Comprehensive assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic impact on the socio-economic status of migrants

The study aimed to determine the specifics of the legal status and economic situation of migrant workers from Belarus who stopped working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CIVITTA, through its research arm — SATIO — interviewed migrant workers forced to stop working abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic and return to Belarus, and experts. The last ones included representatives of state authorities competent in labor migration issues, representatives of organizations and companies, both intermediaries for employment abroad and employers.

The legal status of migrant workers can be risky for persons who have been forced to stop working and still remained abroad. They can’t avoid risks associated with the violation of labour rights due to the transition to illegal employment. 

Some workers have already encountered violations of labour rights when dismissed. In some cases, dismissals may have been accompanied by non-payment of wages, but in general, such experience cannot be considered widespread. Moreover, sometimes the initiators of contract termination were employees who wanted to return to their home country amid the uncertainty of the borders during the pandemic. The difficulty of finding a job with decent pay in their profession in Belarus was the initial reason that prompted them to work abroad. 

The violation of contracts agreed upon in advance (re-signing) is the most widespread and urgent misuse that emigrants from Belarus may encounter in EU countries (especially in the most popular destination, Poland). After arriving at the workplace, an unscrupulous employer signs a new contract with an employee instead of the one approved and registered in Belarus, with significantly worse conditions for the employee than in the original one. 

EXPERT OPINION:

Ministry of Home Affairs representative

“Before leaving, a person signs an employment contract.  Before registering this contract, they read out the requirements that we have legislatively applied to this contract. There is an emphasis on such rights and guarantees as <...> place of work, payment of wages, in what amounts, until what date, work and rest regime, accommodation, food, medical care, at whose expense?

<...> And when a person comes, he renegotiates the contract, not knowing the Polish, Czech language, he thinks he will not be cheated… And it’s a contract for work and labour, and it will not have all the conditions described, which were reflected in the employment contract.”

There are other violations as well (frequent overtime, wages in envelopes, non-payment, safety violations, and even labour or sexual slavery and human trafficking). Migrants agree with the most common conditions offered to them (overtime and illegal wages) and, as a rule, they do not have any complaints to their employers.

On the one hand, it speaks about abuses on the part of employers. On the other hand, it concerns peculiarities of legal consciousness and life priorities of employees, for whom possible alternatives in Belarus seem to be worse.

EXPERT OPINION:

Representative of the Project “La Strada Belarus”

“- And they call, for example, when everything is clear on wages, but the employer violates other rights?

– Yes, they do. We often hear about work and rest schedules from international drivers because the employer makes them infringe. There is special equipment that keeps track of how long a vehicle has been on the road. And there are tricks for getting around it. <...>

The driver has to come back in 3 weeks, and the employer tells him to sit there and work because there’s no one to replace him. Or the employers threaten to tell as if the driver leaked fuel or had an accident (to be precise, they want to blame him for the accident that his partner caused). There are also violations concerning insurance premiums and tax deductions, which is typical of Poland. They have tax deductions for employees under 26 and working under an employment contract. And some employers don’t talk about it and spend that money for themselves.”

Main conclusions of the study:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic created significant risks for the social and economic situation and legal protection of Belarusian labour migrants and their families: many of them faced the problem of unemployment, loss of a permanent source of income, and violation of labour rights by employers.
  • The study allows us to conclude that the most severe consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic were for workers in the tourism, entertainment and service sectors in the B2C market. At the same time, workers in the production sectors were significantly affected. Professionals working in international transportation and employees who worked remotely were less affected.
  • Emigrants’ awareness of their labour and social rights should be considered insufficient. Migrants often underestimate the role of state institutions and the power of legislation in resolving labour disputes between migrants and local companies. Therefore, they are sceptical about going to official authorities to protect their rights. This is most commonly accompanied by the fact that the labour practices do not always comply with legal norms, which can be expressed in illegal employment, excessive exploitation, and wages “in an envelope”.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic should be recognised as a determining factor of changes in the situation of labour emigrants from Belarus in 2020
    • emigrants experienced less protection in the face of social and economic risks than the local population
    • a significant part of Belarusian labour emigrants lost their source of income, and many were forced to return to Belarus
    • there is reason to believe that layoffs did not comply with legal norms in some cases.
  • Additional factors that affected changes in the situation and labour activities of Belarusian labour emigrants were
    • peculiarities of social protection of workers in individual countries, which could reduce or increase the severity of crisis phenomena (for example, in some countries, workers could receive compensation, in others not);
    • the economic situation in Belarus, which was a factor aggravating the case of labour emigrants returning to the country;
    • Belarus social and political situation became an additional motivator to seek a job in other countries that negatively affected the Belarusian labour market.
    • Research suggests that Belarusian labour migrants are often tolerant of certain violations of the law by employers, in particular, such as excessive exploitation, payment of wages in envelopes while being negative or very wary of such violations as illegal employment.
    • These studies suggest that labour emigrants, forced to stop working abroad and return to Belarus, the vast majority do not intend to stay in Belarus in the future. They consider their residence in Belarus as a temporary situation and are ready to stay there in the future only if there are no opportunities to go abroad or if the economic situation in the country changes drastically. Thus they expect the removal of restrictions on movement and the emergence of employment opportunities abroad.

You can find the full results of the study here.

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