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East German Army Drafted to Cope With Labor Shortages

HEIKO, an East German soldier in the People's Army, is getting a workout - but not on the obstacle course. Since 7:30 a. m., he and five other soldiers have been loading pallets stacked with packages of cocoa, sugar, pasta, and pretzels onto a truck; delivering the goods to shops and restaurants in Dresden; and then driving back to do it all over again.

At the end of the day, the 19-year-old tips back in a chair at the warehouse and says, with amazement, what he thinks of the work: ``I'm doing something useful!''

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Were it not for the People's Army and other ``temporary'' workers, the East German economy would be in an even deeper hole than it is now. Since January, 294,000 East Germans have moved to West Germany - most of them in the last four months.

To try to compensate for the labor shortage, the Army, the police (even the secret police), students, bureaucrats, and foreign workers have been put to work. They're serving in hospitals, driving streetcars, and delivering goods to grocery stores.

Much of the refugee wave flowed from southern East Germany, which has the highest concentration of people in the country and is also the main industrial area. But even with help from the temporary workers, cities like Dresden can't bridge the worker gap. Since January, 26,000 people have left Dresden - a city on the Elbe River flattened in the war and now an incompatible mix of mammoth communist architecture and rebuilt, pollution-charred baroque.

One industry in acute need is the transportation and delivery sector. J"urgen Forkert, head of the department in the Dresden area responsible for this sector, laments that he has only 500-plus people to fill 2,500 empty job slots. He says that 130 shops and restaurants in the area have been forced to close.

``Our problems didn't start with the wave of people'' who left East Germany however, explains Eberhard Kretzschmar, deputy director for the area's Kombinat which transports basic household goods. His Kombinat - the East German term for a business group - has always had trouble keeping employees ``because of bad working conditions and low pay,'' Mr. Kretzschmar says.

At the Kombinat's 44 aging warehouses (2O years later Kretzschmar is still waiting for the state to build a modern, central warehouse) there are not enough fork lifts and some of the wheeled pallet movers are unstable, causing loaded pallets to tip and spill their goods.

But Heiko and his barracks buddies don't think work at one of the Kombinat warehouses is so bad. They're picked up by a bus at 6:30 a. m. and brought back to the base at 4:OO p. m. For two marks ($1.12), they get a big breakfast of eggs, wurst, and bread, and they work the day alongside civilians as drivers, co-drivers, or loaders.

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``We volunteered to come. Everyone wanted to help,'' says J"org Wilhelm, one of the soldiers.

The soldiers work in two-week stints and go wherever Dresden needs them. They receive their regular Army pay plus four marks ($2.24) a day for food, which one soldier described as way too low because the restaurants where they often eat lunch aren't subsidized.

``Our six friends are my best workers,'' says warehouse manager Heinz J"apel, talking about the young soldiers. Temporary workers are not the ideal solution, he says, because they constantly need to be trained. But at least the soldiers are used to hard labor, unlike the part-time students and former bureaucrats who also fill in here. And so far, Mr. J"apel is more or less on schedule with his deliveries.

In Dresden, at least, it appears that this stopgap measure will be necessary for at least another year, according to Mr. Forkert. The area has already turned to Poland for extra laborers and is now trying to iron out a deal with Hungary. East Germany also has a sizable ``guest worker'' arrangement with Vietnam, Cuba, and a number of African countries.

Forkert sees a few bright lights ahead. If East Germany really moves to an achievement-oriented pay system, his industry will be able to offer more pay and attract more workers. Also, he's hoping that the new drive for efficiency will shake loose some workers from the bloated government and security apparatus.

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