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EXPLAINED: What is Austria's controversial project to recruit nursing staff from Vietnam?

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected] • 22 Nov, 2022 Updated Tue 22 Nov 2022 14:10 CEST
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Doctors, nurses and care professionals are in high demand in Austria. (Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP)

Staff shortages are a problem in many sectors, but the Health area in Austria is particularly affected, with thousands of workers needed in the coming years. One province has an unusual solution for the issue.

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Austria has suffered from a health sector crisis for several years. As baby boomers retire, the sector (like many others) is having problems replacing the workforce. As a result, doctors and, in particular, nurses and 24-hour-care workers are overworked, and many are underpaid. 

The government has announced several measures to cushion the crisis and make the profession more attractive to the much-needed workers. The broad health sector reform includes a one-off bonus payment that will total €2,000 gross (for those working full-time). 

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

It also involves increasing salaries and giving longer holidays to those already in the field. Additionally, the government will invest in training and nursing scholarships. It also involves bringing in international help.

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'Importing' nursing staff

As part of a pilot project, Lower Austria is bringing in 150 nursing staff from Vietnam to help fill up the open positions in a project that has resulted in some controversy in Austria, broadcaster ORF reported.

The centre-right party ÖVP, which runs the province, approved the project in parliament without securing approval from its coalition partners. The centre-left SPÖ and far-right party FPÖ both strongly criticised the plans.

The pilot project will bring people with some knowledge of German to participate in further courses in Austria before joining the workforce.

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

"These people will be taught German at the University of Hanoi for three semesters and will then come to Lower Austria with a language level of B2," explained Christiane Teschl-Hofmeister (ÖVP), the provincial councillor responsible for the project.

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At the newly founded IMC International Nursing Center, they will then complete training as nursing assistants. After passing an exam, they will be offered a permanent job in a care facility of the provincial health agency, said the local councillor. 

The project will be implemented with the IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems from March 2023, the report added. 

A nurse puts on protective gear in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

A nurse puts on protective gear. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

"These nursing staffs are not in competition with our employees, but should represent a clearly noticeable relief," Teschl-Hofmeister emphasised.

Both the SPÖ and FPÖ have criticised the project and voted against it in the regional parliament. Franz Schnabl, head of the SPÖ and deputy head of the provincial government, called the project a "quick fix" and said they should instead invest in a local training facility with payment for students while they take nursing courses.

What do the workers think?

The controversy continues even as you look into the workers' opinions in the sector. This is because the unions don't agree on a position regarding the programme.

The GPA trade union criticised the plans in Lower Austria. According to GPA Lower Austria managing director Michael Pieber, there needs to be a more internal investment to attract Austrians to the profession. 

READ ALSO: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

The GPA said it is not a matter of rejecting foreign workers, but some questions, including whether or not there are guarantees that the workers will stay in the country, still need to be answered.

However, the NÖAAB, linked to the ÖVP party, referred to similar models in other federal states and with private providers. "Everything must be done to provide the best care for those affected and the greatest possible relief for nursing staff," the organisation said.

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In the opinion of the GÖD health trade union, the pilot project could help alleviate the nursing staff shortage. However, Reinhard Waldhör, chairman of the GÖD health trade union, said the training program should be "pursued further" with a focus on language acquisition to ensure integration.

International workers

Not only Vietnamese nationals would technically benefit. The federal plan's goals is making it easier for professionals in other countries who want to immigrate. This is because they will receive "significantly more" points in the process to access the so-called Rot-Weiss-Rot (RWR) residence permit. 

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 government also said it would simplify the process of recognising training acquired abroad and accelerate and remove bureaucratic hurdles in the visa processes. 

On several occasions, Austria's Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Grüne) said that immigration is a significant part of solving the country's health bottleneck

“We have a labour shortage in Austria and will need immigration in the health and social sector. We can’t solve it any other way. It simply doesn’t work out in terms of demographics”, he said. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: How can foreign doctors practise medicine in Austria?

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Amanda Previdelli 2022/11/22 14:10

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