Austria’s foreign ski workers in limbo despite slopes reopening

Austria's ski lifts may be operating but as the country struggles to control coronavirus infections, the sector expects a subdued season -- and migrant workers who depend on it face an uncertain winter.

Austria's foreign ski workers in limbo despite slopes reopening
Photo: DPA

In a normal year they would be part of one of Europe's largest seasonal labour migrations.

In western Austria's Tyrol province alone, more than 31,000 foreign workers are needed when its 80 ski resorts are in full swing, according to one estimate.

But events in Ischgl, the village that became one of Europe's first major coronavirus clusters, explain why many of those workers are now unemployed.

Around 6,000 tourists claim to have carried the virus home from there.

AFP interviewed workers from Germany, Italy, Croatia and Slovakia, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared risking future employment.

'Mindless debauchery' 

In March, as Covid-19 was ravaging northern Italy, Ischgl's celebrated party scene carried on.

An independent report has said shutdown measures should have been taken there after a barkeeper tested positive for the virus on March 7, but restaurants and bars remained open regardless.

Waiters cut through crowds by blowing whistles amidst what one ex-employee described as scenes of “mindless debauchery”.

“We were still joking because we didn't realise how fast things could happen,” recalls Manuel, a German chef.

“It was pretty clear that this was a financial decision — you can't believe how much money they make there every single day,” a Croatian worker says of the decision to stay open.

Tyrolian ski lifts alone rake in around 800 million euros ($980 million) annually, while the province's ski industry accounts for almost three percent of Austrian annual output.

'Abandoned like dogs'

A few days later, Ischgl was shut down.

While infected tourists fled, the resort's migrant workers turned off stovetops, wiped the bars clean, and cleared rubbish from abandoned five-star hotel rooms.

Workers were stranded, many only getting home with the help of their embassies.

Andreas Steibl, head of Ischgl's tourism association, says the hundreds of workers forced to quarantine were “taken care of” and that some “were able to use the infrastructure of the hotels as guests do”.

Steibl insists workers were in a “thoroughly pleasant situation” — something many of them would dispute.

Some tested positive, while others say they couldn't access medical care despite having symptoms that made even climbing the stairs a challenge.

“Once the tourists were gone, we were worthless — a burden, actually,” a German waiter recalls.

“They abandoned us like dogs,” says Predrag — not his real name — from Croatia, who was stuck in Ischgl for more than three weeks.

Figures provided by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research show the ensuing shutdown led to around three quarters of all migrant workers in Tyrol's winter tourism industry losing their jobs.

That represents around 24,000 people, only some of whom were eligible for unemployment benefits in Austria or their home countries.

“It's a very precarious sector,” says Thomas Radner, head of employment law at Tyrol's Workers' Chamber.

Though he says migrant workers claiming they're “treated like slaves” is nothing new, Radner also notes a dramatic spike in such complaints since the outbreak.

Workers who had already signed contracts for the current season have seen them cancelled at short notice.

Thousands in limbo

Despite the disappointment, most potential employees AFP spoke to said they would return to Ischgl given the opportunity.

“Necessity is a hard taskmaster,” said Vojtech Katona, a Slovakian who made pizza in Ischgl.

Both he and Predrag have been looking for jobs in Ischgl or other resorts.

Recognising their reliance on migrants, towns like Ischgl often try to lure staff with benefits ranging from cheap or even free ski passes, classes or excursions and access to spas and gyms.

But for the moment, “we have no need for seasonal workers”, says Steibl as he surveyed the snowy valley from his balcony.

“Once the season really starts, with hotels and restaurants opening, we will need them again,” he added. Until then, tens of thousands of workers are in limbo.

“Taking into account the whole situation, I was not surprised they didn't answer,” Predrag says of prospective employers.

Now without a job, he is struggling financially — but also looking forward to spending Christmas with his family, far from Ischgl's snow-capped mountains. “I'm always an optimist,” he insists.

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More pay and longer holidays: How Austria hopes to attract 75,000 new nurses

The Federal Government unveiled a package looking to attract more than 75,000 new workers to the nursing and care professions - including people from abroad.

More pay and longer holidays: How Austria hopes to attract 75,000 new nurses

Austria has unveiled a €1 billion reform package to improve working conditions for health sector professionals.

In a press release this Thursday, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the package would include higher salaries for nurses.

“There will be massive measures to make the nursing profession more attractive”, the minister said.

For 2022 and 2023, the government will offer a total of €520 million as a monthly salary bonus for the professionals, Rauch said. This should last initially for at least two years until other measures start taking effect.

Training for the career will also receive investments, according to the minister. There will be a federal training subsidy of at least €600 per month.

In addition, a nursing scholarship for those switching (or switching back) to the nursing profession of up to €1,400 will be funded by the Austrian Employment Agency AMS.

READ ALSO: Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

As a measure to protect workers and keep them from turning to other professions, the government explained that all those older than 43 years old will receive an extra week of paid holidays. Additionally, all employees in inpatient long-term care will receive two hours of time credit per night shift.

​​Among the more than 20 measures that the Ministry will detail in the coming days are steps to increase help for those in need of care and of relatives that care for their families, according to the statements given in the press release.

Caring relatives will receive a family bonus of €1,500 per year if they provide most of the care at home and are themselves insured or co-insured. The employment in 24-hour care is also to be “made more attractive” – but details are still pending.

Bringing in international help

The government is also turning outside of Austria and the European Union to attract more professionals.

In the future, nurses who complete vocational training will receive “significantly more” points in the process to access the so-called Rot Weiss Rot (RWR) residence permit. They will also increase the points given for older professionals, facilitating the entry of nurses from 40 to 50 years old.

RWR applicants need to reach a certain threshold of points based on criteria including age and education to get the permit.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

The recognition of training acquired abroad will be significantly simplified, accelerated and debureaucratised, the government promises. And nurses will be able to work as nursing assistants until the formal recognition of their foreign qualifications is completed.

Long-needed reform

“People in care work have long deserved these improvements”, Rauch said.

The government expects the package to create more than 75,000 new workers to fill the thousands of open positions in the sector by 2030.

Green Party leader Sigrid Maurer stated that the measures will be an essential step towards gender equality. “After all, it is mainly women who work in the care professions, especially taking care of relatives at home”.

READ ALSO: Austria’s former health minister becomes best-selling author

The government announcement comes as several protests are scheduled to take place throughout Austria this Thursday, which is also Tag der Pflege (Day of Care).

Health and care sector professionals are taking to the streets to demand better hours and pay and protest against staff shortage, overload, and burn-out.

“We have been calling for better conditions and better pay for years. Thousands of beds are now empty because we don’t have enough staff. In Styria, about 3,000 of a total of 13,000 beds in the nursing sector are currently closed,” Beatrix Eiletz, head of the works council of Styrian Volkshilfe told the daily Der Standard.

READ ALSO: How Covid absences are disrupting Austrian hospitals, schools and transport

It is not uncommon that nurses will quit their jobs and move to completely different professions, thereby increasing the gap, the report added.

The problem is an old one in Austria – but it has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.