Czechs unlikely to take advantage of newly-opened German labour market

Photo: European Commission

If you’d stopped a Czech citizen on the street twenty years ago and told him he was free to live and work in Austria or Germany, he would have looked at you in amazement. But on May 1st, that’s exactly what happened - the two countries lifted their final restrictions on Czech workers - and what’s truly amazing is that it’s happened with an almost total absence of fanfare, or even coverage in the media. Equally amazing, perhaps, is that hardly any Czechs will take advantage of it.

Photo: European Commission
It’s a busy spring afternoon here on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the capital’s main commercial thoroughfare. This is a city displaying all the outward signs of wealth: western shops, luxury cars, flashy clothes, and a general sense of well-being.

A few minutes’ walk away from the square is a rather austere building belonging to the Czech Academy of Sciences. I’ve come here for a chat with Daniel Munich, an academic and researcher who knows pretty much everything there us to know about labour mobility. What I want to ask him is why other former communist nations - such as Poles or Lithuanians - migrate for work, while Czechs – in general - don’t:

“The Czech Republic really has a higher standard of living. Real wages, purchasing power, is greater than in Poland, for many people. So the difference, the temptation to go to Germany and earn higher wages is not as big as in Poland. Also, I think we have a better welfare scheme here, and it’s another factor which is making a difference compared to Poles.”

Daniel Munich
Daniel Munich explains to me simple economic and social factors that would make starting a new life in Germany or Austria such an unattractive prospect for most Czechs: Yes, wages might be higher across the border, but so are prices. The Czech crown is enjoying long period of relative strength against the euro, making imported consumer goods or foreign holidays cheaper. Czechs are not great linguists: few speak fluent German. For families, meanwhile, moving abroad for work entails a host of expensive logistical challenges, such as paying for childcare – something that’s provided for free back home by willing grandparents. These and other pull factors, say Daniel Munich, work against Czech migration.

On the other side of Wenceslas Square, next door to the Lucerna Palace, are the sparkling offices of the Czech-German Chamber of Commerce, which has been around since the Czech Republic became independent in 1993. With 600 members the Chamber’s primary role is to help German firms that want to invest in the Czech Republic, but the Chamber also advises German enterprises looking to hire Czech staff.

Photo: CTK
Spokesman Hannes Lachmann says there is an appetite for qualified workers – the booming German economy desperately needs 400,000 of them – but he tells me a rather startling fact that goes some way to explain why there will be no rush of Czechs for the German border - those who want to work in Germany are already there.

“I think there’s a big misconception especially if we’re talking about highly qualified people. Those have been able to work in Germany already since 2009. There were no restrictions for university graduates from the Czech Republic to work in Germany in this highly qualified segment whatsoever. So there’s basically no change to be expected. Other reason is it is not so attractive any more for Czech people to work in Germany.”

So there will be no great Czech migration, and indeed it was ever thus. Jiří Pehe, political adviser to former president Václav Havel:

“I think this has been a tradition in the Czech Lands. Historically, one could see many more Slovaks or Poles actually moving to find work, whereas the Czechs really emigrated mainly for political reasons or because they were dissatisfied with the regime.”

Finally a simple statistic that speaks volumes about Czech labour mobility and its potential in Germany. As we’ve heard, Czech university graduates have been free to live and work in Germany since 2009. Only around 14,000 – out of a Czech graduate population of over a million – have chosen to do so. Even those without university education are unlikely to follow suit.