Foreign Workers

Austria Table of Contents

Foreign workers represent the largest de facto minority in Austria, although they frequently are not perceived as such because they are "foreigners" and "guest workers." Their cultural and linguistic characteristics set them off from the indigenous population, however, and make them a distinct minority. Present in substantial numbers since the 1960s, foreign workers have become a permanent feature of Austrian society.

Initially, many guest workers came to Austria without their families and eventually returned to their countries of origin after having saved some money. In this respect, they were similar to "seasonal" laborers. However, the "rotation" of foreign workers--the return of some to their countries of origin offset by the influx of others to take their jobs--was gradually replaced by the permanent settlement of foreign workers and their families.

Foreign workers who had the required residence visa and work permit were entitled to reside permanently in Austria; their documents were generally renewed. In addition, once foreigners had worked and lived continuously in the country for ten years, they could apply for Austrian citizenship. (Under other conditions, such as political asylum, the waiting period for application could be reduced to four years.) Between 1970 and 1990, over 133,000 foreigners became naturalized Austrian citizens, the majority of whom were long-term foreign workers.

The Employment of Foreigners Law passed in 1991 limited the number of foreign workers who could be employed in Austria to 10 percent of the domestic labor force. The Resident Alien Law of 1993 reduced the number of foreign workers, that is, workers from outside the EU and the European Free Trade Association still further--to 9 percent of the total work force of about 3.5 million. As a result of these laws, approximately 300,000 foreigners can work in Austria. Because many of these workers have dependents, Austrian officials assume foreigners could come to constitute approximately 10 percent of the total population.

Citizens from the former Yugoslavia, predominantly Serbs, accounted for approximately 50 percent of the foreign workers in Austria. Turks were the second largest group, making up approximately 20 percent of the foreign work force, followed by Germans at 5 percent. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Romanians made up between 3.5 and 4.0 percent each.

Foreigners usually live in urban and industrial centers, most notably Vienna. Although foreigners accounted for just over 6 percent of the total population in 1990, the foreign population of Vienna increased from 7.4 percent in 1981 to 13.2 percent in 1990. Because of the large number of foreigners living in the capital and the low birth rates of indigenous Austrians, at the beginning of the 1990s one-fourth of the children born in Vienna were foreigners.

Despite their essential contribution to the economy and the fact that they are more law-abiding than the indigenous population, foreign workers are generally not held in high esteem. This prejudice is caused by the low pay and social status of their jobs, their lower level of education, and an often limited ability to speak German. Tensions also arise because of their foreign appearance and customs. Some resentment also stems from the social costs their presence entails. For example, the children of these workers are an additional burden for schools, and there are concerns about how well these children are being educated. Determining the national identities of these children is often difficult because they are not familiar with their parents' homeland yet have the status of "foreigners" in Austria.

The degree or quality of assimilation into the larger society is the most serious problem presented by long-term foreign workers. It is not known whether they will remain a minority or gradually come to be seen as Austrian. Generally speaking, workers from the former Yugoslavia show a greater facility for integration or willingness to assimilate--especially in the second generation--than Turks, whose Islamic beliefs tend to make integration more difficult.

Although the arrival of these foreign workers has promoted the upward mobility of Austria's indigenous lower classes by filling the jobs having the lowest pay and social prestige, a new ethnic lower class has been created. The future social mobility and integration of foreign workers will determine to what extent Austria will have an "imported" racial problem in the future.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress