Immigration to Austria – An overview

Immigration to Austria can be characterised on the one hand by a history of so-called “Guest-worker immigration” and on the other hand, by the immigration of refugees – mostly from former Eastern European Countries in different phases.
For four major groups of Eastern refugees Austria represented a transitional stopover on their way from one of the Eastern European Countries to one of the Western Countries (mostly to the United States) and to Israel. The numbers are as follows: Hungarians (180.000 in 1956), Czechoslovakians (160.000 in 1968) and Poles (140.000 in 1981/82 and Jews from the former Soviet Union (about 250.000 between 1973 and 1989).
“Guest-worker immigration” was promoted by contract labour programmes since the 1960s, and organised by state agencies like in Germany. The first contract labour programme was established already in 1962 with Spain, followed by that with Turkey in 1964 and two years later, followed by Former Yugoslavia. By the end of the 1960s, the percentage of foreign workers had noticeably increased. For the first time in 1970, more than 100.000 work-permits were issued. A first peak was reached in 1973, with 226.800 foreigners working in Austria.
As Austrians increasingly found employment in the service sector, the remaining jobs in the production sector were occupied by unskilled immigrant workers. Due to this role as unskilled workers in the industry, “guest-workers” had to be preferably young and healthy men rather than well educated ones. However, due to its lower rates of income, Austria attracted less qualified workers than Germany, and did so also after the abolition of the “guest-worker”-scheme in 1973.
The first slump in the Austrian economy led to a drastic reduction in foreign labour between the mid 70s and the early 80s. Austria experienced a long period of prosperous economic development, highly supported by the “Austro-Keynesian” policy which was following the Swedish model.
The structural problems of Austria´s labour market became obvious in the 1980s. While Austrians found increasingly employment in the service sector, the remaining work places in the production sector were occupied by unskilled immigrant workers. The short period of economic progress in the early 90s, was mainly induced by immigrants employment, then followed by predatory competition in the secondary sector and finally by increased unemployment of immigrant workers in the 90s.
The basic idea of the guest-worker system was the rotation principle. Immigrants were supposed to stay for a short period of time to cover the specific demand for labour. However, for several reasons the system never worked as expected: Migrants wanted to stay longer because their income had not met their expectations, and employers refused to recruit new inexperienced workers and preferred to keep the already trained ones. As the mostly male immigrants decided to stay longer, the immigration of their family members started in the beginning of the 1970.s.
This phase of immigration profoundly changed the structure of the foreign population. Austria became in fact an immigration country, relative to the size of its population, even one of the foremost immigration countries in Europe.
However, this status has never become part of Austria’s official self-understanding. Even in phases of significant immigration, the political discourse held on, thus emphasizing the transitory state of immigration, which implies settlement. Integration was considered as the unifying policy objective related to immigrants, which served to distract from the fact of immigration.
Following from this outlook, the need for an active immigration policy was not perceived in Austria until the mid 1990s.


2 thoughts on “Immigration to Austria – An overview

  1. This is a very interesting article. I live in Austria, and I never recognized Austria as an immigration country befor. But while reading this article I thougt by myself that Austria really is an immigration country. There are especially several categories where almoust employees from eastern european countries are employed. That are for example carers for elderly people, cleaning personal or street workers. Generally the immigrated employees make jobs where the income is low for austrian standars and that’s also why many Austrians don’t choose that job. But in comparison with their homecountry the income for the employees from eastern european countries is quite good, and almoust better than at home. I think since the accession to the European Union more and more immigrant employees come to Austria to find a job there.

  2. I could say the same that Clinasi – for me Austria never looked like a country with a lot of immigrants. I don’t live in Austria, but I have been there for many times, but still I didn’t know that there are so many foreign workers.
    Comparing to the rest of Europe Union countries, the life level is quite high in Austria and salaries are much bigger than, for example, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania etc. So it’s obvious that people want to emigrate to Austria.
    Talking about employers unwillingness to hire new employers all the time – it’s normal, that they don’t want to spend more money and time to train new staff.


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