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Working nomads

Rosalia Romaniec / gswJanuary 15, 2013

Once the eurozone crisis took hold with particular intensity in Southern Europe, more and more people are looking for work abroad. Switzerland has become an attractive destination for migrants from the East and South.

The Swiss national flag Photo: Rainer Jensen dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Maja Majchrzak is from Poland. She has worked as a ski instructor since Christmas at the Swiss resort town St. Moritz. Majchrzak could be called a modern European nomad - educated, adventurous and flexible. Before she came to Switzerland, she worked as an English teacher for five years at a language school in Milan. As the financial crisis took hold in Italy, she decided to move on.

"Switzerland appealed to me because it is right in the middle of Europe and offers unusually good salaries," explained Majchrzak, who speaks several languages.

Foreign language competency opens up access to the Swiss job market to many immigrants from eastern Europe.

"If it was just about skiing, then we'd have enough people from Italy and Germany," said Franco Moro, director of the Ski School St. Moritz, adding, "With Eastern Europeans, there are often deficits when it comes to thinking about service, but many can speak Russian - and that is a very important qualification for us."

Welcomed, but with limitations

Following a bilateral agreement in 2011 between the EU and Switzerland, it's been easier for EU workers to try their luck in the robust Swiss economy. That reform came at the same time as the complete opening up of the labor market within the European Union. A year later, however, Switzerland again introduced quotas for longer stays. If the quotas have already been filled, it's still possible to apply for a visa valid for up to a year. In spite of these limitations, the flow of Eastern and Southern Europeans toward Switzerland continues. The financial crisis in the rest of Europe has led many to look elsewhere.

"The strong Swiss franc increases the country's attractiveness," explained Herbert Brücker of the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg.

Recent research suggests that Southern Europeans looking for work account for just 20 percent of those migrating for jobs. More movement is coming from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

"They definitely prefer to have a look in countries like Germany or Switzerland at the moment," said Brücker.

Opportunities in the travel industry

Hotels and other branches of the service industry have felt the shift, receiving record numbers of applications from Eastern Europeans. They still represent a minority among applicants, but the ratio is shifting. For hotels and other travel-related businesses, having multilingual personnel is a clear advantage.

Michael Wagner is the owner of a hotel in Pontresina, near St. Moritz, and points out that changing hiring patterns also reflect the increase in tourists from newer additions to the European Union. In the winter season, the hotel owner employs up to 60 people. More than 80 percent are foreigners, including people from Slovakia and Hungary.

"It's often young people with a good education and a lot of flexibility - exactly what we're looking for," said Wagner.

Headed north?

One of them is Kristina Malekova, who is working in a hotel called Zum Rosatsch for the second year in a row. Malekova studied philosophy but could not find any suitable jobs at home in Slovakia. She initially considered looking for work in Turkey and Greece before the eurozone crisis took hold. Then she turned to Switzerland.

Malekova says she appreciates the good pay, work atmosphere and proximity to home of Switzerland - as well as the numerous opportunities for continuing education. She believes she has it better in Switzerland than anywhere else she could work in Europe.

However, Switzerland's job market is relatively small. It can be expected that many who have migrated to Switzerland for work could continue further north - to Germany, for example, where immigration has already increased dramatically. An end to this development is not in sight.

Kristina Malikova (c) DW
A philosopher in residence: Kristina MalikovaImage: DW
Hotel owner Michael Wagner Copyright: DW/R. Romaniec
Hotel owner Michael Wagner employs Eastern EuropeansImage: DW/R. Romaniec
Maja Majchrzak (c) DW
Maja Majchrzak appreciates the good pay in SwitzerlandImage: DW