Labour immigration takes centre-stage in Austria

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Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel’s proposal to open the Austrian labour market for nurses from the country’s eastern neighbouring states has brought him into conflict with the Social Democrats and sections of his own party.

As Austria is nearing general elections for the National Council, to be held on 1 October 2006, labour mobility has become a hot issue in the campaign. The issue was raised by Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein who, backed by Schüssel, proposed to open the labour market for nurses from the eight Central- and Eastern-European countries (EU-8) that joined the EU in 2004. Both politicians are from the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

The Greens declared their readiness to support Schüssel’s and Bartenstein’s initiative, arguing that it is absurd to talk about a flooding of the labour market when the workers are already there. 

The social democratic SPÖ is opposed, however, as are the two small right-wing parties resulting from the fragmentation of Jörg Haider’s FPÖ. While the right-wing extremists are driven by pure xenophobia, however, the Social Democrats point to the rule that anybody working officially in Austria for one year gains full access to the labour market – which would make all the restrictions obsolete. 

The Social Democrats also argue with ‘wage dumping’ – going as far as to say that legalisation would on the mid-term not solve problems for labour immigrants from the EU-8 at all – it would result in their market price increasing to a level higher than most Austrian families could afford, so they would ultimately be replaced by nurses from Ukraine.

Austria is the only country besides Germany that adheres to keeping restrictions on labour mobility in place as long as possible, until 2011. It is estimated that some 40,000 care-workers and nurses from the Central and Eastern European countries work in Austria, mostly illegally. Locally, they are known as "angels from the East”, because they are ready to work for much lower salaries and longer hours than their colleagues from Austria. Typically, the nurses are not employed in the official healthcare sector, but as domestic nurses, attending to elderly people.

The average salary in the chronically undernourished health sector of Austria's neighbouring country, Slovakia, is around €360, with nurses earning considerably less. In Austria, even if working illegally, they earn up to six times that much.

In the summer of 2006, it turned out that a number of Austrian politicians, or their families, were employing nurses from Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Illegally employed nurses were working for Wolfgang Schüssel’s mother-in-law, as well as for the father of Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Cheap Slovak labour has also helped the parents of the Social Democrats´ spokesman for European issues, Caspar Einem, and of Helmut Kukacka (ÖVP), state secretary in the transport ministry.

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