German opposition forces pace on minimum wage

BERLIN, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Opposition parties in Germany are preparing to introduce a draft law on a minimum wage to the Bundesrat upper house on March 1, a newspaper reported on Thursday, raising the pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel on the issue.

Germany is one of only a few countries in Europe with no mandatory, across-the-board minimum wage and the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have made it a top campaign issue ahead of a September election in which conservative Merkel is seeking a third term.

The SPD, Greens and the socialist Left party have agreed to propose that Germany adopt a minimum wage of 8.50 euros an hour, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported, without naming its sources.

"(Germany's federal states want) to protect employees from wage dumping and ensure they have an income they can live off," Malu Dreyer, the SPD premier of the state of Rhineland Pfalz, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

The draft law would almost certainly be passed by the upper house, where opposition parties have a majority, but would probably be rejected in the Bundestag lower house, where Merkel's centre-right coalition is dominant.

The initiative steps up the pressure on Merkel to press ahead with her own minimum wage legislation, an issue that like many others has fallen victim to disagreements within her centre-right coalition.

After decades of opposition, Merkel's conservatives last year agreed to back a mandatory minimum wage for sectors without one in a bid to win over left-leaning voters.

Germany has long had minimum wages in some branches, such as the waste and laundry sectors, but no national benchmark. The conservatives' proposal would stop short of that favoured by the opposition in that the minimum wage could vary sector by sector.

The other party in the coalition, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), had long blocked the idea of any mandatory minimum wage, arguing it amounted to excessive political interference in the wage-bargaining process.

Senior party members this week signalled they were open to discussion on the subject, however.

FDP General-Secretary Patrick Doering told the Rheinische Post newspaper on Thursday that his party "could envisage branch- and region-specific bottom lines for wages" in cases where there was very low pay or no wage contracts.

Polls show that about three quarters of Germans support a national minimum wage. One recent survey by Infratest dimap showed that 66 percent of conservative voters would back such a policy, compared to just 40 percent five years ago.

Die Welt newspaper quoted conservative premier of the state of Thuringia Christine Lieberknecht saying she was optimistic about getting an agreement soon.

"I think a breakthrough is close and I expect we will have a decision relatively soon," she told the paper. (Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)