Refugee and asylum seeker access to the Italian labour market: obstacles and discrimination

Ottavia Ciani
Researcher for ImpACT International

 

Integration of refugees and asylum seekers into the labour market of host countries is critical to the wellbeing of both the receiving society and the new residents.

 

In Italy, however, access to the labour market for refugees and asylum seekers is often blocked by enormous obstacles, ranging from tricky rules to long administrative procedures to discrimination and exploitation. Their situation is more difficult than that faced by economic migrants, who enter the country looking for employment and whose ability to work in Italy is regulated by the Decreto Flussi (literally, Flow Decree”).

 

The decree sets quotas for the number of non-EU citizens allowed to enter Italy to work. In 2020, the quota was set at 30,850 workers, of which 18,000 were earmarked for seasonal work. In contrast, there is no minimum number of refugees and asylum seekers the Italian government must accept.

 

The most difficult challenges are faced by persons seeking international protection due to violence or persecution at home. Italian law allows asylum seekers to hold jobs as soon as two months after they file their applications. However, long, bureaucratic procedures required for registration or renewal delays the actual effective date—putting them at risk of exploitation by employers, who often force them to work in unsafe conditions. 

 

Italian law allows asylum seekers to hold jobs as soon as two months after they file their applications. However, long, bureaucratic procedures required for registration or renewal delays the actual effective date—putting them at risk of exploitation by employers

 

In addition, some employers are reluctant to hire asylum seekers who have not yet been granted official work permits. Meanwhile, asylum seekers and refugees are often assigned to government housing far from cities where employment prospects are best. Other barriers to the labour market are lack of foreign-language skills, absence of support networks, and educational and professional qualifications that do not transfer to their new homes—forcing them to accept low-skilled jobs.

 

All types of migrants suffered under Decree 113/2018 – the so-called Security Decree, However, asylum seekers were particularly impacted, due to its abolition of programs that provided them support during the integration process, such as internships and vocational training. The decree also eliminated humanitarian permits, which had allowed individuals to stay in the country even when they did not meet the formal criteria for refugee or asylum status. That left more than 37,000 people undocumented. Fortunately, some of the decrees worst provisions were reversed in October 2020, granting those who had been given humanitarian or other special permits long-term residency based on employment.

 

Many migrants feel compelled to accept any kind of job, no matter how dangerous or insecure. According to the National Research Council of Italy, only 13% of migrants do highly skilled work, compared to 40% of natives.

 

The most common sectors in which migrants are employed are manufacturing, cleaning, agriculture and construction—all of which require safety equipment. However, according to the fourth report on severe labour exploitation from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, these types of workers must buy their own personal protective equipment. They also report being forced to hide during visits by outside inspectors, thus preventing detection of harsh conditions.

 

According to the same report, migrant workers are often discriminated against based on skin colour, nationality and refugee/foreign status. Employers continually insult black workers and threaten to fire them,” says the report, citing racist insults and bullying as discriminatory tactics. This situation leads to a perception of impunity among employers.

 

Gig economy and new forms of slavery

The so-called gig economy—an economic model based on occasional and temporary work and characterized by weak contractual guarantees—has rapidly expanded in the last few years.

 

One of the most popular sectors in the gig economy is food delivery. In Italy, almost two-thirds of people working for food-delivery companies are migrants. They are willing to do almost anything in return for employment, earn no more than 3 euros per trip and often dont know their rights as workers.

During the COVID-19 emergency and subsequent lockdown, hundreds of migrants continued working in the fields despite the health-related risks. Since they are undocumented or otherwise excluded from the financial system, they have no access to aid.

 

The public prosecutor in Milan recently opened an investigation into Uber Eats due to alleged exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers. According to official documents, the victims were asylum seekers from conflict areas living in migrant-reception centres. Their tips were confiscated and they were forced to accept degrading work conditions.” The investigators found conditions were particularly harsh during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for the service increased in an uncontrolled avalanche.”

