Help wanted: foreigners need apply

Foto: Europäische Kommission
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Franz Kafka's writing has left an indelible mark on our perception of Czech bureaucracy as a surreal tangle of rules and regulations — impossible to follow or surmount. But with the birth rate at an alarming low and the pension system under strain, efforts are underway to cut through the red tape and help educated foreigners settle in the Czech Republic — and quickly. The fast-track to permanent residency, however, remains under heavy construction.

No prizes for guessing the aim of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs' pilot project entitled, "Active Selection of a Qualified Foreign Workforce"— to recruit the right kind of immigrant: young, educated, with specialised skills.

Pilot project manager Vera Ivanovicova knows the statistics all too well: the Czech birth rate is at an historic low. A recent United Nations study suggests that the Czech population could shrink by an astonishing fifteen percent over the next half century. That amounts to a loudly ticking pension "time bomb" which needs to be diffused.

"The motivations for launching this project are very simple: it is the very low fertility of Czech women; it's 1.17 [children per woman], which puts the Czech Republic in third worst place in the world. So this is very problematic. At the same time, there is an aging of the Czech population, which is a sign of a good quality of life, but nevertheless it puts a lot of pressure on the social system and also to the labour market; we will have to fill the gap in our labour market."

That "gap" that Ms Ivanovicova is referring to is a predicted shortage of 422,000 workers in the Czech Republic by 2030.

The Labour Ministry's goal is to achieve a level playing field for qualified foreigner experts; it offers successful candidates and their families the chance to apply for permanent residency here — in a European Union member state — after two and a half years, instead of the ten it normally takes. After five years of residency, they can apply for full Czech citizenship.

Photo: European Commisson
Launched in October 2003 and drawing heavily on Canadian models, the project was at first open only to citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia and Kazakhstan. It was recently opened to candidates from Belarus and Moldova — as well as to recent graduates of Czech universities, regardless of their country of origin.

To date, 241 applicants have been found work through the project; among them are 161 Bulgarians, 29 Kazakhs, 27 Belorussians, 10 Moldovans, and five Croats. The majority of these "fast-trackers" work in technology; others are employed as secretaries, graphic artists, teachers or health workers.

If those numbers seem rather low it's because they are: the Labour Ministry's pilot project fell far short of its quota in the first year, attracting only a third of the people it set out to. Project manager Vera Ivanovicova again:

"The statistics are not relevant. The main thing is that we've gained a lot of experience with administrative procedures with our contact, with our partners: it means, foreign embassies, bureaucrats in the target countries, but also here in the Czech Republic with the labour offices, with the police department dealing with foreigners, communication among ministries and so on. It is a pilot project — so we are testing the procedures — and it is going well."

Photo: European Commisson
One reason the project has fallen short of its recruitment quota is that applicants are largely left to navigate the — dare we say it? — Kafkaesque Czech bureaucracy by themselves. So says Luice Sladkova, director of the Czech branch of the International Organisation for Migration, which is helping promote the pilot project.

"You have to find a job yourself; you have to apply for a work permit, for a residency permit, yourself; when foreign applicants realise these are the inevitable conditions for the project, they are losing interest."

To learn more about the project, please go to www.imigracecz.org