give notice during pregnancy, 4 months after birth and during parental leave.

I want to quit, how should I proceed?

This is regulated by the same rules for both the employer & the employee. Refer to the previous paragraph.

I am out of a job, what are my rights now?

There is a good chance you are entitled to unemployment benefits. You must register yourself as “looking for work” within 3 days after receiving or handing in the termination notice.

Please refer to this detailed guide about applying for unemployment benefits in Germany here.

Sickness, accidents & pregnancy

I am ill and cannot go to work. What happens now?

If you cannot go to work, do the following:

  • Notify your employer immediately, if possible in writing. 
  • On the same day or following days (day 1, 2 or 3), go to the doctor to get a sick note (“Krankschreibung”). This states you are not fit for work.
  • At the latest on day 4, give this sick note to your employer.

Your employment contract can specify how early you need to give in your sick note.

I am pregnant, what should I do now?

  • You must notify your employer about your pregnancy. If you are healthy, you can continue to work. If not, you can get a sick note from your doctor. 
  • You are not allowed to work 6 weeks before the birth and at least 8 weeks after the birth. You will continue to receive full pay for this time.
  • After the birth of the child, you can take parental leave (“Elternzeit”). 
  • Your employment contract is still valid during this time. You do not have to give notice. However, your employer does not pay your salary during this time, the “Elterngeldstelle” will.

Full guide about parental leave and how to apply for parental benefits in Germany here.

I’ve suffered an accident at work. What should I do now?

This is how you should react:

  1. Always report the accident to your employer immediately. Even if it is a very minor accident. Better to do in written form when you get the chance too.
  2. Go to a doctor for accidents. This doctor reports the accident to the employer’s insurance. This is how accidents are covered.

Photo by George Becker

Conflicts & conflict resolution

My employer is violating my rights. How can I react?

If a simple conversation or mediation doesn’t solve this, you must reinstate your rights yourself. You may seek support, for example from a counselling centre (see at the end of this post), trade union or lawyer. You can also go directly to the labour court by filing a complaint.

It’s important to have enough documentation to prove that your rights were hurt in the workplace. Keep everything in writing. Screenshots, sms, WhatsApp messages, photos can also help.

I suffer from discriminatio at work. What can I do?

If you have been mistreated because of your origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or sexual identity, you can turn to anti-discrimination offices for help & support.

More info on the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency’s website  (in English).

I’ve damaged company property. Can my employer deduct damages from my salary?

No. The company has insurance for that. 2 exceptions:

  • You broke something on purpose. Your employer has prove you did it on purpose.
  • You’ve shown gross negligence.

Even if your employer is allowed to deduct money from your wage, it can only be a limited amount every month. How much exactly depends on your income & family situation.

This company wants to hire me, but only if I have a Gewerbe or as a freelancer. What does that mean?

This is suspicious and could be classified as “Scheinselbständigkeit”: bogus self-employment. You are self-employed on paper, but you work like an employee. Another person is your boss and decides: where, when, how and with what you work. Then this person has to employ you, i.e. give you a normal employment contract, pay social contributions and insurance.

This employer is trying to avoid all those costs. It is highly illegal.

I’m in Germany on a residence permit. Is it risky to enter into a conflict with my employer in this situation?

Employer might want to use your residence status to pressure you into accepting unlawful conditions or contracts. Your employer may not dismiss you because you demand your labour rights. But he can look for another reason to cause problems. Seek help from a counselling centre, a trade union or a lawyer.

However, if you worked without a work permit or broken laws yourself, there might be consequences for you as well. Best to seek some advice in that case.

Workers rights in Germany – where to get help

Worker’s council 

Companies with 5 employees or more have to let employees form a council (“Betriebsrat”).

In this case, some colleagues represent the rights of all workers in your company. They make sure that all colleagues are treated well by the employer. They support you if you have a problem.

Ask your colleagues if there is a works council in your company. If not, you can set one up.

Trade union

A trade union is an organisation of workers for workers (“Gewerkschaft“). 

  • There are different trade unions for different occupations. 
  • Trade unions negotiate with companies about working conditions, for example: wages, holidays and working time. 
  • They sign collective agreements (“Tarifverträge”) with companies.

A trade union also offers its members advice and help with problems at work. And it supports workers’ councils.

You can also become a member of a trade union! This way the union can also represent your rights.

Non-profit organisations

I will list Berlin-centric organisations here, but you can find a local branch in your area by using keywords like “Beratungstelle Migranten [city]”. You can also find a local organisation by entering your city in this search engine provided by the Federal Agency for Immigration.

Those organisations provide consultation & advice at no costs, and usually in multiple languages. It’s an excellent starting place.

Berlin-based organisations:

I hope this employee rights overview of Germany was useful to you. Feel free to suggest improvements or ask questions in the comments’ section.

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