NZZ Report

Staff from 52 nations work at Vienna Airport and a good dozen different faiths are represented on its 1,000 hectare territory. Hundreds of refugees were taken in as the Traiskirchen first reception centre was bursting at the seams during the summer. How does this diversity of people function? And above all: why? 
Text: Julia Herrnböck; Video and photos: Lukas Wagner
 
“Yes, we can,” says Henry M. and grabs his baseball cap, laughing. The black fabric is adorned by the logo “Obama Mr President”. “We’ll achieve this,” he adds, citing Angela Merkel at the same time.
Unlike the German Federal Chancellor, M. is not just referring to the reception of refugees; the employee of Vienna Airport is convinced in general that immigration can work. And perhaps M. is right, at least as far as the microcosm in Vienna-Schwechat is concerned. What is causing uncertainty and bewilderment in the rest of the country and in other parts of the world seems to be functioning well here.
The staff at Vienna Airport has become increasingly more international over the last years. Liberal EU legislation and a global workforce that is becoming more and more mobile have contributed to the fact that people from all over the world are now working at Vienna Airport.
52 nationalities from the following countries are currently represented:
Afghanistan, Angola, Austria, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Belarus, Canada, China, Croatia, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, India, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Morocco, Mexico, Moldova, Nepal, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela.
Depending on the method of counting, between ten and twelve religions/recognised faiths are represented: Anglican, Buddhist, Evangelist, Hindu, Islamic, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, New Apostolic, Old Catholic, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and with no affiliation. There are Old Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Jews.
“Belief should be kept at home,” says M., “we’ve got work to do here.” He himself moved from Ghana to his wife in Austria over ten years ago. His colleague Elvis P. fled Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 before the war. Raymundo S. left the Philippines with his parents 15 years ago. The three of them work together as a team on the apron, loading luggage and handling the aircraft before take-off and landing.
They were joined later by Anderson M., who is originally from the Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago and has been working at the airport for six years. The four of them agree: the interaction between so many people from different countries and with so many different world views is based on respect and rules. If you’re untrustworthy, you’ll have problems with the team. If you’re intolerant, all the more so.
An airport is an unusual international setting per se: 60,000 passengers on average pass through Vienna Airport every day, around 5,000 staff work for Flughafen Wien AG direct, and the place of work for more than 20,000 people in total is on the airport grounds.
The fact that, against so many different backgrounds, particularly in view of the strained political global situation, further conflicts do not arise among the staff should not be taken for granted. At one airport in Germany, for example, there were clashes between the various communities several years ago, the arguments turned into fist fights and threats against senior staff, says Christoph Lehr, Manager of the Personnel Department of Flughafen Wien AG. “I don’t want to paint a rosy picture but we don’t get that here in Vienna,” he says.
 
 
Development over recent years 
Does integration at the airport really run as smoothly as the staff and management claim? And if so, why? When Personnel Manager Lehr started over 15 years ago, there were hardly any staff of overseas origin. Because of the security measures, most of the staff were Austrian citizens.  
The security measures have remained stringent; every member of staff must be able to present a clearance certificate issued by the police, and in some areas of employment there are additional tests set by the Ministry of the Interior. The employment laws are more liberal today, however. And so the pool of employees was expanded to include several nationalities in just a few years. 
The management were instructed and attended intercultural training courses. Lehr does not believe that this is the reason why it works so well. “It’s the social mix,” believes the Personnel Manager. “We don’t, however, have any patent remedies.” Recruitment staff are careful to ensure that no group is represented more strongly than others; even ethnicity lists at works council elections are frowned upon. Staff should be integrated, not polarised.
Chairman Günther Ofner calls the airport an “integration melting pot”. In an email he writes that even an additional workforce has to be fought for. “We are living integration and it functions without fault. I think it is the responsibility of the economic community to make a conscious effort in this direction.”
When Christoph Lehr is asked about the socio-political dimension to immigration, he falls into contemplation. He can understand the anxieties that accompany the news reports, the creation of images of the enemy. But on the other hand, the current situation is actually a huge opportunity. It’s an enrichment for our department too when staff from other countries talk about their families, religious festivals and their homeland.”
The greatest asset of international staff is surely linguistic competence. If necessary, all passengers can be provided with interpreters, and customs officers and the police rely on them too. Frenchman Philippe B., for instance, has been working as a Service Officer at the airport since 2013. He is in fact a qualified interpreter and speaks Spanish, Portuguese, German and English. Respect and understanding are prerequisites for cooperation. “If society were to function in this way, the world would be a different place,” he believes.
His colleague, Emra Y. is Duty Officer and is mainly concerned about work processes. She originally comes from Turkey and speaks Kurdish in addition to German and Turkish. She has always perceived Austria as open and tolerant. For this reason, she too was pleased to help when refugees were received spontaneously on the airport grounds during the summer.
  
Long-term asylum accommodation set up
Around 250 people were accommodated in an adapted equipment hangar. It was intended as emergency accommodation for the duration of the glaring lack of housing, when asylum seekers were forced to sleep outside in Traiskirchen. Y. and many more members of staff were given time off in order to assist in the construction or translation. It was an important, moving experience for her, says the young woman.
A long-term housing complex for around 400 asylum seekers was built by Flughafen Wien AG on the airport grounds in the winter. It is run by the Red Cross, and volunteer workers at the airport are also involved. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) praised the construction as one of the “best service centres in the country”.
Not all staff were enthusiastic. “The project has also had a polarising effect on business,” says Lehr. The opinions about refugees that can be read on internet forums are of course also shared by some people at the airport.
The management have accepted that there is a possibility of unrest among the staff. “We want to acknowledge our social responsibility. And, at the end of the day, also give a clear signal that it’s about action and not allocating responsibility,” says Chairman Günther Ofner.