Slovak firms taking on foreign workers despite 12% unemployment

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Slovakia's economy is the fastest growing in Central Europe so it's not surprising to find there's a skills shortage. At the end of the first quarter of this year there were almost 40% more job vacancies than a year earlier. Human Resource managers are asking - can the Slovak market provide the skilled employees demanded by the fast growing economy? Some even joke that only those who don't want to work can't find a job in Slovakia these days - even though the official unemployment rate remains relatively high at around 12%. Managers have already started to bring in foreign workers, sometimes to the displeasure of Slovak taxpayers who fund the subsidies companies receive to create jobs in Slovakia.

Ion Caruntu has spent 29 years of his life working down a mine. He started in the Jiu Valley in his native Romania but after the Romanian government decided to close his mine, Caruntu took up the offer to come and work in Slovakia. Now he is one of 23 Romanian miners employed by the largest coal mining company in Slovakia..

"We have been promised decent salaries. Anyway if we compare the minimum guaranteed wage on economy in Romania and Slovakia, the Slovak one is double and we have been promised more than this so we will earn more than home. We don't speak Slovak but we learned a few basic words. You know what? Both languages use the same word for shovel- lopata"

The Romanian miners signed a six month contract with the possibility of prolonging it. Tibor Svarc, the Human Resources Manager of the mining company explains why the management decided to bring Romanian miners to work in Slovakia.

"In the early 90s the Parliament adopted a law that forbids people younger that 21 to work in mines. As a consequence vocational schools specialised in mining closed while many miners either retired or changed their jobs because there are many other job offers around these days. So we have been left with a shortage of skilled workers. One of our employees who had previously worked in Romanian mines proposed to try to recruit miners from Romania. We thought it was a good idea."

Svarc's company joins a growing number of Slovak firms looking for foreign workers to fill their vacancies. Romania and Bulgaria have become prime targets since the two countries joined the EU in January 2007 and their citizens have free access to the Slovak labour market. Unofficial estimates suggest 800 Romanians and about 600 Bulgarians have been employed in Slovakia since the beginning of the year. Most of them have been recruited by car makers and electronics companies.

Employers complain, however, that Slovak officials do not seem to have realised the urgent need for foreign workers. Slovakia does not have any guest workers scheme. It has an agreement with Ukraine signed in 1998 that should allow its citizens to work in Slovakia on the basis of special work permits. But there's an annual quota of 2,300 people, of which only a quarter goes to ordinary workers. What's more they can't be employed in Slovakia for more than 18 months. Olga Skorecova, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, says importing labour is a sensitive issue.

"Slovakia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU. Our goal is to help our people find work. They receive subsidies from the Slovak state budget to create jobs therefore Slovaks should have priority."

Analysts say, however, that about half of those currently unemployed in Slovakia are uneducated. Daniela Zahorska from PSA Peugeot Citroen says companies cannot wait until Slovaks get a proper education.

"We need workers right now. Our factory is high tech and we need a certain level of knowledge from candidates before starting to train them on the job. It costs us less to bring in foreigners than to invest in additional training for low-skilled Slovaks."

Even the window of importing workers from the new EU member states might not stay open for too long. The Romanian economy, for example, has been growing rapidly and the salary gap between Slovakia and Romania is quickly closing. Bratislava's bus company learnt this when it failed to recruit any bus drivers from Romania and Bulgaria because its financial offer was not sufficiently attractive. IBM and Hewlett Packard had the same experience.