European Union

The good, the bad and the immigrant [Interview]

Right-wing populist parties never define what makes a migrant integrated in order to be able to apply as many negative labels as possible: if a migrant works, he takes away jobs; if he doesn’t work, he makes use of the welfare system; if he establishes his own business, he clearly intends to take over the country. Mislav Marjanovic talks to Laura Wiesböck about the history of immigration to Austria.

Can you give us an economic and historical background of the arrival of so-called ‘guest workers’ from Spain, Turkey and former Yugoslavia to Austria during the 1960s? How did the concept of ‘guest workers’ appear and why?

Laura Wiesböck:
Laura Wiesböck is a social researcher at the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna. Her research interests fall mainly in the field of migration, social inequality and social exclusion, transnational labour markets and Europeanization.

Between the end of World War II and the early 1970s, all of the fast-growing industrial economies of Western Europe imported labourers, especially for manual or low skilled jobs. It was a period of post-war economic boom. In some cases, like in the UK or France, many of the workers came from former colonies and were granted citizenship rights.

In Austria, the guest worker system was based on a high level of state involvement. The idea was to ensure worker rotation by recruiting people for a limited time period, the intention being to restrict their rights and prevent them from bringing their families to live in Austria. It was an attempt to import labour but not people.

But this so called ‘rotation principle’ seems to have failed to work since most of the guest workers stayed in Austria and haven’t returned to their home countries after just a few years. Can you explain why didn’t it work?
There are many reasons for that. First of all, businessmen had little interest in replacing the experienced migrant workers who knew their work with new, inexperienced ones. It was cheaper and cost less time and effort to keep the old workforce.

Then some of the workers settled down more quickly than anticipated. Their goals changed with their lives: young single workers who originally intended to only stay for a while grew older and started families, they put down roots in Austria.

Were there economic and political factors in play as well?

Definitely. Another reason would be that the recession after the oil crisis in 1973 was much worse in Turkey than in Europe, so there were economic incentives to stay here, as most of the workers simply did not have any future back home.

Furthermore, in liberal democratic societies, the governments could not simply expel legally residing foreigners – the courts protected their rights. Issuing a government order for deportation was not only difficult but also costly.

In the interview published on, you mentioned that at that time there was another migration wave: young Austrian workers moving to the North, particularly into the Scandinavian countries. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

That was something completely different. With that example I wanted to point out the particularities of the guest worker system and why the rotation system failed in comparison to other temporary work exchanges.

In the 70s some students from Austria went to Scandinavian countries to work in low skilled jobs that involved high emotional or physical pressure, for example washing dead bodies. Like the guest-workers, their incentive to go abroad and work in a low skilled job was due to the higher wages; yet unlike them, they didn’t stay there for good, because they had perspectives for a future back home. The guest workers in Austria had no prospects in their home countries, not only because of their lack of marketable skills, but also because of reasons pertaining to the system: for example the poor economy and lack of infrastructure back home – particularly in peripheral areas, where many of the guest workers originally came from.

The problems started in mid-70s, with the oil crisis you mentioned earlier, when two thirds of guest workers in Austria were just sent home.

The recruitment of guest workers stopped in 1974, one year after the oil crisis, and the workers were expected to leave. Some of them left, some stayed. While the employment rate among immigrant workers declined, the number of Austrian residents originally from Turkey and Yugoslavia stayed the same up until the mid-80s. Why? Because the workers who stayed, vast majority of whom were young men, had brought their families to Austria. And that led to settlements and ethnic formation in segregated areas. In political terms, however, this topic did not become a concern until the beginning of the 90s, well after the fact.


For quite some time the migrants were not visible to the public eye because they lived separately. The guest worker system was based on enforcing the inferiority and separation of foreigners.

Where does this separation and invisibility show?

Societies in Western Europe did not perceive migrants as equal to their citizens but as economically disadvantaged and racially inferior. Immigrants were intended to settle in specific neighborhoods, denoted by inferior housing and infrastructure, often located close to the factories where they worked. Eventually ethnic enterprises, religious, cultural and social associations developed in these areas.

Austria was unprepared for the inherent contradiction of the guest workers system: “we want their labour, but we don’t want them as people”.

Officially the government did not expect them to stay and remained passive, not taking any long-term action while workers built their separated communities. This contradiction of the guest worker system led to today’s ethnically diverse but socially divided European societies.

Did this segregation change into integration at any point? Were there any noticeable changes which improved the status of the immigrants?

It is difficult to say whether the Austrian population integrated them. The concept of integration is unclear and rarely defined, but in any case surely it must be a mutual process. Right-wing populist parties never define what makes a migrant integrated in order to be able to apply as many negative labels as possible: if a migrant works, he takes away jobs; if he doesn’t work, he makes use of the welfare system; if he establishes his own business, he clearly intends to take over the country.

As I said before, the topic itself came up very late as a problem in the political discourse, at the beginning of the 90s. And by then there have been decades of residential segregation and unemployment, labour market segmentation and social exclusion. All that has led to the rise of extreme right-wing movements, institutional racism, and in some cases – for example in France in 2005 – minority youth riots.

What are the differences between ex–Yugoslavian and Turkish guest workers? In the Austrian public discourse, the former are often presented as an example of integration while the Turkish immigrants have a negative image.

