Austria marks 40 years of the 'guestworker'

Photo: Comission Européenne

Forty years ago a building boom in Austria created a demand for workers that could not be met locally. So in 1964 Vienna signed a labour agreement with Turkey and two years later with Yugoslavia. It was the beginning of what is now known as the gastarbeiter - the guest worker. The story of those workers and their children is now being explored in a series of exhibitions in Vienna.

Photo: European Commission
Istanbul in 1964 - the Jugendstil district. On a street corner here is the building where the Austrian Recruitment commission where Turkish men and women once cued for their permits to travel to Austria for work. Istanbul born Ganze Omgan, has researched the origins and experience of the Austrian Gastarbeiter. She says they left Turkey with great expectations.

"They dreamt of earning lots of money and at least of building a house. They didn't really want to become very rich. Most important was to build a house and then come back. But naturally they had expectations of the golden west."

But the golden west was most often a poorly paid job on a building site like this one. Working long hours they were paid less than their Austrian counterparts and lived in conditions the locals would never accept. Even today, forty years after the first guest workers arrived from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, few have found well-paid jobs. Vlasa Zucha is a market and migration expert.

"They have lower wages and mostly they work in construction, tourism, accommodation and trade. Another sector would be private service especially people cleaning up in enterprises or private households."

The guest workers were welcomed by industry for their contribution to Austria's economic boom - but were shunned in other parts of society. They had few rights, except the right to work. Martina Böse is co-curator of an exhibition marking 40 years of the guest worker.

"Immigrants still don't have the right to take part in the general election. And a lot of the legislation is actually very discriminating against people born in this country. And who do not get citizenship solely because of the Austrian citizenship system."

This is Vienna's central market - a truly multi cultural place. The locals come here for the abundance of produce from sunnier climates and for its exotic air. It was the guest workers who left the building sites and came here to set up their stalls who made the market what it is today. But their children and grand children often find they are also running fruit and vegetable stalls - unable to break through the barriers of prejudice that keep them from the higher paid jobs enjoyed by their customers.