The Zivildienst (civilian service) is the substitute for national military service in Austria. Since 1975, men may refuse the military service on conscientious grounds and serve in the civilian service instead. This generally involves work in social services like hospitals, youth organisations, nursing homes, rescue services, the ambulance service, and care of the disabled. The service usually lasts nine months. About a third of men in Austria choose this option (13,510 in 2011) by declaring a conflict of conscience.
The civilian service was introduced under the Kreisky II cabinet in 1975 due to pressure by pacifist groups. The military was pleased by the development, because it led to fewer disruptions of military service due to pacifists refusing weapons. Once an Austrian has completed civilian service, he is exempt from military service for life, and can therefore never be called for duty.
Though civilian service is firmly anchored in the constitution together with military service, it is supposed to be reserved for exceptional cases. Originally, conscientious objectors had to explain their doubts in front of a commission, which would determine whether or not they would be sent to the civilian service. The civilian service would last eight months, the same length as military service. The law was amended in 1991 so that objectors only need to declare their objection, rather than facing a commission. As a result, the number of objectors rose, so the length of the civilian service was increased in stages: first to 10 months in 1992; then 11 months; then 12 months in 1997 (including two weeks of holiday entitlement).
Between 1 April 2002 and 30 September 2005, the Zivildienstverwaltungs Ges.m.b.H., a daughter company of the Austrian Red Cross, was responsible for distributing civilian service personnel on the order of the interior ministry. This ended when the constitutional court determined this activity as part of government, and demanded integration into the ministry. Since October 2005, the Zivildienstagentur, which answers directly to the Bundesministerium, handles all civilian service cases.
In 2004, military service was shortened to six months on the recommendation of a commission on reforming the military. Accordingly, the length of civilian service was amended to nine months in 2006. Civilian service personnel, however, have the option to add another three months to their service for better pay through a private contract.
In 2008, just over 12,000 young men served in the civilian service in Austria. In 2009, it was 13,122. In 2010, it was 12,981. In 2011, it was 13,510. Women are not obliged to serve in the military and are therefore also exempt from civilian service which is, after all, only a substitute for military service.
The organisation for which most civilian service volunteers work is the Austrian Red Cross. Beyond that, many civilian service personnel work in the care of the elderly and in hospitals. Further organisations are, for example, the Samaritans, kindergartens, volunteer fire brigades, and other social organisations which care for the disabled or refugees. Some small numbers are also used in agriculture.
Since 1992, civilian personnel have the opportunity to work abroad. Andreas Maislinger took the idea from the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. The foreign service is not officially part of the regular civilian service, but a substitute which exempts its participants from the civilian service. The foreign service lasts twelve months and can be served in the memorial, social, or peace services. These placements are very popular, so participants often have to wait for years in order to receive one.
There has been years-long controversy in Austria as to the feeding of civilian service personnel. In 2001, an amendment to the law gave employers a duty to ensure the proper nutrition of civilian service personnel, but did not define what "proper nutrition" entails.
As a result, many employers of civilian service personnel chose to pay only €6.00 EUR per day in food money, resulting in many protests and complaints. In the opinion of civilian service personnel, €6.00 EUR per day is insufficient to guarantee proper nutrition. As a result, the issue was taken to the courts in October 2005. The judgement agreed that €6.00 EUR per day is insufficient, and determined that an appropriate amount would be between €11.26 EUR and €13.60 EUR per day. This is the same amount to which military personnel are entitled.
Civilian service personnel are banned from owning or carrying weapons for fifteen years after completing their civilian service, which could impact negatively on their future employability. Those who served in the civilian service were also forbidden from later joining the police service in Austria. However, the law was amended in 2010 to introduce certain circumstances under which the weapon ban could be lifted to pursue a career with the police or border control. This involves former civilian service personnel making a declaration that their conscientious doubts are over.