BERLIN // A 50-year old German supermarket cashier who was sacked for allegedly stealing coupons worth €1.30 (Dh6) has become a working-class heroine symbolising a growing sense of social injustice in the financial crisis that has begun to drag down Europe's largest economy. Barbara Emme worked for the Kaiser's supermarket chain for 31 years, most recently in Berlin, until she was fired in January last year after the management accused her of using two bottle return coupons lost by customers in the store - one worth €0.48 and the other €0.82 - to pay for groceries.
She denied the charge and took legal action but a senior labour court in Berlin ruled in her employer's favour last week. The judge said the firm did not need to prove her guilt before sacking her because mere suspicion of wrongdoing was enough justification. A supermarket, the judge argued, must be able to have total faith in its cashiers. The ruling met with disbelief and outrage across the nation. Politicians and trade unionists warned that it could undermine faith in the legal system and reinforce the view that Germany is a two-class society following lenient sentences for major tax evaders and billion-euro bailouts for high-rolling bankers.
"It's a barbaric and antisocial verdict," said Wolfgang Thierse, the deputy president of the Bundestag lower house of parliament and a senior member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party. It could end up shaking confidence in democracy, he said. The case has struck a chord with people in the current environment of economic doom. With fear of unemployment mounting, the notion that there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor is especially damaging, politicians said.
The dismissal has been front page news and Ms Emme was invited to take part in one of the country's best-known TV talk shows last week. "I didn't do what I'm accused of and I would never do it because I worked heart and soul for Kaiser's. It was my life," she said. Ms Emme is a single mother of three grown children and has had to move into a smaller apartment because she is on an unemployment benefit and has little prospect of getting a new job.
Her lawyer, Benedikt Hopmann, said he will take the case to Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court. "There's huge interest in the case because most people identify with it, most people sense an increasing uncertainty. The little people get hanged, and the big ones are let go," Mr Hopmann said in an emotional outburst on the Johannes B Kerner talk show last week. Liberal newspaper Die Zeit commented: "Barbara E has become a symbol for the fact that even in the biggest crisis, it's always the wrong people who get hurt."
Uwe Polkaehn, a regional official of the DGB German trade union federation, said: "The verdict lacks all sensitivity. It's unfair. Because bank managers can fritter away billions of euros and go on claiming bonuses without being called to task." Last month bankers at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Benson came under fire after reports that they were considering suing the bank to protect their bonuses for 2008 despite huge losses. Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined the international criticism of high bonus payments for bankers, and has called for curbs.
The cashier's treatment has been compared with that of Klaus Zumwinkel, the former chief executive of Deutsche Post AG, the mail and logistics group, who escaped a jail sentence in a court verdict in January even though he admitted evading €970,000 in tax. He paid a €1 million fine under a deal struck between his lawyers and the state prosecution, and he now plans to emigrate to Italy to live in a castle he owns on Lake Garda.
A survey published yesterday found 67 per cent of Germans regarded the verdict as unjust. Among people on relatively low income of between €1,000 and €1,500 per month, the percentage was 77 per cent, according to the survey conducted by the Emnid polling institute for Bild am Sonntag newspaper. Kaiser's insists that Ms Emme stole from it. She has alleged that her dismissal is linked to her membership of a trade union and participation in a retail workers' strike in autumn 2007 against cuts in shift supplements, but the firm has denied that.
The company's Berlin regional manager, Tobias Tuchlenski, said the store had no option but to fire Ms Emme. "We have to dismiss anyone who's dishonest, even if they only steal a chewing gum," he said. "Five, 10 or 100 euros - where do you draw the line?" So far, Ms Merkel has stayed out of the debate, which is politically explosive because it coincides with growing concern about the plight of ordinary people in the financial crisis and about massive government spending to shore up a financial sector reeling from its own reckless speculation.
Thousands of workers at car maker Opel, the German subsidiary of ailing US group General Motors, demonstrated last week against threatened job cuts and plant closures in the course of GM's planned global restructuring. Opel has been American-owned since 1929 but it remains a quintessentially German brand and an icon of the country's post-war economic miracle. Its possible demise, following the insolvency in recent months of other venerable brands such as the porcelain maker Rosenthal, the underwear firm Schiesser and the model train manufacturer Märklin, has sparked fears that the global recession will do irreparable damage to Germany's industrial base.
"Is 'Made in Germany' Going Kaput?" wrote the country's best-selling daily, Bild, last month. Mrs Merkel's government is under intense pressure to help Opel, which employs 29,000 workers, after it bailed out the country's bankers. If it does not, Mr Hopmann's statement that the "little people get hanged and the big ones are let go" will be ringing in Mrs Merkel's ears all the way up to the general election in September.