Welcome to the Grey Kingdom!

Martina Křížková | Pictures: David Kumermann

Pilsen is the Czech Republic’s industrial power house. However, the industrial boom of the past couple years is not based on the work of Czechs, but of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from the Ukraine, Mongolia and Vietnam. These workers are often victims in exploitative recruitment practices that have become known as the “client system”. Constitutive elements of this system are: bad legislation, corruption, mafia-like recruitment agencies and employers that seek profit at any price. As a consequence of the economic crisis, Czech authorities refused to prolong the permits of many workers from non-EU countries in order to open up jobs for Czechs. But once again, Czechs were not interested in working on assembly lines. Instead, Pilsen experienced the inflow of Bulgarians, Rumanians, Poles and Slovaks.  However, the “client system” adapted to the new situation and works the same way as before.

They entered a system of ineffective laws, corruption, mafia middlemen and employers, who wanted to make money at all costs. Ukrainians, Mongolians, Vietnamese and Moldavians. During the crisis, they often turned to illegal means, as government offices did not want them taking jobs away from Czechs, who nevertheless did not go to the factories. Others came in their place: Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles and Slovaks. 

As far as the eye can see – grey. The low buildings of the factories are grey. The wire fences around them shine bright silver-grey. The same colour can be seen in the asphalt of roads and sidewalks. Even the bus stop, with its three seats and its wind-tattered schedule, is grey. Even the miserable surrounding trees and bushes, which somehow survived the industrial invasion, are tinged with grey. The same goes for the sign on the fence announcing cheap accommodation. 
The voice at the end of the phone is grey too. “There are no vacancies,” it says and quickly hangs up. It does not matter if the statement refers to work or to rooms because here, in the Grey Kingdom, other rules have long since reigned. A man on his own cannot achieve anything. He needs connections, papers, and to respect the laws, which, in this kingdom, change constantly and are unwritten.   

Of course, the bus, which brings you here, is also grey and the bus driver shouts “Take your bags off the seat or get out!” And the forty-year-old Bulgarian is grey too, confusedly clinging to two plastic shopping bags from Tesco, which just a moment ago were snow-white, but because he had to put them on the floor have had the grey begin working on them as well. And the little Vietnamese woman sitting opposite him is grey too, holding her arms close to her as if she were holding a baby, which she could not have, unless she wanted to get sent back home quickly. Because that is not the reason she is here. 

Here, life is governed by production, standards and directives. Televisions, sausages, old wagons, air-conditioners, beer.  In Pilzen, you can do anything and in Bory all that and even more. And for every ride on the merry-go-round you pay separately. For the greyest of all greys is the smell of money. It is invisible, but omnipresent. Thanks to it the halls are here, the sidewalks, the worker’s hostels, the voice on the telephone, the bus and the foreigners. The whole system is grey. A wheel, which even the crisis cannot stop. Even the scoop of the backhoe, which dug the foundations for the first factories years ago, must have been the same. And somewhere there it began. Or maybe even earlier. 

The Past

The first large scale arrival of foreigners in Pilzen began at the beginning of the 1990s. It occurred in the same way as in the rest of the country, but to a lesser degree. Ukrainians and other Russian-speaking peoples from the former Soviet Union aimed to work in supermarkets and department stores as well as construction or cleaning companies. Vietnamese people, who had been previously studying here, took over the open markets and flooded the city with cheap goods, from cigarettes to shoes. Even a few wealthy Russians settled here, along with some Arabs, usually accustomed to Communist times, and a few families escaping the war in former Yugoslavia.

Pilzen is the fourth largest city in the Czech Republic, with almost two hundred thousand people living here. It is famous for not just beer, but industry as well. Even though after the revolution some of the traditional production at Skoda had nearly collapsed, it was still a spot where jobs could be found. Migration continued throughout the nineties; however, it was always in relatively small numbers. The real boom would come at the turn of the millennium.