 

Migrants also account for a significant proportion of labour in the agricultural sector, in which caporalato (illegal intermediation) is common. More than 430,000 migrants work irregularly and thus are at risk of exploitation. They work eight hours a day picking strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes for just 35 euros (sometimes even 15), living in tented slums. Employers know undocumented migrants are desperately in need of a job and use it as leverage to exploit them. Even some refugees who have been granted international protection are exploited when they are unable to find jobs in the formal market.

 

During the COVID-19 emergency and subsequent lockdown, hundreds of migrants continued working in the fields despite the health-related risks. Since they are undocumented or otherwise excluded from the financial system, they have no access to aid.

 

On 13 May 2020, the Italian government passed a law allowing around 200,000 undocumented workers to apply for six-month residency permits. Although this measure was initially welcomed, it was later revealed to be a temporary amnesty that values economic interests ahead of human rights, doing little to address worker exploitation.

 

Why is financial inclusion essential?

 

Inclusion in the financial system—banking and credit, and thus also housing and education—is essential to ensure migrantsaccess to the labour market. When migrants are invisible,” access to the formal labour market is all but impossible.

 

Financial needs vary depending on migrantsstatus. For example, applicants who have not yet received asylum are insecure and thus need everything from housing to temporary employment. Migrants who are in a more stable phase—such as refugees who have been granted protection—most need stability, integration and financial services, including savings accounts and credit.

 

In Italy, the National Observatory for the Financial Inclusion of Migrants, financed by the European Commission and the Ministry of Interior, works to reduce poverty and enable broader-based economic growth, benefiting everyone through migrant entrepreneurship, stronger universal purchasing power and conversion of informal businesses into formal ones.

 

According to the Observatory, Italys financial sector has slowly evolved to be more supportive of the migrant population, taking into account their specific needs. However, more progress is needed to change attitudes about people with low incomes and precarious working conditions, usually considered unbankable” and thus too risky to serve.

 

Recommended actions:

 

1. Identify and implement effective projects that integrate asylum seekers and refugees into the labour market and society more generally. The Italian Government must regularize and protect those working in the informal market under exploitive conditions, with specific human rights-based policies—particularly in response to the current health emergency.

2. Bring government and businesses together to protect undocumented migrants and those waiting for their asylum registration.

3. Coordinate actions across local and national agencies and employers.

4. Develop toolkits for the assessment of migrantseducation and qualifications, as well as ways to recognize and build off of foreign professional qualifications.

5. Design a new framework for addressing migrant workersexploitation through the legal system.

6. Implement programs encouraging cooperation between the public and private sectors to create job opportunities for migrants.

7. Support and create new, institutionalized bodies to protect the rights of migrants, such as trade unions.

8. Develop information systems to educate migrant workers on their labour rights and services provided by trade unions, as well as to help them access financial services. The same systems can be used to collect reliable data on migrant issues.

9. Increase effective, unannounced inspections of work sites to reduce exploitation.

 

References

 

SIPROIMI. La tutela dei richiedenti asilo. Manuale giuridico per loperatore. June 2018.

Vita. Lavoro di migranti e rifugiati. Luci e ombre in Italia e in Europa. September 2019.

Human Rights Watch. Finally, Good News for Asylum Seekers in Italy. 7 October 2020.

Italian Ministry of Interior. Inclusione finanziaria e mercato del Migrant Banking.  

Asylum in Europe. Access to the Labour Market: Italy.

Center of International Political Studies. National Observatory for the Financial Inclusion of Migrants in Italy. 2015.

Center of International Political Studies. National Observatory for the Financial Inclusion of Migrants in Italy. 2017.

Laura de Matteis. Financial Inclusion. 2015.

The New Humanitarian. Italys Coronavirus Amnesty: Migrant Rights or Economic Self-Interest? 25 May 2020.

OpenMigration. Sfruttamento e caporalato tra i migranti della gig economy. 26 September 2019.

Lorenzo Tondo, The Guardian. Uber Eats in Italy investigated over alleged migrant worker exploitation. 13 October 2020.

PICUM. Ten Ways to Protect Undocumented Migrant Workers. December 2012.

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Protecting Migrant Workers from Exploitation in the EU: WorkersPerspectives. 2019.

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