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Czech Republic: Eastern Workers Head West

As decent wages become increasingly hard to come by in some former Soviet countries, more workers are choosing to head west in search of a better life. Many of those people end up in the Czech Republic. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky takes a look at the growth of the immigrant labor population.

Prague, 16 June 2000 (RFL/RL) -- Three years ago, Tatyana decided it was time to leave behind the drudgery of her life in a small village outside Almaty, in Kazakhstan. Like thousands of others from the former Soviet Union, Tatyana -- an ethnic Russian -- hoped a better life awaited her somewhere in the West. For her and many other emigrants, that somewhere is the Czech Republic, one of the few former communist states coping relatively well with the transition from communism to capitalism.

Today, Tatyana works at one of the rows of food kiosks that line the famed Wenceslas Square, serving sandwiches and fried foods to the tourists who clog the boulevard. It's not exactly glamorous work, but Tatyana says she's content. She says life in Prague is far better than the hardship she left behind in Kazakhstan, where unemployment is high (the official rate is 14 percent).

"There's no possibility of returning home now. And I have no plans to return home, anyway, because I know it will be hard there; to change what we have here for what we won't have there."

Not far from Tatyana's kiosk, a work crew is busy resurrecting one of the many architectural gems in Prague that lost their luster after four decades of communist neglect. As at other construction sites throughout the city, many of the men toiling here are from Ukraine, where the economy is still years away from rebounding and jobs are in short supply. Desperate for any salary, the Ukrainians work for much less than their Czech counterparts. Many work illegally and have few legal rights.

The Ukrainian workers at this site refuse to talk on the record to our correspondent. Their foreman, a Czech, is not as reluctant, but insists he remain anonymous. He elaborates on the pay gap between Czech and Ukrainian workers.

"Ukrainian workers make about 65 crowns an hour, gross. A Czech worker, when he works as an individual contractor, makes about 110 crowns more. If he [Czech worker] works for a firm, he makes 65 to 70 crowns [an hour]. But he has more. He has everything paid for. He makes 70 koruna. But he has everything paid for him, insurance, health care."

The influx of foreign workers, mainly from the former Soviet Union, has sparked a public backlash, with many Czechs blaming "Russian-speakers" for an increase in crime. Partly in response, the Czech government has added visa requirements for Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. It has also made it harder for those nationals to get residence permits.

Tanya, a Ukrainian who also works at one of the food stalls on Wenceslas Square, says the visa requirement won't affect her -- she has her papers in order. But she says others who want to leave Ukraine, and find a better life in the Czech Republic like she did, will face greater obstacles.

"As long as I have all my documents, I don't know, I can stay here longer. Whether I'll have them extended, right now, I don't worry about that, just like I don't worry about the documents. But for other people, of course, it will be tougher to come here and find work."

Peter Stalker is the author of a book on the migration of labor ("Workers without Frontiers -- The Impact of Globalization on International Migration") published by the U.N.-affiliated International Labor Organization. He says that, worldwide, some 120 million people have left their homes to seek better-paying work. That's up from 75 million in 1965 and continues to grow, despite government efforts to stymie the trend. Many governments fear -- along with most of their constituents -- that foreigners will come in and snatch up jobs. But Stalker says such fears are unfounded.

"But in fact what's generally happened is that inflow of migrant workers have usually sort of expanded the labor markets, and so have made most countries richer."

Still, misperceptions persist throughout Europe. Many people in European Union countries fear that expansion of the EU will mean a tidal wave of cheap labor from the East. Far-right parties like that of Austria's Joerg Haider exploit such fears.

Stalker says: "I think people think with the expansion of the EU there are going to be huge flows from Eastern Europe in Western Europe. But if the historical experience is anything to go by, if you look for example, people were afraid in the U.K. of people moving from Spain or Italy into the U.K. It simply didn't happen. What tends to happen, is that as markets open up, as countries become wealthier, then people are more prepared to stay at home."

A recent EU report said that lifting current restrictions on movement between East and West Europe is not likely to cause a flood of migrant workers. Even though the flow of workers is increasing, it is expected to peak at a relative trickle.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.