Around 1998 investment incentives took off, generally in the form of large tax breaks intended to lure foreign investors to the Czech Republic. The government also supported the expansion of new industrial zones, from purchasing land to building the necessary infrastructure, in order for the industrialists to have somewhere to set up their facilities. All this was backed up by several myths , of which the most convincing cited the reduction of unemployment in less developed areas of the country. This need for a reduction of unemployment was not, however, exactly the case of “developed” Pilzen, a place with relatively low unemployment (from 2000 to the present it has fluctuated between 6% - 7% across the county); even so, Pilzen resolved to set up its own new industrial zones. 

On the western edge of the city, near the exit of the D5 motorway into Germany, almost within sight of the prison, a section of land covering 125 hectares was immediately built up. Borská Pole, or Pinewood Fields, as the zone is called, began to attract capital even before it was built; the first investor (Panasonic) arrived already in 1996. The last lot in the zone was sold this year (2010). Within ten years, forty-five companies moved here, employing eleven to thirteen thousand workers (before the financial crisis, it reached sixteen thousand). As well, members of the city council praise the fact that, alone in the whole country, the lots in this industrial zone were sold at a profit. The City of Pilzen made a one-time earning of 50 million CZK (after deducting an investment of 560 million in infrastructure). The dream of employment however, was fulfilled a little differently than expected.

A zone only for foreigners

The majority of those working in the plants are brought in by employment agencies and cover fluctuations in production. Roughly 80% of them are not Czech and none of them come from Pilzen. These people, who mostly do unqualified work, are usually foreigners. The work generally offered here, in Bory, involves hard, monotonous drudgery on assembly lines. And applicants for this work must demonstrate above all exceptional flexibility. They are taken for three months and, if orders are low, they are laid off again for two months. This kind of treatment would never stand up with Czechs, who are protected by labour laws. 

The city, which invested half a billion Czech Crowns (CZK) to the construction of a zone where the locals did not want to work, immediately and almost magically began to attract foreign workers. Last year, seventeen thousand of them officially lived in Pilzen. A year earlier, when demand for workers was at its peak, a thousand people a month arrived from EU countries and 200 from the Ukraine, Mongolia, Moldova and Vietnam according to the Office of Employment. Unofficially, however, it is suspected that the numbers can be roughly doubled. Of course, not all of them aimed to work in factories, although most of them experienced them in some way. Today, they work on construction sites, in supermarkets, department stores, and restaurants; they clean hospitals, repair railway cars, and plant trees. Even the cleaning lady at the local Employment Office comes in through a temp agency.  

It is possible that the construction of the zone alone did not actually pay off for the city, even when counting the profits from the sale of the land. The webpage regionplzen.cz, mentions that Pilzen has lost money on fees for housing, garbage, public transport, street cleaning and a share of income tax (consequently for life and work of foreigners in Pilzen) up to some millions of Czech Crowns annually, which they must at least partially set aside in the city budget.   

As well, this new industrial quarter prevents any other development in this part of the city. It attracts only strange-looking ugly concrete buildings that provide accommodations for workers and whose neglect only underscores the pointlessness of this district’s existence. In this area, it is as if time flows differently. People appear only when they go out during their break to smoke in front of the wire fences or when shifts change. Otherwise, the streets are empty and deserted for hours. Most streets are lacking sidewalks and even the decent public transportation linking Bory to the city centre was cancelled recently. It is a place where transients work in factories or sleep in rented beds. “Pilzen has no other identity than industry; everything is conformed to that,” a Pilzen sociologist Ida Kaiserová explains dryly. 

Made-to-order people

In order to understand what exactly is going on in Pilzen and just where all the grey came from and why it is slowly expanding, we must first take a step aside. “The worst was when I first arrived,” says Aleksii, a former air force pilot from Belarus: “I had to give them my passport and we got paid once a year. We should have got around twelve thousand a month, but the client gave us only three or four months as a kind of deposit and the rest was paid when someone went home. He already had our passports, but this way he was even more sure of us,” he explains. 

