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15th Apr 2024

Report: EU 'single permit' risks migrant exploitation

  • In 2021 alone, the EU issued around 2.9 million 'single permits' to non-EU nationals (Photo: Unsplash)
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The design of combined residence and work permits (known as 'single permits') facilitates exploitation in the EU and increases migrant workers' dependency on their employers, according to an analysis conducted by the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

Single permits are based on a 2011 European directive aimed at offering a minimum set of rights to third-country nationals wishing to reside and work in the EU.

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In September 2020, the EU commission announced a revision of the directive (currently undergoing), pointing out that it had not fully achieved its objective of simplifying admission procedures.

"The revision of the EU single permit directive is a crucial opportunity to address this across the whole region," said Lilana Keith, senior advocacy officer at the platform for international cooperation on undocumented migrants (PICUM). "This is one of the most important tools we have to break the chain of dependency".

In 2021 alone, the EU granted 2.9 million permits — 70 per cent of which were issued to work in Spain, France, and Italy. But the short duration of permits, the lengthy, complex and costly procedures for obtaining them, or the difficulty of accessing support and information are some of the shortcomings of the directive, the report says.

As a directive, each member state has some room for manoeuvre to achieve the agreed objectives, but its implementation (and the difficulties it causes) varies from one EU country to another.

For example, while the minimum length of the permit is 90 days in countries such as Belgium, the Czech Republic and Spain (the focus of the report), the maximum length of the permit varies considerably.

In Spain, the permit can last up to four years if it is successfully renewed, up to two years in the Czech Republic and only one year in Belgium if it is a limited permit — creating some uncertainty for long-term planning.

Additionally, member states have the discretion to decide who is the lead applicant in the visa process. In line with the bloc's labour mobility policy, the procedure is often led by the employer, which increases workers' dependence on them.

In countries like Belgium, the situation is even more critical because the work permit is tied to a single employer. If a migrant worker wants to change their employer, they have to start the process all over again, which deepens their dependency and exposes them to situations of exploitation due to the fear of losing their migratory status.

In other member states, such as the Czech Republic, it suffices to inform the relevant authorities of a change of employer.

"An unimpeded right to change employer on the existing permit, as is the case in Spain, is the most effective in enabling labour market mobility and reducing this aspect of dependency," reads the report.

In the event of unemployment, the time offered by some member states is also insufficient to find a new job, creating further obstacles for third-country nationals.

"I just want to change my job, but there are not enough days to find another one and manage to exchange documents at the Ministry of the Interior, at the police," a Ukrainian female hospitality worker in the Czech Republic told researchers.

Only 60 days are offered to find a new employer in this central European country. In Belgium, 90 days. An "unreasonable" time, according to the ULB team, given that the administrative process itself very often exceeds this timeframe.

To provide these workers with minimum rights equal to EU nationals, besides reviewing permit duration, processing times and employer dependency, protection and monitoring mechanisms should be offered without leading to immigration enforcement.

"Such mechanisms should likewise ensure they do not result in workers losing their permits," PICUM demands.

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