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Yugoslavia: Guest Workers
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Urbanization and Housing > Guest Workers


Besides urbanization, a second important migration trend in Yugoslav society after World War II was the emigration of Yugoslav guest workers and their dependents. The departure of Yugoslavs seeking work began in the 1950s, when individuals began slipping across the border illegally. Economic expansion in Western Europe in the 1960s created a demand for labor that domestic labor supplies could not fill; at the same time, Yugoslav industries could not absorb all the workers in the country's labor pool, including educated and highly skilled individuals. In the mid-1960s, Yugoslavia lifted emigration restrictions, and the number of émigrés increased rapidly. By the early 1970s, Yugoslavia had Europe's second-highest emigration rate, and 20 percent of the country's labor force was employed abroad. In 1973 about 1.1 million workers and dependents were living and working outside Yugoslavia's borders; 900,000 of these were living in Western Europe. Restrictions on guest workers in Western Europe curtailed the outflow of Yugoslavs in 1973 and 1974, and the somewhat reduced movement has remained steady since. In 1985 about 600,000 Yugoslavs were working abroad, accompanied by about 400,000 dependents. In 1987 the rate of permanent return to Yugoslavia was about 40,000 workers per year.

In the early 1970s, a disproportionate number of émigré workers came from Yugoslavia's economically developed northern and western regions, including Croatia, Slovenia, eastern Vojvodina, and northeastern Serbia. The 1981 census, however, showed an increase in the number of guest workers from Serbia proper, Montenegro, and Kosovo. Overall, only 30.9 percent of émigré workers came from cities and towns. A 40 percent drop in the number of reported Croatian guest workers caused speculation that many Croats were adopting permanent foreign residency.

Higher wages in West European countries at first attracted mostly city-dwelling, mature male Yugoslav workers with specific job skills. By the mid-1970s, the attraction had spread to peasants, unskilled workers, and women in rural areas. In the 1970s, guest workers were more likely to have completed elementary school and vocational training than the Yugoslav population as a whole. The outflow of skilled workers slowed growth in a variety of Yugoslav industries. Hotels and restaurants in Yugoslav resort areas often faced seasonal shortages of trained caterers and waiters. Waiters would work a single season on the Dalmatian coast to gain experience and savings, then they would emigrate to Austria, Switzerland, or France. Adriatic hotels usually trained a new staff each season; ironically, some employed guest workers of their own from Poland and Czechoslovakia.

About one-third of all guest workers were women, a percentage that corresponded to their share in Yugoslavia's overall domestic work force. But striking disparities in the rates at which women emigrated from Yugoslavia's various regions reflected the influence of the country's ethnic diversity. Slightly more than 40 percent of all emigrants from Vojvodina and Slovenia were women, as were over a third of those from Serbia proper and Croatia. Women from Kosovo participated in emigration least, accounting for less than 5 percent of all émigrés from that region.

Guest workers returned to Yugoslavia not only for economic reasons, but also because of emotional connections with their birthplace, family, and traditions, and a desire by parents to educate their children in their homeland. With the reunification of Germany and the economic downturn created by the Middle East crisis of 1990, Yugoslavia faced a possible large-scale return of guest workers from Western Europe. Many observers predicted that a return of skilled workers would have a positive effect on Yugoslavia's economy. The 1981 census showed that the bulk of the returning guest workers (81.7 percent) continued to work; only 3.2 percent became unemployed officially. Most former peasants and agricultural workers returned from abroad to find new employment in non-agricultural sectors of the economy, indicating that they had acquired other skills and job experience during their years abroad. Returning guest workers unable to find work were entitled to some unemployment compensation if they paid into an unemployment compensation fund during their stay abroad. Guest workers in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) automatically contributed to such funds in accordance with a bilateral agreement.

Data as of December 1990

Last Updated: December 1990

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Yugoslavia was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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Section 65 of 208


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