He says that the situation improved as long as the worker proved trustworthy: they were not ill, they worked, did not complain and did not want to cause any problems. “Then they got their passport back,” he adds and smiles, revealing a gap of missing teeth. Aleksii, whose request for asylum has been refused again, is exactly the same as the majority of foreigners in the city who are dependant on the so-called ‘client system’. It is made up of a particular cooperation, starting back in the mid 1990s.  

Originally catering to Ukrainians and Russian-speaking workers migrating to the Czech Republic, this system later expanded to include all groups of foreigners in the country. At the centre of it stands the client. Not all clients work the same way. Some concentrate on transporting people, others mediate between employers and workers, others assist the foreigners with their legal papers. And still others do everything described above. Usually though, they have under them an employment agency or a co-operative, which they own. They run the agencies directly as if they owned them while managing co-operatives more indirectly. In a co-op, all members are theoretically equal but, of course, the profits are divided in favour of the client or his representative.  From the beginning, clients also served as a form of protection from the Russian-speaking mafia , which focussed primarily on Ukrainian workers, arranging the theft of their savings on their way back home.  

Originally, the clients recruited workers from a range of foreigners already living in the Czech Republic, who had long-term residence, knew the language and laws, and understood “how things worked”. Today, there is a large percentage of Czechs among their ranks as well. The need for mediation is given by the environment in which the client operates. It is linked to the work and arranging the necessary documents. 

Getting permission to work in the Czech Republic and the accompanying visa requires arranging that someone secure the work for you before you arrive. That is to say, without the paper in your hands saying that you have a job waiting for you, you will not get any visa. So you come to the Czech Republic as a tourist, which many foreigners often do. But tourists do not have permission to work. This dilemma necessitates that a system such as the client system arises. But even without this bureaucratic hurdle, foreigners would have a hard time finding work on their own. 

The large companies located in Bory (but of course, not only them) also need people to work for them and who they can easily hire and fire as needed. Of course, Czech labour laws do not allow such behaviour. If they had to hire people directly, labour expenses would climb and their reasons for being in the Czech Republic (even considering tax breaks) would disappear. A similar problem is “seasonal” workers on which, for example, Czech construction companies rely. Therefore, the workers are officially employed by an agency and companies only rent people from them. 

“The agency provides a ready-made service; you don’t have to worry about anything, you just go to work when you need to and disappear when the orders stop coming in. Papers and everything else are taken care of,” explains Sinh Hoang (not his real name) employed at one of the companies where his client offers jobs to people from Vietnam. Laws concerning foreigners as well as labour code laws and standards are elegantly sidestepped. Moreover, the possibility that foreigners are able find work on their own without an agency also decreases, as very few are employed directly. The demand for cheap labour was so strong in recent years that until the crisis peaked, nobody (from employers to bureaucrats) cared what it meant for the individual foreigner. Thus, like it or not, they become almost automatically part of the client system, which is, to put it simply, normally not good for them. As Hoang says: “It doesn’t concern you anymore what they do with these people, but we all know that something’s wrong.” 

Bureaucratic symbiosis

That “wrong” is a result of two things: partly due to the business that arose around the transport and mediation of work for foreigners and partly due to the vulnerability of the foreigners to Czech laws. Both are directly connected; namely, that the existence of the system assumes a symbiosis between them and the civil service. 

Let us begin with the second of the two. “Czech legislation dealing with the residence of foreigners is very complicated,” explains Pavel Čižinský, a lawyer from the organization Poradny pro Občanství a Občanská a Lidská Práva (Counsel for Citizenship and Civil and Human Rights). According to him, bringing these standards into reality is not a simple matter. Their basis may not be definite or singular, so to a certain extent it corresponds to the “household” routine of the individual government offices. Firstly, with the immigration police, who are responsible for administrative authorization dealing with residence, a kind of customary law has appeared. In many cases, the police may or may not grant someone permission or variously lay out the requirements, which may or may not fulfilled. The bureaucrats then decide, according to their momentary needs, which requirements are necessary.  

