ECONOMISTS fear educated workers will be drawn west by higher wages in EU states.
photo: File photo
While EU rules on the free movement of labour, one of the central principles of union enlargement, guarantee that EU nationals can work in other member countries without seeking national work permits, this freedom will not be introduced immediately in all 15 current EU member states.
Some EU countries - Ireland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and the UK - have said their respective labour markets will be open to newcomers as soon as the 10 accession countries join the union in May 2004, but other current member states will keep barriers to the free movement of labour at least for a few years.
Labour markets in Spain and Belgium should be open to nationals of accession states by the end of 2006, while the two countries most fearful of the influx of cheap central and eastern European labour, Austria and Germany, have stated they will not fully open their respective labour markets until required by the EU in 2011.
"For Slovakia, the most important destination [for work abroad] is the Czech Republic, where approximately 65,000 Slovaks worked in 2001," reads a recent report by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) assessing the economic and social impact of accession on the country.
"There are approximately 4,500 Slovaks legally employed in Austria and around 3,500 in Germany," the report continues.
According to a survey carried out by the report's authors, Slovakia leads its Visegrad Four neighbours in its citizens' desire to seek work outside of the country. Up to 47 percent of Slovaks polled for the study said they would be interested in working in western Europe if labour markets were fully open.
The report's authors also say that low-cost immigrant labour is needed in some EU member states to maintain current levels of economic growth and to provide a labour infusion in countries with greying workforces and low population growth rates.
"An aging population and a lower rate of natural replacement of labour forces from domestic sources are reasons why there is an increased need for immigrants in some EU countries," the SAV report says.
"This need is very significant, and developed countries have already prepared models assessing how much labour force they will need from central and eastern European countries.
"The free movement of labour represents a continuing advantage for current EU members," the authors say.
For Slovaks, the primary motivation in seeking work abroad is higher wages and better job opportunities, compared to low living standards and high levels of unemployment at home.
Although Slovakia's overall jobless rate has been steadily falling, and hit a four-year low of 14.8 percent in May, unemployment in the country remains among the highest in central Europe.
A wave of emigration could help the unemployment rate, says the SAV report, but many of those leaving Slovakia to work are expected to be university graduates, a group that has not traditionally had problems in finding work at home.
If an additional 80,000 people leave Slovakia to work abroad, as the SAV expects, "the unemployment rate would fall by 2.6 percentage points, and the cost of the [unemployment] policy would fall as well," the report says.
"But it is important for Slovakia to acknowledge that the first wave of emigrants will be mostly skilled workers," the authors continue.
While overall unemployment in Slovakia remains high, the jobless rate among university graduates is only around 3.5 percent, a rate economists say is normal.
"The university-educated population is not a risk group in [our] labour market," said Stanislav Buchta, from Slovakia's National Labour Office (NÚP).
"University graduates can find jobs in Slovakia, but sometimes they are underpaid, with low [social] status. Every one of these young people has certain ambitions. They are looking for opportunities and want to achieve something [with their lives]," said Buchta.
Officials from Slovak universities agree, pointing out that both the status and remuneration for certain professions are much higher in EU countries than in Slovakia. In addition, they warn that every university-educated emigrant means a lost investment for the Slovak state.
"The professions that are extraordinarily attractive in industrially developed countries - like doctor or scientist - get very little appreciation in our society, especially in reference to financial rewards," said Peter Plavčan, head of the university section of Slovakia's Education Ministry.
"According to a 1998 analysis, the average cost of training one university graduate is Sk1.9 million (€45,700). In the case of a university graduate leaving Slovakia to live abroad, the indirect loss [to the state] is much higher," said Plavčan.
Some economists also fear that foreign investors could be put off plans to invest in Slovakia over fears of a dearth of skilled labour.
While accession to the EU next May might increase Slovakia's brain drain in the short-term, experts from the SAV expect long-term benefits as many emigrants return after a few years, bringing with them the skills and experience acquired abroad.
"It is estimated that every second immigrant [to the EU from central and eastern Europe] will return home after some time. That means the outflow of labour resources could settle at 1 to 2 percent in the long term," reads the SAV report.
Slovak government officials also downplay fears of large-scale migration, and say that investment projects in the country will keep enough skilled labour at home.
"Of course we don't want to join the EU so that we can abuse the free movement of labour [provisions], so that Slovaks can run to Europe and leave the country deserted," said Slovakia's key EU negotiator Ján Figeľ to the daily Pravda.
"Part of the answer to fears of migrating work forces should be investment projects into Slovakia and the creation of work opportunities at home," said Figeľ.
7. Jul 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka