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Czech Republic eyes refugee labor boost from Ukraine

Tim Gosling Prague
June 3, 2022

An estimated 6 million refugees have poured out of Ukraine as they flee Russia's invasion. Their welcome in central Europe has been generous and genuine. Now some hosts are also considering potential benefits.

A Czech firm looking for new employees
Many Czech firms are desperately looking for new labor: Can Ukrainian refugees help?Image: Tim Gosling/DW

As it is not a direct neighbor to Ukraine, the Czech Republic has seen fewer refugees arrive than some nations closer. But while many Ukrainians who enter the European Union via Hungary or Romania often keep going west, a lot of the recent arrivals to the Czech Republic are sticking around. The Czech Ministry of Interior said this week that about 80% of those who came to the country have stayed on. 

Now the Czech government hopes they might help ease chronic labor shortages there even if, at the moment, their impact is limited.

The Czech Republic spent the years before the COVID-19 pandemic recruiting in spots such as Ukraine to help supplement a workforce struggling to keep pace with demand. Almost as soon as the pandemic receded, that hunt for extra workers resumed.

Driven by low wages and demographics, Czech unemployment has been among the lowest in the EU for years. In April it stood at just 3.3%, according to the labor office, which noted 360,000 vacancies were open for 250,000 unemployed locals.

At the beginning of 2022, there were already around 200,000 Ukrainians living and working in the Czech Republic. This made life much easier for incoming refugees from Ukraine.

The Czech government has also sought to make life even easier for them with unfettered access to the job market and social benefits, in the hope that the 350,000 Ukrainians that have recently arrived could help alleviate labor shortages. 

But analysts warn that the number of arrivals are a drop in the ocean compared with the needs of the labor market in Czechia.

"Currently, they could contribute perhaps 2% of the labor force at most," said Daniel Munich at the Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education in Prague. "These are not numbers that can significantly change the situation in the Czech economy," he told DW.

Daniel Munich, Center for Economic Research (CERGE)
Daniel Munich says Ukrainian refugees can only do so much to fill the Czech Republic's labor market gapsImage: Tim Gosling/DW

Women and children first

According to the Czech labor office, around 50,000 Ukrainian refugees had taken a job by mid-May.

However Tomas Prouza, head of the Trade and Tourism Association of the Czech Republic, said that 10% of Ukrainian men who were working in Czechia  before the war had departed to fight the Russians back home.

"These men were here for years. They were acclimatized, well-qualified and had become valuable senior employees," Prouza said. "Now we're having to try to replace them with novices who need to learn the language and be trained."

And even then, the number of those potential novices is low. Ukraine's conscription laws, which have prevented men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country, mean that the bulk of the refugees in the Czech Republic are women and children.

That tends to rule them out of many jobs, said analysts, such as those in the Czech Republic's numerous industrial plants which require strenuous physical work.

But other sectors of the economy such as services, social and health care may be luckier. Although accurate data is scarce, hotels and restaurants — which have struggled to find staff due to the effects of the pandemic — are reported to be seeing some benefits.

While there's little Czech data available, other eastern European surveys support this. In Poland, for instance, 53% of accommodation and catering firms report an inflow of workers from Ukraine.

The first Prague single-class school for Ukrainian children
Czechia is creating a network where Ukrainian children will be educated by teachers from UkraineImage: Vit Simanek/CTK Photo/dpa/picture alliance

Skilled workers needed

Companies are also desperately seeking candidates for more skilled roles. 

Banking group Moneta is running a campaign targeting Ukrainian recruits for its IT and digital unit. The bank did not respond to questions on the topic when approached by DW so it's unclear how recruitment is going. 

It's possible that refugees don't see the point of going through the lengthier processes involved in securing a more highly qualified job, which likely includes validating Ukrainian qualifications and acquiring advanced language skills.

The refugees are "looking for more short-term employment because they believe they will return home soon," said Viktor Najmon, director of the Czech Labour Office. "Therefore, even if they have specialized qualifications, they are interested in manual professions. With regard to the children, they prefer shift work opportunities."

However the Trade Association's Prouza believes this is starting to change as the war grinds on. He predicts that sectors seeking skilled employees will have more success in the coming months.

Tomas Prouza of the Czech Chamber of Commerce
Tomas Prouza says a lot of highly qualified Ukrainian workers in Czechia left when the war startedImage: Tim Gosling/DW


But even if refugees do start to mull putting down some roots, they'll need more support. Language training is key, analysts explained, while mothers need better child care solutions than the current community-based volunteer system most rely on.

The capacity of the education system is key, said Munich, referring to data that shows that while the number of refugees in many Czech regions matches labor demand, school capacities are lacking.  

And that's key as the first chaotic phase of the crisis ends and a second phase begins.

"We now need to start integration," Munich argued. "The refugees will need housing and schooling. I'm not sure the government is ready. It's going to become very difficult."

There's also a risk that, even if the refugees can help ease pressure on the Czech labor market, they'll be thanked for it. 

Crisis fatigue

As generous as the welcome shown to those fleeing the horrors of the Russian invasion has been so far, there is worry that crisis fatigue could set in as the economy slows and inflation rages.

The Czech Republic's potentially negative view of refugees was obvious during 2015's so-called migrant crisis, when thousands of Syrians made their way into Europe. Local polling suggests that some Czechs would be unhappy if Ukrainian refugees remained long term.

So if the government doesn't step up integration efforts, the problems will go beyond just missing out on a potential workforce, said Munich. 

"Without work and schools, the social and economic conditions of the refugees will worsen," he warned. "Crime will rise and Czechs may become reluctant to tolerate or fund this [the refugees]."

Prouza, on the other hand, is not overly concerned about that. Resentment against refugees is confined to supporters of extremist parties, he claimed. In fact, a bigger threat might come from the plans already being drawn up for reconstruction in Ukraine.

According to surveys carried out by the Czech Chamber of Commerce, many of the Ukrainians that have been living and working in Czechia for longer already say, if there was funding, they would head home to help with reconstruction after the war.

At that point the Czech Republic must give its blessing to the Ukrainians even if the country needs them, Munich concluded. "We mustn't be selfish," he said.

Poland looks for EU help for Ukraine's refugees

Edited by: Hardy Graupner