Two tendencies that pervade the entrance of foreigners to the Czech Republic get mixed up here. Firstly, restrictions given by discussion between the Ministry of the Interior and the immigration police, which cannot be interpreted any other way but: “Foreigners simply should not be here”  and, until recently, the strong resistance from the side of employers as to the transport of cheap labour. Because of this, an expedition to the immigration police or the labour office can turn into an adventure, which results in an unwanted expulsion from the country. “To anyone who doesn’t speak Czech well and is not acquainted with the laws, I do not recommend going to any government offices alone,” says Čižinský. 

Processing paperwork has thus become another good source of income for the clients. And apparently, also for the bureaucrats. In this context, the word “corruption” has become a matter of routine. The prices are known and vary according to the degree of difficulty in obtaining the individual documents. Processing periods are relatively long and when people arrived in the hundreds, one could also pay to speed things up so that people were not “standing around” and clients suffered no losses. Nevertheless, official institutions are not very successful in their efforts to curb corruption. “Immigration police inspectorates, particularly in the bigger cities, have been under a great deal of pressure from the so-called “clients” and company representatives advising foreigners and assisting them with their papers. Despite intensive efforts of the inspectorates to investigate corruption and eliminate clerks involved in it, the levels of corruption have not been seriously reduced.” 

Better than drugs

The system has got so lost that individual foreigners are no longer able to get out of it even if they want to: “I speak Czech and I wanted to arrange my papers myself, but it never worked. At the police office nobody wanted to talk to me. When I paid the client, it suddenly happened,” says Aleksii. Therefore for clients, their employees are not only a source of income, but also a source of power. It is enough to threaten that they will exert their influence in the offices and the defiant workers take the offered work and whatever accompanying conditions of employment.  

The offices do whatever they want and more than they should, explains a Mongolian translator who wishes to remain anonymous: “I convinced him [a worker from Mongolia] to go to the police because his client had had him beaten. In front of our eyes, the police phoned the client to come and pick him up. The next day the worker didn’t want to discuss it – he said he’d forgotten everything.” Although a number of similar cases could be told , Sinh Hoang says, it is enough to just sit in the immigration police office for a while and watch the undisguised camaraderie between the police and the clients. As soon as the foreigners see it for themselves they believe everything.

Of course, not all clients are the same and not all of them are corrupt. But to resist the age-old temptations – money and power – requires more than just good will. It applies not only to clients, but to practically everyone the foreigners depend on: from the factory personnel to the last office clerk.

“A few years ago, this business with foreigners was more lucrative than business in drugs,” says Martina Hánová of the Contact Centre for Foreigners in Pilzen. She seems to know what she is talking about. Three years ago she became the first co-ordinator for migration at the Pilzen City Hall. She began with the decision to monitor and record the situation. The fact that she was not able to change anything from her position influenced her decision to start helping the foreigners on her own. So she started the Contact Centre mentioned above. 

“Everything must be paid for; the worst off were the Mongolians and Vietnamese,” continues Hánová. They paid large sums for the arrangement of papers and jobs in the Czech Republic. For the Vietnamese, the charges hovered around ten to fourteen thousand USD, for Mongolians, it was about a thousand EUR. For both, it meant a lifetime of debt not just for themselves but often also for their relatives and friends. After they arrived, they were faced with more fees for processing more papers and of course for accommodation. It must be noted here that the real costs (i.e. those officially charged by the state) of a Czech visa and residence permit do not exceed 150 Euros. Further fees were charged by the agencies for medical visits and other contact with government offices and mediations for new jobs when production slowed down. 

The language barrier also played a big role, as did the lack of knowledge of the environment, which, furthermore, was just as unprepared for their arrival. Before they had time to get oriented, they had to pay the mediator for “services” that they would otherwise have taken care of themselves. Thus, they generated huge amounts for the clients even outside the area of employment arrangements, where the agencies automatically charged some tens of Crowns for every working hour. “In fact they often worked just to be able to survive,” explains Hánová. Even so, before the crisis, at least some of them were able to repay their debts at home. The demand for workers was great, so great in fact, that agencies began to “steal” people from each other.
They worked under appalling conditions, sometimes ten to sixteen hours a day, but the demand for labourers was so great that the agencies could not afford to refuse them pay. However, it was common practice for the companies not to make the required contributions for health and social insurance in order to maximize profit. For the foreigner, this could result in the loss of his residence. But as long as necessary, the bureaucrats would “look the other way”. 

