Czechs have not fared badly from an economic point of viewImage: dpa
East, west, home's best
April 27, 2011
While Germany has long been a favorite destination of immigrants from most of eastern Europe, it has never proved such a big lure for Czechs. Most, it seems, are just too satisfied with life in their homeland.
Two decades ago, most Czechs would have found it unimaginable that they would have the chance to live and work in neighboring Austria or Germany - unfettered by official red tape. On May 1, 2011, that pipe dream becomes reality, but there will be little fanfare: Czech university graduates can already work freely in Germany, while unskilled workers have little incentive to leave their homeland.
"There's a big misconception about Czechs working in Germany, especially if we're talking about highly qualified people," said Hannes Lachmann, spokesman for the Czech-German Chamber of Commerce, as we surveyed the eye-popping panoramic view of Prague from the cupola of his office building on Wenceslas Square.
"[Czech university graduates] have been able to work in Germany since 2009. There are currently no restrictions whatsoever for Czech graduates to work in Germany in this highly qualified segment," he said.
Germany's booming economy needs an estimated 400,000 skilled workers. Yet just 14,000 Czechs are registered as being legally employed in the country, and analysts expect no major change when Germany's labor markets open to all Czech workers - not just graduates - on May 1. So why have so few Czechs taken up the opportunity to work elsewhere in the EU, unlike Slovaks, Latvians, or Poles?
"The Czech Republic really does have a higher standard of living," explained Daniel Munich, a labor market and migration analyst for the Czech Academy of Sciences and Charles University.
Czech purchasing power
"Real wages and purchasing power are greater than in Poland, for many Czechs at least," he added.
"So the difference, the temptation to go to Germany and earn higher wages is not as big as in Poland. Also, I think we have a better welfare system," he said.
Daniel Munich enumerated the manifold economic and social factors that make moving to Germany or Austria such an unattractive prospect for most Czechs.
Pros and cons, but mostly cons
Wages might be higher across the border, but so are prices. The Czech crown is enjoying a long period of relative strength against the euro. Czechs are not great linguists; few speak fluent German. And for families, moving abroad for work entails a host of expensive logistical challenges, such as paying for childcare - something that's provided for free by willing grandparents back home. All these pull factors, said Munich, work against Czech migration.
And it was ever thus.
"This has been a tradition in the Czech Lands," said Jiri Pehe, an advisor to former Czech president Vaclav Havel and now the director of New York University in Prague.
History of staying put
"Historically, one could see many more Slovaks or Poles moving to find work, whereas the Czechs really emigrated mainly for political reasons or because they were dissatisfied with the regime," Pehe explained.
"I guess it's because the Czech Lands were doing quite well economically during the First Republic, even under communism, and now after the fall of communism. So I think the economic incentive is really not as strong as in some other countries."
No mention in media
The relaxation of labor restrictions in Germany and Austria has gone almost unmentioned by the Czech media. Nor are job agencies running major campaigns to attract potential Czech migrants. Prague displays all the outward signs of economic prosperity: western shopping and food chains, flashy cars, expensive clothes, and a general sense of well-being. The per capita gross domestic product in the Czech capital has long been higher than the EU average.
And after all, if you're satisfied with your job at Siemens or Bosch in Prague, earning a decent wage, enjoying a high standard of living and able to stay close to your family and friends, what possible incentive would you have to up sticks to work for Siemens or Bosch in Frankfurt, Stuttgart or Düsseldorf?