The short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on immigrant workers depend on policies which vary substantially across western-European countries.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated ethnic inequalities in western Europe. The rights of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers to adequate healthcare have been a focus in the debate in many countries and infection rates are higher among ethnic minorities.
Yet migrant workers who hold regular work and residency permits are also disproportionally affected and face severe economic uncertainties because of the pandemic. While support packages have been rolled out to prevent poverty and economic insecurity, so far the specific vulnerabilities of labour migrants appear largely to have been overlooked by policy-makers.
We have explored policies introduced as a response to Covid-19 and pre-existing policies governing immigrant access to welfare benefits. We compared policies in eight western-European countries—Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom—as part of a continuing project on immigrant welfare rights. We find that migrant workers disproportionately face economic risks in countries where eligibility for social-assistance benefits is strict, and where decisions regarding their remaining in the country are highly contingent on income.
Different social policies have been established to counter hardship emerging from unemployment and financial difficulties. Unconditional cash transfers are rare, with only Ireland introducing a supplement of €350 per week for all unemployed due to Covid-19. In all other countries, the main instrument has been to ‘furlough’ those employees who would otherwise be laid off and temporarily cover (parts of) their salaries.
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Many of these schemes have generous eligibility criteria which encompass both permanent and temporary migrant workers. However, given that employers can voluntarily decide whom to furlough (apart from in Italy where layoffs are temporarily banned), we expect that immigrants—who more often hold temporary or part-time positions than citizens—are at a higher risk of unemployment.
Residual safety net
What happens to immigrants who have not been furloughed but have lost their jobs? Unemployment-insurance benefits, in most cases, only cover those who have contributed for on average of one to two years, excluding migrant workers with shorter permits. The remaining safety net to prevent poverty is social assistance, which in many countries has been expanded to offer more money, such as universal credit (UK) and revenu de solidarité active (France).
Equally, however, in many countries temporary migrants do not gain access until they fulfil a residency requirement (years working and living in the host country). Crucially, such residency requirements have not been dropped during the current crisis.
Some countries with longer requirements, namely Denmark (seven out of the past eight years) and Italy (ten years), do offer migrants reduced benefits or include migrant workers in benefit schemes at the municipal level. The UK immigration system is stricter, and most labour permits up to five years in duration demand ‘financial independence’ with ‘no recourse to public funds’. These three stand out as the most restrictive cases. Ireland, Sweden and Portugal are the most generous, requiring only current habitual residence.
The financial insecurity caused by losing one’s job or being furloughed is not the only problem facing migrant workers without permanent status. It can affect long-term security by impinging on their migration status, in two ways.
First, in many countries, migrant workers’ rights to reside are contingent on their status as ‘in work’, and visas are often tied to employment within a particular industry or with a particular employer. In Sweden, migrants may face expulsion if their income drops below that stated in their visa documents. Many countries (Denmark, France, Sweden, the UK) also only grant migrants a short period in which to find a new job before they lose their right to reside. Migrants must furthermore show continued employment to qualify for renewal of work permits.
These conditions are much harder to fulfil in the current economic climate. Six countries in our sample have offered unconditional visa extensions (Denmark, Ireland, the UK—two months; Italy, France, Portugal—six months) but the others (Germany and Sweden) have not. This issue has been particularly salient in Portugal and Italy, where seasonal and temporary workers are essential in agriculture and tourism. Italy has also given these workers one-off payments of €600 to encourage them to stay.
Secondly, those migrants seeking permanent residency or citizenship, as well as those aspiring to bring family members to join them, may face difficulties in countries where these applications require a certain income or no accrual of welfare benefits. Migrants in Denmark and Sweden who are furloughed and therefore on reduced income potentially face consequences for their future permanent residence applications, whereas governments in Ireland, France and Portugal have confirmed that the straitened economic circumstances will not affect future applications. In the UK, the government has made clear that future applicants must still fulfil the ‘no recourse to public funds‘ clause—in contrast to Ireland, where the emergency unemployment payment will not have consequences for any current or future visa applications.
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Matter of concern
Although European countries continue to rely heavily on temporary and seasonal workers in core industries, the way their social rights are being treated in the Covid-19 pandemic is a matter of concern. The consequences are not pretty: where access to social benefits is highly conditional, migrant workers face greater poverty and potentially forced repatriation. Moreover, their prospects for permanent status, naturalisation or family reunification are endangered.
Especially in the UK and Denmark, policies fall short of protecting the long-term social rights of migrants. In those two countries, as in others, the plight of these workers is being taken up by civil-society actors—but so far they have not been able to achieve policy changes.
The authors are all involved with the 'Global Dynamics of Social Policy' collaborative research centre at the University of Bremen. Eloisa Harris and Jakob Henninger are PhD fellows at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences. Friederike Römer is a a post-doctoral researcher and currently John F Kenndey memorial fellow in the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.