Migrant workers: EU Council greenlights measures to reduce dependency on employers

Photo by Ivan Henao

In a final vote on 12 April 2024, the Council of the EU approved work permit rules for migrant workers that would improve application processes, labour market mobility and possibilities to escape exploitation (the revised Single Permit Directive).

Most notably, the revised Directive seeks to ease procedures for non-EU workers to change employer. Work permits are often issued linked to a specific job, tying the migrant worker to their employer. Changing employer often entails lengthy and costly procedures, keeps workers in great uncertainty and ultimately prevents many from changing employer even when they endure abuse and exploitation. While governments will still be able to require certain conditions to be met, workers will now have a right to change employer and the process should be simpler, faster and more predictable.

In the same vein, the revised Directive also ensures migrant workers can be out of work for a certain period of time without automatically losing their permit. This is a crucial aspect for workers needing or choosing to change employer, as they can use this time to seek alternative work without becoming undocumented. Workers on a single permit will now be able to be out of work for least three months, or six months if they have been on a single permit for more than two years, within the validity of the permit. If there are reasonable grounds that the worker has experienced particularly exploitative working conditions, they can be out of work for an additional three months without their permit becoming invalid. The new law also requires governments to facilitate complaints and access to legal redress for migrant workers.

Some other changes aim to make it easier to apply for and obtain a single permit, in particular: in-country applications must now be accepted if the worker has a valid residence permit in the country and processing times are now capped at 90 days (previously they were 120 days).

Lilana Keith, Senior Advocacy Officer at PICUM, said:  “Too often work permits tie migrant workers to their employers, disempower them and enable exploitation. Though far from perfect, this revision of the Single Permit Directive is an important step forward in recognising the right of all workers to change employer and potentially escape situations of abuse.”

This revision is a promising step forward in enforcing the rights of migrant workers and improving their working conditions. Much more though still needs to be done to really break the chain of dependency of workers on their employers – and much will also depend on how national governments implement these new rules.

Following the adoption of this directive by the European Parliament plenary session in mid-March, the Council’s vote is the final step of the legislative process on the revision of the Single Permit Directive. Governments will now have two years to make sure these revised rules are applied on national level.