Government intends to restrict labour immigration
In August 2001, the Austrian government presented a new policy proposal aiming at reducing the country's overall intake of immigrant workers from outside the EU. While the total intake of highly-skilled foreign labour will be increased by almost 50%, the government intends to restrict the immigration of less-skilled labour. For the moment, the proposal seems to have resolved the contentious issue of immigration, at least between the two coalition parties ÖVP and FPÖ. However, the implementation and consequences of the proposed measures remain highly unclear, and they have been criticised by the political opposition and by employee representatives.
On 13 August 2001, the coalition government of the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) and the conservative People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) issued a new proposal on migration policy. It aims primarily to attract skilled labour from outside the European Union to work in Austria. The annual immigration quota for such skilled workers will, it is planned, be increased by almost 50%, from 1,613 in 2001 to a total of 2,400 in 2002. This figure includes non-working family members of the migrant workers. The main criterion to measure the 'skill' of the workers concerned will be a minimum income before tax of ATS 26,000 per month.
The current immigration quota for less-skilled labour – 815 workers and their families in 2001 – is to be abolished completely. Instead, the existing immigration quota for temporary labour is to be used for new purposes. As in 2001, this quota will stand at a total of 15,000 in 2002 (8,000 seasonal workers, 7,000 harvest helpers). What is new is that seasonal workers will be available to all enterprises rather than merely those in tourism and agriculture, while there will be a new option for the company to extend temporary employment from the initial six months to 12 months, whereafter further extension will be possible but will be counted towards the quota. The seasonal workers will not legally be able to bring their family to Austria, nor will they be able to upgrade their residence status or work permit. They will not be able freely to move to another employer.
The government initially seemed to be suggesting that cross-border commuting – which will no longer be counted as a part of the immigration quota in 2002 – would be expanded under region-specific bilateral agreements. This was meant partly to reduce the pressure on the Austrian labour market anticipated to result from European Union enlargement. There was some confusion over the proposal because the distinction between commuting and migration was not always made. One such bilateral agreement – with Hungary– has been in existence since 1998, and has been expanded to 1,200 commuters under the current government. Another was concluded – with the Czech Republic– after the above proposals were made, but the quota for 2002 has not yet been set.
The table below sets out Austria's current immigration quotas for 2001 and the government's proposals for 2002.
Source: Federal Ministry for Internal Affairs/Austria Press Agency (APA).
While Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of the ÖVP and his Vice-Chancellor, Susanne Ries-Passer, stress the flexibility of the proposed measures, the parliamentary opposition as well as organised labour have heavily criticised the proposals, albeit for different reasons.
The Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and the Greens (Die Grünen, GRÜNE) accuse the ÖVP of following the populist path of the FPÖ, whose proposed rigorous restrictions on migration would damage the economy in the long run. They claim that the government proposal aims to revitalise the 1960s model of 'guestworkers', which is capable neither of tackling the demographic problem of a long-term reduction of the size of the Austrian population and therefore of the labour force, nor of providing for security of residence and the fulfilment of the basic human right to family life of third-country nationals.
The president of the Federal Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK), Herbert Tumpel, strongly rejects the government proposal, though focusing his criticism on the regional exceptions for seasonal workers which would in fact, he claims, lead to an increase in cheap foreign labour and therefore pose a danger to the employment, incomes and working conditions of local workers. By contrast, the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreichs, WKÖ) employers' organisation praises the new policy as a sound and unbureaucratic means of regulating immigration.