Migrants’ Rights in the Labour Market – Is There a Chance for Improvement?
The Czech Republic is among the Central European countries with the highest number of legal labour immigrants from non-EU states. In the last five years, the total number of immigrants with valid work permit had drastically fell by 71,5%. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons was the economic crisis in 2008, however this did not make all the former employees to leave the country, since most of the people who immigrated, came with the purpose to stay. Thus, the voluntary return program offered by the Czech Ministry of Interior, proved to be ineffective, as only 2,073 foreigners used it, others becoming business license holders or disappeared in shadow economy.
The organized debate aimed to discuss and identify the problems faced by the foreigners employed in the Czech Republic and to highlight the shortcomings of the existing legislation. As one of the immigrants said: if you manage to obtain a work permit you are a hero. The event brought together representatives of NGOs (Diaconia ČCE and La Strada Czech Republic) and representatives of state institutions (Regional Labour Inspectorate and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs). The discussion was focused on two directions: representatives of the authorities had spoken from regulation point of view, especially in the light of new modifications in legislation according to EU Sanctions Directive (amendments to the Employment Act, amendments of the Act on Residence of Foreign Nationals), while representatives of the civil society had raised examples of difficulties faced by foreigners.
Migrants face a restrictive policy and are burden by the bureaucracy, being seen as cheap labour. Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) had ranked Czech Republic on 19th place out of 31 countries in Europe and North America, remaining below the European average concerning integration of third-country foreigners. Although, the law offers to foreigners the rights and responsibilities similar to Czech citizens (according to Labour Code and Employment Act), the reality is very different, migrants being pressed from two sides: by the employer and by the state. Under the risk of losing their job from one side and losing their work permit on the other side, migrants accept to work under unequal conditions like not being paid (at all or with large delays or receiving minimum amounts), work overtime and under the violation of health and safety rules. One of the important factors is the link between a specific employer and work permit, leading to penalization of foreigners for being unemployed.
Although all the panelists had agreed that non-payment of wages to foreigners who have a valid employment contract is not legal, none of the debaters could answer how to combat better the abuses of workers’ rights. As a foreigner worker mentioned, “even if you have a contract, it is just a piece of paper. I had a contract when I came here and it was not abided.” Dagmar Robert Mroziewicz, Inspector, mentioned that new inspectors had been hired to control the illegal work. In the same time he highlighted that they (inspectors) check the compliance with labour regulations and their responsibilities do not presume to help the immigrants, but to inspect the employers. Roman Seidl from Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs adds that Labour Inspection can give fines, but more powers, allowing intervening in cases of regulation disrespect has the police and the courts. Michal Krebs, social worker from La Strada organization, came with a concrete case, when two foreigner workers, were not receiving their wages, although they had a contract. They found a way to start a lawsuit, which lasted for 2 years and even if the employer was sanctioned, they did not receive their salaries.
Mr. Seidl believes that some of the issues related to workers’ rights will be solved by amendments to the legislation, as introduction of the single permit of residence and employment, issued by the Ministry of Interior, and a required work contract in a language understandable for the foreigner. Despite this positive attitude, NGO representatives are more skeptical, considering that the new modifications will not bring legal instruments that will enable diminishing the dependence of foreigner workers from their employers. The EU Sanctions Directive has been transposed in a way not to help migrant workers and in the same time not to harm the Czech businesses, which rely on cheap and flexible foreign labour.
The public debate opened in more detailed way the issue of payment of wages to foreigners. Speakers mentioned how employers avoid paying the amount according to the contract and how they manage to manipulate the workers:
- The employer either calls or threatens to call the Alien Police to inform the authorities about irregular migrant worker. In this way, workers agree to lower their standards and to work for less money or for no payment, hoping to receive it one day;
- The company tries to liquidate itself and later reopens with small changes, thus evading paying its liabilities.
Rut Dvořáková from Diaconia, touched another important feature that had to be taken into consideration – most of the foreigners, especially seasonal workers prefer to work through agencies/mediators or so called “client system”, avoiding direct contact with the employers, arranging for them all the papers, finding a job and a better wage. Thus, the client system represents a synergy of illegal practice and an attempt to fill in the holes in the legislation.
All the contributors to the debate agreed that unfortunately, immigrant workers come too late to report violation of their rights or are afraid to report at all, under the risk of receiving sanctions themselves or to lose their job.
To conclude, there still remain unanswered questions and uncovered topics by this debate, such as domestic workers, recognition of qualifications or unemployment benefits for foreigners. All the participants to the discussion agreed that the foreigner workers face many issues, while the legislation and its implementation have a lot of gaps and is insufficiently covering the integration of immigrants, creating space for bureaucracy, which stimulates the search for alternative solutions, in many cases illegal.
The article has been written as part of the project Migration to the Centre supported by the by the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union and the International Visegrad Fund.
This article reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
 From a total number of 128,934 valid work permits for third country nationals in the year 2008 it felt to 36,792 work permits valid in 2011. Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Statistics on Employment of foreigners
 See the video from the debate at: http://www.migrationtothecentre.migraceonline.cz/en/
 Comments Consortium of NGOs to draft proposal of the new Aliens Act (Czech)