Austrian hotel seeks to show the way on hiring refugees

November 28, 2016 11:28 AM EST

Magdas hotel, a converted old people's home, is pictured in Vienna, Austria, November 24, 2016. Picture taken November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger


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By Francois Murphy and Kirsti Knolle

VIENNA (Reuters) - The Magdas Hotel in Vienna aims to make a difference in a country where concerns about immigration and rising unemployment have helped boost the far-right Freedom Party.

Most of its staff arrived in Austria as refugees, often after harrowing journeys from their homelands in Africa or Asia.

Photos of them hang on the lobby wall.

Austrians will vote in a presidential election on Sunday and the Freedom Party candidate, the anti-immigration Norbert Hofer, is in a neck-and neck race to win.

The Magdas, which is owned by the Catholic charity Caritas, hopes to contribute to a change in mindsets.

"Caritas thought, what can we do to break down the barriers in people's heads in our economy?" said Gabriela Sonnleitner, who runs the hotel, a former old people's home that was converted last year.

At the same time, Austria's tourist sector is facing a shortage of workers, a gap that the Magdas project aims to help fill in a small way by hiring and training people who might not otherwise find work.

"I like this job," said Sherahmad Razi, a 32-year-old Afghan refugee working in the breakfast room, who was unemployed for a year before being hired. "I want to learn everything here."

Unemployment has risen steadily in Austria for years.

Although it is still relatively low at just above 6 percent by a harmonised European measure, the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers in the small, wealthy country last year has heightened fears among some Austrians about jobs and the economy.

In a television debate on Sunday night, Hofer said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had caused serious damage to Europe by allowing in refugees and migrants. Some of these were terrorists, he added.

If he wins the election, Hofer would be the first far-right head of state in a European Union country.

He has also said that if Austria was hit by another influx like last year's he would dismiss the government, a move his opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, says will usher in a Freedom Party-led government before the centrist coalition's term expires in 2018.

Of the roughly 90,000 asylum-seekers Austria took in last year - more than 1 percent of its population - the government estimates that roughly half will be granted asylum, at which point they are eligible to work or claim regular benefits.

But only about 10 percent of those refugees will be able to find work in the short term, the Finance Ministry says, often because new arrivals do not speak German well enough.

LEARNING TO SPEAK GERMAN

Sonnleitner plans to show that refugees whose German still needs to improve can be hired for low-skilled jobs and work their way up. Of the hotel's 30 staff, 10 are trained professionals who teach the current and former refugees their trade.

"Refugees who have been granted asylum keep coming back to the Caritas advice centre even though they are legally allowed to work here. Despite that they somehow find it very difficult to enter the job market," she said.

Despite the rise in unemployment, the tourism sector is understaffed. Seasonal workers from eastern Europe are in short supply as wages in their home countries have improved, said Berend Tusch, tourism chief at trade union Vida.

"The situation is alarming," he said, adding that it was not for want of trying to hire refugees.

"The intention is there. But these people have too many deficiencies. They have to learn the language."

Another problem is that the shortage is not in low-skilled jobs like washing dishes but in ones like waiting tables and cooking, he and the Austrian Chamber of Commerce's tourism chief, Petra Nocker-Schwarzenbacher, said. Becoming a cook typically requires three years' formal training, she said.

"Guests have high expectations. We are world-famous for quality," Nocker-Schwarzenbacher said.

It would take four to five years for new arrivals to do the jobs that are in short supply with the important winter season approaching.

"I would warn against the idea that one could solve the tourism sector's (immediate) problem with refugees or asylum seekers. That is certainly not the case," she said.

(Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)



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