Imagine you graduate at the top of your class in high school in your home country. Then, you move to Europe to study and graduate first in your class. Then, you get exploited.
That’s what happened to Caleb, whose lofty dreams quickly crumbled when he realized that he would not get a job that matched his skills — nor would he be able to fight back against his employer’s exploitation.
An overachiever who speaks seven languages fluently, the Nigerian national came to Prague in 2012 for a research project. When he completed that, he had job offers from across Europe, he told POLITICO — but chose to stay in the Czech Republic.
Two years into his first job, his dreams of a career in the company changed. “I was given the ultimatum: It’s either I move [to the Philippines] or I leave,” Caleb told POLITICO from Prague. He decided to quit.
What Caleb didn’t realize: His employment permit was linked to his company and not to him personally. Losing the job meant losing his right to work — and live — in the Czech Republic.
Caleb, who declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals, is not the only migrant who feels exploited because of the way European Union employment permits are structured, according to new research by the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Its research, based on dozens of interviews with migrants like Caleb, found foreigners who come to work in the EU under the European Union’s Single Permit Directive face a host of issues that make them vulnerable to exploitation.
The study, published on Wednesday, found big differences in how countries handle single permit applications. While some EU nations require a migrant to merely notify the fitting authority if they’ve switched employers, other countries (such as Belgium) oblige the worker to completely reapply for permits, making for a lengthier process.
As Caleb didn’t find any companies offering jobs that fit his qualifications and would also agree to apply for his work permit, he started applying for low-level jobs. Once he found one, he said, his employer knew he was in a bind and abused that power by forcing him to work on weekends unpaid, denying holidays, and often expecting him to work from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., he said.
“You have an axe over your head,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, you overwork, you’re being underpaid. I had the worst experience in terms of this particular job, which I took because I had to survive.”
He wasn’t allowed to even complain.
“They know that you are relying on them for your employee card,” he said. “I’ve been threatened. [There were situations] in which I’ve made some sort of complaint, and they said, ‘OK, if you don’t do this, we will fire you.’”
Time for a revamp
The Single Permit Directive was created to patch up gaps in the EU’s labor market by facilitating legal migration for highly qualified workers and seasonal workers. Under the scheme, an application for work permit is also treated as a request for a residence permit — hence the name: single permit.
Now, more than a decade after it was created, the EU is trying to revamp the system, hoping to attract more skilled workers by simplifying the process.
EU lawmakers are pushing to end the link between work permit and employer, allowing migrants to find new jobs within nine months instead of three. But that is facing resistance from member countries that don’t want migrants to remain in the country for longer than two months when they don’t have a concrete job.
“These abusive practices undermine the benefits of legal migration opportunities,” said the lead lawmaker on the file, Socialists and Democrats politician Javier Moreno Sánchez, pointing to taxes that migrants paid under the scheme.
It was, he said, “essential to stop employers from exploiting workers and to prevent a race to the bottom on working conditions,” he said earlier this year.
But it’s not just nongovernmental organizations and liberal politicians calling for an overhaul of the system. BusinessEurope, which represents enterprises across the EU, welcomed the push to enable workers to switch jobs on the same work permit — even if this primarily aimed to protect workers from non-EU countries.
“It can also be read as having a labour market benefit in terms of affording third country nationals more flexibility in terms of their employment opportunities by not tying their permit to one employer, thereby also helping to address broader labour market needs,” the association said in a statement to POLITICO.
Parliament, meanwhile, also wants shorter time periods for applications to be accepted or rejected — namely 90 days. That, again, will meet resistance from the Council: EU countries want to fix the maximum time period to four months.
The Council seems unlikely to budge. Allowing abundant flexibility for workers to switch between employers “would play into the hands of populists,” an EU diplomat said. “They’d say: ‘Look, they’re coming to take our jobs!’ It would risk undermining the whole instrument,” said the diplomat, who was granted anonymity in order to be able to speak freely about international dynamics.
But for Moroccan Adam Mohamed Ariche, speeding up the process is key. He argues that the slow and complex procedure pushes people into becoming undocumented.
After finishing his master’s and doctorate degree in Spain on a scholarship in 2017, he wanted to formalize employment with an organization he had volunteered for. But as that process proved complicated and the process dragged on for several months, he was on the verge of giving up and working illegally instead.
“That was the worst time in my life. I felt like this country doesn’t want me. I felt excluded,” he said. Ariche fell into depression, he said, before he eventually managed to get his employment permit.
In Belgium, 37-year-old Yamba Sikin from Angola faced similar issues: His application for a permit took months — and, despite support from his prospective employer, he was rejected after more than seven months. During that time, he had to move out of his apartment, couldn’t provide for his fiancée who stayed in France instead of moving to Brussels with their newborn, and couldn’t work for the employer who had trained him.
Aurore De Keyzer, national manager for migration at trade union CSC in Brussels, said the most common challenge for migrant workers in Belgium was to even access a work permit. The system, she said, encourages companies to hire someone new from abroad rather than job seekers who are already in the country.
“It’s completely stupid,” she said.
This article has been updated.