New criteria-based immigration system to attract skilled workers

On 1 July 2011, Austria replaced its quota-based immigration model with a criteria-based system. The so-called ‘Red-White-Red’ card applies to workers from outside the EEA (plus Romania and Bulgaria). The criteria include qualification levels, work experience, language skills and age, for which points are given; those who gain a certain level of points are granted access to the Austrian labour market. The law was passed after extensive social partner negotiations.

The new criteria-based labour immigration model (called the ‘Red-White-Red’ card after the colours of Austria’s national flag, or ‘RWR card’ for short) was implemented as part of the new Immigration Law Package on 1 July 2011. The initiative was started by the Federal Economic Chamber (WKO) and the Federation of Austrian Industry (IV), in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and is modelled on immigration systems in Australia and Canada. The new model stipulates that if specific predefined criteria are met, the person is granted access to Austria’s labour market without further labour market checks. It replaces a quota-based system applying to so-called ‘key workers’, which granted a certain number of immigrants access to the labour market (in 2010 the quota was 2,450 persons) if specific criteria were met (such as labour market skills or qualifications which were in demand on the Austrian labour market, a university degree or being employed as manager and earning a minimum gross monthly income (in 2010) of at least €2,466).

Five types of labour migrants

Under the new law, there are different stipulations for five types of labour migrants:

  • ‘high potentials’ or specific highly qualified workers;
  • skilled workers in professions or trades where there is a labour shortage in Austria;
  • ‘other’ key workers;
  • foreigners who have graduated from an Austrian university;
  • self-employed ‘key’ workers.

‘High potentials’ or specific highly qualified workers

High potentials need to reach at least 70 points out of a possible 100 in order to be eligible for an RWR card. If successful, the person may enter Austria and search for a job for up to six months. If the person is successful and finds an appropriate job offer within this period (on a job seeker visa), he/she receives an RWR card without further employment controls. Examples of high potentials are managers, researchers, doctors and engineers.

Skilled workers in shortage areas

Skilled workers in professions or trades where there is a labour shortage in Austria, and ‘other’ key workers, need to reach 50 out of a maximum 75 points to gain the RWR card. Skilled workers who have completed professional training in one of the understaffed professions also need to receive an income that is at least as high as the minimum wages stipulated by the collective wage agreements of the relevant sector. The specific job fields where there are labour shortages will be published by the Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection (BMASK) together with the Federal Ministry of Economy, Family and Youth (BMWFJ) after proposals have been put forward by a social partners’ committee. ‘Labour shortage’ is defined as applying to occupations where, for every vacancy, there are no more than 1.5 suitable registered unemployed persons available in Austria. The first announcement is scheduled to be published in May 2012, when this part of the RWR card programme will start. Examples of jobs in which there is a labour shortage, are milling cutters, welders, electricians, tinsmiths, roofers and nurses. If there are between 1.5 and 1.8 suitable Austrian workers registered with the Public Employment Service (AMS) for each vacancy in these employment categories, appropriate actions need to be taken by the social partners, such as increased training by employers or an above-average wage settlement in the sector concerned, to reduce the shortage of labour.

‘Other’ key workers

Unlike skilled workers in occupations where there is a labour shortage, ‘other’ key workers need to show they have been given a job offer as well as reaching 50 out of a possible 70 points in order to be eligible for a RWR card. Their confirmed income also needs to lie above a certain percentage of the monthly maximum stipulated under social insurance law (‘ASVG maximum contribution’, which amounts to €4,200 gross in 2011). Under-30s need to earn at least 50% of that level (€2,100), and workers over 30 must earn at least 60% of that level (€2,520). Furthermore, an employee substitution procedure needs to be carried out by the AMS, which means that the AMS must prove that it cannot provide the company with an appropriate worker from the pool of registered unemployed persons within Austria; in other words, those ‘other’ key workers can be hired only if no native Austrian can be found who is qualified and available to take the job.

