Third-country nationals do not have access to full social protection when they come to work in Europe on a short-term basis, according to a new study issued by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).
Although in principle all workers in the EU should be covered by social security, the analysis, carried out in 24 member states plus Iceland and Norway, shows that in practice there are legal loopholes that exclude them from this coverage — despite the fact that they pay for it.
Access to full social protection is generally restricted to nationals and long-term residents, as is the case in Estonia.
The Baltic country’s system does not allow workers with temporary residence permits to register as unemployed and receive allowances or insurance benefits.
The immediate explanation is that their visas depend on their work contracts. If they lose their jobs, their permits expire.
“Third-country nationals, because of the need to comply with the requirements of legal residency, can be especially vulnerable if their residence status is dependent on their employment status”, underlines the ETUI report.
Differences in the degree of coverage can be seen between local and migrant workers, but also between different categories of third-country migrant workers.
While seasonal workers, short-term posted workers and temporary agency workers are more severely affected, highly-skilled workers such as Blue Card holders or intra-corporate transferees suffer less from the exclusions and effects.
Besides high qualifications, the sector in which they are employed plays a key role in whether these workers are excluded from certain social benefits.
In sectors where workers are more dependent on their employers, such as domestic work or agriculture, the gaps are wider.
The situation also varies between member states. In some EU countries, access to certain social benefits depends on criteria such as previous residence and social security contributions from previous contracts.
For example, in Luxembourg, in order to receive the minimum income, you need to have lived in the country for at least five years out of the last 20, or have long-term resident status.
In Cyprus, access to child benefits also requires at least five years’ residence in the country.
And in Finland, access to social housing requires that the worker has had a residence permit (linked to an employment contract) for at least one year and has moved to Finland permanently.
In addition to the barriers to access that these workers face, they do not always have the knowledge or resources to assert their rights, and it is difficult to transfer these benefits when they are posted.
The pandemic (and labour shortages) have highlighted the need for these workers in many key sectors of European economies. However, in countries such as Germany, this has not prevented violations of workers’ rights and further exclusion from social security frameworks.
Whereas before the pandemic, seasonal workers in Germany had full access to almost all components of social security if their stay exceeded 70 working days, this figure has now risen to 102 working days.
Among the reasons for these gaps, the ETUI analysis points to a high degree of legislative fragmentation that does not exist for other types of workers.
The ETUI concludes that although there are similarities and efforts to harmonise access to social security at EU level, there is still a great deal of fragmentation at national jurisdiction level and between national jurisdictions.
“Clarity, simplification and a common approach to third countries (that is, a common regulatory framework) would be the starting point for improving access to social security for short-term third-country-national migrant workers,” the report notes.