The following is the first part of a series of articles – selected pieces from the book "The Great Return: Slovakia’s Lost Daughters and Sons Come Home" written by Zuzana Palovic.
The inclusion of the “East” into the “West” at the beginning of the 21st century spurred an unprecedented migration wave across the landmass of Europe. This time the migration journeys of Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles and other fresh EU member nations took them to new destinations, such as the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Some 100,000 Slovaks left the country. For many it felt like the gateway to the West had at last been opened, a decade and a half after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
Surprising to some, was just how far the people of Europe’s East ventured. It seemed they skipped over Austria and Germany entirely and instead opted to go much further West.
What most people didn’t know was that the trajectories to the UK and Ireland were influenced by the Union’s labour market restrictions. Just as in 1989, Austria and Germany were nervous about having their economies flooded with “Eastern Europeans”.
Their governments opted for more protection, which is why they chose to keep their labour markets closed to the newly ascended nations, for the maximum 7-year transition period. After which, EU law required that they open their borders and embrace the people from the “East” as equal to their own citizens.
Healing the Division
The liberalisation of travel due to EU regulation has helped to dissolve the no-contact rule between East and West. With the great divide penetrated, the invisible walls and judgments that had kept people separated from one another have begun to diffuse. For the first time in generations, Eastern and Western Europeans are rubbing shoulders at work, in transport and in housing blocks all over Europe. Love erupting between neighbours has seen a sprouting of new East and West families on the continent. These blended households are helping to transmute many of the old geopolitical wounds. They are re-configuring old stereotypes, in favour of new understanding. All the while cultivating trust across divisions to the benefit of business and trade, as well as peace and global security.
Because of the closed borders of the German-speaking world, the English-speaking one became the place to go. In many ways, it was the only place to go.
In 2004, the United Kingdom, Ireland and also Sweden were the only countries in Europe that opened their labour markets. The excitement to travel and make money in these new destinations inspired the youth of Eastern Europe. Slovaks, just as in the past, were at the forefront of the migration wave.
Our countrymen were the second largest incoming population (per capita) into the UK, after Poland. That’s huge, considering over 1 million Poles arrived on the shores of the island. In fact, so many Eastern Europeans flooded into London, Manchester and Dublin, that some began to fear that the whole continent was moving to the West.
The journeys to the West seemed irrational at first glance. With close to no job security and limited foreign language skills, the young migrants were quite obviously taking a big risk.
Their loved ones in Slovakia wondered: how would they survive in the big and unfamiliar Western world? Yet, despite the odds clearly not being in their favour, the young, educated and ambitious Slovaks secured jobs almost immediately.
In fact, the new migrants proved to be some of the continent’s most productive workers. Did you know that Central and Eastern European migrants exceeded the local employment average in the UK, by 10%? Their unprecedented ability to adapt to a completely new environment and succeed in it, proved that they were not just brave, but also skilled.
The recipient countries also benefited from their brains, bodies and youth. Many European and global metropolises face sizable worker shortages at each end of their labour markets.
The general rule of thumb states, the more successful the economy, the greater the need for new people and skills. In these busy labour markets, employers often struggle to find workers for jobs that not everybody can do, as well as hire for jobs that not everybody wants to do.
Traditionally, this is where migrants come in to save the day. They address the high- and low-end worker shortages. Unfortunately, these also include the 3D (ull, dirty and dangerous) jobs that have a very high turnover rate. Nobody likes to clean toilets or do physically demanding construction jobs, yet the work still needs to be done.
In many ways, these jobs attract short-term migrants, especially those who come into a country looking to make fast cash and then return home to spend it. We must not forget that migrants can be highly skilled workers, such as doctors, scientists and sought-after experts from all professions. Specialists in particular, with their specific knowledge, need to travel to impart it. Some find this requires them to migrate to various global epicentres to continue their passion.
These workers are often called “expats”, that is ex-patriots of their native countries. This is a much more glamorous term then “immigrant”, but it also relates to the short-term nature of their migration journeys. Although all those who migrate to other countries can be referred to as ex-pats, this term is mostly reserved for those who are on working missions abroad and do not aspire to naturalise, that is become citizens of their host country.
The notion of the “expat professional” really kicked off in the 1980s, when American corporations began to set-up daughter companies internationally. With their geographical expansion came the need to circulate their company resources, which included human beings.
Today, the globetrotting corporate professionals represent a considerable portion of the world’s population movements. Yet, the corporate practices of today are but an echo of the past. Like when Britain sent its civil servants and labourers to the four corners of the globe to manage its colonies abroad under much the same premise.
In the early 2000s, an influx of foreign expats arrived in Slovakia as well. They were sent with the mission to set up global corporations in the country and their goal was to cultivate a new generation of Slovak workers. One that would eventually run the operations locally.
The multinational company IBM is a case in point. A decade after establishing its Slovak outpost, it is hard to spot a foreign manager among its ranks. The original expats have been replaced, by talented Slovaks that have ascended into leadership positions.
The new challenge is how to take the country beyond being a manufacturing hub and service centre for multinationals that view Slovakia as a cost-effective labour and logistics destination, conveniently located in the very heart of Europe.
Slovakia does offer foreign investors many advantages, including the highest productivity per hour in Central Europe according to the OECD and Eurostat. But this region, which is rich in hard-skills – like engineering and computer programming – has more to offer the world. What is missing is the soft-skills like self-confidence, communication, inter-cultural cooperation, alongside marketing and business know-how, to make that leap happen.
These gaps in performance can be directly attributed to the countries four decades behind the Iron Curtain. When the dual-state Czechoslovakia had no exposure to the international market, and suffered under some of the most restrictive policies under communism.
Unlike in neighbouring Poland, free enterprise and any form of private business ownership was completely banned. Hence, young Slovaks going abroad to learn from some of the strongest economies in the world, to acquire knowledge of how to run, promote and sell a business or product, is one way to help boost the country’s emerging start-up ecosystem.