Illegal in Wien: Improvising a Life

Franco: “As an illegal immigrant, I was under the radar, I didn’t exist.”

News | Alexandra Ruths | March 2007

Photo: Franz Zimmermann

Picture a medium-sized, well-trained man in his late twenties, wearing a long dark coat, sophisticated manner, excellent English and a degree in journalism from Argentina.  Four years ago, when he decided to leave Argentina for a better life in Europe, he faced challenges he had never imagined, working illegally in the cloakroom of the Latin dance club "El Dorado" for 5 euros an hour.  He didn’t even have a place of his own. This was Franco – an illegal in Vienna.

I met Franco at an Italian restaurant in the inner city. He chose that place to celebrate his ‘legalisation.’ A couple of days prior, he had received the Italian passport he had applied for four years ago, when he first came to Vienna. Four years of waiting, four years of being an illegal immigrant.

"As an illegal immigrant, I was under the radar, I didn’t exist," he explained.  "I found people who were willing to help me by hiring me. Of course everything was under the table."

Now the situation has changed. Thanks to his passport, he is going from not being able to work, to being eligible for any job. He is able to travel and has the right to medical insurance, "Christ, I can go to the dentist for the first time in years," he exclaimed. In the food service business about one third of the people are without papers.

When he arrived four years ago, Franco worked in the Millenium City as a bartender, without a work permit.

"They were not interested in that at all – mind you, this is a very well known, public place, a place one actually expects to be controlled," Franco said. There are, in fact, surprisingly many high profile restaurants, pubs, bars where no one is hired according to the rules. A yuppie coffee house near Schwedenplatz is one of them.

"It was one of the first places I went to ask for work. The manager hired me straight away. All of the waiters were some kind of models or actors, and none of them was properly registered, not even the Austrians," Franco remembered. How was that possible?

"The owner knew someone in the system," he suggested.

But the controls are getting tougher nowadays; it’s not so easy anymore. The KIAB (Kontrolle der illegalen Arbeitnehmerbeschäftigung), a division of the Finance Ministry, has been in operation since July 2002 as it moved its main office to the federal ministry for finance. This facilitates better co-operation and a more efficient way of monitoring, according to the KIAB’s official website.

A study by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) reported that since Austria’s accession to the EU, the borders have become more open and thousands of temporary seasonal worker have been admitted.

"The gastronomy business was and will always be a haven for workers with no or restricted papers," Franco knew from experience.

However Franco cannot answer the question about what should be done when the officials find out about workers with no papers. "That’s very difficult to answer. On the one hand, I know what it’s like to have no papers and desperately need a job: If someone should be made responsible, it really is the owners. But then again, I am really grateful to those who hired me," Franco concluded. He was lucky, as he said. There are many owners and managers who exploit their employees, fully knowing that they have no rights and would have a hard time objecting.

"If I was in the position to, I would have the employers pay high penalty and not punish the immigrants for something they had to do in order to earn a decent living – I also would not make them leave the country," he added.

Europe is expanding and Austria will have to adjust along with it.

"Austria is smack in the middle of Europe," Franco said, but Vienna is a meeting point of many different cultures and this will only increase thanks to its stable economy and the high standard of living.

A new proposed law of July 2005 lets police detain immigrants while their asylum applications are being reviewed.  Parliament’s lower house passed the so-called Foreigners’ Rights Bill in summer of that year.

Franco has friends that were already affected by the new law. One of his close friends from Venezuela was caught in a night bus during a ticket control. Even though he was officially registered as an asylum seeker, the officials took him with them.

"He spent two nights in prison- in prison- and he is still having nightmares about it," Franco shook his head in disbelief.

Austria’s new law will cost around 14 million euro to implement after it is passed, United Nations spokesman Roland Schönbauer told It’s the second new asylum bill the country has written since 2003. "The money could be spent in better ways by helping people to integrate into society.’’ said Schönbauer.

But the Austrian government is trying to clamp down on immigrants.

On ‘’ the latest official figures say that in 2004, there were 23,000 inspections during which more than 6,200 illegals were discovered and 3,700 fines issued. All in all, the ministry and the KIAB issued penalty payments of around 13.5 million euro.

Even though Austria seems to get tough on immigrants, according to Franco it is still so much easier here than in London, Paris and Milan.

