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20 January, 2011  ▪  Bohdan Kopchak

The Schengen Racket

Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic suffer from corrupt systems set up by other Ukrainians
For the average Ukrainian migrant worker in the Czech Republic, the lack of administrative transparency in getting and extending visas is the main obstacle to getting a job in this EU country. They face problems no matter where they want to work, whether the Academy of Sciences or at a supermarket that’s looking for sweepers. They are forced to wait in huge queues for hours, not knowing whether the Embassy will accept their documents and give them a visa.
Ukrainian citizens have little chance of getting a Czech work permit on their own. They need to file documents at Czech consulates in Ukraine and prove that there is a specific vacancy and that no qualified Czech person wants this very job in this very region. The light at the end of the bureaucratic tunnel is much closer for those who turn to a broker, a business started by Ukrainians who established the necessary channels, know how to fill in documents properly, and supposedly know which doors to knock at and what to take in with them. 
Fighting corruption Czech-style 
According to Transparency International, the Czech Republic is 53 for corruption and over the past year, the country lost one position. The Government that came to office at the end of Summer 2010 declared fighting corruption one of its priorities. Yet nothing changed. No new anti-corruption laws were passed, no major crooks were exposed. Before the Christmas, the Government coalition quarreled so badly that it was a step away from breaking up and did not do so only because President Václav Klaus intervened.
What the two sides agreed to is anybody’s guess, but the root of the squabble was a corruption scandal at the Environment Ministry, where people loyal to Minister Pavel Drobil apparently were engaged in graft. An honest official reported this to the press and the police. The scandal flared up when the official explained that he had first turned to Premier Petr Nečas the minute he suspected the corruption, but Mr. Nečas had passed the case back to Pavel Drobil, the head of the corrupt Ministry. Mr. Dobril promptly chewed out the whistle-blower—and shortly afterward fired him. 
The resolution of the scandal surprised many, but not Olena Belei, a Ukrainian from Svaliava in Zakarpattia Oblast. The young engineer worked legally as a bartender in Brno until fall 2009. When her visa was on the verge of expiry Zdeniek Dulinek, a policeman from the Migrant Affairs Police Department, offered to help her. “You’ll have to pay to get your visa extended, understand?” a plainclothes officer asks the young Ukrainian on a video shot by a hidden camera from Czech television. A second tape, where Officer Dulinek takes CZK 15,000—€600—from Ms. Belei for a promise to extend her visa for 30 days, was taken by an Internal Affairs team. 
“We have never had a migrant worker cooperate with us this way,” Martina Lidlova, an Interior Ministry Inspection spokesperson said after the crooked cop was arrested on the spot. “This Ukrainian woman was an exception. She was not afraid.” Ms. Lidlova hopes that with the help of more people like Ms. Belei, the police will have evidence to arrest more such corrupt policemen. 
Payback Czech-style
But the case turned against Olena Belei. She was kicked out of the country and a court barred her from entering the Czech Republic for the next three years. Through an internal decision, the Czech police then extended this to six years. At the request of Jan Kopřiva, Ms. Belei’s lawyer, President Klaus reviewed the case and placed a hold on the court ruling. But this did not affect the separate decision of the Migrant Affairs Police Department, so now Ms. Belei still cannot enter the Czech Republic for six years.
Czech Television was able to get an exceptional single-entry visa for a few days to allow Ms. Belei to participate in the trial as a witness against the policeman. There were two court hearings: the first one deemed the officer guilty and handed down a two-year jail sentence, but on Dec. 7, 2010, an appeals court ruled that the crooked cop had been punished enough when he lost his job and that a suspended sentence and a fine of €1,200 would be sufficient.
In the Dulinek case, had the Ukrainian woman quietly paid her bribe, she would have extended her visa and continued to live and work in Brno to this day. She would not have been barred from the Czech Republic, a Schengen country, which is likely to cause her problems with even a tourist visa to the EU now. In fact, cases like this one typically end up with only a suspended sentence. Only once did a wrongdoer in the Czech Republic get two years in jail. 
“Clients” and their clients 
Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Ivan Hrytsak, says that there are 2,500 employment agencies in the country and 1,800 of them work with Ukrainians. 
“There are pros and cons to such middleman,” says Taras Kostiuk of the Prague Association of Ukrainians, which provides legal advice and assistance to migrant workers. “Two thirds of Ukrainians find jobs here through private companies. It makes more sense for a supermarket or a large construction company to work with a ‘Ukrainian’ broker and get a package deal or a crew of strong backs than to deal with individual workers.” Brokers earn their commissions by paying workers much less than what the employer is charged. The difference can be as much as 100% or more. In return, the worker gets a salary, medical insurance and assistance in opening or extending work visas—in the best cases.
Migrant workers from Ukraine call such brokers “clients.” Some say the word comes from Zakarpattia slang where a “client” is someone who provides “clients out” to others. Those who don’t want to spend hours or even days waiting in queues without any guaranteed result are forced to go to such “clients.” These wheeler-dealers sell not only jobs but other goodies as well: for €20, you can buy a queue numbers that gives access to officials during working hours—right in front of the police station. These operators can even sell you a bank statement that says you have enough money on your account to survive in the Czech Republic if you lose your job. 
The “client” is neither open nor transparent. Normally, the Czech police could care less about employment agencies. Until someone goes too far: a group of Ukrainian crooks abused dozens of migrant workers from Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine over March 2008–February 2009, promising US $3 per hour but actually paying more like US $8 to $20 per week for working two shifts every day. They were sentenced to 5-7 years in jail. 
