Social partners push for labour market access for asylum seekers

The existing national immigration regulation excludes thousands of asylum seekers in Austria from entering the official labour market. Thus, many asylum seekers are forced to take up illegal work to make a living. In a joint social partner initiative, the trade unions and employer organisations are calling on the government to open the Austrian labour market for asylum seekers, in order to use their skills and expertise for the benefit of the overall national economy.

Currently, thousands of asylum seekers from around the world are expecting a decision from the relevant Austrian authorities on their pending asylum procedures. About 14,000 asylum seekers have been awaiting judgement on their case for a period exceeding three years and several hundreds of them have been waiting for a decision for more than 10 years. This is the case despite the fact that, due to a very restrictive immigration policy pursued by the previous Austrian governments in recent years, the number of asylum seekers coming to Austria has significantly decreased. In 2006, some 13,350 people filed an application with the Austrian authorities to be granted asylum for the first time.

Restricted labour market access

A common feature among asylum seekers is that they are – by and large – excluded from the Austrian labour market. According to a decree of the Federal Ministry of Economy and Labour Affairs (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Arbeit, BMWA), asylum seekers are allowed to perform only certain forms of temporary seasonal work (AT0403202F) and agricultural work related to harvest assistance. These jobs, however, are limited, offered on a temporary basis only and badly paid. Consequently, an allegedly considerable number of asylum seekers, who would otherwise find themselves compelled to do nothing, are taking up various forms of illicit or ‘informal’ work to make a living, some of them completely going underground. The rationale behind the ministry’s decision to exclude asylum seekers from the official labour market is based on a vague presumption that legal labour market access for these people would further exacerbate the existing oversupply of low-skilled labour on the Austrian labour market.

Research findings

However, this argument has repeatedly been contradicted by several experts. First, the Foreign Workers’ Occupation Act (Ausländerbeschäftigungsgesetz, AuslBG) already stipulates the preferential hiring of Austrian nationals and unemployed foreign nationals with a legal residence status before that of asylum seekers. Secondly, according to recent research, migrants in general are complementary to, rather than substitutes for, Austrian natives, so that in most sectors of the economy the latter tend to benefit from migrant labour in terms of both job opportunities and relative pay. Due to a pronounced segmentation of the country’s labour market, there is little competition between immigrants and residents; and if there is competition, it mostly occurs in the low-wage labour market segments requiring only low skills (AT0501206F).

Joint social partner initiative

These findings have prompted not only some welfare organisations and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to demand an opening of the national labour market for asylum seekers (mostly for humanitarian reasons), but have also encouraged the social partners to take action. In a joint initiative launched during the summer of 2007, some trade unions, in particular the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, Druck, Journalismus, Papier, GPA-DJP) and the major employer organisations called on the government to relax the existing legal restrictions on immigration. They argue that the legal integration of asylum seekers, or some of them, into the Austrian labour market would significantly ease the federal state’s financial burden of around €325 million a year spent on welfare and care services provided for these people. In the event of their legal labour market access, asylum seekers would be enabled to subsist on their own; moreover, they could actively contribute to social insurance and wage taxes instead of finding themselves compelled to draw benefits from social transfers. According to the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO), several labour market segments would require the skills possessed by these people. Legal labour market integration would prevent many asylum seekers from being forced into the informal or grey economy, which – as the GPA-DJP claims – puts strong pressure on wages and collectively agreed labour arrangements for ‘standard’ employment.

Although the Green Party (Die Grünen, GRÜNE) and some members of the present coalition government, in particular representatives of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ), have supported the social partner initiative, the immediate implementation of its aims remains unlikely. This is because both the BMWA and the Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium für Inneres, BMI) have refused to review Austria’s restrictive immigration policy so far, mainly for fear of public opinion.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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