Separating Work From Life – Cross-Border Commuters in Central Europe

The research project “TRANSLAB – Cross-Border Labour Mobility, Transnational Labour Markets and Social Differentiation in the Central European Region” at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna, aims to provide an in-depth look at commuters from Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic bordering on Austria. This transnational labor market is particularly interesting as a specific historical political context in which global societal processes and European transformations interact. The focus of the project is on commuters’

a) reasons for commuting,

b) labor market integration and occupational trajectory,

c) integration into social networks and dynamics of social inequality.

The TRANSLAB project builds on the established methods of ‘ethnosurvey’ data collection and associated, more recent applications for the European setting. Based on quota sampling the social research department GfK Austria and its Central European partner institutes carried out face-to-face interviews with a total of 1.345 commuters to Austria and a reference group consisting of 1.334 non-commuters. Additionally we interviewed 20 experts consisting of EURES employees, business owners as well as local mayors and trade union representatives. At the moment a survey of biographical interviews with commuters is conducted.

Vienna is not only the capital and largest city of Austria, it is also the cultural and economic center of the Central European Region (Centrope). Centrope is one of many Euroregions that encourage cooperation among the border regions of Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria. One of the starting points of the political project is that wage levels and unemployment rates still tend to diverge quite significantly. Therefore mobility of labor is a core aim of the Centrope Strategy 2013+.

Graphic 1: The Central European Region

Map of the Central European Region with Vienna at its center

Geographically speaking the region encompasses roughly 6,5 million people in eight federal regions that make up Centrope. Bratislava and Vienna are among the closest capitals in the world – a mere 64 km (40 miles) apart connected by the Danube river, roads and train. Vienna is the biggest city with 1,7 Mio inhabitants.

There were several markers of significant change that have led to new interplays of economic, social, political and legal factors like the breakdown of the Soviet Union 1991 and the EU enlargement 2004. On May 1st 2011 the last barriers to free movement of labor were removed and set in motion major changes. These changes are the initial point of the research project TRANSLAB.

Now to what extent does the relatively high social inequality between Austrian sub-regions and their neighbors influence movements?

Graphic 2: Commuters in Austria 2004-2012

Diagramm Commuters

As we can see, from 2004 on there has been a constant dynamization of movements between Austria and its neighboring countries with the biggest increase after the removal of the last barriers in 2011. The accession of the EU8 countries in May 2004 marked a crucial step in the history of European integration. An important consequence was the free movement of capital, goods, services and people to Central Europe. However, given the fear of a massive influx of workers from new member states with expected negative effects on the receiving countries’ labor markets, all countries (except for UK, Ireland and Sweden) introduced the transitional measures to restrict to varying degrees the right to work for EU8 citizens in EU15 countries for a period of up to seven years. The rising extent of cross border activities is therefore multifaceted and can be linked to various events, like the steady opening of the borders or the negative impacts of the financial crisis.

However, the available official statistics only cover commuters who found jobs within the social security system and do not depict the changing demand for employment by foreign workers. According to the expert interviews, the demand for jobs has been rising crucially but there are barely any vacant jobs in the secondary sector of the Austrian border regions:

‘There are so much more people who try their luck than actual employments. People are being bounced back. Not everybody will get a job. There are a lot of people who want to work in Austria but only a few manage to get a job. Nowadays employers can choose from an enormous pool of applicants, so they really can select the best people. I talked to an employer the other day and he said he receives about 400-500 e-mails for one single job offer.’ (EURES Employee, Slovakia, June 2012)

Now let’s take a closer look at the commuters: what is their socio-demographic structure? According to the TRANSLAB survey cross-border commuters in Centrope mostly show mid-level qualifications (ISCED 3-4: 77%). Thus, they have a lower percentage of lowly qualified individuals than migrant workers residing in in Austria and also show a lower level of academics than all other comparison groups. The majority of cross-border commuters work in service industries (e.g. gastronomy: 19%; health: 17%) or in construction (17%), a small group works in agriculture. Cross-border commuters are male rather than female and relatively young: Approximately 49% are younger than 35.

When it comes to wage levels our data indicates that cross-border commuters earn twice as much as non-mobile employees in Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. However their wages are much lower than those of natives and migrants who reside and work in Austria.

Table 1: Wages of natives, migrants (“foreign-born”) and commuters in Austria compared to non-commuters, 2012


This may be due to a strong segregation of the Austrian labor market in this region. Wages are comparatively low in a number of branches, especially in hospitality, retail, health care and other social services. Another reason for the wage difference may be that work experience gained outside Austria is not given credit in wage agreements.

Based on these outcomes the TRANSLAB project team is working on further substantial research questions in this field:

  • To what extent are commuters able to use their specific skills in the Austrian labor market?
  • What are the motivators for cross-border labor market immobility?
  • How do new institutional realities influence social inequalities within the sending and receiving communities?
  • How do cross-border movements affect the life-satisfaction of commuters?
  • Do commuters act as agents in institutional development? Are there effects of social transformation as a consequence of mobility in the sending region?

We would like to ask our readers the following questions:

  • Have you gained experience in labour-related cross-border commuting? What would you say were the benefits and burdens of your transnational involvement?
  • Are you doing research on similar issues in different regions? What (related or contradicting) outcomes could you identify?

The TRANSLAB project is headed by professors Roland Verwiebe and Christoph Reinprecht, assisted by PhD researchers Laura Wiesböck and Raimund Haindorfer. For further information please see our website.

Picture of Laura WiesböckLaura Wiesböck studied sociology in Vienna, Louvain La Neuve and New York City. Currently she is a PhD candidate and junior researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Vienna. Her research interests fall mainly in the field of migration and labor market segmentation, social inequality and exclusion and transforming borders functions in the EU.

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