Green Cards? Disappointed Expectations
In the course of the past year, the Czech media paid an unprecedented amount of attention to the topic of foreign labor migration. Two assertions appeared most frequently: one, that the Czech economy needs foreign workers, and two, that there are too many unnecessary administrative hurdles when it comes to employing foreigners. The Ministry of Industry and Trade, reflecting interests of some business organizations, spearheaded the effort to devise a system that would rely on so-called “green cards,” which should make the employing of both highly qualified foreigners and those with few qualifications easier. Last Wednesday, the government approved an amendment which should make green cards a reality. Thus, questions arise: was the business circles’ campaign advocating simplification in employing foreigners a success? And if so, to what extent? Are green cards the long awaited breakthrough in the area of foreign employment? Are they simultaneously also a remedy for the serious problems that currently plague labor migration?
The green card is a new form of residence permit. It brings certain advantages: only one permit will be needed instead of the three that are needed now (work permit, employer’s permit to recruit workers abroad, and the visa), which will save up to 2,500.00 Czech crowns in fees. The permit will be valid for two to three years. The processing time will be one month rather than the four or more months it takes now. And finally, certain documents won’t be required until after the arrival in the Czech Republic. These are important improvements, but that is also all there is. Everything else remains the same. The applications will still be made at the embassy. A person will not be legally entitled to be granted the green card even if they fulfill all the conditions, and the officers will not be required to provide any explanations as to why an application was turned down. Foreigners will not be able to change employers without getting a new permit, granting of which will again depend on the goodwill of the Ministry of Interior.
Let’s then look at the impact the green cards will have on the various actors involved in labor migration. Foreigners’ situation will remain essentially unchanged (especially when one takes into account some of the original suggestions, some of which were slightly reminiscent of slave-like conditions, such as the requirement to have the employer’s name in the passport or the provisions preventing family reunification). It is true that the green cards diminish foreign workers’ rights somewhat, but administrative processing will indeed be much faster, and the cards won’t prevent one from applying for permanent residence. Employers will appreciate the reduction in red tape, in all other respects, however, they will have no choice but to trust the decisions of the Ministry of Interior. This is because they will have no means (except for information leaks) to find out why, for instance, their application was turned down, while their competitors’ applications were granted. The infamous employment agencies brokering foreigners’ employment will not be put out of business by the green cards. The only thing that will change is that henceforth they will not be able to loan their employees to other employers. It is possible, then, that their formal status will be more frequently that of subcontractors. There is no evidence so far, however, which would suggest that their dominant position in the foreigners’ labor market is in any danger.
A clear winner, however, is the government, especially the Ministry of Interior. The green card, which in the USA grants its holder rights almost identical to the rights of the citizens, has in this case been turned into an ordinary work visa. Moreover, a work visa that is reminiscent of the gastarbeiter (temporary worker) programs of the 1960s, which could be characterized as: “quickly to work, integration can wait.”
What is notable as well is the extreme centralization of the system that has emerged: not only will the towns and counties have no say in the migration policies, but decisions regarding green card applications will not be made by the District Labor and Employment Offices or the Alien and Border Police Regional Offices, both directly responsible to the government, anymore, instead all decisions will be taken exclusively by the Ministries. While the Ministry of Interior does not even have any regional offices at this time, this question was not even brought up in the explanatory memorandum accompanying the legal amendment. This might lead to a situation whereby foreigners will be forced to make trips directly to the Ministry in Prague, which will at the same time also diminish the role that the regional administrative offices currently play in immigration policies at large. Further, it shouldn’t be overlooked that what used to be one of the criteria based on which employment permits have been issued to foreigners, namely the current situation in the country’s labor market, a criterion that was aimed at giving an advantage to local workers, has disappeared as a condition for granting the permits. Thus, green cards turn out to be a means through which the importance of the protection of the domestic labor market has been diminished, while the power of the state bureaucrats has been expanded beyond the usual and standard procedures.
It seems that as far as foreigners’ rights and their ability to engage in labor migration are concerned, green cards are not going to mean a substantial step back. However, if we take into account the great potential offered by the Czech society’s recent realization that it needs to open itself up to foreigners, a realization that was accompanied by a substantial reduction in the Czechs’ fear of foreigners competing with them in the labor market, I suspect that the potential will, once again, remain largely unfulfilled.
The article is a part of the project "Czech Made?" realized by the Multicultural Centre Prague and supported by the European Commission.
Mgr. Pavel Čižinský is a lawyer and politologist, currently working as an attorney in Prague, who also specializes in migration law; working closely with the non-governmental organisation, Counselling Centre for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights, and with various other organisations. He is a member of the Committee for the Rights of Foreigners at the Council of the Government of the Czech Republic for Human Rights.