Just the same, today, the agencies usually pay minimum wage officially and agree to pay the rest of the hours worked as “cash on the barrelhead”, again, to reduce expenses. 

The changing of the guard

“Every day you demonstrate that you are a person, that you can think, feel, read and write,” Tamara (not her real name) says in her broken Czech. Her story is similar to hundreds of others. She speaks only on the condition of anonymity and refuses to be photographed. She is afraid even though she does not come from the Ukraine, Vietnam or Mongolia. She is Bulgarian and grew up sixty kilometres from Sofia. It is unlikely that she would have problems with the bureaucrats; Bulgaria is a new member of the EU. For these Europeans, the Czech labour market is always open. Except that even she came to the Czech Republic via an agency.  

She works here, trying to earn money for housing, her daughter's education and for medication for her parents, who are taking care of her daughter while she is away. She sees them once every two years. She cannot save enough to go more often. First she worked as a seamstress outside Pilzen. She got 53 CZK per hour when she worked 300 hours per month. When she was finally able to sew car seats for 360 hours, she was promised 60 CZK per hour. “They did not always give it to us,” she adds bitterly. But as she says, her situation was still better than the situation of Ukrainian women, who got 32 CZK an hour from the agency, irrespective of how long they worked. Two years later, her agency lost the contract with the factory. Instead of sewing carpets, Tamara’s client offered her female employees prostitution or to return home at their expense. Two of them actually did go home, when the others were able to scrape up enough money amongst themselves, which was not easy as they had not been paid for their final month. Others tried to find work elsewhere. Tamara knew some people in Pilzen, which, according to her, saved her. She got a job at Panasonic through the Danč Slovak agency.

She says her job at Bory is good. She was not forced as much to do overtime, but it bothered her that she was always laid off when production was shut down. She did not have enough money to just sit at home. Through another agency, she started working at the company Daiho, but conditions quickly deteriorated there too. What is more, the agency did not pay her. She was not taken back at Panasonic, as they had an agreement with the agencies that anyone who goes to a competitive agency could not work there for three months. In the meantime, she also had to change her accommodations because the workers' hostels also have their agreements with the agencies; when someone leaves the agency or loses their job, they must move. For every new job, Tamara had to pay.  

She now has a bit of security, as she is with a new agency, Trend Práce, and is aiming for a job at the Daikin plant producing air-conditioners. She is glad; she needs money quickly as her budget is really stretched; 3,500 CZK for a bed in a workers’ hostel, 600 for internet and 2,000 for food. The rest (around 200 to 300 Euros) she sends to Bulgaria. When asked what she is actually afraid of, she begins to tell a somewhat confused story of violence and degradation. Mainly though, she is afraid of losing her job again. But at the same time, she is lucky.

“Buses are always arriving with more people from Bulgaria or Romania,” says Tatiana Mandíková of the charity organization Caritas in Pilzen. They pay an agency 300 Euros for work. They arrive and the luckier of them actually get work. But many of them do not pass the entry tests, such as those at Panasonic, which test potential employees on mathematics and dexterity and are fairly strict. Then the agency leaves them on the street without a penny. 

Furthermore, if, for example, the work is in construction, they give them a minimum amount of money. The rest they deduct for a variety of fees. “I didn’t have a contract. I worked for a month; they took money for accommodations, transport, services in the offices, and gave me 500 CZK. It’s enough for a week,” says one of those affected. Alone they have no chance to get out of it and go home. Furthermore, the non-profit organizations are not supposed to help them because “there are no support programs for citizens of EU countries,” explains Mandíková.