Foreign graduates of Austrian universities

The fourth group of labour immigrants refers to foreign university graduates who have graduated from an Austrian university (and have completed at least the second half of their master’s studies in Austria). They are allowed to stay in Austria for six months after graduation in order to search for a job. If the job found corresponds to their qualification level and the income is 45% (or more) of the ASVG maximum contribution (which corresponds to €1,890 gross monthly in 2011), they are granted an RWR card. Before the implementation of the RWR card, they fell under the old ‘key workers’ quota regulation and thus had to receive a much higher monthly income, which was an obstacle for many job hopefuls.

Self-employed ‘key’ workers

The fifth group that falls under the RWR card regulation comprises self-employed key personnel. If such workers transfer capital to Austria, or create jobs there, they may receive an RWR card without having to accrue any points.

RWR card ‘Plus’ and language skills

After having been employed for at least 10 months and having stayed in Austria for at least one year, RWR card holders automatically receive the so-called RWR card ‘Plus’ which grants immediate and unlimited (free) access to the labour market (whereas the RWR card authorises its holder to work for a specific employer only). Family members (spouses and children) of RWR card holders receive the RWR card ‘Plus’ as soon as they have migrated to Austria. Recipients of the RWR card are exempt from the strict German language skills knowledge that was implemented with the Immigration Law Package in July 2011. This stipulates that immigrants need to prove German language skills at the A1 level even before migrating to Austria, and at the A2 level after having lived in Austria for two years (the limit was previously five years). When applying for residency, though (which is possible after having lived in the country for a minimum of five years), German language skills at the B1 level need to be proved by all immigrants, whether or not they hold an RWR card. The strict language skills knowledge rule also applies to applicants’ families, except for the spouses and children of ‘high potentials’.

Expected take-up of RWR card

BMASK expects about 8,000 people to migrate to Austria with an RWR card annually – 500 ‘high potentials’; 2,000 in jobs in which there is a labour shortage; 2,500 ‘other’ key workers; 500 university graduates; and 2,500 family members. Currently, 35,000 people migrate to Austria annually, about two-thirds from EU countries and the remainder from third countries. If no counter measures are taken, Austria will soon experience a shortage of young and skilled workers.

Social partner reactions

Austria’s main employer organisations, the WKO and IV, which were heavily involved in the drafting of the new labour immigration system, warmly welcome the implementation of the RWR card and state that migration to Austria is now goal-oriented and transparent. Christoph Leitl, President of the WKO, praises the RWR card as a future-oriented migration model. WKO General Secretary Anna Maria Hochhauser agrees that this system is a forward-looking model which makes Austria a European forerunner in this regard. The IV’s General Secretary Christoph Neumayer welcomes the new system, saying that it increases Austria’s attractiveness for highly qualified, in-demand migrant workers. He emphasises that the Austrian economy needs highly qualified workers who will stimulate productivity and economic growth and thus increase the country’s competitiveness.

Organised labour, on the other hand, is less enthusiastic about the implementation of the RWR card. In a deal between the social partners at their latest annual meeting in October 2010, an agreement was reached in which the employees’ side consented to the implementation of the RWR card in exchange for the employers’ agreement to implement a law against wage and social dumping (AT1006011I and AT1105011I). Erich Foglar, President of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) stresses the importance of linking the RWR card’s implementation with the wage and social dumping law. The Austrian Chamber of Labour (AK) would rather give priority to providing unemployed people, already living in Austria, with jobs. Herbert Tumpel, President of AK supports the belated implementation of the RWR card in 2012 for workers in occupations with a labour shortage as he thinks that many of the vacant positions will be filled by NMS nationals who have been allowed to enter the Austrian labour market freely since May 2011 (except for Romanians and Bulgarians who will be granted unlimited access to the Austrian labour market from 2014 onwards). For the AK, a more pressing problem to be addressed is the treatment of the large numbers of migrant employees who work in unattractive, low-paid and insecure jobs.

Bernadette Allinger, Working Life Research Centre (FORBA)

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