No Talent Need Apply

Austria’s New Foreigners’ Law Has Proved Self-Defeating

News | Clemens Weygandt | April 2007

MBA student Venay Singh lost a management postition to the new law (Photo: Venay Singh)

It always took determination to work and study in Austria as a foreigner. With the 2005 reform to the Fremdenrecht (Foreigner’s Law), this alone is no longer enough.

The Fremdenrecht came into effect, in conjunction with changes to the asylum seeking procedures, on the 1st January 2006. Designed to increase the speed with which asylum cases can be processed as well as to prevent abuses to the system, the changes to the law represented a toughening up. A year on, and the implications of the changes are starting to become apparent.

"You put your life in a little dead box," says Sridhar Sechadri, student at the Economics University, referring to the near-endless paper shuffling so familiar to foreigners looking for work in Austria. This bureaucracy has been compounded under the new law, leaving Sechadri enormously frustrated following a largely unsuccessful job hunt.

In the past, students and academics would receive a ten year right of domicile after five years of residence in Austria. Under the Fremdenrecht, however, these same people now only obtain the right to apply for residency, the retroactive nature of the law meaning that students and academics already studying at the time of the change are also caught in the net.

But the Fremdenrecht not only impacts the rights received by academics; it also affects the regulations surrounding the visa application process itself. Widespread confusion reigns at the moment, with even the most qualified applicants finding it difficult to cope with the new rules. "I’m not blaming the rules" explained Sechadri. "I’m blaming the lack of transparency, the lack of knowledge about the rules."

Indeed, most foreigners are given little to no information from the government and are forced to find out about regulations first hand, often when it’s already too late. In particular, it is the absence of a codified body of knowledge to help foreign students and workers that is exacerbating both the legal and language barriers most foreign nationals face.

"Half the information is poison, and that’s what happened to me," explained Sechadri. Both employers and employees feel they have been left in the dark. Yet it appears there are even greater hurdles than mere misinformation.

Sechadri’s frustration is shared by 32 year old Venay Singh. Singh was only two months away from making assistant manager at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Vienna when he lost his work visa under the 2005 regulations.  With a degree from MODUL, Austria’s top school of hotel management, as well as an MBA in the making at Webster University, Singh’s future looked had looked bright.

Having worked part-time as a student for 14 months, Singh had been able to apply for a two-year work permit (Arbeitserlaubnis), opening the door to a career with the Radisson hotel franchise. He had worked hard and done well, rising through the ranks as a valued employee. Under the new law, however, his work permit has been revoked. Now unable to work full time, Singh has been forced to finance his education with part time work, less well paid, and less reliable. Having already invested €40.000 on his education in Austria alone – equivalent to a life-time savings for most Indians –  it is becoming harder and harder to continue.

The consequences of the new Fremdenrecht have "ruined my financial situation," Singh said. Neither the two years he’d already worked for the Renaissance nor the continued efforts and support of his employer were enough to stave off the loss of his work permit.

Despite the current setbacks, Singh’s greatest concerns are for the future: that he will not be able to pursue a career in hotel management in Austria, and that once finished with his MBA, he will have to go home. He may, of course, qualify for a Key Employee (Schlüsselkraft) visa. However, government regulations would require that Singh demonstrates that he possesses skills which are in high demand in the Austrian job market. To do this he has to be earning €2,100 a month. This is, however, a catch 22 situation: In order to get the papers he requires, Singh must earn €2,100, but in order to earn that much he needs to have the papers. With the average Austrian income hovering around €1.800, according to Statistik Austria, Singh has slim hopes of meeting the government’s requirements working part time.

The dwindling chances for skilled foreign workers and intellectuals are coming under heavy fire from Austria’s intellectual community. "Nobody in the international division of the education ministry has thought it worth making the effort to think through the implementation of the Foreigner’s Package ahead of time, nor call attention to the catastrophic implications for the Universities," Wolfhard Wegschneider,  president of  the Mountaineering University (Montanuniversitaet) in Loeban told the ORF in May of last year. Austria’s reputation is at stake, he further warned, citing such concerns as the need for visiting professors to bring a "certificate of good character," proof of a clean criminal record.

NOTE: Both the Austrian Department of the Interior and the Department for Immigration were contacted by The Vienna Review for this story. Interviews were conducted with several officials familiar with the effects of the law. All were gracious, enthusiastic and forthcoming; however they declined to comment for the record on the change in legislation, as none felt "sufficiently qualified."

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