Many Czech firms are desperately looking for new labor — can Ukrainian refugees help? | Photo: Tim Gosling/DW
Many Czech firms are desperately looking for new labor — can Ukrainian refugees help? | Photo: Tim Gosling/DW

Six million refugees have poured out of Ukraine as they flee Russia's invasion, according to estimates. Their welcome in Central Europe has been generous and genuine, and some hosts are also eyeing potential benefits.

Not being a direct neighbor, the Czech Republic has seen fewer refugees arrive than some nations close to it, but while those entering the EU via Hungary or Romania often head onwards to the West, arrivals to Czechia are sticking around.

Prague hopes that they might help ease the chronic labor shortages. But for the moment, the impact is limited.

Czechia spent the years preceding COVID recruiting in spots such as Ukraine to help supplement a workforce struggling to keep pace with labor demand. Almost as soon as the pandemic receded, that hunt resumed.

Driven by low wages and poor demographics, Czech unemployment has been 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 to 250,000 unemployed.

By the start of 2022, around 200,000 Ukrainians were living and working in the country, which makes the landing much softer for refugees.

In the hope that the 350,000 refugees that have arrived could help alleviate labor market imbalance and weaken the pressure on wage growth, the government has also sought to make life easy with unfettered access to the job market and social benefits.

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

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

Daniel Munich says Ukrainian refugees can only do so much to fill the Czech Republic's labor market gaps | Photo: Tim Gosling/DW
Daniel Munich says Ukrainian refugees can only do so much to fill the Czech Republic's labor market gaps | Photo: Tim Gosling/DW

Women and children first

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

However, recruitment was in negative territory even before it started. According to Tomas Prouza at the Czech Chamber of Commerce, 10% of Ukrainian men who were working in Czechia have departed to fight the Russians.

"These men were here for years. They were acclimatized, well-qualified and had become valuable senior employees," he lamented. "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 potential novices is low. Ukraine's conscription laws mean that the bulk of the refugees are women and children.

That tends to rule them out of many jobs, say analysts, such as those in Czechia's numerous industrial plants demanding tough 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 severely to find staff due to the effects of the pandemic — are reported to be feeling the benefits.

While there's little Czech data available, some regional surveys support these assumptions. In Poland, for instance, 53% of accommodation and catering firms report an inflow of workers from Ukraine.

Czechia is creating a single-class network where Ukrainian children will be educated by teachers from Ukraine | Photo: piture-alliance
Czechia is creating a single-class network where Ukrainian children will be educated by teachers from Ukraine | Photo: piture-alliance

Skilled workers needed

But while cooks and chamber maids are very welcome, companies are also desperately seeking candidates for more skilled roles. 

Banking group Moneta, for instance, is running a campaign targeting Ukrainian recruits for its IT and digital unit. The bank however, refused to discuss the issue when approached by DW, suggesting its recruitment strategy may have hit obstacles.

It's likely that many 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.

Olga arrived in Prague in March to join her eldest daughter after fleeing her home in eastern Ukraine along with her youngest. However, without good Czech, the 56-year-old architect says she's struggled to find a job in her field.

The refugees are "looking for more short-term employment, because they believe they will return home soon," said Viktor Najmon, director general 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."

Prouza, however, asserts that the perspective of some is starting to change as the war grinds on, and he predicts that sectors seeking skilled employees will have more success in the coming months.

Tomas Prouza says a lot of highly qualified male Ukrainian workers in Czechia had to leave to become soldiers | Photo: Tim Golsing/DW
Tomas Prouza says a lot of highly qualified male Ukrainian workers in Czechia had to leave to become soldiers | Photo: Tim Golsing/DW

Fatigue

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

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

And that's key, he says, as the first chaotic phase of the crisis, when refugees were arriving and ad hoc solutions were hurriedly put in place, ends and the second phase begins.

"We now need to start integration," he argued. "The refugees will need standard 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 the pressure on the labor market, there's no guarantee they'll be thanked for it. 

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

The Czech public's potentially negative view of refugees was made clear during the 2015 migrant crisis, and polls already suggest that few would be happy for Ukrainian refugees to remain long-term.

Hence, if the government doesn't step its integration efforts then the risk is much wider than missing out on potential additions to the workforce, says Munich.

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

Prouza, on the other hand, asserts that he's not overly concerned. The resentment against the refugees that has been spotted is confined to supporters of extremist parties, he claims. A bigger threat, however, could stem from the plans already being drawn up to start the process of rebuilding Ukraine.

According to surveys carried out by the Czech Chamber of Commerce, many of those "valuable qualified and acclimatized" Ukrainians that have been living and working in Czechia longer-term say that if a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine is implemented after the war, they'll head home to take part.

But, adds Munich, at that point it will be up to Czechia to give its blessing to the departure of the many qualified people Ukraine will so desperately need. "We mustn't be selfish," he insisted.

Author: Tim Gosling (Prague)

Edited by: Hardy Graupner

First published: June 3, 2022

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