There are various explanations for that. The rising anti-Muslim sentiments in the West would be one, but there is also the fact they are conspicuous due to particular clothing styles and spatial segregation as well as their low status in society. Statistically speaking, looking at all the migrant groups in Austria, people with Turkish roots have the lowest educational achievements and qualifications and are exposed to a high risk on the labour market: their unemployment rate is higher than that of people from former Yugoslavia and the labour force participation rate of Turkish women is the lowest of all immigrant groups.

Then again, this situation is reinforced by racial stereotypes and hostile tendencies. Many studies show that people with Turkish roots have lower chances on the job market, because of systematic discrimination. For example, an applicant with a Turkish sounding name will have much lower chances to get invited to a job interview than a person with an “Austrian” sounding name with the exact same qualifications.

How can you explain the phenomenon of many immigrants voting for right wing populist parties such as FPÖ in Austria?

There are quite a few people – not just with ex–Yugoslavian roots, but interestingly enough, also of Turkish origin – that vote for right-wing parties. At a first glance it seems contradictory, but from a sociological perspective it makes sense: they vote for a party that claims “We don’t want migrants who refuse to integrate and who make use of our welfare system; we don’t want extremist Islam“ and so on. By voting for a party like that, you distance yourself from “those bad migrants”. You make yourself an integrated immigrant. It’s an act of identity-making.

But in the case of the Serbian population, which is a very large community in Austria, the anti-Muslim feelings seem to play the most important role. Look at the Kosovo issue and the way FPÖ supports Serbia on that…

Absolutely. Religion definitely plays a part with this particular group’s opinions: the anti-Muslim rhetoric appeals to the Serbian community. Moreover, the FPÖ regards them with strategic interest as an important group of voters. There are roughly 100.000 people with Serbian roots living in Vienna. The Austrian right-wing populist candidates try to get their votes by going to Serbian parties and events, by sponsoring Turbofolk concerts, by cultivating contacts with the right wing populist party SNS in Serbia and much more.

So it is only natural that anti-Muslim rhetoric strengthens the bond between the FPÖ and the Serbian community. But that is not all there is to it: as I said, even some residents of Turkish origin vote for them with reasoning along the lines of like “I had to integrate myself so I don’t want those newcomers to give me a bad reputation because I’ve worked very hard for it.”

I noticed a curious thing when talking to the guest workers in Vienna. They are pointing out that they had worked very hard for 40 years and now they have very low pensions. They think that it is unfair that they get the same amount of money as the asylum seekers. They seem to feel that they are part of the Austrian state and that those people just want to take advantage of Austrian wealth. How would you comment on this?

That is a very important point you mention: the crisis of the welfare state. Since the beginning of the 20th century, countries in Western Europe voice this big concern that migrants will primarily be a burden to the welfare system.  The modern welfare state is in a crisis due to various reasons: among others, it is the rising social costs, the changing demographic structure and neoliberal deregulation processes since the 1970s. So it is in the national interest to limit demands and claims on the welfare state.

Therefore, immigration is primarily seen from the perspective of efficiency and productivity, the contribution of migrants to the national economy and making sure that they will not be a burden to the welfare state.

And we can ask what are the influencing factors if societies are open for immigrants or not: the crisis of the welfare state would be one factor leading to the restriction of immigration. Another would be macro-economic factors like the financial crisis in 2008. Then also the flexibilization of the labour market, precarious work conditions becoming increasingly more common, the growing number of working poor (people that work fulltime jobs but earn below the level of poverty), the erosion of the middle class, technological transitions and the decrease in the number of jobs offered by the industrial sector. That refers to the changes in the labour market.

And the factors outside employment?

We can see the loss of trust in politics. Voters witness a lack of trustworthy long-term concepts, in particular when it comes to European cooperation in terms of the refugee situation. That leads to mass anxiety, which may not directly refer to fear of refugees, but to the fact that political leaders are incapable of handling them.

What we are seeing is not a refugee crisis, but a European crisis in confronting the refugee situation.

Another factor that influences the extent to which societies are open to migration is the lack of societal recognition for particular groups of individuals: with it comes the loss of recognition, a subjective feeling of disadvantage, experiences of social inequality and insecurity. Finally, the increase of populist rhetoric and politics of fear plays a definite role along with the increasing willingness to spread racist messages.

Speaking from a European perspective, we face a historical situation: the external borders of the EU have been broken up, the international humanitarian system has failed, one of the core principles of the European Union – freedom of mobility – is being threatened and the entire EU, as the biggest post-war peace project, is in danger. The rise of right-wing populism in Austria or authoritarianism in Hungary, for example, was recently compared to the situation in the 1930s. There are some similarities, but there are also differences that we should keep in mind. We currently have no hope in social movements, like labour movements. We are confronted with a new global context. And not only do we face an economic crisis but also a systemic ecological crisis. Economic growth leads to the escalation of the ecologic crisis and we should make sure to differentiate between the two. In terms of how to overcome present and future challenges in the field of migration, a strong social European Union would be essential in my opinion. But it does not look like we are heading in this direction.

Mislav Marjanovic
Mislav Marjanović is an editor of