Thursday, July 12, 2007

GENEVA — A massive labor migration to Western Europe is depriving former communist countries of skilled workers and threatening their economic progress, officials and analysts say.

With travel barriers of the communist era down, skilled labor — from plumbers and electricians to medical workers and computer experts — has surged westward in search of pay commensurate with their training.

According to the Vienna, Austria-based Institute for International Economic Studies, “Lack of skilled labor affects most Central European countries.”

Romania, one of the most recent additions to the 27-nation European Union, is complaining of growing shortage, the institute said.

Although not a permanent form of migration, the departing workers are leaving behind countries in the midst of an often-difficult transition to market economies.

In recent months, Poland sent talent scouts in search of workers as far away as China and India, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have initiated programs to recruit workers in Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — all former Soviet republics.

The most dramatic example of a talent drain is in Poland, which over the past five years has lost 1.2 million workers or 3 percent of the population.

Faced with preparations for the 2012 European soccer championships, Poland is considering using prison inmates for such projects as stadium construction and road improvements.

The Polish government has also promised to raise wages for workers in state-supported industrial projects.

Central European economists fear that the lack of labor could affect foreign investment, a key factor in creating jobs and preventing workers from leaving.

According to Leon Podkaminer, a Polish economist, housing construction in Poland and the Baltic states is unable to cope with demand because of a labor shortage.

At the same time, Poland has one of the EU’s highest unemployment rates of nearly 10 percent.

Most EU members consider the migration from the east a mixed blessing. On the one hand, increased productivity helps their economies, but on the other it causes frequent protests from local labor unions fearing competition.

The situation is not new. When Spain and Portugal joined the EU in 1986, “old” member states feared being swamped by cheaper labor.

Similar concerns were voiced when 10 additional countries — eight from the former Soviet bloc — joined in 2004.

Even before entering the EU this year, Bulgaria derived considerable income from migratory worker remittances.

Last year, nearly $500 million or 3 percent of Bulgaria’s national income came from Bulgarian workers aboard, according to the International Organization for Migration.

A number of EU countries have initiated limits on foreign labor by introducing quotas and stricter requirements.

Britain, Ireland and Sweden continue to admit skilled immigrants with few restrictions.

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