Labor crisis forces Croatia to open its doors to Asian workers

By | March 27, 2024

Durga Phuyal had hoped to start over when she landed in Croatia, but the Nepalese migrant faced an uphill battle adapting to life in the Balkan country.

Phuyal is one of tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived in Croatia from Asia as the small EU country desperately tries to overcome a chronic labor shortage.

Traditionally dependent on seasonal workers from neighboring Balkan countries, Croatia is increasingly relying on workers from Nepal, India, the Philippines and elsewhere to bridge the gap.

Mass emigration and a shrinking population have created tens of thousands of job openings in the construction and services sectors in the tourism-dependent country, famous for its picturesque beaches along the Adriatic sea.

But not everyone has put out the welcome mat, with migrants facing cramped and expensive housing, and the occasional anti-immigrant rhetoric flaring up in the run-up to the election.

In Nepal, Phuyal paid a total of 7,000 euros for the various fees, documents and travel expenses before landing in Croatia.

But just a month after arriving, she had lost her job and was offered no help from the agency that helped hire her.

“It was very difficult,” the 27-year-old said of the two-month ordeal.

“I had no job, no place to stay, no food.”

The country provided work permits to almost 120,000 non-EU nationals in 2023, an increase of 40 percent compared to the previous year.

But in the run-up to April’s general election, right-wing parties have accused migrants of threatening the country’s security and stealing jobs from Croats.

Migrants are also regularly pilloried online, with social media users mocking them for gathering during New Year’s festivities in Zagreb, calling the celebrations ‘Advent in Kathmandu’ and ‘Nepali New Year’.

Ethnic Croats make up more than 90 percent of Croatia’s population – almost 80 percent of whom are Roman Catholic – making it one of the more homogeneous societies in Europe.

Language barriers and conservative attitudes toward outsiders have created numerous obstacles to welcoming the new workforce.

“Unlike countries that have had contacts with diverse cultures throughout their history – such as France or Great Britain – Croatia is for the first time confronted with a situation where it has to deal with very different groups,” said Dragan Bagic, a sociologist at the University of Zagreb.

– Not ‘mentally’ ready –

According to forecasts by the Croatian Employers’ Association, the country of just 3.8 million could need as many as 500,000 foreign workers by the end of the decade.

Newly arrived migrants have been the most vulnerable during their search for housing, according to experts.

An investigation in a local newspaper in the capital Zagreb shows that 32 foreign workers were found living in a cramped 83 square meter apartment in the city.

Advertisements aimed at foreign workers typically offer small apartments with nearly a dozen beds, at a price of 200 euros ($216) per person.

A Nepalese worker representative said their wages in Croatia range between 560 and 1,000 euros per month.

To meet this challenge, the Croatian government is preparing to amend the Foreigners Act to better regulate housing, offer language classes and oversee the growing number of employment agencies.

Arcely Bhing, a 48-year-old Filipina who works at a printing company, said Croatia was not “physically or mentally” ready for this wave of immigration.

Attending Mass in English every Sunday in Zagreb, where she is joined by dozens of other Filipinos, has helped combat homesickness.

“It’s a big thing for us Filipinos because we are also a Catholic country, most of us go to church,” she said.

Andjelko Katanec, a priest at Saint Blaise Church who has been holding Mass in English since 2019, said integration into Croatian society was a “major challenge” for migrants.

“They are at risk of becoming isolated outside of work,” he said.

“The history of humanity is the history of migrations,” Katanec said.

“We need to organize ourselves better… to better welcome immigrants, offer them more opportunities and better conditions.”

– ‘Good workers’ –

Many migrants came to financially support their families back home and often use Croatia as a starting point in Europe with a view to settling elsewhere.

Denson D’Cruz, who migrated from Kerala, India, said he chose Croatia because it is part of Europe’s Schengen passport-free travel area.

The 30-year-old started working as a mechanic last year, but now has his own import-export company.

He said he hopes to stay in Croatia in the near future because of the “climate and people who are friendly and speak English.”

While some have tried to exploit the newcomers, others have worked to help them find their footing.

After difficult times, Phuyal eventually found work at an employment agency and hopes to work in a beauty salon soon.

“Nepalis are very good workers, flexible and want to learn quickly,” says the agency’s owner, Ruzica Kerepcic.

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