Informal migrant workers are not only denied basic social protection, but also the opportunity to integrate.

Difficulty for isolated migrant domestic workers to make social connections (9nong/shutterstock.com)

The campaign for the French presidential election indicated the continued importance of migration in political debates and its usefulness in attracting sections of the electorate. Yet migrant labour, within and to the European Union, is increasing, largely because economies cannot function without it.

Migrant workers make up 13% of the EU’s key workforce. As the European Commission itself has acknowledged, in sectors such as transport, logistics, health and agriculture, migrant workers have been essential to the smooth functioning of European economies during the pandemic.

Perhaps this reliance has not brought parallel political support to migration because often migrants in key sectors, such as agriculture, are socially isolated and exploited, undermining opportunities to improve status. , image and understanding of migration within the wider population. Migrants in sectors such as care often experience some of the most exploitative working conditions in European labor markets, as jobs are typically low-paid, precarious and sometimes informal.

Excluded from coverage

A four-country study by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and think tank TASC documents the conditions endured by thousands of migrants in agriculture and care, two critical sectors. It is estimated that a third of agricultural workers and just under half of all domestic workers in the EU are undeclared and therefore excluded from basic social protection mechanisms. These rates are significantly higher among migrants.

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Consequently, few migrants in care or agriculture form lasting ties with members of their local communities. They rarely participate in civic and political life and almost none belong to unions or community associations. Moreover, their migration is circular or seasonal – between their country of origin and their host country or different employers – which further undermines their social engagement.

This arrangement may suit their employers, but it perpetuates poor working conditions and, arguably, helps bolster political arguments against migration. Moreover, substandard working and living conditions reveal the extent of structural pressures on both sectors, suggesting repeated policy failures in the countries studied.

European farmers operate under increasing competitive pressures. As fewer “native” workers are willing to work in agriculture, farmers have come to rely on exploited migrant workers to fill labor shortages while minimizing production costs. . Likewise, the aging of the population and the increasing participation of women in the labor market have stimulated the demand for affordable childcare and eldercare services.

However, most European governments have not developed the public care infrastructure to meet these needs. As a result, families directly employ poorly paid migrant social workers, many of whom are undeclared and unprotected by national labor regulations.

Solidarity undermined

Relying on exploited and invisible workers to fill precarious jobs is not a sustainable policy response to labor shortages in critical sectors. In the long term, it perpetuates two-tier societies in which large groups of key migrant workers are isolated and disenfranchised.


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The migrants on whom the “host” community relies the most are also those with whom it interacts the least. The lack of contact between migrants and locals erodes social cohesion: it undermines solidarity between labor market segments 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 the cultural practices and native language of their host country. Their working and living conditions make it difficult for unions and labor inspectors to find them and offer them protection.

Many thus remain stuck in precarious jobs with no support and no prospect of long-term social mobility. Being exploited at work and having few opportunities to engage with their adopted society undermines any sense of belonging that migrant workers might feel towards it. Economic exploitation and social exclusion are linked in a vicious circle.

Neglected impact

To date, European policymakers have assumed that integration policy aims to ensure that migrants can participate in the labor market, for example by facilitating language learning. National and intergovernmental integration policies tend to overlook the impact of working conditions on migrants’ long-term economic and social integration prospects.

Recent initiatives at EU level have done little to address the challenges they face when working in agriculture and care. While acknowledging their important contribution during the pandemic, the central employment-related objective of the EU Integration and Inclusion Action Plan 2021-2027 is to ensure that all migrants can deploy their skills in European labor markets.

The plan does not propose measures likely to improve the working conditions of migrants already employed in low-status sectors. It recommends involving employers and community actors in local integration. Yet, while this is a step in the right direction, it is difficult to see how to achieve it when geographically mobile migrant workers often work and live in remote locations.

So what can be done to facilitate the integration and broader social cohesion of key migrant workers in agriculture and care? At EU strategic level, policy makers should use the heightened awareness of care work generated by the public debate on the crisis of care during the pandemic to create a new narrative of care, which promotes its status in line with growing demand. of the society.

Likewise, the EU needs to reconfigure its agriculture narrative to incorporate sustainability, social justice and relocation, recognizing that the dominant economic model serving global industrial/mass production is unsustainable. Joint reform is needed rather than discrete initiatives focusing exclusively on single aspects, such as nature protection, consumer rights or fair working conditions.

Insufficient step

Fundamentally, migrant worker protections need to be “mainstreamed” 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. It is also essential to eliminate transnational regulatory loopholes that allow EU employers to circumvent labor standards when employing migrant workers. The current Posting of Workers Directive, for example, allows some care employers to hire migrant workers without having to pay a minimum wage or pay social security contributions.

At the national level, European countries should reform their labor inspection systems to ensure effective monitoring of the working conditions of migrant workers in rural areas and private households and take steps to make their legal systems more accessible. This should include waiving legal fees, providing free interpretation and allowing undocumented workers to file complaints without risk of deportation.

EU countries must invest in the long term in the development of infrastructure for migrant workers that does not isolate them from the local population. In addition to housing and transportation, this should include community initiatives that cultivate diverse social networks and solidarity between migrant workers and local citizens. The UK’s Near Neighbors program is an example.

It is essential to support a more active role of non-governmental organisations, including trade unions, in reaching out to migrants in agriculture and care. Workers involved in such organizations are better able to mobilize networks of mutual aid and solidarity, which in turn enable them to obtain better working and living conditions and to integrate better. The EU could also consider explicitly asking member states to include migrant workers in collective bargaining mechanisms in its proposal for a directive on adequate minimum wages.

Dr. Shana Cohen is Director of TASC. She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield and the University of Cambridge – where she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute – on global social policy, globalization and social services. She has extensive experience working with NGOs and community organizations, including in Morocco, the United States, the United Kingdom and India.

Gerry is a social policy researcher, having recently worked for Compass, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and TASC. His research interests include inequality, the frontline experience of social policy, and democratic reform.

Liran Morav is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on social capital, social cohesion, ethnicity and migration.