In times of boom and for selected fields of employment the Czech Republic has frequently looked East to supplement its labour force. A decade or two ago, the target was Slovak nurses and doctors. Now, there’s a system in place offering a supposedly fast track recruitment system for Ukrainians seeking skilled and not so skilled job for large parts of Czech industry. But the system has been beset by problems and there have been disagreements about how to go forward.
Although Czech unemployment figures for December climbed slightly, the overall story is of one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, at 5.2 percent, and employers struggling to fill vacancies. That’s especially the case for skilled technicians, such as welders or trained equipment operators and maintenance staff. While there were just over 380,000 jobless at the end of 2016 there were also just under 133,000 vacancies. But the job seekers are very often not in the places or don’t have the skills that the bosses are looking for.
That’s one reason why the Czech government last August agreed to introduce a fast track procedure for giving Ukrainians work permits to come to the Czech Republic. The system set an annual quota of 4,300 Ukrainians a year that could obtain the permits for staying and working in the country with 500 of that total targeted at university graduates.
The system has had a short but fraught history. Employers complain that procedures for allocating the permits is much too complicated and long winded and does not meet their demands. But the unions argue that instead being used to fill skilled positions, the fast track system is being largely used to recruit low skilled Ukrainian workers at wage rates Czechs would simply not accept.
“If there were another four workers [at the consulate] we would be able to deal with up to 5,500 applications.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which deals with the applications in Ukraine, is seeking to boost its workforce at the Lvov Consulate. The numbers have already been boosted from the initial five to nine and there is now a move to increase the number again by four to total 13. Ministry spokeswoman Irena Valentová:
“There is a great deal of interest in this project. We have seen a great deal of interest from Czech business and Czech employers. For this reason there is move to speed up the allocation of work visas for Ukrainians so that it is more effective and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has submitted to the government a proposal to increase the number of workers at the Ukraine consulate. As regards the discussions of this, it was decided that the tripartite would discuss it before it reached the government.”
The tripartite is the three way forum for discussions between the government, unions, and employers. With more staff, the foreign ministry argues that it could also meet employers’ demands and process an even higher annual quota. Irena Valentová again:
“For last year’s quota there were 3,800 applications. If there were another four workers [at the consulate] we would be able to deal with up to 5,500 applications.”
Out of that higher total, it’s not yet clear whether 500 places would still be specifically set aside for university graduates from Ukraine.
Jan Rafaj is a vice-president of the Confederation of Industry of the Czech Republic. He says the skills shortage is already biting and undermining the performance of the Czech economy as a whole. And part of the mismatch between jobs and the jobless is caused by the fact that Czechs are often not willing to move to move far for new jobs even if the wages are higher.
“On the jobs market the biggest problem remains the shortage of skilled workers. Today this shows itself in the fact that businesses have to refuse some orders or have significant delays in delivering goods. For the Czech economy as a whole, that means that we are not able to use our full potential. We of course would prefer to employ Czech workers. We have already been making an effort for the last year and a half, talking with all levels of the labour office in an attempt to recruit workers. But currently these people simply are not there. There are some districts where the unemployment rate is below 2.0 percent and workers are not available. We do not hold with the view of the unions that the reason is low wages. The positions we are offering often offer wages of more than 20,000 crowns. Sometimes people are not willing to move to these firms that pay more even if they are on lower wages. There is a shortage of labour, it comes to around 150,000 people, for this reason we must look abroad.”
He says Ukraine is a logical choice for workers. There are technical schools which have a very good standard and a strong tradition of technical know-how from the past. Rafaj adds that there is a sufficient labour force interested in working in the Czech Republic and that cultural and language barriers they need to overcome is a lot lower than for example countries in the European Union.
“The minimum time it takes for someone to get permission to come here lasts 138 days.”
But the top representative of one of the most influential Czech business lobbies still harbours concerns whether the long delays facing the supposedly fast track system can be addressed and if it can be made to work smoothly if extra stain in the form of more applications is put on in.
“We have to highlight the fact that we are worried though that this increase [in numbers] will be accompanied by a further delay to the whole process. Looking at the latest figures available to us, the minimum time it takes for someone to get permission to come here lasts 138 days from the time when the fast track application is first submitted to the time when the work card is given. Basically if someone now made an application, he or she could be employed by the firm maybe some time before the summer holidays, That is simply unacceptable, it’s mad.
“For that reason we are looking forward to an increase in the number of officials at Lvov but also at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Czech Republic. We as the confederation of industry have attempted to be actively involved in this process by helping companies prepare thee documentation and help out so that this process can be as smooth as possible, We are very active in that respect. And the interest is enormous. At the association only yesterday we received 50 more applications. This morning there were more and that’s what it is like every day.”
Czech unions were cautious about the system for importing Ukrainian labour from the start and tried to seek guarantees that imported skilled workers would get the same sort of wages as their Czech counterparts. The chairman of the biggest grouping of unions, the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trades Unions, is Josef Středula. He says Czech bosses are mostly recruiting Ukrainians for low skilled jobs and if they were really seeking high skilled workers they would also be looking in Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary as well. He says the reason they are not doing that is because they would have to pay much higher wage rates.
“It’s not possible that just anyone from abroad works for rates which are below those offered for Czech workers. That's the biggest cause for this difference over Ukraine. Our experience has unfortunately been that employers are offering pay and conditions that are so low that Czechs simply would not work at such rates. They are offering jobs at labour offices for wages ranging from the minimum wage to 15,000 crowns.”
Středula feels that the union’s position has been somewhat sidelined of late because it goes against what the employees are seeking and what the ministry is proposing:
“I have reasons to think that the ministry is discussing with the employers. But they don’t want to talk with the unions because they know that this is a conflictual issue and they want to avoid that. In principle this does not worry me that much because in all other areas the social dialogue is working well but here it practically doesn’t function and that is a serious thing."
“It’s not possible that just anyone from abroad works for rates which are below those offered for Czech workers.”
The union boss adds that there is a moral aspect to this as well. If it is cherry picking Ukrainian workers, then the Czech Republic is to some extent contributing to a brain drain there. At the same time, the Czech Republic and the rest of the EU is supposed to be helping the development of Ukraine.
“There is another aspect here which is not talked about and that is whether the Czech Republic here is not causing Ukraine a secondary problem and that stems from the fact that we are initiating a brain drain. We are trying to attract their workers, whether they are qualified or not qualified. And this is also a problem with some of our neighbouring countries to the east, such as Slovakia. From our point of view, the responsibility is not being dealt with adequately and we are just focusing on how to choose how to get these workers in Ukraine rather than finding them in the Czech Republic.”
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