Europe needs low-skilled migrant workers too

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The EU could benefit from more immigration of low-skilled workers. [Myfuture.com/Flickr]

A resolution for the rights of female domestic workers and carers in the EU is due to be voted on 28 April at the European Parliament. This could be a historical step towards equal rights for this category of laborers, argue Anna Triandafyllidou and Sabrina Marchetti.

Professor Anna Triandafyllidou is head of the Cultural Pluralism Research Area and Sabrina Marchetti is research associate at the Global Governance Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute.

This resolution would also counter-balance the European Commission’s Communication published on 6 April, which, under the pressure of the dramatic on-going refugee crisis, invited the EU to manage better both asylum-seeking and legal migration across Europe, by putting the emphasis only on highly skilled migrants.

In its Communication, the Commission speaks of new efforts in order to “prevent and combat labour exploitation” and “to ensure the protection of the rights of the migrants who are working in the EU, in particular to prevent labour exploitation, irrespective of their legal status”. Yet when it comes to the practical implementation of these positive intentions, the Communication falls short of outlining any concrete proposal. Its focus remains on “attracting talented and highly skilled third-country nationals”.

Does the EU really only need highly skilled migrant workers?

As we reported in a policy paper published last year, statistical data proves that migrant labour demand in Europe is mostly concentrated on low-skilled sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring jobs for women, and construction, agricultural work and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing for men.

A good portion of those working in these sectors are migrant workers. While traditionally associated with Southern European countries, where there is a lack of public welfare services for personal care, the hiring of migrant domestic workers is today relatively widespread across Central and Northern Europe. This sector has indeed expanded significantly during the last decade, with the most prominent increase in Sweden, Great Britain and Belgium, but also significant increases in Finland, France, Greece, Italy and Spain. But despite the growing demand, it is still difficult, when at all possible, to legally hire a migrant domestic worker in many EU countries.

There are two major obstacles to the hiring of low-skilled migrant workers. Firstly, this sector is often poorly regulated. Domestic workers lack an ad hoc legal protection in countries such as Greece, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands. Poland does not actually recognise this work as proper work, relegating it to a ‘personal service’. On the other hand, Italy, Austria, Belgium, France, Portugal and Sweden offer positive examples where the employment of domestic workers is regulated by specific collective agreements.

Secondly, national policies on labour migration often create legal barriers. In countries like Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Germany, it is not possible for households to legally hire a foreigner. In others such as Belgium, France and Spain, it is possible in theory but made unfeasible by the strict application of an obligation to prove that there are no nationals or migrants already residing in the country who could take up the job (the so called ‘market-test’).

Today more than ever, the EU needs a comprehensive, albeit differentiated approach that takes into account the complexity in the supply and demand of labour. We need to acknowledge that there is a structural demand for migrant workers in certain occupations that is related to factors such as long-term demographic changes (the ageing of European societies), the configuration of nuclear families without extended support networks to cover for the care of children and elderly/disabled people, and the participation of women in paid work outside the home. These are irreversible factors that persist even in periods of acute economic downturn.

Focussing only on facilitating highly-skilled labour migration is missing out an important category of migrant workers who are already part of European societies, whether they are acknowledged or not. The European Parliament’s resolution is a first step in the right direction towards recognising these workers’ rights. We need this acknowledgement, as well as the practical introduction of a management system that can regulate their arrivals in Europe and reduce their exploitation.