Nine million immigrant workers at risk of unemployment in Europe, according to new analysis

A new study from Queen Mary University of London and the European Commission has revealed that employment consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, and ensuing lockdowns, are potentially enormous and more severe for migrant workers in particular.

The researchers estimate that lockdown measures put nine million workers at high risk of unemployment based on their job attributes. The analysis sheds new light on employment risk in Europe where data has previously been lacking.

Uneven consequences for the labour market

The research focuses on two main categories: EU workers (born in an EU Member State other than the one where they currently work and reside) and Extra-EU workers (born outside of the EU). The analysis applies to the EU14+UK area (countries that were members of the EU prior to expansion in 2004).

The Covid-19 pandemic has unveiled uneven consequences for the labour market with immigrant workers being particularly vulnerable. As relative new‐entrants in the labour market, often in low-skilled occupations, immigrants are particularly sensitive to business cycle fluctuations and economic downturns.

The working paper, Being on the Frontline? Immigrant Workers in Europe and the Covid-19 Pandemic, proposes a measure aiming at capturing the exposure to employment risk of workers and migrant workers specifically, in Europe. The measure is based on four characteristics of workers occupations that have become pivotal in predicting workers’ vulnerability in the current COVID‐19 crisis: essentiality, temporariness, teleworkability (the ability to be able to work from home), and industry resilience.

Nine million people at risk

The researchers account for the distinction between essential and non‐essential occupations that many governments introduced when imposing shutdown measures. Expecting key workers to be exposed to a substantially lower risk of unemployment, the researchers assigned non-essential workers to four categories of employment risk: very high, high, moderate and low.

The study found that nearly nine million foreign born workers are employed in jobs and sectors that may be severely affected by the pandemic‐induced crisis.Approximately 3.1 million EU mobile workers in the EU and UK are at risk of becoming unemployed due to the pandemic. Among these workers at risk, 395,000 face a very high risk of being laid off.

More than 6.1 million workers from outside the EU are also at risk of becoming unemployed due to the pandemic, and almost one million (974,000) fall into the very high risk category.

The study also found variations of workers deemed at risk of unemployment across Europe. Around 20 per cent of migrant workers in Luxembourg, the UK, France and Denmark were identified as at risk compared to more than 40 per cent in Austria, Portugal, Spain, Germany and Italy. According to the researchers this is likely to be down to these countries having a higher share of temporary contracts and a lower probability of workers being employed in industries deemed to be more resilient.

Implications for policy

The findings have implications for immigration policies across Europe, in particular the rhetoric and emphasis on attracting highly-skilled migrants.

The research suggests that restrictive policies on so-called low-skilled migration may leave large gaps in the labour market particularly since migrants have been shown to play an essential role during the pandemic.

The researchers warn that the findings have severe consequences for the European labour market. In addition to the risk of jobless migrants being forced to return to their country of origin, they argue that policy makers also need to pay attention to welfare of migrant workers since it is in the interest of hosting societies to improve working conditions so that they can continue to contribute to future economic recovery.

Dr Francesco Fasani, Reader in Economics at Queen Mary and lead author of the study said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is revealing existing inequalities in affected societies, with the weakest groups being hit the hardest. Migrants have already suffered large employment losses during the first wave of the pandemic, but the number of those at high risk of becoming unemployed over the next months – up to 9 million of foreign born workers in the EU14+UK area – is even more worrying and impressive.

“Our study provides badly needed evidence on the dire employment prospects of migrants in Europe and it is a call for policy action to support these vulnerable groups.”

Dr Jacopo Mazza, from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and co-author of the paper said: “When a migrant working in Europe loses their job, the repercussions are felt beyond the borders of the host country. The job loss affects also their family back home and thus their country of origin, which are often reliant on income transfers from their people working abroad.

“The World Bank predicts a decline in international remittances over the next couple of years, especially for low-income countries. This shock could be mitigated by supporting migrant employment in Europe. Our study provides some indicators for policy-makers in this direction.”

The analysis focused on 27 EU Member States and the UK. The total sample was 1,304,274 adults, of which 1,124,310 (86 per cent) are natives, 67,950 (5.2 per cent) EU-mobile and 112,014 (8.6 per cent) Extra-EU workers.