Young people serving apprenticeships are being made to work under scandalous conditions, according to a "Black Paper" published by the German Trade Unions Association (DGB).
Documented incidents described 16 and 17-year-olds being denied wages and holiday entitlements, forced to do tasks inappropriate to their training and subjected to bullying as well as sexual harassment.
"We were appalled at many of the things we heard," admitted Ingrid Sehrbrock, a senior DGB official, who is demanding that local chambers of commerce and industry impose stricter controls on firms that train youngsters.
In addition, the DGB wants all firms that apply to take on apprentices in the future to come under closer scrutiny from the authorities. The "Black Paper" contains 77 horror stories compiled from around 2,000 answers to an online questionnaire started by the DGB two years ago.
Young people were asked to describe their experiences as apprentices. One young man described how he had to paint his work premises single-handedly for several weeks, while a young female trainee in a lawyer's office was forced to walk the boss's dog, cover his son's school books and clean the office toilets as part of her "duties".
The hotel trade fared badly, with several cases of young people working day and night with little pay and fewer prospects. In other cases bosses withheld large sums for one day's sick leave or trainees were forced to rent rooms from employers at exorbitant rates.
Barbara Dorn, a spokeswoman for the Federation of German Employers'
Associations (BDA) accused the DGB of taking "a number of isolated incidents" and blowing them up "out of all proportion". However, the DGB report said that many young people were afraid to speak out in such situations for fear of losing their trainee places and finding nothing elsewhere.
This is due to the continued downturn in the economic climate since the number of traineeships available dropped by nearly 33,000 from last year's level to around 346,000 last month.
The DGB report was fiercely criticised by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK), whose top manager, Martin Wansleben, also dismissed the stories as "isolated incidents", pointing out that 1.7 million young people were in traineeships.
He advised young people in difficult situations to contact the training counsellor at their local chamber of commerce and industry. "In cases of real conflict, arbitrators will intervene," he confirmed, adding that firms could also lose their licence to train.