Migrant workers in the Czech Republic, 2005

One of Czech's many factories
One of Czech's many factories

An article about the situation of predominantly Slovakian and Ukrainian immigrant workers in the Czech Republic in 2005.

Submitted by Steven. on November 24, 2006

Between Repression and the Mafia
With the re-structuring of capital in the Czech Republic following the revolution of 1989, class composition also changed. A big influx of immigrant workers has been part of this process. Immigrant workers work in all kinds of sectors: in construction for example, in the automobile industry, in retail, in health and cleaning sector, in tourism. Today about 162,000 ‘legal’ immigrant workers live in the Czech Republic[1], at least double that amount stay ‘illegally’. It is estimated that there are 480,000 foreign workers in the Czech Republic, or about nine per cent of the total work force. And the total number of immigrant workers has been increasing slowly since 1999. This increase is paralleled by huge inflows of foreign investment[2], which is no coincidence given that nearly 60 per cent of all immigrants work in factories or on construction sites. About 10 per cent of all immigrants live in Prague where construction activities have boomed in the last year. About 74 per cent of the immigrant workers are men aged between 20 and 39 years[3]. Compared to the ‘native working class’ the immigrants work under even more precarious conditions (short-term contracts, low wages, contracted only as formally self-employed workers, etc.). The immigrant workers are used by capital to put more pressure on the local work force and establish class divisions along the lines of origin, language and ethnical categories.

Escaping Economic Misery in Slovakia
The majority of all foreign workers - over 40 per cent - in the Czech Republic come from Slovakia. Work migration to the Czech Republic is anything but new for Slovakians: this was already common during the so-called First Republic (1918-1938) and didn’t change under state capitalism (1948-1989). Their employment in the Czech Republic was considerably facilitated even before the EU extension. Unlike people from countries that are not members of the EU (‘non-member countries’), Slovakians are not protected by employment legislation[4]. The employer only has to announce the employment of a Slovakian worker to the employment agency, and the agency is then obliged to formally register the worker[5]. Hence Slovakian workers are mostly employed legally and not pushed into the arms of the various mafias, like for example the workers from Ukraine are. A lot of Slovakians work for temp agencies, often on construction sites, but also in the car industry (e.g. Skoda, VW), the electronic industry (e.g. in the former production of Flextronics) or in retail trade (e.g. Tesco, Ahold, Billa). The health sector is another area where a lot of Slovakians are employed, both as middle-ranking medical personnel and as doctors.

In the Net of the ‘Clients’
Things are slightly different for migrant workers from Ukraine (and from non-member countries in general). Ukrainian workers account for 25 per cent of all foreign workers in the Czech Republic. They are put under more pressure than the Slovakians as they need a work permit from the employment agency, which is dependent on their work visa. They have to pay health and social insurance, but if they lose their job they have to leave the country within one week and are excluded from all social benefits. These workers are supposed to fulfil their function as a mere labour force without claiming the ‘achievements’ of the welfare state. Since October 2004 the cops have been allowed to raid construction sites and companies in order to check the legal status of these workers. At the same time, legal changes make it more difficult to get a work visa and the valid time of these visas has been shortened.

About 79 per cent of all Ukrainian workers are men who regularly return to their home country and/or send money to their families back home. Most of them have a working class background, and only a few have a university education. About 60 per cent work in construction, others in agriculture and in the cleaning sector; in a word, everywhere where the term ‘unqualified workers’ is supposed to justify meagre wages. Usually these workers live in specially built ‘asylums’, where they sometimes have to share a bed. These are so bad that some Ukrainian workers have built their own settlements in forests near Prague or squat empty buildings. And although they often work a twelve-hour day, they earn less than 10,000 Crowns (about 320 Euros) per month[6]. In the end the real wage of many workers will be only half of that, given that the Ukrainian workers are not only exploited through direct capital relations, but also ripped off via the so-called ‘client-system’. In the ‘client-system’, a client (usually a man from the Ukraine) who has a long-term legal residence permit for the Czech Republic and good connections to the state administrations and various mafias organises work visas for workers, for which the ‘client’ charges three times the normal fee. If workers haven’t got the necessary money, the ‘client’ gives them credit: for the work visa, but also for travel expenses, accommodation and food. Workers then have to pay the client back through one or two monthly wage cheques. The business of the ‘client’ is a mafia-like version of a temp agency; they find people jobs and pay out their wages. A third of the wages the client keeps, as ‘protection money’. The client allegedly protects workers against the mafias and administrations, but often workers have to face the mafia’s and administrative repression on their own.

From Poland into the Mines, from North Korea behind the Sewing Machines
The third biggest group of migrant workers are the Polish (about five per cent). Unlike people from Slovakia and Ukraine, Polish workers all work in one specific region and sector: the Ostrau region, which is characterised by mining and some steel works. They are also employed by temp agencies, which means that they are the first to go when there are job cuts. In the sensitive sectors like mining and steel industry, this policy unfortunately works rather effectively so far. Workers from Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland are the most important groups of foreign workers in the Czech Republic. We can only guess at the number of immigrants from other countries given that they often only work behind closed factory gates with very little contact with the outside world. This is the case for perhaps hundreds of North Korean workers[7] grafting in the Italian textile company Kreata, for example, or for the Chinese immigrants in plants producing un-taxed cigarettes.

Regrettably we we have nothing to report on the struggles of migrant workers in the Czech Republic. There aren’t any or we haven’t heard of them yet. The relation between the absence of struggles in this sector and the general social peace is obvious. That we haven’t heard of struggles might also be down to the fact that we are having to rely on media reports, so it would be helpful to establish direct links! There are fears in some circles that open unrest among migrant workers could break out soon. At least that was the stated view published in the Czech newspaper Hospodarske Noviny in September the 30th 2004: ‘We are not talking about a dramatic social conflict. This conflict would only break out if the migrant workers stopped working and were only interested in the amount of social benefits.’ We are up for it!

[1] All numbers if not indicated otherwise: http://www.migraceonline.cz

[2] More about re-location of production and foreign investment see: ‘Investments in the Czech Republic: Boom or Fall?’ (wildcat no. 70/2004; see article in this newsletter).

[3] About 27.3 per cent are aged between 20 and 29 years, about 32.4 per cent between 30 and 39.

[4] About 51 per cent of all migrant workers in the Czech Republic come from non-member countries. Most of them are from Ukraine (48 percent) and from Vietnam (25 percent), who mainly work as small traders.

[5] Workers from Slovakia account for 89 per cent of all migrant workers from EU-countries in the Czech Republic, the other 11 per cent are from Poland.

[6] These numbers were raised in an anonymous survey amongst Ukrainian workers in 2001. About 68 per cent answered that they earn less than 10,000 Crowns (320 Euros), about 33 per cent said that they get less than 8,000 Crowns (258 Euros).

[7] The work regime at Kreata, which the Korean workers are subjected to, takes on militaristic forms: after they have worked for at least eight hours at the sowing machines they are brought to the nearby workers’ asylums where they are under surveillance till the next morning. They are said to earn about 6,000 Crowns (193 Euros).

From Wildcat no.72, January 2005
Taken from prol-position news #2, 5/2005