Promoting empowerment and community activism as a way of preventing labour exploitation and foster social mobility
Over the past years, labour migration to the Czech Republic came to play an essential role within the country’s economic model. Facing urgent labour shortages, Czech employers have been increasingly turning countries from the EU's Eastern border as labour suppliers, with nationals of Ukraine accounting for the majority of foreign workers currently active on the Czech labour market. While the Czech government has put in place programmes of managed migration meant to direct more or less qualified migrant labour towards sectors that lack workforce most urgently, an overwhelming majority of labour migrants rely in their migration journey on networks, intermmediaries, brokers, recruitment and temporary agencies.
The role of intermediaries as “gatekeepers” to the labour market was subsequently strengthened following the migration wave since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. In order to gain access to a flexible migrant workforce, Czech employers turn towards temporary agencies. The prioritisation of agencies also decreases bureaucratic, language and cultural costs connected with migrants’ and refugees’ employment.
While employers save time and effort on the paperwork, these strategies may have significant consequences on the financial and legal situation of migrants and refugees who find themselves in a vulnerable position. The narratives provided by migrants suggest a risk of exploitation by agencies and intermediaries, initiated even in the pre-migrant stages and not occasionally resulting in indebtedness and dependency. Most temporary agencies that migrants from eastern Europe contact are managed by their co-nationals. Beyond being for many the only realistic channel towards the labour market, brokers that connect migrant workers to potential employers, represent for many an important, if not the only source of information on constantly changing regulations, required documentation and other legislative steps that migrants have to go through when integrating on the labour market.
In a context of a predominant distrust towards official authorities and a generally absent communication strategy towards migrants from authorities such as labour inspectorates or trade unions, migrants and refugees exploited by temporary agencies and other types of labour market intermediaries find themselves isolated in instances when they encounter abuse and exploitation.
While the most important help that migrants and refugees have access to comes from NGOs, this project argues that more effort should be directed towards strategies of community building, mutual aid, and self-help.
Community building is crucial for disadvantaged groups in overcoming hardship and building social networks and capital and could play the role of a bridge for migrants to access welfare rights and benefits, as well as to communicate with host local communities.
The project will focus on organising activities and group meetings both online and offline as part of an initiative to organise a grassroot social movement among Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic. Workers that find themselves in vulnerable situations shall be provided with a safe space for sharing their experience, their interests and their knowledge. The idea is to organise around shared interests and experiences “pockets of collective power” for the prevention and management of social disadvantage and powerlessness. While group meetings shall be mediated by migrants themselves, the project will provide the opportunity to connect communities with trusted experts in legal, social and psychological help. The idea is to foster agency and aspiration for action in areas of social justice, human rights, self-worth and human dignity.
At its core, the project will be first advertised on social media in diaspora groups where migrants organise, and subsequently consist of regular weekly thematic meetings on barriers and enablers and migrants integration on the labour market in the Czech Republic. The meetings will be mediated by a trained MKC employee, who have a migrant background themselves. The employee will be assisted by a larger team in what concerns coordination activities. Through these meetings, migrant workers will confront their experiences against a presentation of workers’ rights and opportunities for action and activism.
Closely linked to this main objective is the strengthening of locally established and well connected nongovernmental organisations in their capacity to take over from brokers and intermediaries the role of gatekeepers to the labour market. This mechanism would consist in connecting migrants and migrant collectives with local employers, actively promote employment opportunities and skills among migrant communities, encourage and assist with qualification recognition, therefore preventing instances of deskilling and downward mobility.