Ed Miliband's team is asking whether German guilds could solve Britain's labour problemsby Philip Oltermann / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
A Berlin chimney sweep: does Germany’s success lie in “the very fact that labour is still supported by structures that are frankly medieval”? (© John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)
Strange things happen when Lutz-Matthias Peters walks the streets of Hamburg. Some people stop, spit over their shoulder or twist the buttons on their jackets. Others shake his hand. Peters wears black leather trousers, a black double-breasted jacket with golden buttons, a cravat and a battered top hat in which he keeps his business cards and a notepad—his mobile office, as he calls it. On the buckle of his belt is an engraving of Saint Florian, patron saint of firefighters. He is what German compound nouns allow you to call a Schornsteinfegermeister, a master chimney sweep. He looks the part.
In Europe, chimney sweeps have been associated with good fortune since medieval times, but could they have a modern significance too? They epitomise a workforce structure that is unique to Germany, and this has led some to wonder whether the system might be transplanted to other countries. They include Ed Miliband, whose advisors, such as Stewart Wood, have taken a close interest in the German labour market system and have mulled the possibility of bringing it to Britain. Could it be done? And would it be any help?
Germans are certainly fond of their chimney sweeps—they are so revered that plastic mini-sweeps—sometimes riding a pig or brandishing a horseshoe and four-leaf clover—are popular table decorations on New Year’s Eve. Chimney sweeps like Lutz-Matthias Peters are still legally obliged to pay a biannual visit to each property in their allocated district, to clean fireplaces, inspect the heating system and pull the odd dead bird out of the chimney (in 2005, five out of 80m people living in Germany died of carbon monoxide poisoning; in France it was 400 out of 60m). To some in Germany they represent an old-fashioned, irrelevant tradition. To others chimney sweeps sum up everything that has turned the country into an economic powerhouse.
Roman Veit is not a fan of Germany’s men in black and the reputation that surrounds them. He too is a chimney sweep, but he refuses to wear the uniform. When we meet in a Greek restaurant on the outskirts of Berlin he is wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt imprinted with the words Freier Schornsteinfeger, “freelance chimney sweep.”…