The European Union stands at a fork in the road when it comes to its treatment of external migrant workers.
Coming into the European Union to work is hard. Despite dramatic labour shortages across sectors and EU member states, work permits for non-EU workers are few—and those that exist often leave workers at the mercy of exploitative employers.
In theory, the single-permit directive of 2011 creates a simplified application procedure for work and residence permits and aims to promote equal and fair treatment of migrant workers. In reality, however, it does little to address widespread labour exploitation and other challenges migrant workers face. Indeed, recent research shows that these very EU rules may be contributing to such exploitation.
The directive is currently being renegotiated. So EU decision-makers have a critical opportunity to fill the holes in it.
New transnational research on the living and working conditions of non-EU migrant workers, led by Amy Weatherburn at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and supported by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, documents exploitation under national arrangements for combined residence and work permits (the ‘single permit’). Workers interviewed in Belgium, Czech Republic and Spain reported wage theft, illicit wage deductions and long working hours, as well as discrimination at the workplace and in securing private accommodation.
In one case, a Brazilian dental assistant in Belgium had around €40,000 illegally deducted from their salary over three years by their employer, for taxes which the employer should have paid. In the Czech Republic, a Filipino massage therapist reported that their employer retained the income support provided by the government during the pandemic and had the gall to offer loans to meet basic needs—loans which would have had to be paid back, even though salaries were still owed.
The study shows how migrant workers are often made dependent on their employers by the application process and conditions of their permits. The short duration of the permit, complex procedures and reliance on employers for applications, renewals and information were key issues in all the countries studied.
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Unequal power relationships
Where the three countries differed—with different outcomes for workers—was over the possibility to change employer while utilising the same permit. In many EU member states, residence status is almost entirely dependent on a single employer and particular job. The single permit then ties the migrant worker to that job with that employer.
If a worker wants or needs to change their employer, they then have to apply for a new permit—a long and complicated process of uncertain outcome for the prospective employer as well as the worker. These arrangements cultivate unequal power relationships, dependency and exploitation and drag workers into irregularity.
Take Belgium. Some workers interviewed in the research endured exploitation and abuse, fearful otherwise of losing their right to work in the EU. In one case, a medical secretary from Madagascar did not report the harassment she endured by her employer, as she knew that it would affect the validity of her permit.
Difficult in practice
On the other hand, in Czechia, Spain and several other countries in the EU, workers are allowed to change employer on their single permit. Here the key considerations are the procedure to do so and how long the person can be unemployed and looking for alternative work—changing employer may still be very difficult in practice.
For example, in the Czech Republic, the notification procedure is complicated, workers can only be unemployed for up to 60 days and they must be with an employer for at least six months before making a change. Some research participants were able to change employer but for others it was not possible or they considered the experience too harrowing to embark upon.
Other countries where there is some form of notification procedure or need to get consent from the authorities to change employer, and constraint to stay within the same profession or category of work, include Estonia, Germany, Italy, Lithuania and Luxembourg. By contrast, several countries, including Spain, Portugal, Greece and Finland, only require fulfillment of the usual registrations and procedures related to employment and social security.
In Spain, for instance, permits are issued to workers on the basis of a job offer or contract but the permit is not tied to any particular employer. Workers have to show a minimum level of employment or income when they renew it. The research found some dependence on employers remained but, overall and comparatively, the system enabled labour-market mobility.
Some of the aspects of the application procedure and design of single permits, linked to dependency and exploitation, are under discussion vis-à-vis the reform of the directive. In particular, the procedure for workers to change their employer is on the table.
It is crucial that the revised directive sets standards so that, across the EU, individuals can easily change their employer and type of work on their existing permit, with minimal bureaucracy. If it is necessary to notify the authorities, the procedure must be reasonable, simple and clear—it should not be a barrier to anyone changing their job in practice.
Migrant workers also have to be provided with enough time realistically to get another job— to find out about the rules, go through all the steps of recruitment, be offered a job and fulfil whatever administrative requirements follow. Experience shows that three months is vastly insufficient for this.
Other key measures to reduce misinformation and exploitation by unscrupulous employers include establishing direct communication with workers about their applications if their prospective employer is the lead applicant. Permit holders should also be systematically informed about their rights and relevant rules, procedures and support organisations.
Governments should ensure too that workers are not penalised if their employer mistreats them, by providing a transitional permit of 12 months to a worker whose employer violates their rights or ensuring permits are extended to be valid for a similar period. During this time, workers should have full access to the labour market. Such a permit already exists in Finland, for example.
The revision of the single-permit directive represents a fork in the road for EU decision-makers. They can choose to normalise in EU law policies which have been found, time and again, to give an unfair advantage to unscrupulous employers. Or they can break that chain of dependency: they can establish minimum standards across the EU, fair to migrant workers and good employers, which enable workers to change job on their existing permit.
A longer version of this article was published in Boletín Impulso—Espacio por Derechos, a magazine edited by Fundación Cepaim. The background research was also supported by CNCD-11.11.11 and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions in Belgium, the Association for Integration and Migration-SIMI in the Czech Republic and Fundación Cepaim in Spain.
Lilana Keith is senior advocacy officer on labour rights and labour migration at the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, a network of more than 165 organisations in 35 countries. She previously led PICUM’s work on undocumented children, young people and families.