BERLIN (AFP) - Worker-starved Germany plans to ease immigration rules to attract foreign jobseekers and replenish its fast ageing workforce, despite mounting public resistance against new arrivals.
Germany's first ever immigration law, to be agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet on Wednesday (Dec 19), is eagerly anticipated by industries.
But the law, which will have to be put to Parliament, risks opening new fault lines in a country already deeply split over a record influx of more than a million mostly Muslim refugees and migrants since 2015.
The German Trade Union Confederation has also warned that the eased access could lead to salary dumping and exploitation of foreign workers.
Under the planned relaxed rules, jobseekers from outside the European Union - including, for example, cooks, metallurgy workers or IT technicians - would be allowed to come to Germany for six months to try and find employment, provided they speak German and can financially support themselves.
More controversial has been a plan to allow migrants already in Germany who are awaiting decisions on their asylum applications to stay if they are gainfully employed and can show they have joined the fabric of German society.
Following an outcry from the more conservative wing of Dr Merkel's CDU party, it was unclear whether ministers would water down elements of the draft proposal, especially on the issue of employment for rejected asylum seekers.
Ms Julia Kloeckner, a heavyweight in the CDU party, has warned amid a heated debate that this part of the package could create "a wrong incentive" for more people to try to get to Germany.
German industry and employment leaders however wrote in a letter to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer that "attempts to essentially water down the planned rules in the draft law endanger the aim of a targeted and necessary migration of workers".
Some 60 per cent of companies see a worker shortage as a risk for the development of their businesses, according to the letter, which added that the number of unfilled apprenticeship posts surpasses the 33,000 applications that are still being processed.
Immigration has become a hot potato issue in recent years over the record influx of migrants, many fleeing war in Iraq or Syria.
Railing against the newcomers, the far-right AfD has become Germany's biggest opposition party.
But Germany is also anxious to not leave thousands of migrants - who may spend years waiting on a final decision on their asylum claims or deportation - idle and susceptible to taking on jobs in the black market.
The government ministers had stressed that the new immigration rules are not designed to allow failed asylum applicants to win residency in Germany by switching over to become employment migrants.
Rather, the new rules are aimed at providing a "pragmatic solution" for migrants who, for instance, have been in Germany for a protracted period because they cannot be deported if they face the risk of torture in their country of origin.
With unemployment at a record low since Germany's 1990 reunification, companies in Europe's biggest economy have been complaining that a chronic shortage in workers is threatening growth.
In the areas of mathematics, computing, natural sciences and technology, a record 338,200 jobs went unfilled in September, according to data from the Cologne-based German Economic Institute.
Economy Minister Peter Altmaier had said the new rules will especially help Germany's small and medium-sized companies, "which in the past have suffered, as they are in competition with big companies that have poached the well-trained people".