The Vietnamese were better

And so the Poles, Slovaks, Bulgarians and Romanians replaced the Ukrainians, Mongolians and Vietnamese on the Pilzen merry-go-round, but not completely. It happened the instant when the crisis came. At that point, the bureaucrats stopped “looking the other way”. It really shook the Grey Kingdom up. But only for a moment. 

In a café in the centre of Pilzen, it is pleasant to sit in the comfortable couches, surrounded by small tables. The dampened atmosphere together with the aroma of fresh cake and coffee invite you to relax. But still, he is nervous. From time to time he looks at his big, brand name watch, tugs at the sleeves of his jacket and every ten minutes his mobile rings. The owner of the agency Presente is a busy man. His agency provides people to, among others, Panasonic, where they have their own ancillary production. According to his estimate, thousands of people have “flowed” through Presente. Four hostels in Pilzen also belong to him. Before the crisis, he specialized in Vietnamese and Mongolians. “Ukrainians are not our target group; after some time they settle down and find work on their own,” he says, explaining the company’s business strategy. Even with Vietnamese he used to have high expenses. On paper, his companies brought in perhaps a hundred people, whom he registered at the employment office and for whom he paid an agent in Vietnam, but it often happened that they went somewhere else because some co-op offered them more than he did. This does not happen anymore, but those who are forced to specialise today have their own problems with work ethics: “Vietnamese were better than Bulgarians. They went to work and then home again, and then back to work right away again. They worked hard. Bulgarians though, want to have fun after work, get drunk, not come to work and they want more free time.” On top of that, he says, they often have greater financial demands. There is nothing to be done about that, of course. “If I didn't pay them so little, then none of them could go to the shop and buy themselves a large screen LCD television for ten thousand, because it would cost fifty,” he explains. He cannot say – even estimate – how many people work for him today.

The change of the workers’ countries of origin was necessary. The companies in Bory have limited their production, but operations there never completely stop. The employment office however, stopped giving foreigners in large numbers new work visas and renewing old ones. Unemployed Czechs were supposed to take over in the factories. This did not happen, and therefore, the spots of the fired foreign workers were filled by those who had passports from other European Union countries. They have no difficulties with work permits.  

Today, he says, production is increasing again and he needs more people. He would prefer to take Vietnamese again. But he cannot take back those who stayed behind; either they’ve lost their legal status or they have arranged business licences of their own and so cannot be employed. The Mongolians have gone back home; a few of them have headed westward. Unlike others, he always did everything honestly, but he refuses to be photographed. The interview quickly comes to an end. He pays for everything with a five thousand Crown banknote, and leaves a tip three times bigger than Tamara's hourly wage. 

Holidays with Panasonic

“There are jobs to be had but in Pilzen they don’t renew visas; you have to go to Brno, sometimes to Prague. Obviously, the prices have gone up. Renewing the residence now unofficially costs twenty five to thirty thousand Crowns. Except that you have to work for a year to be able to pay it off,” Aleksii explains what happened after applying an internal directive to tighten up the granting and renewing of work visas for foreigners from so-called “third countries” (i.e., outside the EU). It was issued to all offices by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in February 2009 (and was officially confirmed a year later).  

Although these measures were to be implemented with “sensitivity” and with respect to employment in a given region, the result was absolute. No more work visas were issued in the city. “We tried to make the reduction of visas smooth, partly due to the individual cases of foreigners and partly with respect to the employers. In order to not threaten them with a loss of trained manpower,” said Magdalena Čadová from the Pilzen employment office in the spring of this year.  To fill free jobs, priority was given to Czech citizens or EU nationals. Unemployment of six percent was not enough, however, to push the people of Pilzen to toil on the assembly lines in factories. “Czechs often intentionally botch the entry tests so they don’t have to work here,” says a personnel director from Panasonic. These spots of “trained manpower” were filled by the next in line.  

