Germany, Austria open doors to EU's migrant workers

Germany and Austria became the last two EU members to lift labor market restrictions on workers from Eastern Europe on May 1.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
People look for job offers at a employment center in Warsaw, Poland, on April 15. Germany and Austria opted to wait seven years, the maximum delay allowed by the European Union, before opening their doors to workers from the eight former communist bloc countries.

The doors to Germany and Austria have opened wider to foreign workers after the two European Union nations lifted restrictions on migrant laborers from Eastern Europe.

On May 1, these last two “old” EU member states removed labor market restrictions keeping out workers from “new” members Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia.

While recognizing that Germany's aging workforce could benefit from a few fresh pairs of legs, many politicians and trade unionists on this side of the River Oder are looking eastward with mixed feelings, wondering if the new "open door" policy will fuel economic growth or strain the social system. The move is further charged by the growing debate in Europe over the merits of multiculturalism.

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The federal labor agency in Berlin, the BfA, estimates it will seen an influx of up to 140,000 immigrants from within the EU throughout the next year, and then less and less every year after. BfA director Heinrich Alt says they will give a much-needed boost to the economy.

“Our country with its aging population and shrinking work force should welcome the new arrivals,” he says.

But a recent survey indicated that up to 40 percent of German workers feared that their wages would be undercut. Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic research at the University of Munich, recently told reporters that "there will be millions coming within the next decade."

Trade unions warn that unemployed Germans will find it even harder to get jobs, and politicians are afraid the strained welfare system might not be able to bear any additional burden. Indeed, a considerable number of Poles are already illegally in Germany as cleaners, nannies, and builders.

Concerns could prove unfounded – as they were in Great Britain, Ireland, and Sweden when those nations opened their markets to Eastern European laborers. On May 2, 2004, reporters flocked in droves to London’s Victoria coach station to film and report on the legions of migrant workers expected to alight. The thin trickle of arrivals they actually found was disappointing, but it was only a harbinger of what was to come.

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Between 2004 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million people from Eastern Europe came to the UK. It is thought 700,000 of them stayed, with half a million from Poland alone, according to a study by the UK’s National Institute for Economic and Social Research. And they added £5 billion (around $8.3 billion) to the British economy, the study found. Today, Polish delicatessen shops and bakeries are as much a part of London’s scenery as curry houses and halal butchers.

Austria and Germany opted to wait seven years, the maximum delay allowed by the EU, before opening their doors to workers from the eight former communist bloc countries. Indeed, unlike Britain, Germany has always taken a long time to even acknowledge immigration as a fact.

It took Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats until 1991 to erase the phrase “Germany is not an immigration country” from their party program. The debate is ongoing about the way immigrants, particularly those from a Muslim country like Turkey, should be integrated into German society. Today, more than 1.6 million Turks live in Germany, many first brought into the country during the 1950s and 1960s as cheap “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) for West German industry.

Whether the number of immigrants from Turkey will be matched by those from Germany’s largest neighbor, Poland, for example, remains to be seen. For those with higher education and good language skills, the UK and even the United States will still be more attractive destinations, although there is concern in Poland that well-trained nurses and other medical personnel may leave for Germany.

Many Poles will have good reason to stay home. Poland, the only EU country to get through the recession unharmed, is estimated to grow its economy by 3.8 percent this year. Jacek Robak, a diplomat with the Polish embassy in Berlin, says he checked with the Polish state train operator: “There are still free seats on the trains from Warsaw to Berlin!”

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