Immigrant key workers in Europe: Exploring the Covid-19 response that comes from abroad

An academic from Queen Mary University of London has authored a report published by the European Commission on immigrant key workers in Europe. It explores the contribution migrant workers are making to keep basic services running in the European Union during the current pandemic.

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Two key workers talking on the street
Two key workers talking on the street

Dr Francesco Fasani, Reader in Queen Mary’s School of Economics and Finance was the lead author of the report, which was co-written by Dr Jacopo Mazza from the University of Essex. The results show that migrant key workers are essential for critical functions in EU states.

In many EU states, migrants were overrepresented among the key workers, and this was found to be especially true for low skilled migrants such as personal care workers, drivers and food processing workers.

Assessing the contribution

According to the analysis, the largest five categories of key workers in the EU are teaching professionals (14.5 per cent), skilled agricultural workers (11.9 per cent), science and engineering associate professionals (11.1 per cent), personal care workers (10.3 per cent) and cleaners and helpers (9.9 per cent).

Even though the majority of key workers were native to the countries, the report showed that migrants were essential in fulfilling vital roles and keeping European economies functioning. On average 13 per cent of key workers are immigrants in the EU.

The report also found that the contribution of the migrant workforce to Europe’s efforts in keeping vital sections of the economy operational varied across EU states, reflecting the existing differences in the market share of migrant workers over the total workforce.

Dr Francesco Fasani explains: “If foreign born workers account for 13 per cent of key workers in the EU, in many key occupations we observe shares which are substantially higher. More than a third of cleaners and helpers are migrants as are more than a quarter of labourers in the mining and construction sectors, stationary plant and machine operators. One in five food processing workers are also migrants too.”

Implications for policy

The current pandemic has opened up new debates concerning immigration which has translated into policy changes. The report highlights that in Italy, there are discussions concerning the possibility of granting an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, mixing the concern about labour shortages in the agricultural and personal care sectors with the willingness to provide these workers with some form of social and health protection.

Portugal has announced that it will grant temporary residence permits to all asylum seekers who had their application still pending. While Sweden has announced a twelve months extension to several labour market integration programmes allowing migrants whose subsidies would expire in the near future to remain employed.

Dr Francesco Fasani said: “Two major lessons for policy-making can be learnt from this evidence. First, migrant workers are playing a critical role in performing basic functions in EU societies hit by the COVID-19 epidemic. This calls for interventions in the short run that may allow foreign born workers to better cope with the crisis and keep contributing to its solution.

“Second, low educated migrants, and not just highly skilled ones, are employed in occupations that are key for hosting societies. This latter fact suggests the need for reconsidering, in the aftermath of the pandemic crisis, a migration policy debate which is currently almost entirely focused on the importance of attracting high skilled migrants to the Union.”

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