How Europe can make work permits actually work

Coming to Europe to work from outside the EU is hard. Despite dramatic labour shortages across sectors and EU countries, work permits for non-EU workers are few and those that exist often leave workers at the mercy of exploitative employers.

This system doesn’t work — neither for workers nor for Europe’s labour market. This month, the EU has a chance to reform legislation to make work and residence permits more accessible, and uphold fairer working conditions for all.

If you’re not an EU citizen, getting a work permit requires, in any EU country, going through long, burdensome procedures. Even when a job offer is secured, you may need to secure an entry visa to enter Europe, a residence permit to stay in a given member state, and a work permit to be able to get a regular contract. All this comes with high fees, complicated procedures, and long waiting times.

The 2011 Single Permit Directive, currently under review, responds to some of these shortcomings. It creates a simplified application procedure that combines the right to work and the right to stay in the EU, and aims to ensure that workers are treated equally, whether or not they are nationals of the EU member state issuing the permit.

This directive does not create new permits to come and work in Europe, beyond those already offered by member states, and does not affect how many non-EU workers are admitted, all of which remain up to national governments to decide. In short, it does not address the dramatic labour shortages of Europe’s job market.

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But the current Single Permit Directive also fails to address the dramatic labour exploitation and other challenges facing migrant workers.

For instance, it says nothing about how workers can report labour exploitation without fearing retaliation by their employer, or about how they could access a transitional permit if they lose their job (and their right to stay in the country) due to such exploitation. Finally, it says nothing about national legislation forcing workers to apply for a new permit before they can change employer, which makes workers even more dependent on their employer.

In many cases, workers face a painful trade-off: either endure exploitation, or leave their job and become undocumented and deportable.

Consider Mohamed (29) and Nourddine (32), who came to Belgium from Morocco in 2019 with a single permit to work as truck drivers and were promised decent working conditions. Instead, they endured a gruelling schedule of work from 5am to 10pm every day, did not get their wages, and were made to sleep in a shack with the toilet in the kitchen.

After leaving their employer, they became undocumented and joined multitudes of people living and working in extreme economic and social precacity in Belgium, facing the constant threat of deportation.

Mohamed and Nourddine’s case is not unique. Research carried out in Belgium shows that holders of a single permit are not safe from long working hours, low or unpaid wages, and other exploitation.

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Across the EU, an estimated 2.9 million workers originating outside the EU were granted a single permit in 2019. If we do not address labour exploitation and the precariousness of these work permits, we are effectively creating a class of easily exploited workers at risk of becoming undocumented.

Delinking permits from employers to reduce exploitation

When work permits are tied to one employer, the worker risks losing their right to stay and work in Europe if they change jobs. In practice, this can push workers to stay in abusive employment relationships for fear of losing their permit.

The new Single Permit Directive, and national laws more broadly, must therefore make it possible for third country workers to change employer on the same permit, and escape exploitative working conditions and report abuse without risking losing their single permit.

A key way to break the chain of dependency is to introduce “transitional permits” that give workers time and support to look for another job after leaving employment due to exploitation, and access longer-term permits. Some promising laws already exist in some countries, and could be replicated at the EU level.

In Finland, workers who experience labour exploitation or severe negligence in the workplace can apply for a special residence permit. This permit gives them one year to find another job or to set up their own business, without becoming undocumented and facing the perpetual threat of deportation. Once they find new work, they can apply for another, longer-term residence permit.

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In Ireland, workers from outside the EU who lost their job and work permit because of exploitation or other reasons may apply for a new work permit (“Reactivation Employment Permit”) for up to two years, renewable for another three.

The Single Permit Directive will not solve all the problems with Europe’s labour migration and other migration policies. It will need to be complemented by measures that increase the number of available work permits across sectors, and ease access to residence and work permits for people who already live in Europe in an irregular situation. But this directive remains an important tool towards ensuring fairer procedures and working conditions for migrant workers.

The European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee will vote on proposed amendments at the end of March. The Council is also expected to vote on the proposal in 2023. MEPs and member states must seize this critical opportunity to make the labour market fairer for all.


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