Foreign worker proposals target easing EU’s skills shortage


The European Commission yesterday proposed a new an EU-wide work permit for foreign workers, a move to address the skills shortage in the bloc. Hungary one of the “most in need of immigrant labor” country – says Commission.

The proposals for an EU “blue card” would also ease the skills shortage in the food and beverage manufacturing sector, whose processes are becoming more and more automated and complex. The European Commission forecasts that the EU needs to open the door to an extra 20 million workers over the next two decades to fill gaps through industry.
The Commission proposals include fast-track procedures to admit “highly-qualified third country workers” and the launch of an EU version of the US’ green card system for foreigners. The European Commission proposals would make it easier for EU industry to recruit overseas workers to fill the need. The European “blue card”, which is named after the blue flag of the EU, will be similar to the green card in the US.
The Commission would allow targeted migration geared to meet the specific skills shortages of each member state. The proposal would be enshrined through a directive, which would also provide member states and EU companies with additional “tools” to recruit, retain and better allocate the workers they need, the Commission stated.

EU enterprises have growing difficulties in filling current job vacancies, especially for highly qualified workers. Employment is growing in the EU at a rate of 3% year in the high education sectors, and by 1% in other sectors. The scarcity of internal labor resources, the limited mobility of EU citizens, and the mismatches between educational and professional choices and labor market needs, are some of the issues that need to be addressed, the Commission stated. The shortage has led ten member states to set up specific schemes to attract highly qualified immigrants, while many others are considering it.

About 1.7% of EU workers are classified as “third-country highly qualified workers”, compared to 9.9% in Australia, 7.3% in Canada, 3.2% in the US, and 5.3% in Switzerland. “These figures highlight the difficulty for the EU in attracting - and in certain cases, valorizing - these immigrant workers,” the Commission stated. “If the economic situation in the EU continues to improve, the EU will find itself more and more in need of highly qualified workers.” The package of legislative measures would provide for simplified admission procedures and conditions for specific categories of migrants. These include highly qualified workers, seasonal workers, remunerated trainees and intra-corporate transferees. The legislation would also secure the legal status of third-country workers already residing in member states. The selective approach was endorsed by the European Council in December 2006.

The proposals include one on a directive relating to highly qualified workers, another on a single application procedure for a single permit for third-country nationals to reside and work in a specific member state. The third directive would establish a common set of rights for third-country workers legally residing in a member state. The Commission plans to present the remaining proposals relating to seasonal workers, remunerated trainees and intra-corporate transferees in autumn next year. The fast-track procedure for highly qualified third-country workers would be based on professional qualifications and a minimum salary level at least three times the level of existing minimum wages at national level.

The Commission also proposes a specific scheme for young professionals. Workers admitted under these schemes will receive a special residence and work permit, called the “EU Blue Card”, entitling them to a series of socio-economic rights and to favorable conditions for bringing family members into the EU. They would be restricted to an initial two-year period of access to the member state’s labor market.
Holders of an EU Blue Card would be able to move to a second member state under specified conditions after two years of legal residence in the first member state. In order not to penalize geographically mobile workers, such holders would be allowed to add up periods of residence in different member states to obtain long-term residence.

The Commission has identified Germany, Italy and Hungary as the countries most in need of immigrant labor. A Commission report released earlier this year estimated that in January 2006 the number of third-country nationals residing in the EU was 18.5 million, or 3.8% of the total EU population of about 493 million. Net migration, ranging between 0.5 and 1 million per year for most of the 1990s, has increased to levels ranging between 1.5 and 2 million since 2002. “Immigration is still the main element in EU demographic growth and positive net migration is recorded in most member states,” the report stated.

In the UK, an estimated 10% of those working in the food and drink manufacturing sectors are foreign nationals, according to statistics from a labor force survey. The 2005 level, compiled by Improve from national labor force statistics, marks a 4.5 percentage point increase over the 2003 level, indicating the industry’s increasing dependence on immigrant workers. In raw figures there were 22,900 foreign nationals estimated to be working in the industry in 2003, a figure that grew to 35,600 in 2005, an increase of 55%, according to Improve, the UK’s skills training agency for the sector. “The foreign national workforce is young, predominantly male, permanent and is for the most part undertaking blue collar roles in the sector,” Improve stated.

Foreign national workers are concentrated in the “other food”, meat, and dairy categories.  The “other food” classification includes companies in the bakery and confectionery sectors. Together, the three sub-sectors account for 88% of the foreign national workforce in the industry, Improve stated. Some sectors have reduced their dependence on foreign workers. The proportion of foreign nationals working in the fruit and vegetables processing sub-sector fell to 2% in 2005 from 12.5% in 2003. Beverage manufacturers depended on foreign nationals for 5% of their workforce in 2005, compared to 10% in 2003. About 77% of foreign nationals employed in food and drink manufacturing work in blue collar roles. About 47% are working as process, plant and machine operatives alone. Another 8% are working in skilled roles, such as managers, senior officials, professionals, and associate professional and technical roles. About 76% of the foreign national workforce are permanent employees, with 24% hired on a temporary basis, Improve stated. In the overall workforce foreign workers in the sector account for 8% of the total permanent staff, and 39% of the total temporary staff. (

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