Clock ticking on EU labour barriers

IN MAY 2006 Slovakia will not only celebrate its second year in the European Union, it will also hear which of the original EU 15 will let Slovak citizens work in their countries without restrictions.

IN MAY 2006 Slovakia will not only celebrate its second year in the European Union, it will also hear which of the original EU 15 will let Slovak citizens work in their countries without restrictions.

Speculation is rife in Central Europe on how many EU states might join the restriction-free ranks of Sweden, Ireland and Great Britain - countries that opened their labour markets to the new members with EU enlargement in 2004.

For the rest, the initial two-year period they were permitted to retain their labour market barriers will elapse at the end of April 2006.

Twelve EU member states slapped temporary restrictions on the movement of labour on May 1, 2004 for an initial two years, with the possibility of extending it to seven years in total from the date of enlargement.

While Finland, Portugal and Spain have not officially announced they will be opening their doors to migrant workers, their names are frequently cited by local media as ready to relax labour market restrictions.

Germany and Austria, on the other hand, have told the new EU members frankly that they will have to live with the barriers at least until the end of 2009.

"Austria intends to continue applying restrictions during the second phase of the transitional arrangements, from May 2006 to April 30, 2009, because the present work pemit system has been successful in regulating the admission of new EU citizens and preventing distortions of the domestic labour market and wage levels," Austrian Deputy Ambassador Marian Wrba told The Slovak Spectator.

Austrian Federal Economy Minister Martin Bartenstein was quoted in the Austrian press listing the following reasons for keeping the Austrian labour market closed: the slight

but steady increase in unemployment in Austria; the already very high ratio of foreign workers in the country (among the highest in Europe); the high unemployment rate among foreigners in Austria (double that of Austrian citizens) and the potential for a massive influx of workers (daily commuters) from neighbouring countries due to their geographical proximity.

According to Bartenstein, Austria has the second highest ratio of new EU citizens on its labour market after Ireland. The figure doubled to 1.4 percent last year.

The Austrian embassy said that many special exemptions already exist for workers from new EU member states, particularly in medicine, agriculture and specialist sectors.

"Austria also acknowledges the obligation to give preference to employment applications from new EU member states over those of guest workers from non-EU states," the embassy wrote in a memo.

The Slovak Labour Ministry says it does not expect any change in approach by Germany or Austria.

"As far as Germany and Austria are concerned, they are in a special situation, and opening their labour markets is a complicated domestic political issue for them.

Slovaks realize that these countries will probably choose an extended transition period," Labour Ministry spokesman Martin Danko told The Slovak Spectator in an earlier interview.

Austrians are concerned about the possibility of an influx of cheap labour since Slovaks, Czechs and Poles are often willing to work for much lower wages than locals, human resources experts said.

Local media reported that Belgium and the Netherlands might ease some of their rules but still keep most of their restrictions. Belgian officials said that they had not yet decided.

"Belgium is still studying the issue on the basis of the recent report of the European Commission. It has also commissioned a report on the same subject from the national employment council. It is to take its decision at the beginning of April," Belgian Ambassador to Slovakia Olivier Belle told The Slovak Spectator.

In its last report on the free movement of labour, released in February 2005, the European Commission said that the original EU members that opened their markets for workers from the 10 new EU member countries in 2004 had benefited from the move.

The number of Slovaks working in Belgium has increased mainly in connection with Slovakia's representation to European Union bodies in Brussels. Slovaks intending to work in Belgium need a work permit.

The Embassy of the Netherlands said that the Dutch government would continue to enforce the Aliens Employment Act with respect to employees from Central Europe until May 1, 2006.

Central and Eastern European workers are allowed to enter the Dutch labour market only after their employers have applied for a work permit on their behalf.

However, certain professions are preferred, and Eastern Europeans can obtain permits more easily if they fit the categories most in demand, such as butchers or ship helmsmen. The categories are regularly updated.

France has also not made up its mind whether to let new EU workers in or to require them to wait a few more years. Originally, France had planned to retain its labour migration controls for five years.

"The only answer I can give you at this point is that no position has been taken yet in France on the prospects of opening the French labour market for the newcomers. The recent report of the Commission is currently being studied and will be one of the elements in the decision," Xavier Rouard, first counsellor of the French Embassy, told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Foreign Ministry data, the majority of Slovaks currently working in the older EU states, something over 30,000, are employed in Great Britain or Ireland.

Sweden, which opened its labour market promptly after EU enlargement, has not recorded any mass influx from the new EU members. Only 22,000 people have travelled to the country for work, possibly because of the language barrier.

The most popular work destination for Slovaks is the Czech Republic, where as many as 70,000 are employed. The second most popular place is Hungary, with many ethnic Hungarians from Southern Slovakia commuting to work.

According to EURES, a network of services that supports work mobility, some 20,000 Slovak citizens work in Hungary.

Last summer, the European Action Citizens Service NGO estimated that about 150,000 Slovaks were working abroad.

EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities Vladimír Špidla said that the European Union has no practical reasons to retain existing restrictions on the employment of people from the new member countries.

He said that the older members were not in danger of being submerged by workers from these countries.

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