Coming to work in Europe is no easy task. In many sectors, such as hospitality, retail, construction, and domestic and care work, it’s extremely difficult for people from outside the EU to work regularly and retain decent employment. In our new report, we start to unpack why.

Rules regarding which jobs can qualify for a work permit are often complex and do not reflect the real needs of workers, employers or communities, and actually contribute to reproducing and reinforcing gender, class and racial inequalities and discrimination.

Europe’s economies suffer from wide labour shortages that span across sectors, occupations, wage levels and skill sets. We lack lorry drivers, system analysts, electricians, carpenters, cooks, nurses and butchers, to name just a few.

However, most EU member states do not adjust their labour migration schemes and permits in relation to these shortage occupations. Permits are usually only made available for a few specific types of job from these lists, and may still be subject to quotas or other specific obligations, like labour market tests.

Labour market tests are procedures that oblige the employer to prioritise local workforce over foreign workforce. In practice, this often means that employers have to advertise a job for a certain amount of time before giving it to someone outside the country. But in some countries, for those jobs that are considered “low-skilled”, they consider that anyone that is registered as unemployed locally can do the job, regardless of their profile or interest to do so. This means it is impossible to get a work permit for someone to come to do the job… until we reach a situation of 100% employment.

The problems are not over when the migrant worker finally gets their work permit. Too often, the permit is tied to a single employer and is only valid for a short time, which means that if the worker loses or leaves the job, they will also lose their residence permit. This situation obviously creates the conditions for dependency and exploitation.

Another major challenge is the length of permits. Temporary labour migration programmes allow workers to remain for only a very short period of time, frequently less than a year, and then require them to return to their country of origin for a period of time before migrating to work again. This increases risks of labour exploitation, debt bondage and reliance on labour market intermediaries. Even when workers have labour rights protections, the short time period, dependence on their employer – often for housing as well as income – and often isolated living and working conditions, make it very difficult for workers to get access to information, organise and bargain collectively.

The lack of labour migration pathways, and prevalence of very restrictive work permits, despite ongoing demand across sectors and occupations, pulls workers into irregular and informal work. The lack of attention to migrant workers’ perspectives and civil dialogue also lead to blind-spots in policy making. In this context, workers experience high levels of wage theft, workplace accidents and labour exploitation, as well as risks of debt bondage and trafficking in human beings.

Designing labour migration policies that work for all

Labour migration and work permit policies should have streamlined and efficient procedures, providing work permits of a reasonable duration based on an offer of employment in any occupation with minimal administrative requirements.

Workers should be able to apply themselves, from within the country or outside, and have mobility within the labour market and independence from employers. Migrant workers should be guaranteed equal treatment, social and family rights, pathways to settlement, and protections against exploitation.

Everyone benefits when we provide job security and decent work, information and choices to all workers: workers can enforce their labour rights and are paid fair wages; employers face fair competition in the market; and our economies and communities thrive when we match skills and labour needs.

Cover of the publication Designing labour migration policies to promote decent work

You can also read about our priority recommendations for action at EU level in our response to the public consultation on the topic from December 2020.

Cover: Jacob Lund – Adobe Stock

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