In Spring 2020, while the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was raging in Europe, public opinion and governments seemed to have gained awareness of the importance that some workers play for our everyday needs and, overall, for our societies’ wellbeing.
People clapping and singing from their forced home seclusion paid tribute to those fighting the virus on the frontlines, in hospitals and elderly care homes, but also for those keeping the food supply chain working by harvesting fruits, vegetables and cereals, by working in supermarkets and grocery stores, and by delivering to our doors those ‘magic’ parcels deemed so relevant to keep our mood (and our economy!) up.
In some European countries many suddenly realized the importance of care givers, health professionals, parcels and transport workers, agriculture and seasonal pickers coupled with the realization that a large share of those involved in such sectors were/are foreigners (people born outside Europe and /or bearing a non-EU citizenship). Hence, in order to mitigate the fear of citizens about not finding enough foodstuff on supermarket shelves, or enough healthcare providers in elderly homes and hospitals, public authorities, such as the Italian government, have either facilitated seasonal workers permits issuance, or tried to provide a working permit for those who were already in the country yet holding an informal or irregular job (regularization procedures).
Some EU countries such as France, Germany or Spain provided more opportunities for newcomers working in the health sector to stay in clear contrast with European immigration policies that have all been characterized by waves of restrictive policy measures for decades.
This however fell short once the first wave of the pandemic ended. In fact, there was little concern, if any at all, by both governments and the general public, about the consequences of the pandemic on the everyday life of those migrants who had kept our fridges full, our desires fulfilled, and our hospitals operating. In our Sirius research we have investigated what did happen to them—and what is still happening—and this is what we found.
Let’s start with immigrants who have joined Europe to find employment and did find one before the coronavirus struck. These are divided between those who lost and those who kept their job during the pandemic. The former were employed in those sectors of the economy most badly hit by the lockdown and forced seclusions, hence those working in the accommodation and tourism, restaurant and leisure activities: like national citizens they lost their jobs, but unlike EU nationals they were not all (and not all equally) eligible for those income support measures governments urgently deployed to help their furlough workforce in those badly hit sectors.
In fact, access to unemployment benefits is conditional to specific criteria, some of which (length of residence, length of working time, type of working contracts) are hardly fully met by immigrants (who are also more exposed than nationals to precarious working conditions or irregular employment, which keep them out from any form of income support deployed by our governments). Hence, those immigrants who lost their jobs entered a situation of vulnerability and even destitution which has been mitigated, sometimes, only by the intervention of local authorities and civil society organisations.
Those immigrants who have kept their jobs, the ‘essential workers’, found themselves in a different type of vulnerability, one in which their health was at risk: social distancing, home working, or safety protective measures were either not an option or difficult to be safely implemented. Hence, due to our highly segmented labour markets they were more exposed to COVID-19 infections than EU nationals. The perception, sometimes amplified by the media, that immigrants are at greater risk of infection due to their jobs also contributed towards their stigmatisation, which in turn jeopardized their psychological and mental health.
It is time for Europe to complete its path towards the full recognition of the contributions that foreign workers and foreign citizens provide to our economies and societies
Finally, newcomers who had reached Europe in search of a refuge, such as refugees and asylum seekers, found themselves looped into a cruel vulnerability trap. For those living in camps, like asylum seekers in Greece, the pandemic led to their total isolation from the rest of the society, with already overcrowded camps becoming a social bomb for those secluded with no opportunities to work, or to experience any form of integration path nor able to join with relatives based outside camps. The revolt of the Moria camp is paradigmatic of this situation.
For the others, all integration paths (from language learning to volunteering or job experience) either disappeared or moved online, with many not able to benefit from these due to digital illiteracy, lack of digital devices or internet connection. Even when these online integration paths were available, social operators noted a decline of their users’ engagement and their assessments pointed to a less satisfactory outcome. In other cases, the lack of flexible policies created further whirls of vulnerability: for example, just when the pandemic struck, some refugees found themselves evicted from public subsidised housing once their claim for asylum was recognized (as publicly subsidised accommodation is available only to asylum seekers in many EU countries). With no possibility to find a job and unable to pay for a regular rent, they end up being exposed to destitution or exploitation.
Furthermore, with resettlement programmes shut, all those refugees waiting for their relatives and loved ones to join them remained alone. In the case of women with dependent minors any potential benefit coming from them finding employment was prevented by their personal situation.
Such a scenario suggests that it is time for Europe to complete its path towards the full recognition of the contributions that foreign workers and foreign citizens provide to our economies and societies by providing them with stable and robust legal statuses instead of confining them into the well-known limbo of legal precarity. It is time for our governments to provide rights and entitlements to those who work and live with us, to those who strive with us. We call for the Portuguese presidency of the Council which is just starting its semester to seize the opportunity and pave the way in that direction: if called upon, civil society actors, business operators, ordinary citizens and scholars are ready to do their part.