Not in Germany, either. You have a right to get a written reference from any previous workplace up to 3 years after your employment ended. It must be both truthful and favorable. The latter requirement leads to a lot of weird newspeak and in those references, which other employers then have to try and decipher.
Required to be favorable? Doesn't that negate a reference for anything other than "Yes, they worked here and those were the proscribed duties"?
Pretty much. And since people lie on their resumes on work experience, that at least can be useful info. If someone worked for a prestigious employer for a few years, it might be a good sign (but not always, in my experience).
What about answers to certain questions like: Would you rehire them?
It's a grey area, for sure.
In my experience, there's two types of references: One is the work experience reference, which is solely for giving people confirmation that the candidate has in fact worked for the employer in question and isn't lying on their resume.
The second is the professional "amicable" reference, which the candidate provides. The reference in question doesn't have to be a boss, but a colleague who worked with the candidate closely. The best-etiquette for this kind of reference is to ask permission from the reference to provide said reference (rather than just having them blindsided by an employer asking for a reference). Usually, unless the candidate is totally clueless as to how much of a loser people think they are, the candidate will furnish references that will provide a positive review.
I've given references before in this manner, and the questions they ask are often more subjective and it almost feels like "interview by proxy" in that they'll ask questions like, "Can you recall a situation where the candidate was having a problem and was able to solve it? And if so, how was he able to solve it?" And they do ask "would you work with him again, given the opportunity?" Again, because the guy knew me well, and knew I'd pull for him, there wasn't really a chance I'd give negative answers to those questions.
All this stuff is always an enigma, legally speaking, for me. IANAL but I'm sure there are employers who push the envelope.