Controversy over quota for foreign seasonal workers
In recent years, seasonal labour has been playing an increasingly important part in Austria’s labour market, since the government has pursued a generous quota policy for foreign seasonal workers and has opened access to this kind of employment to all sectors. In early 2004, the WKÖ employers’ organisation, like most employers, is demanding a further extension of the seasonal labour scheme. Representatives of organised labour, however, claim that this form of 'atypical work' will endanger Austrian standards in terms of employment, income and working conditions.
Austria has a long tradition of a relatively high level of seasonal labour, especially in 'typically' seasonal branches such as tourism and agriculture. Seasonal labour has always been characterised by a disproportionately high share of foreign workers. The legal status of foreign seasonal workers differs considerably from that of all other resident or foreign employees working in Austria, in particular in terms of labour law and security of residence. Seasonal labour is particularly important for employers that require short-term labour due to fluctuations in demand. This means that seasonal workers may be employed during short-term periods of higher demand for labour. When the employment relationship comes to an end, the foreign worker must subsequently leave the country.
The employment relationships of foreign seasonal workers have three key features (AT0109128N):
- both their employment and their residence permits are limited to a duration of six months, with the option for the employer to extend temporary employment by a further six months (to 12 months in total). Seasonal workers may take up a new employment relationship only after a break of at least two months;
- they are prohibited from bringing their family to Austria; and
- they are not legally able to move freely to work for another employer. Since their residence permit is linked to their contract of employment with a single employer, the loss of their job immediately means the loss of their residence permit.
Seasonal labour is contingent on the number of employment permits for seasonal workers provided to companies by the minister of economy and labour affairs. Since 2001, the official quota for foreign seasonal workers fixed by the minister in form of an annual decree has stood at 8,000 on average over the year. This averaging scheme entitles the minister to allow for a number of (short-term) jobs which is far above the official quota of 8,000 per year on average. This is because most employment permits have a duration of far less than one year. For instance, in 2002, the actual number of temporary quota jobs amounted to 27,585, which involved some 56,554 employment relationships for seasonal workers based on an employment permit, since quota workplaces may be used more often than once. Moreover, since 1 January 2003, the Ministry of Economy and Labour Affairs has pursued a very open-handed policy by circumventing its own quotas. This is done by way of a special regulation, seen as somewhat unclear, providing for exceptions whereby some groups of seasonal workers (eg those who are employed for up to six weeks) are not taken into consideration (ie they are not counted towards the quota of 8,000). This practice has resulted in levels of seasonal labour which are considerably higher than that permitted by decree (in 2003, an estimated 11,200 seasonal workers were employed on average instead of 8,000). However, the lawfulness of this practice has been questioned by experts and representatives of organised labour.
Apart from the quota for seasonal labour, since 2001 there has been a separate quota for agriculture, allowing for 7,000 harvest helpers to be temporarily employed during harvests. Since 2003, seasonal workers are - in principle - available to all enterprises rather than solely those in agriculture, tourism and the construction industry (which initially were the only branches entitled to hire seasonal workers).
Seasonal labour brings about a set of advantages for the company concerned in comparison with a 'standard' employment contract (of unspecified duration). First, the company employing seasonal workers does not face any necessity to provide for their training or further training. Second, due to the fixed-term nature of the contract of employment for seasonal workers, companies, in general, do not have any problems with regard to redundancy law. Moreover, after the employment relationship has expired, the foreign seasonal worker is obliged immediately to leave the country; otherwise he or she risks being expelled by the authorities. This fact, it is claimed, often keeps seasonal workers from asserting legal claims against the employer resulting from their former employment relationship. Last, and not least, there is, according to critics, no need for many companies which employ seasonal workers to pay appropriate wages, since labour supply (in particular, from neighbouring countries in central and eastern Europe) seems to be inexhaustible and the workers concerned are prohibited from moving to another company (paying better wages). Like most employers in Austria, the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) employers’ organisation calls for a smooth extension of the seasonal labour scheme, particularly in terms of quantity, in order to enable an increasing number of enterprises to make use of the international 'labour rotation system'. However, this form of 'international labour supply system' favours low-wage segments of the economy and is deemed by some experts to be an obstacle to the companies’ innovativeness.
Positions of organised labour
Both the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and the Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK) oppose the current regulations on seasonal labour. In particular, they criticise the relevant ministry’s perceived policy of ignoring its own quota restrictions for seasonal workers by introducing 'elastic clauses'. Instead, both labour representative organisations demand a significant reduction of the quota for seasonal workers and substantial improvements in their labour and residence conditions. Since the foreign seasonal workers’ legal residence status is linked closely to their legal employment status, AK claims, this employee group is overly dependent on the employer and thus very willing to accept any precarious employment relationship. High levels of seasonal labour would pave the way for 'wage dumping' effects and the extension of unfavourable working conditions to the entire workforce of the branch concerned, AK states. This tendency may be observed in all branches with high levels of seasonal labour, such as hotels, catering and tourism branches as well as the construction industry. Moreover, organised labour argues, the growing incidence of low-paid seasonal labour has solidified unfavourable economic structures which would otherwise have overcome: by artificially promoting a pool of cheap temporary labour, the government subsidises less innovative and less competitive enterprises to the detriment of those companies employing and training resident job-seekers under more costly 'standard' conditions.
Temporary seasonal labour for the purpose of meeting companies’ exceptional short-term demand for labour is, in principle, undisputed among the social partners and the political parties. However, there is much debate over how much seasonal labour is necessary. Most employers praise the government’s generous quota policy enabling them temporarily to recruit cheap foreign workers who can easily be replaced by others. Organised labour, in turn, points to the supposed unfavourable effects of the large-scale engagement of seasonal workers with respect to the domestic labour market and overall working conditions. The current government appears to support the position of business rather than that of organised labour. This corresponds to the government's general migration policy of utilising the 'international labour supply system' without providing sufficient welfare and integration standards for foreign workers. For instance, foreign seasonal workers must immediately leave the country after the end of their job, which excludes them from receiving unemployment benefits although they have to pay unemployment insurance contributions like all other employees. Although such 'exploitation' of foreign employees is criticised by AK and ÖGB, both organisations have repeatedly indicated that their main aim is to 'protect' the (Austrian) resident workforce from migrant workers, rather than actually to improve the working conditions of foreign seasonal workers. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)