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Migrant Workers in Czech: Between Repression and the Mafia

category poland / czech / slovakia | migration / racism | opinion / analysis author Tuesday May 24, 2005 21:34author by comrades from czech republic - -1155; Collectively Against Capitalauthor email intersec at solidarita dot orgauthor address Report this post to the editors

In German published in magazine Wildcat no. 72, January 2005

with the re-structuring of capital in the Czech Republic
following the revolution of 1989, class composition
also changed. A big infl ux of immigrant workers
has been part of this process. Immigrant workers work
in all kinds of sectors: in construction for example, in
the automobile industry, in retail, in health and cleaning
sector, in tourism. Today about 162,000 ‘legal’ immigrant
workers live in the Czech Republic[1], at least
double that amount stay ‘illegally’. It is estimated that
there are 480,000 foreign workers in the Czech Republic,
or about nine per cent of the total work force.
And the total number of immigrant workers has been
increasing slowly since 1999. Th is increase is paralleled
by huge infl ows of foreign investment[2], which is no
coincidence given that nearly 60 per cent of all immigrants
work in factories or on construction sites. About
10 per cent of all immigrants live in Prague where construction
activities have boomed in the last year. About
74 per cent of the immigrant workers are men aged
between 20 and 39 years[3]. Compared to the ‘native
working class’ the immigrants work under even more
precarious conditions (short-term contracts, low wages,
contracted only as formally self-employed workers,
etc.). Th e immigrant workers are used by capital to put
more pressure on the local work force and establish
class divisions along the lines of origin, language and
ethnical categories.

Escaping Economic Misery in Slovakia

The majority of all foreign workers - over 40 per
cent - in the Czech Republic come from Slovakia.
Work migration to the Czech Republic is anything but
new for Slovakians: this was already common during
the so-called First Republic (1918-1938) and didn’t
change under state capitalism (1948-1989). Th eir employment
in the Czech Republic was considerably facilitated
even before the EU extension. Unlike people
from countries that are not members of the EU (‘nonmember
countries’), Slovakians are not protected by
employment legislation[4]. Th e employer only has to
announce the employment of a Slovakian worker to
the employment agency, and the agency is then obliged
to formally register the worker[5]. Hence Slovakian
workers are mostly employed legally and not pushed
into the arms of the various mafi as, like for example
the workers from Ukraine are. A lot of Slovakians work
for temp agencies, often on construction sites, but also
in the car industry (e.g. Skoda, VW), the electronic
industry (e.g. in the former production of Flextronics)
or in retail trade (e.g. Tesco, Ahold, Billa). Th e health
sector is another area where a lot of Slovakians are employed,
both as middle-ranking medical personnel and
as doctors.

In the Net of the ‘Clients’

Things are slightly different for migrant workers from
Ukraine (and from non-member countries in general).
Ukrainian workers account for 25 per cent of all foreign
workers in the Czech Republic. Th ey are put under
more pressure than the Slovakians as they need a
work permit from the employment agency, which is
dependent on their work visa. Th ey have to pay health
and social insurance, but if they lose their job they have
to leave the country within one week and are excluded
from all social benefi ts. Th ese workers are supposed
to fulfi l their function as a mere labour force without
claiming the ‘achievements’ of the welfare state. Since
October 2004 the cops have been allowed to raid construction
sites and companies in order to check the
legal status of these workers. At the same time, legal
changes make it more diffi cult to get a work visa and
the valid time of these visas has been shortened.
About 79 per cent of all Ukrainian workers are men
who regularly return to their home country and/or
send money to their families back home. Most of them
have a working class background, and only a few have
a university education. About 60 per cent work in construction,
others in agriculture and in the cleaning sector;
in a word, everywhere where the term ‘unqualifi ed
workers’ is supposed to justify meagre wages. Usually
these workers live in specially built ‘asylums’, where
they sometimes have to share a bed. Th ese are so bad
that some Ukrainian workers have built their own settlements
in forests near Prague or squat empty buildings.
And although they often work a twelve-hour day,
they earn less than 10,000 Crowns (about 320 Euros)
per month[6]. In the end the real wage of many workers
will be only half of that, given that the Ukrainian
workers are not only exploited through direct capital
relations, but also ripped off via the so-called ‘clientsystem’.
In the ‘client-system’, a client (usually a man
from the Ukraine) who has a long-term legal residence
permit for the Czech Republic and good connections
to the state administrations and various mafi as organises
work visas for workers, for which the ‘client’ charges
three times the normal fee. If workers haven’t got the
necessary money, the ‘client’ gives them credit: for the
work visa, but also for travel expenses, accommodation
and food. Workers then have to pay the client
back through one or two monthly wage cheques. Th e
business of the ‘client’ is a mafi a-like version of a temp
agency; they fi nd people jobs and pay out their wages.
A third of the wages the client keeps, as ‘protection money’. Th e client allegedly protects workers against
the mafi as and administrations, but often workers have
to face the mafi a’s and administrative repression on
their own.