Maria from Western Ukraine, who has been working in the Czech Republic since 1990, says you can no longer come from Ukraine and get a job without “assistance.” “Everything goes through the ‘clients,’” she says, adding that she suspects some of these brokers have their people not only in the Czech police, but also at the beginning of the chain—in the consulates and embassies. Her suspicions are not groundless.
The persistence of bad pennies
In January 2010, Czech Ambassador to Ukraine Yaroslav Basta requested early retirement for health reasons. In fact, he had been linked to a scandal around a call center in L’viv. Since 2008, anyone who wanted to get in queue for a Czech visa had to go to a private call center and pay US $15 for this service. Rumors had it that the Ambassador was “protecting” this little business. Mr. Basta denied everything but nevertheless resigned and the case ended up in court in the Czech Republic. On June 18, 2010, the court heard the class-action suit of 161 Ukrainian citizens and  ruled that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs repay the plaintiffs because the Czech Republic had failed to properly organize the queuing system and charged them illegally. The Ambassador’s post in Kyiv has remained vacant since March 2010.
Even if “client” agencies are shut down, the problem of migrant abuse will not go away and shysters will simply find new schemes. Martin Rozumek, Director of the Organization to Help Refugees, says there are now new ways to hire foreigners. They can become part of a Czech limited company or a small-time artisan-entrepreneur. Vietnamese and Chinese migrants are in the forefront here, owning grocery stores and restaurants all over Prague. “They’re very inventive and will always come up with something new to continue what they’re doing,” Mr. Rozumek says. “Everything starts in the country of origin for migrants. If they can’t get a visa on their own, they go to questionable entities that then ‘sell’ them further on.”
But it’s not just Ukrainians and Vietnamese who don’t have any illusions about how the migrant police operate in the Czech Republic. Brazilian Fabiano Golgo writes in his blog that Czech officials, bureaucrats and corrupt cops who handle foreigners are thicker than their Brazilian counterparts and describes how, after hours of waiting in lines to get his visa extended, he could clearly see who had free access to all those offices. But what really slayed him was the demand to bring a more recent document—instead of the one issued just two months earlier in Brazil!
Foreigners not welcome 
When he was Labor and Social Affairs Minister in the previous Government, the current Czech Premier, Petr Nečas, announced that the country needed workers, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Czechs were jobless. Back then, he used demographic projections as his key argument: the number of able-bodied individuals aged 25-64 would shrink by 750,000 over the next 20 years.
But as Head of Government, Mr. Nečas, his Government and the pro-Government coalition in the legislature seem to be doing whatever they can do to make life harder for those migrants already working in the Republic and to convince those who are only dreaming of coming that it’s not worth it. Quickly and without proper debate or reflecting the wishes of the Senate, the upper house, the Chamber of Deputies passed the Cabinet’s amendments to the law on foreigners. One is about medical insurance. Earlier, migrants were required to prove that they had basic medical coverage to get a two-year work visa extended. Now, they will need comprehensive insurance. The law does not say what the constitutes “comprehensive” medical insurance means but it is likely to be costly. According to Pavlo Chyzhynskiy, spokesperson for ProAlt NGO, two-year insurance is likely to cost close to €2,900, not a few hundred euros, so a family with two children will have to pay over €8,000.
Most Czechs don’t have that kind of money, let alone migrant workers. Another problem is that people don’t get their money back if their status changes or they don’t use their visa to the end. The official explanation is that comprehensive insurance will guarantee that a foreigner doesn’t accrue debts in Czech hospitals. But why does the law make immigrants pay more than Czechs themselves do? Nor does this new insurance require that insurers provide full treatment to migrant workers: if a person has a pre-existing condition, the insurer will just shrug.
The left-wing opposition rejected these amendments, but Martin Pecina, a Social Democrat Deputy and one-time Interior Minister, let it be known that the opposition unofficially supported the Government’s initiative. “People who come to the Czech Republic have long been complaining that we should treat them better than we do,” says Mr. Pecina. “But this is a never-ending problem. If we offer much better conditions, so many will come here that our country won’t be able handle it.” 
According to official statistics, the number of foreigners grew 63% over 2005-2009, from 266,303 to 435,035—in a country of only 10 million. Soon, there could be over 500,000 migrants, equal to the current number of unemployed Czechs. At the end of May 2010, however, some left the country bringing the number down to 426,749, of whom 128,636 hold Ukrainian passports. Although the economic crisis is winding down, many Ukrainians no longer find the Czech Republic especially attractive. Their earnings are not rising, while red tape has grown. Earning enough money here for an apartment or starting capital for a little business back home is looking more and more improbable. These days, you are more likely to see Kazakhs working on a Czech construction site who may not speak any Czech but are happy to work for much less money than Ukrainian migrants. 
NOT WANTED ON BOARD? The Czech Government is creating more obstacles for Ukrainian migrant workers.

Operators promised $3 an hour but paid $8 to $20 a week for double shifts. Now they are in jail for 5-7 years

Queue numbers were sold for €20 right in front of the Prague police station in Prague, giving applicants access to officials during working hours.
426,749 foreigners live in the Czech Republic, 128,636 of them Ukrainians
The number of migrants could grow to 500,000 in the Czech Republic—the official number of unemployed Czechs today
Transparency International ranks the Czech Republic 53 for corruption, between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait

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