Study on the special risk situations

JS – 06/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us acutely aware of how much we depend on workers in systemically important areas such as care, health, cleaning and food. A large number of these workers are people from other EU countries and from third countries. In cleaning and temporary work, these people account for 38% of the EU workforce, and 19% in the care sector.

Also, we need these people in the long-term as contributors to the social systems in our ageing society (see our report here).

Despite this current and long-term need, the situation for foreign workers is difficult. According to a study published in June 2020 by the EU Commission's Joint Research Centre, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation.

Reasons for the difficult situation

The study shows that the particular vulnerability of these workers results from a combination of several factors:

They are more likely to be on fixed-term contracts than domestic workers: Among systemically important workers, EU migrants are 16% and non-EU migrants 48% more likely to be employed on a temporary basis. These fixed-term contracts are often not renewed in times of crisis. They are therefore more likely to become unemployed.

They receive a lower wage compared to locals. More than half of the migrant labour force falls under the bottom four income deciles. As a result, they can save less money to fall back on during the crisis.

Furthermore, they are mainly employed in areas where remote working is not possible. They are therefore exposed to an additional health risk, with sometimes only conditional access to health services.  

For people with temporary residence permits, the situation also threatens the renewal of their residence permits. If their visa is not extended, migrant workers must return or reside illegally in the country - without access to social benefits.

How can this situation be countered?

The study calls for political measures. With regard to fixed-term contracts, incentives for employers to renew contracts could be provided, for example through tax breaks or subsidies. Appropriate social benefits could be extended or created for migrant workers to address the problem of low wages. Finally, the study suggests that people should be granted - at least temporarily - full access to health services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that the situation of migrant workers must be improved - because we need them in the short and long term. It remains to be seen what concrete measures will be implemented to address this.