From Poland into the Mines, from North
Korea behind the Sewing Machines

Th e third biggest group of migrant workers are the
Polish (about fi ve per cent). Unlike people from Slovakia
and Ukraine, Polish workers all work in one specifi c
region and sector: the Ostrau region, which is characterised
by mining and some steel works. Th ey are also
employed by temp agencies, which means that they are
the fi rst to go when there are job cuts. In the sensitive
sectors like mining and steel industry, this policy
unfortunately works rather eff ectively so far. Workers
from Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland are the most important
groups of foreign workers in the Czech Republic.
We can only guess at the number of immigrants from
other countries given that they often only work behind
closed factory gates with very little contact with the
outside world. Th is is the case for perhaps hundreds of
North Korean workers[7] grafting in the Italian textile
company Kreata, for example, or for the Chinese immigrants
in plants producing un-taxed cigarettes.
Regrettably we we have nothing to report on the
struggles of migrant workers in the Czech Republic.
Th ere aren’t any or we haven’t heard of them yet. Th e
relation between the absence of struggles in this sector
and the general social peace is obvious. Th at we haven’t
heard of struggles might also be down to the fact that
we are having to rely on media reports, so it would be
helpful to establish direct links! Th ere are fears in some
circles that open unrest among migrant workers could
break out soon. At least that was the stated view published
in the Czech newspaper Hospodarske Noviny in
September the 30th 2004: ‘We are not talking about a
dramatic social confl ict. Th is confl ict would only break
out if the migrant workers stopped working and were
only interested in the amount of social benefi ts.’ We
are up for it!

[1] All numbers if not indicated otherwise: http://www.
[2] More about re-location of production and foreign
investment see: ‘Investments in the Czech Republic:
Boom or Fall?’ (wildcat no. 70/2004; see page 5 in
this newsletter).
[3] About 27.3 per cent are aged between 20 and 29
years, about 32.4 per cent between 30 and 39.
[4] About 51 per cent of all migrant workers in the
Czech Republic come from non-member countries.
Most of them are from Ukraine (48 percent) and
from Vietnam (25 percent), who mainly work as
small traders.
[5] Workers from Slovakia account for 89 per cent of
all migrant workers from EU-countries in the Czech
Republic, the other 11 per cent are from Poland.
[6] Th ese numbers were raised in an anonymous survey
amongst Ukrainian workers in 2001. About 68
per cent answered that they earn less than 10,000
Crowns (320 Euros), about 33 per cent said that they
get less than 8,000 Crowns (258 Euros).
[7] Th e work regime at Kreata, which the Korean workers
are subjected to, takes on militaristic forms: after
they have worked for at least eight hours at the sowing
machines they are brought to the nearby workers’
asylums where they are under surveillance till the next
morning. Th ey are said to earn about 6,000 Crowns
(193 Euros).

January 2005
-1155; Collectively Against Capital

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