During the COVID-19 crisis, where all persons who can, should stay at home, a lot of people lose their jobs, first and foremost migrants and people in precarious labour situations. Migrants already come upon a labour market that is legally very restricted towards them: Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, students from third countries are only allowed to work for 20 hours a week, etc. Therefore, a lot of migrants try to find a living in undocumented labour situations. A lot of these jobs don’t follow the payment, safety and health requirements set by the Austrian labour law.
The Covid-19 crisis broadens the gap between undocumented and documented, precarious and secure jobs. At the same time, it shows, that a lot of jobs done by undocumented, precarious and mostly migrant labourers are extremely relevant, exemplified by the official discussion on harvest workers or the concernment of the kin of people in need of care in private households. The thoughts expressed in this contribution are built upon informal talks with employees/activists and clients/refugees of Vielmehr für Alle! (www.vielmehr.at), an organisation working with refugees in their schooling and in finding further education, work and housing. In addition, Susanne Kimm and Vina Yun from UNDOK (www.undok.at) were interviewed, a union initiative informing undocumented labourers about their labour rights and supporting them in their claims, legally and politically.
Testimonies from Refugees and Activists of Vielmehr für Alle! and UNDOK
In times of crisis, migrants are the first to lose their jobs as they serve as flexible labour potential. When migrant labour is needed, labour market restrictions are loosened. Therefore, mid-April, in the midst of the Corona crisis, during the severest travelling restrictions, the Austrian government started to fly in Romanian harvest workers. The discussions beforehand show the importance of these labourers. Despite the big numbers in unemployment, not enough people in Austria could be found, to fill in the migrant labourers’ place in harvest. This not only shows the hard labour conditions in these jobs and the labour market split in Austria – jobs done by citizens vs. jobs done by migrants – but also, that harvesting needs a certain degree of skill. It also shows that migrant labourers are deployed, only following the needs of Austrian citizens, while their needs are disregarded.
A lot of migrants, as well as Austrians, lost their jobs with the beginning of the corona crisis. A development that will probably go on. The biggest problem that UNDOK encounters in their consultation during the corona crisis, , Susanne tells me, is the lack of security for undocumented labourers, when they have lost their income. As their work is undocumented there are no unemployment benefits and they have no chance of getting hardship funds. “You can go to a Caritas soup-bus or to some other food hand out station. Financially there is nothing.”
“Another problematic area is”, Susanne continues, “when people keep their jobs, they have little to no possibilities to demand security measures, due to their weak position of bargaining, as undocumented labourers are extremely exploitable and susceptible to blackmail. Therefore, if they don’t want to lose their job, out of existential reasons, it is possible, that they have to execute it under very dangerous conditions.” Vina reminds us, that the health question is not a new one under the Covid-19 crisis. “The lack in safety measures during dangerous activities and the lack in health insurance, was also a problem before the emergence of the corona virus. But now the problem has intensified.” Additionally, migrants who reside in Austria without documentation often don’t dear to search for help when they are sick, as reporting a lack in residential status relies on the doctor’s or hospital worker’s own discretion.
Home Office and Self-Isolation as a Privilege
Furthermore, the overall call for self-isolation, brings privileges or the lack of it to light. “Home office, in fact, is not possible in the branches, in the fields of work, where undocumented labourers are employed, because here being present is required.” Secondly, Susanne tells me, technical possibilities often stand in the way of working from home, depending on the access to a laptop or a stable internet connection, for example. And of course, the situation at home and the concrete living conditions influence the degree staying at home burdens a person. And then again, when there is no income while staying at home, a person might rather go to work, even though it might be under dangerous conditions.
But not only income and health are particularly problematic questions for precarious workers during the Covid-19 crisis, the residence status is also at a higher risk for some migrants, as in some cases it depends on their work relation. The status of people with the “Red-White-Red Card”, for example, depends on a specific job with a specific employer. Therefore, when they lose their job they lose their residence status. And, as there is an intensified police presence during the corona crisis: “This is generally a far more threatening and difficult situation for people without residence papers,” Vina adds. “It is also possible now that the police gets involved in order to investigate infection chains. And in the case of undocumented persons this is, of course, a great risk, when they start looking into their environment.”
Precarious Work after Covid-19
The problematic of payment and health conditions as well as the insecurity of residence already existed before the corona crisis for precarious migrant labourers, but has now aggravated. At the same time the corona crisis highlights precarious jobs, that are often done by migrants, as pillars of our society. Vina points out: “That might be the phase or the window, where we can look closer onto these labour conditions. The question is, if it will still be a topic after this specific situation of crisis.”
Maybe it will even come worse once the corona-related restrictions are lifted as an economic crisis will probably set in. Precarious and migrant labourers could be demanded to even work harder, while the labour market and migration policies might be further restricted, to supposedly solve Austrian unemployment, as was done in the economic crisis starting in 2008. We have to try to strengthen precarious labourers and not to get to a point, where having a job is seen as a privilege, which would make a big pool of jobs more exploitable.
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