Josephine Ortleb is one of the new faces in the German Bundestag and she brings two rare experiences to the table. The 31-year-old succeeded in entering the federal parliament via a direct mandate. In 2017 she won the constituency of Saarbrücken for the social-democrat SPD against an experienced CDU politician. The second distinctive feature is that Josephine Ortleb is not a typical professional politician. In 2014 she passed the exam to become a certified specialist in the hospitality industry as the best of her class and worked hand in hand with her parents in the family restaurant “Tomate 2” before her political commitment played an increasingly important role. Now the young member of the Bundestag is commuting between Berlin and her constituency in the Saarland, advocating a social labour market, inclusion, equal opportunities and women’s rights. But there are still two souls dwelling in her breast: one devoted to politics and one to the restaurant trade.
What is your relationship with the restaurant trade?
When I think of restaurants and hospitality, I can feel my heart rise. I have trained in this profession and I really enjoyed it, because it has to do with people, because the services are provided to people. This has also shaped me being a guest in a restaurant myself. I have a completely different view of workflows, of how businesses are run. I can imagine that restaurateurs are quite tricky guests themselves.
When I think of restaurants and hospitality, I can feel my heart rise.
When did you start to get politically involved and on what impulse?
I started to get politically active relatively early on, because I wanted to fight for an open, free and tolerant society. I used to have colourful hair and when I was out and about in town, I often noticed that I was treated differently. That’s when I thought, oh dear, I don’t want to live in a society where your appearance, origin, or sexuality decide how you’re treated. I want to live in a society where everyone has equal opportunities and equal participation. And then it was clear that in order to change something, I also have to get politically involved.
What influence have these political values and beliefs had in your working life?
If you have defined these values for yourself, then it doesn’t make any difference whether you are working in your profession or in politics. Of course, you always uphold your own stance. When I decided to take up this profession, when I started training in the restaurant trade, I also started to fight for better working conditions in the industry. As an example, I joined the trade union immediately because for me, this was the logical consequence of my political work.
If you have defined these values for yourself, then it doesn’t make any difference whether you are working in your profession or in politics.
So, when did you decide to go into politics and why?
When it comes to political paths, it is often a question of the right time and place, because political careers cannot really be planned. I was politically active with a great investment of time and commitment: I joined the SPD at a young age and took on a great deal of responsibility with their youth organisation Jusos in the city, in the district and at state level and with the Social Democratic Women. When it came to the question of assuming a full-time mandate, i.e. fully committing myself to politics, I accepted the challenge. In 2017, there was the opportunity to run as a direct candidate for the Bundestag in the constituency of Saarbrücken, where a long-standing member of parliament had retired. And that is what I did, because it was the logical consequence of my political work, of my political commitment.
You won the direct mandate, which was extraordinary for this constituency. What do you think made the difference?
The decisive factor was what I learned in the restaurant trade. Namely the contact with people, a respectful contact, but also an authentic interaction with many different people. I was on the road a lot during the election campaign, I met a lot of people, I talked to them, I listened to what their worries and needs were and the people noticed that my interest was real. That, I believe, was the main reason why many people later decided to give their vote to a young woman who was not yet firmly rooted in politics. I am glad that we were always on the road, that we were always on site and that I was able to meet that many people. In the end, that led to this success, which we did not expect either.
The decisive factor was what I learned in the restaurant trade. Namely the contact with people, a respectful contact, but also an authentic interaction with many different people.
You mentioned interacting with people. What other skills from your professional experience will help you in Berlin’s political arena?
There are actually a number of things that make my day-to-day work here easier. That, for example, it goes without saying that we also work on weekends. It is also important in the restaurant trade that you can structure and organise yourself and your work processes; everything simply has to be right. Of course, you learn this in your training and use it in your work every day. And when it comes to organising events in the constituency, I also have a different perspective, because I’ve simply been doing this for a very long time professionally.
Do you have a different approach to politics because of your professional career? Would the political arena need many more people who have worked “with their hands”?
We are a representative democracy in Germany and that means for me that we should have people from all social strata and preferably from all professions sitting here in the German Bundestag or in the state parliaments. I am absolutely convinced that these different perspectives are incredibly important. Whether that has something to do with working with your own hands or not, I don’t know. But you have a different perspective, that is perfectly clear. If you’ve studied for a long time, if you’ve worked in a legal profession, you have a different background than I do, having completed an apprenticeship after graduating from high school. And the subject of vocational training in particular is an important one for us in Germany. We are incredibly proud of our dual system for vocational training and we urgently need people who have taken the path themselves in order to really position this dual system for the future.
This change of perspective is also important in many other areas. That is why I believe that in our democracy we should be very vigilant in ensuring that all professions are represented, all realities of life. This also applies to the issue that many more men than women are members of the Bundestag. Because when it comes to who decides, it is mostly men who decide on issues that mainly affect women, or it is lawyers who make the majority decisions when it comes to classic employee issues. We must be very diverse so that we can implement really good policies. For me, on the other hand, this also includes diversity in companies.
In order to counter the shortage of skilled workers, politics and businesses must work together.
Do you see yourself as a mediator between worlds? Your mother still has the restaurant in Saarbrücken and people know each other in the restaurant scene - when you come home, are you approached with questions and problems?
As a directly elected member of parliament, you are actually always and everywhere a mediator between worlds. Very often it is a matter of explaining political decision-making paths. What I perceive as being very positive, at least where I come from, is that there is great solidarity within the restaurant trade. They all have the same basic conditions and especially the smaller and medium-sized restaurant and hospitality businesses, which are also owner-managed, all have the same problems. They have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week; never really knowing whether operations will remain stable. What is that line about being an independent business owner? You do everything yourself – constantly. I must say that I also felt this great solidarity during the election campaign. And, of course, I am also told where there are political problems.
What are the biggest problems of the restaurant industry at the moment?
One of the biggest issues is the shortage of skilled workers. The restaurateurs are always faced with the question: How do we get well-trained staff? How can our businesses be attractive? And how do we keep our staff? After all, fluctuation among employees in the restaurant trade is also a major problem. In this respect, I am quite happy to be able to say, as a politician, that we are taking care that there is good education and vocational training in Germany. The next step must now be to adapt vocational training to the new challenges, especially in the area of digitisation in the restaurant industry. Politics can and must contribute to this.
In order to counter the shortage of skilled workers, politics and businesses must work together. You really have to make sure that on the one hand you create good regulations for the protection of employees, but that on the other hand there is also a high level of collective bargaining and that people earn well. This is of course the responsibility of the social partners, but the payment must still be appropriate. For many, especially for young people, working hours are also an important issue. I know this myself, from my youth, my parents usually worked on weekends. That’s what was done. Young people today want to better balance their family and career. This is more difficult in restaurants and hospitality because you also have to work in the evenings and on weekends. This is where employers need to react and give people the opportunity to divide their working hours individually so that they can still meet friends, see their family and their children.
My dream job is that of a restaurateur and I knew that on the first day of my training.
Will there be a way back for you at some point?
My dream job is that of a restaurateur and I knew that on the first day of my training. And as I have said already, political careers can never be planned, which means that the way back is always an option for me. The idea of it does not frighten me at all, it gives me joy. When I’m in my constituency, at home, and go to my mother’s restaurant for lunch and then I see that there’s a lot going on, I see the hustle and bustle – then I’m itching to go to the bar and start working. People say that this love of restaurants is never lost to anyone who has ever worked in this business.