One of them is Adam from Jelenia Góra in Poland. He has been working at Bory for some years and is employed at the agency Edymax. He has a wife and a one-year-old child in Pilzen. The crisis caught him working as a repairman at Panasonic. After the Ukrainians, Vietnamese and Mongolians left, he went to work on the assembly line. They told him that if he did not like the new work, he could leave. He knew that it would not be better anywhere else, so he stayed. Ten and a half hours a day he tightens a screw securing two wires. He has exactly thirty-two seconds for it. But standards and procedures grow continually stricter. When he does not make these limits, they scream at him: “Where do you think you are, on holiday?!” 

Fired people reacted differently. Some of the Ukrainians eventually went back home and many of the Mongolians living in Pilzen took advantage of the government’s repatriation programs to return home. The Czech government paid their airfare and gave them initially 500, later 300, Euros to get resettled at home. The number of spaces in the program was, of course, limited, the bureaucracy was complicated (submitting the required form was practically impossible for most people) and, in true grey logic, in order to get accepted into the program, they had to unofficially pay a mediator. The Vietnamese could not return, as they had tied up their money, which they had to borrow in order to get to the Czech Republic at all to work. They, and those who stayed behind, waver on the borderline of legality or are already on the other side of it. In Pilzen, the black labour market has taken on speed.

“This means that the people are more vulnerable than before,” points out Martina Hánová. Often these people are not paid or are offered ridiculously low amounts. 

Businessmen on the assembly line

The flaking workers’ hostel is packed to the brim. Three to four people are living in each small room. For each person, they charge 12,000 a month. There is just enough space for one wardrobe and four beds. And nothing more. “It hurts to see how these people are being treated. Like sheep,” observes the unemployed Miroslav from Bánská Bystrica, Slovakia. In Pilzen, he is supported by his brother, who has held onto his job. His lamentation reflects off the unplastered grey walls. The last employer did not pay him. By coincidence, he happened to be at the Presente agency. They owe him two months’ work. He has tried to phone the owner, but no one answers the phone. Once he went straight to the agency office. It did not turn out well. “This guy as big as a mountain came out. It seems that if you're going to complain, they beat you,” he says and then wanders off into other details of his story; a story so similar to Tamar’s that it could have been photocopied. From one agency to another; the work varied, for a while he was lucky, but then he sprained his ankle and he had to go. He does not want to return to Slovakia, he would apparently not find any work there either. Here, he at least has a chance.

“Everyone complains but nobody goes back; at home it's even worse,” he muses to another college graduate, Olga from Kirovohrad in the Ukraine, who is “self-employed” and currently stocks shelves in a grocery store. Unlike others, she was lucky and does not work through an agency.

Many of the foreigners who were fired have become self-employed. Generally, this means that one day they work at some job as an agency employee and the next day they are “self- employed” at the same place. Everything is arranged through the agency, so sometimes they are not even aware of the changes. In practice, they should be paying their own taxes, health insurance and social insurance. 

Officially uncertain

The Pilzen offices reacted to Czech circumstances very flexibly. With a laudable attempt to find a solution to the situation, meetings were set up between representatives of city hall, non-profit organizations, immigration police, city and national police, the employment office, social insurance office, health insurance office, and the tax office. The tension between the need to have foreigner in the country and the desire to not have them here is fully evident in these meetings. The individual institutions have begun to communicate with each other and share information. One definite result is, paradoxically, the ability to keep a better eye on foreign workers – much to their disadvantage. Public transport inspectors can check the validity of residence permits for those boarding a tram without a ticket. Similarly, doctors at the hospital are required to report every “illegal” to the bureaucrats. More hidden, but also more important, is the exchange of information between the social insurance office and the immigration police. If newly self-employed foreigners do not start paying their social insurance on time, this information is given to the immigration police and they will “not be renewed” or the police will withdraw their residence permit.  Whether foreigners then actually leave or stay to work illegally is not officially ascertained. “Nobody wants to take any personal responsibility for what’s happening. For everyone, it’s more advantageous to watch from the sidelines, from the companies to the agencies and the offices,” says Sinh Hoang.