Shattered Dreams: The Plight of Migrant Workers in Europe during the Economic Crisis

By Zaidi, Sairah | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Shattered Dreams: The Plight of Migrant Workers in Europe during the Economic Crisis


Zaidi, Sairah, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


Tuul Terbish works about fifteen hours a day, six days a week in a bakery in Plzeo. She has a degree in dentistry but has not been able to find work in her field. Her long work hours prevent her from spending time with her daughter, and she says that baking bread at a stove for such long shifts is difficult. The workers' agency that arranged for her initial job placement and arrival in the Czech Republic also serves as her legal employer, and takes half of her salary each month leaving her with no savings. She is worried that she will soon lose her job and be forced to return home.

Her case is not unique; it illustrates a common predicament among many of the 400,000 foreign workers in the country. The onset of the global economic crisis has thrown into sharper relief what critics describe as a flawed and unjust Czech labor migration system.

The Value of Workers' Agencies

A vast network of workers' agencies exists in the Czech Republic which act as intermediaries to help migrant workers find employment, assist with working permits and visas, and organize arrival into the country. Now numbering approximately 2,600, these agencies have capitalized on the Czech government's failure to provide information and practical assistance to migrant workers.

NGOs and watchdog groups have, however, criticized the workers' agencies as unaccountable and purely profit-driven, with the ongoing economic crisis thrusting them into the spotlight as foreign workers lose jobs en masse.

The role of these agencies extends far beyond initial assistance in job placement and arrival. Losing a job means losing the purpose of stay required to legally remain in the Czech Republic. Since it is difficult to change employment and the Czech government does not provide much assistance, foreign workers often rely on the agencies for the duration of their time in the country.

The agencies often function as legal employers, controlling wage distribution and taking a large portion of their workers' salaries. This also means that immigrant workers do not enjoy the same rights and worker protection measures that local Czechs do--in Tuul's case, for example, the bakery isn't subjected to normal Czech labor law and is not required to provide her with unemployment benefits.

"The main purpose is to make money, so [the workers' agencies] ask for as much as people are willing to pay," says Marie Jelinkova, one of the creators of Migration Online at the Multicultural Center in Prague, a project that compares migration policy in Central and Eastern Europe. The agencies charge initial fees for job placement, visa acquirement and arrival into the country. These fees vary from one nationality to another--Mongolians usually pay $3,000 to $4,000, while Vietnamese workers often pay upwards of $10,000.

Tuul paid her agency $5,000, but recalls that promised assistance for finding accommodation was not provided. She instead relied on the help of strangers and acquaintances.

A representative of a Prague workers' agency Zajan s.r.o., Ljubov Rampilova, argues that the negative image of workers' agencies is unfair. "It's a lot of work for us to find the migrant worker a job, equip him for work, and arrange for arrival and accommodation," she says, pointing out that the government requires the agencies to also pay health and social insurance for workers. She asserts that many migrant workers appreciate that mediators exist, indicating the difficulties they would otherwise have in the entire process.

Supporters of the workers' agencies defend their profit margin, and argue that their critics are simply stuck in an anti-profit mindset--a legacy of communism. But the director of the Prague branch of the International Organization for Migration, Lucie Sladkova argues that the agencies value profit over people: "People are not a commodity. It angers me that we didn't block the establishment of so many networks of agencies, considering that a certain percentage of their business is totally dirty. …

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