Ukrainian "guestworkers" continue to be milked of their wages

29-12-2003

As Prague develops into one Central Europe's main commercial capitals, there are literally hundreds of new building sites in the city, to feed a seemingly unlimited demand for new office and retail space. On many of these building sites you will only rarely hear Czech, as a huge percentage of the workers are migrants from Western Ukraine. There are 100 000 Ukrainian nationals currently thought to be working in the Czech Republic, around half of them without work permits; that's in total about one percent of the Czech population. These migrant workers are among the most vulnerable people in society, particularly prone to semi-legal commercial organizations that milk their wages and take advantage of the willingness of construction companies to turn a blind eye. The sociologist Daniel Satra has just completed a study on this disturbing phenomenon. He described to David Vaughan how the system works.

Daniel SatraDaniel Satra "They take a fee at the beginning, and they take half of the hourly wage the Ukrainians earn here. So if a Ukrainian would earn at a Czech company eighty crowns [3 USD], he has to give forty crowns away to his intermediary. The company in the Czech Republic is giving straight to the intermediary half of the hourly wage of this Ukrainian."

And so is this a euphemistic way of describing what other people would call mafia organizations, people who are milking these workers of an excessively large part of their wage and taking the profits themselves?

"I described it the way it is, one can observe it. If you ask me how I feel about that, it's slavery. It's a sort of new slavery. You can see it all over Eastern and especially Central Europe, because there are systems building up, there are infrastructures like these "commercial intermediaries". You can call them a mafia, but that wouldn't be the right distinction, because there is some mafia integrated in that question, but it is not the intermediary itself that is mafia. The thing is that the intermediaries - if they for example have one hundred workers - they have to pay for each worker monthly to the mafia. So there is a system behind the system."

What is the solution? Is the solution to make it easier for these workers to come over to the Czech Republic, or is it to clamp down on these intermediary organizations that you talk about?

"The problem is that the so-called cheap workers from Ukraine are only that cheap because the companies don't have to pay any insurance or any tax. This is the thing about illicit work. They are cheap workers because they are not socially secured. The political decision behind that should be definitely to get to the companies in the Czech Republic that are sustaining this structure, because they are the labour market for these Ukrainians, and as long as this labour market in the Czech Republic exists, Ukrainians will cross the borders. And I don't think that Schengen - the implementation of the EU border regime - is going to hinder them. It is raising the costs and the risks for the Ukrainian illegal workers. It will just produce more illegal Ukrainian labour migrants, but it's not solving the problem, because to see the problem we have to go to Ukraine and see the social processes in that country, how are the chances in that country, especially in Western Ukraine, where so-called "hidden unemployment" takes up 50 or 60 percent of the population."

29-12-2003