A recent study by the United Nations suggests that the Czech population could shrink by an astonishing fifteen percent over the next half century. This could translate to a shortage of over 420,000 workers on the Czech labour market by the year 2030. One way the government is looking to diffuse this pension "time bomb" is by creating a targeted immigration policy. Brian Kenety has more.
No prizes for guessing the aim of the government's pilot project entitled, "Active Selection of Qualified Foreign Workers"— the Czech Republic is looking to entice the right kind of immigrant to settle here: young, educated, and with specialised skills.
First opened to citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia and Kazakhstan, and then to Belarus, Moldavia, and graduates of Czech universities regardless of citizenship, the government has now announced the project will be open to citizens of Serbia & Montenegro and Canada in July, and to Ukraine as of January 2006.
Relations with the Balkan states are a priority now in Czech foreign policy, in accordance with the European Union's Foreign and Security Policy, which is why Serbia & Montenegro was added to the list. Ukraine represents the largest potential foreign labour pool in the group of countries thus far. I asked pilot project manager Vera Ivanovicova why Canada—a non-European country with a far higher standard of living than the other participant countries—had also been included.
"We have very good relations with Canada, which is a traditional immigration country, and we are hoping for help from Canada in working out the methodology for verification and all the administrative processes. And also we would like to test how a developed country would react, or the citizens of a developed country,—if there will be any interest in a permanent stay because there is some number of Canadians with work permits, but we do not know if they intend to stay only for a short time. So, we are testing, testing, testing."
Ms Ivanovicova says the Labour Ministry's goal is to achieve a level playing field for qualified foreign experts; it offers successful candidates and their families the chance to apply for permanent residency here after two and a half years, instead of the ten it normally takes.
The Labour Ministry has already selected nearly 300 people for fast-track residency under the pilot project. About a quarter of them work in technical professions. Nearly two-thirds are Bulgarian nationals.
"The numbers are really very small: we have 279 participants. But we have more than 1,400 people interested in working in the Czech Republic, but only 30 vacancies. Getting a job here is the biggest hurdle, so far, for our project."
Those numbers should increase exponentially next year: there were more than 22,000 Ukrainians with valid work permits living in the Czech Republic in 2004, and by some estimates, more than five times as many working here illegally. Meeting in Kiev on Tuesday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, discussed an agreement on temporary work permits that would make it easier Ukrainians to work in the Czech Republic.
In expanding the target group to Ukraine, notes pilot project manager Vera Ivanovicova, the government was meeting local demand. "I think Ukraine is the main challenge for us. First of all, it is necessary to include Ukraine in the project because of the demands of Czech employers. There are a lot of Ukrainians here in the Czech Republic; the experience with them is really quite good..."
Czech employers, particularly in the construction industry, may be eager to bring in more legal Ukrainian workers, but society at large will need some convincing that they don't represent a threat. So says Lucie Sladkova, director of the Czech branch of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which has advised on the government pilot project and is helping promote it.
"The Czechs—they know that you cannot build a house without their help, these Ukrainian workers. On the other hand, the Czechs are not very happy about the situation. So I think that there could be a certain prejudice against Ukrainian workers. And this is a challenge for us, for IOM, to do the info campaign for the Czech society that we are trying to control, to manage migration in this way, and to try to decrease the number of irregular Ukrainian workers here."
To learn more about the project, please go to http://praceprocizince.cz/
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