"Those metropolitan cities are so expensive that it is almost impossible to make a decent living – even if you do have papers," Franco said. "In Vienna, it’s safe and there are still not so many immigrants as compared to other cities," he explained. "Of course there are criminals here too, but that happens in every expanding city that has a lot to offer."

Being from Argentina was a plus for Franco. "To Austrians this is something exotic. If I were Albanian or Croatian, life would be much harder here for me, because Austrians are sick and tired of them." So he used his Latin background and good English to work in his favour.

One night working at the pub, Franco had two middle aged women sitting at his bar, surrounded by their shopping bags, laughing loudly and drinking white wine ‘Spritzers’.

"They were tipsy, loud, giggling and pointing at me. It was obvious that they wanted to get into a flirty conversation," Franco remembered. He was not in the mood for that so he pulled a trick that he had learned during his time in Vienna. "When they asked me where I was from – this question always comes up – I said that I was Albanian with a dry smile, and immediately, their own smiles dropped off their faces. I had used that before when I was not in the mood to talk, sometimes even saying that I was Croatian, Bulgarian, Polish and it always worked," he said.

A few days later, his boss confronted him. "He said that I should stop telling people I was Albanian, as this would be bad for his business. ‘People in Vienna do not like them,’ he said."

Through it all, Franco seems to have been lucky – almost ironically lucky. During one of his night shifts at an Irish pub in the inner city, he had two guys in tie and suit sitting at the bar. Nothing unusual; he served them their drinks.

A minute later, he was called over by two regulars. "They told me that one of the guys at the bar was the minister of labour who had just given a speech on TV on the issue of illegal immigrants and work permits," Franco remembered. "I got a little scared, but then they just kept on talking, drank up, paid me, tipped very well, thanked me, and left."

About a year ago, though, he had an encounter with inspectors that did not end that smoothly.  On a Monday night, two young women entered the Irish pub he was working in.

"The owner was serving people and I was taking a break, sitting at the bar, when these two flashed their badges at me and asked me for ID," he remembered. Saying he had forgotten them at home, Franco told them that he was just a costumer.

"The women apologised, saying that they had been tipped off that illegal immigrants worked at this Irish pub." Nothing happened that evening, but Franco and a second worker got fired because their boss did not want to get into trouble. "If there had been another inspection, he would have had to pay a high fine. I am thankful for everything he did for me." During his four years without papers, Franco had to leave several jobs behind. However he always managed to get back on his feet.

The lack of papers forces people to improvise, taking jobs they would never have dreamt of doing, Franco explained.  While most immigrants are professionals, they often can not work in their field, and jobs are limited number for people without papers – waiter, bar tender, masseuse, dancer, dancing teacher, DJ or really unskilled jobs like washing dishes or cleaning. Franco has one friend, who became a masseur.

"He came without papers, bought himself a training video, bought the equipment and started working privately, under the table," Franco said. He has built up a steady clientele, printed business cards and gets by just fine. He improvised.

In an interview with the Austrian federal labour ministry, an official admitted that even though the ministry saw itself as the adversary of illegal employment, they couldn’t deny that unregistered entrepreneurship and small businesses accelerated economic growth.

Harald Kaszanits from the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber "Wirtschaftskammer" agreed partially. "In general each form of competition is good for the economy but only if this competition takes place under the same circumstances otherwise it is dangerous for the Austria economy." However, he added that the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber was very happy about newly implemented regulations that made it easier to import skilled workers from the new European Union countries to Austria in order to make up for the lack of skilled workers- Fachkräfte- on the Austrian market. "The Austrian economy is very strong at the moment and it would do a lot of harm, if we did not try and integrate those people into our job system and society."

Franco is enjoying his new life.

"It is a big difference, now I can go by public transport without having a heart attack when there is a ticket control," he said. "I can go to the dentist without a second thought, buy a car, travel wherever I want, work wherever I want and even go to university, if I wanted to. Without papers, you feel as though you are living in a house without a roof and without a key to lock your door. Anyone can come in and there is nothing to protect you!"

His life hasn’t changed that much yet, but it’s the notion of security that that gives him a great feeling. Now, he says, is when the real life starts."

"Now I can finally do something that can last," he said, "and also do something for this country, and for Vienna."


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