COVID-19 Crisis impact on migrants in Spain: New challenges and opportunities in the shrinking regions

2 June 2020

María García Tarancón, Adolfo Patón (Cepaim Foundation
Obdulia Taboadela, Laura Oso (ESOMI; Universidade da Coruña)

Impact on immigrant’s employment: some hit boats, another ones coming up

In Spain, COVID-19 is having devastating effects on the economy and the labour market. In just fifteen days in March, the GDP has fallen by more than 5 points, and it is expected that in the next quarter our economy will fall by a further 14%, according to data from the European Commission and the INE (Spanish Statistics Institute). Logically, this collapse has had its correlation in the labour market, with a spectacular fall in employment and the hiring process. Such loss of employment does not affect all groups equally; it is precisely the weakest and most unstable who suffer most from job loss: young people, women and immigrants.

The hotel, restaurants industry and commerce, where there is a very significant number of immigrants, are some of the sectors where employment has fallen the most, because of the paralysis of activity and the closure of establishments due to confinement. However, there are three other sectors of activity with a high concentration of foreign workers, and where their employment levels have not fallen so much, or even their demand has increased during the COVID-19 crisis. These are agriculture and livestock farming, domestic employment and residential assistance (Ministerio Seguridad Social; SEPE). In the case of agriculture, this is due to the greater domestic demand for food and to the fact that it coincides with the harvest season. Residential care has increased due to the very nature of the pandemic and the need for care for the elderly.

However, this pandemic has also brought to light the existence of two new social classes, in the words of Antonio Izquierdo: those who can be confined and those who are exposed out of necessity. The immigrant population is part of that battalion of “exposed” who, from the fields, the supermarkets, transport, care, have to take more health risk.

New opportunities in the rural areas

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to reformulate the current socio-assistance model has been more than confirmed, where an increase in the number of workers per resident or even the creation of new assistance figures such as “the personal caretaker”, can be an option and a source of employment that manages to attract a large number of migrant population to the shrinking regions. Many migrants are caregivers for older people living in our villages and thanks to them, they can continue to reside with care and attention in their homes. Without relatives and with the desire to take care of the health of our elderly, their needs for attention and care should be alleviated through people who want to work as caregivers or home assistants, being a great employment opportunity for migrants who want to live in rural areas.

This global health crisis has also brought to the table some important aspects, key to rural development. It has demonstrated that nowadays it is perfectly possible to telework, avoiding unnecessary polluting journeys, facilitating conciliation and allowing for decongestion in large cities. This leaves a new opportunity for the rural environment, as professional development can be carried out anywhere by means of new technologies. All these reasons make possible and offer a great opportunity as a means of living in the rural environment for immigrants who are in situations of special vulnerability in urban areas. On the other hand, the sale of products on the Internet has grown exponentially during the health crisis. There are many people who have bought for the first time through the Internet during this period, this upturn in commercial activity on the Internet is also a great opportunity for people who want to market their artisan products through the Internet, living and working in rural areas.

Some political responses

More institutional support and mechanisms that provide the labour market with greater flexibility would be advisable in order to be able to move some of the unemployed foreign labour to those sectors of higher demand, particularly agriculture. It is now harvest time, and in the situation of border closures, the option of hiring seasonal workers from outside is not available. At this time, the need for some 150,000 workers is estimated. Of the 300,000 seasonal workers in the field, about half are foreigners. That is where, with institutional help, there may be an opportunity for immigrants. The Government had relaxed requirements and extended work permits, but perhaps it could do more by granting work access to irregular immigrants or asylum-seekers.
On the other hand, in Spain the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of the minimum vital income for households in a situation of vulnerability and poverty. Nationality will not be an eligibility criterion, only one year’s residence in the country, so those immigrants who meet the requirements will be able to access this aid, which will undoubtedly alleviate the situation of the weakest and most vulnerable

COVID-19 and the situation of migrants in Poland: Challenges in home schooling and the work situation

By Ewa Jastrzębska and Paulina Legutko-Kobus (SGH Warsaw School of Economics)

In his position dated 13 May 2020, the Commissioner for Human Rights stressed that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects did do not affect everyone equally. Regularly excluded persons and groups, including refugees and immigrants, are particularly exposed to the consequences of pandemic-related restrictions, such as closed borders and the inability to apply for international protection. In the case of Poland, we see challenges for migrants in home schooling and in the work situation.

One of the areas of exclusion of foreigners, especially children, is home (remote) schooling (which started in Poland on 25 March). Access to home schooling is hindered for children staying in foreigner centers, guarded facilities and those applying for international protection. The main challenge, especially shortly after switching to distance learning, was the lack of computer hardware and equipment for video and audio communication with the teacher. The situation has improved over time owing to citizens’ campaigns and not as a result of systemic solutions. The pandemic has also prevented a significant number of foreign children from participating in extra Polish language classes provided for in the relevant regulations (this is partly managed by cultural assistants, most often volunteers from community or civil society organisations). The deepening of the educational gap among foreign children is also attributed to the lack of or inadequate support from their parents in home schooling. The possible reasons are:

1) the lack of ICT skills and competences (moreover, online communication tools provided by teachers are only in Polish),

2) language barrier: parents do not speak Polish well enough to support their children’s remote education. Parents’ digital exclusion and insufficient conduct of the Polish language also translate into the lack of communication with teachers.

Another challenging area for migrants during the pandemic is the situation on the labour market (especially since many of them operate in the shadow economy, and obtaining work permits during the pandemic is much more difficult).

In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the government announced the freezing of the economy and the sealing of state borders, migrants, especially Ukrainians working in Poland, started to leave the country in great numbers. Reasons for leaving Poland were the loss of a job, uncertain future, and vague and unclear communication and information from the government (including the lack of information in languages other than Polish at the beginning of the lock down) coinciding with unclear government messages from Kiev.

It is common property that the “defrosting” of the economy without migrants returning will not go smoothly (about 90% of Ukrainians who left Poland after the lockdown work in catering, services, and the hospitality industry). This is already evident in the agricultural sector which is lacking workforce. For this reason, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Chief Sanitary Inspector issued Guidelines for Agricultural Producers Employing Foreigners for Seasonal Work in the Face of SARS COV-2 (Warsaw, 8 May 2020).

Entrepreneurs are encouraged to get acquainted with the document by the IRIS Ethical Recruitment, COVID-19: Guidance for employers and business to enhance migrant worker protection during the current health crisis. The Responsible Business Forum, a renowned organisation promoting the subject of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), has also drawn up guidelines on how business can support employees from Ukraine.

In a sociological study conducted on 9-15 April, foreign employees, who stayed in Poland for the period of the pandemic, clearly respond (85% of respondents) that they prefer to stay in Poland because of their earnings and work opportunities. 26.6% of them admit that they were forced to change their sector of employment because of the pandemic. The surveyed foreigners feel safer in Poland than in their own country (72.5%) and, just like Poles, they are mostly concerned about losing their job due to the COVID-19 pandemic (57.8%).

In conclusion, the situation in the country is dynamic and it is worth waiting for further government decisions regarding restrictions on mobility, especially considering the important role of foreigners (e.g., from Ukraine) for the domestic labour market.