Informal migrant workers are not only denied basic social protection but also the opportunity of integration.
The campaign for the French presidential election has indicated the continued importance of migration in political debates, and its usefulness for attracting sections of the electorate. Yet migrant labour, within and to the European Union, is growing, in large part because economies cannot function without it.
Migrant workers make up 13 per cent of the EU’s key workforce. As the European Commission has itself acknowledged, in sectors such as transport, logistics, health and agriculture migrant workers have been essential for the proper functioning of European economies during the pandemic.
Perhaps this dependence has not yielded parallel political support for migration because often migrants in key sectors, such as agriculture, are socially isolated and exploited, undermining opportunities to improve the status, image and understanding of migration within the wider population. Migrants in sectors such as care often experience some of the most abusive working conditions in Europe’s labour markets, as the jobs are typically low-paid, insecure and sometimes informal.
Excluded from protection
A four-country study by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the think-tank TASC documents the conditions endured by thousands of migrants in agriculture and care, two critical sectors. An estimated one-third of agricultural workers and just under half of all domestic workers in the EU are undeclared and therefore excluded from basic mechanisms of social protection. These rates are significantly higher among migrants.
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Consequently, few migrants in care or agriculture form lasting connections with members of their local communities. They rarely take part in civic and political life and almost none belong to trade unions or community associations. In addition, their migration is circular or seasonal—between their origin and host countries or different employers—which further undermines their social engagement.
This arrangement may suit their employers but it perpetuates poor working conditions and, arguably, helps sustain the political arguments against migration. Moreover, substandard working and living conditions reveal the scale of structural pressures on the two sectors, suggesting repeated policy failures across the countries investigated.
Europe’s farmers operate under growing competitive pressures. As fewer ‘native’ workers are willing to work in agriculture, farmers have come to rely on exploited migrant workers to cover labour gaps while minimising production costs. Similarly, ageing populations and women’s growing labour-market participation have bolstered the demand for affordable child- and eldercare.
Most European governments, however, have not expanded the public care infrastructure to meet these needs. As a result, families directly employ low-paid migrant care workers, many of whom are undeclared and unprotected by domestic labour regulations.
Relying on exploited and invisible workers to fill precarious jobs is not a sustainable policy response to labour-market shortages in critical sectors. Long-term, it perpetuates two-tier societies in which large key-worker migrant groups are isolated and deprived of social rights.
The migrants on whom the ‘host’ community relies the most are also the ones with whom it least interacts. Lack of contact between migrants and locals erodes social cohesion: it undermines solidarity between segments of the labour market while making it easier for far-right populists to stoke anti-immigrant sentiments.
Two-tier societies are also bad for integration. Low-paid migrants working long days on remote farms or in isolated households rarely have the time and resources to invest in training or learning their host countries’ cultural practices and native language. Their working and living conditions make it difficult for trade unions and labour inspectors to find them and offer them protection.
Many thus remain stuck in precarious jobs with no support and no long-term prospect of social mobility. Being exploited at work and having little opportunity to engage with their adopted society undermine any sense of belonging migrant workers might feel towards it. Economic exploitation and social exclusion are linked in a vicious circle.
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To date, European policy-makers have assumed that integration policy is about ensuring that migrants can participate in the labour market—by, for example, facilitating language learning. National and intergovernmental integration policies tend to overlook the impact that working conditions have on migrants’ long-term economic and social integration prospects.
Recent EU-level initiatives have done little to address the challenges they face working in agriculture and care. While recognising their significant contribution during the pandemic, the central employment-related objective of the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027 is to ensure all migrants can deploy their skills within Europe’s labour markets.
The plan does not advance measures which could improve the working conditions of migrants already employed in low-status sectors. It does recommend involving employers and community stakeholders in local integration. Yet while this is a step in the right direction, it is hard to see how it can be achieved when geographically mobile migrant workers often work and live in remote locations.
So what can be done to facilitate integration and broader social cohesion of key migrant workers in agriculture and care? At an EU strategic level, policy-makers need to use the enhanced awareness of care work generated by public discussion of the care crisis during the pandemic to create a new narrative of care, which promotes its status in line with society’s increasing demand for it.
Similarly, the EU needs to reconfigure its narrative of agriculture to incorporate sustainability, social justice and relocalisation, recognising that the dominant economic model serving global industrial/mass production is not sustainable. Joined-up reform is required rather than discrete initiatives focused exclusively on single aspects, such as the protection of nature, consumer rights or fair working conditions.
Crucially, migrant worker protections must be ‘baked’ into EU legislation and financial governance. The recent inclusion of a ‘social conditionality mechanism’ in the Common Agricultural Policy is a positive, but insufficient, step in the right direction. Eliminating transnational regulatory loopholes that allow EU employers to circumvent labour standards when employing migrant workers is also critical. The current posting-of-workers directive, for example, allows some care employers to hire migrant workers without having to pay a minimum wage or make social-security contributions.
At the national level, European countries should reform their labour-inspectorate systems to ensure effective monitoring of working conditions of migrant workers in rural locations and private households and take steps to make their legal systems more accessible. This should include waiving legal fees, providing free interpretation and enabling undocumented workers to lodge complaints without risk of deportation.
EU countries must make a long-term investment in developing infrastructure for migrant workers which does not segregate them from the local population. Along with housing and transport, this must include community-based initiatives which enable diverse social networks and solidarity to be cultivated between migrant workers and local citizens. The UK’s Near Neighbours programme is one example.
Supporting a more active role for non-governmental organisations, including trade unions, in reaching out to migrants in agriculture and care is critical. Workers who are engaged in such organisations are better able to mobilise networks of support and solidarity, which enable them in turn to win improved working and living conditions and enjoy better integration. The EU could also consider explicitly calling on member states to incorporate migrant workers in collective-bargaining mechanisms in its proposed directive on adequate minimum wages.