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Wed, Jan 05, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Police, protesters battle in Berlin

BENEFITS CUTS Riot police were deployed to block people demonstrating against a new law that came into effect Monday that cuts aid to the unemployed


Several hundred protesters clashed with police at a Berlin unemployment office as a sharp cutback in jobless benefits took effect in a government effort to push people to find work.

Police in riot helmets used pepper spray on Monday as they blocked protesters from entering the office in Wedding, a working-class neighborhood with high unemployment, and made several arrests.

Smaller Protests

Scattered protests in Nuremberg, Munich, Leipzig and Stuttgart drew only a few dozen people each, falling far short of mass marches by tens of thousands in August and September against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's labor market reforms.

The new law taking effect on Monday is dubbed Hartz IV, after Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz, who headed a commission that drew up the reforms.

It is part of Schroeder's program to shake up the country's expensive welfare state benefit system and spur more economic growth.

Lower Payments

After people use up their basic jobless benefits -- whose duration varies -- the new system will lower their payments to 345 euros (US$465) a month in western Germany and 331 euros (US$408) in the formerly communist east, plus rent and heating allowances. Previously, people could receive more than half of their last net salary.

In addition, those getting the reduced aid may be forced to take part in government make-work projects for 1 euro an hour if they don't get another job.

The idea is to provide an incentive to get off unemployment.

But, with the jobless rate higher than 10 percent, many unemployed fear there won't be work to find, and Schroeder's initiative has drawn critics from within his own Social Democratic party.

Germany's new law

* The law, dubbed `Hartz IV,' came into effect on Monday

* It is part of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's move to shake up the welfare benefits system and spur growth

* The law lowers monthly jobless benefits payments

* Those on reduced aid may be forced to participate in government make-work projects

* The goal is to give incentives for people to find a job

* The unemployment rate is currently above 10 percent

"I don't hope for much from the labor market," said one of the Berlin protesters, Klaus Rathmann, 53, who said he has been out of work for seven years since losing his job with a tobacco company.

Mixed Reaction

"I think they're going in the wrong direction," he said.

A parliamentary spokesman on labor issues for the Social Democrats, Klaus Brandner, called the launch of the changes "a good day for our country."

He cautioned, however, that more changes could be in store if the new law doesn't work.

"If it turns out it isn't efficient, it will be changed as soon as possible," he said on ZDF public television.

Conservative opposition politician Roland Koch warned that only an upturn in economic growth could create more jobs for people to take.

"The chancellor has left the impression that Hartz IV will create jobs," said Koch, the governor of the southwestern state of Hesse.

"The reform, by itself, won't create any new positions," he said.

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