How do asylum seekers end up in hyper-precarity? Insights from Austria, Finland and Italy
Across the member states of the European Union, asylum seekers1 have varying degrees of access to labour markets. The EU Reception Conditions Directive (2013/33/EU) stipulates that access to lawful employment opportunities must be granted to asylum seekers no later than nine months after deposing their claim; however, the exact transposition and implementation of this directive is at each member state’s discretion.
This means that asylum seekers have access to labour markets under the following conditions in Austria, Finland and Italy2:
- In Austria, the employment of asylum seekers is basically possible after an initial period of six months. The 2004 Bartenstein Decree, however, considerably limits the scope for finding employment by reducing the work opportunities only to the agricultural, forestry and tourism sectors. The opportunities are set by law in the form of quotas, which may not be available on a yearly basis.
- In Finland, asylum seekers in possession of identity documents (IDs) are entitled to start working three months after the submission of their application. Meanwhile, the asylum seekers who lack the IDs may start working after six months (§79, Aliens Act, 30 April 2004/301). Asylum seekers can also apply for a work permit if they manage to find employment that fulfils the requirements for such a document (including a salary that is above the income threshold).
- In Italy, asylum seekers have the right to work after 60 days from the date of their asylum application (Article 22, para. 1, Legislative Decree No. 142/2015). Previously, asylum seekers could access the labour market six months on from the moment they filed their application if the procedure was still on-going and the delay was not due to the conduct of the asylum seeker. Despite this change in the legal framework, de facto employment opportunities remain limited to manual labour.
While granting access to labour markets may, in theory, seem to protect asylum seekers from exacerbating their vulnerabilities to exploitative work and/or from engaging in undocumented work, the findings from the interview data and desk-based research suggest the contrary. The following policy brief – preceded by a brief discussion on the concept of ‘the hyper-precarity trap’– will elaborate on how asylum seekers find themselves in situations of precarity in Austria, Finland and Italy.
As a concept, the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ (Lewis and Waite, 2015) demonstrates the multidimensional nature of the insecurities that asylum seekers may end up experiencing when their labour market access is restricted in one way or another. Such a situation arises from a coming together of different processes, namely constrained legal rights and entitlements (asylum seekers are different from refugees and citizens in terms of access to a range of services, such as employment, housing and/or care – see the Reception Conditions Directive – and national legal systems) and neoliberal labour market policies (the rise of contingent/precarious work, which has increased since the 2008 financial crisis).
The origins of ‘hyper-precarity’ differ when comparing Austria, Finland and Italy (Schenner et al., 2019). In Austria, asylum seekers may find themselves in the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ precisely because of not having access to the labour market in the first instance (this is the case when quotas for asylum seekers are not available) and, thus, them being pushed into undocumented work because their employment opportunities are severely limited in contrast to those of native workers (Lechner et al., 2016). If, however, asylum seekers are allowed to legally take up employment, they may still be vulnerable to falling into the same ‘trap’, albeit in a different fashion: this is because their work opportunities are limited to agriculture, forestry and tourism. These sectors are characterised by contingent employment, combined with work opportunities that are being outsourced via the means of labour market intermediaries (i.e. indirect employment). Considering the short-term demand in these three sectors, paired with ‘just-in-time’ delivery principles, labour laws are easily violated because the need to satisfy customers’ on-going demands does not work in tandem with legal working hours. Once the employment contract has come to an end, the asylum seekers are not eligible for unemployment benefits but instead revert back to being recipients of the state benefits that are especially aimed at them. Bearing in mind that since the asylum seekers who have exited a work arrangement can no longer afford to pay the rent privately (employed asylum seekers are barred from accessing housing provided by the state), they are likely to face destitution.
In Finland, asylum seekers are not currently a target group for active labour market policies (Jokinen, 2016). Because of this, asylum seekers lack both state oversight and assistance in finding employment, whereby they become an easier target for unscrupulous employers. The dangers of the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ are revealed in the context of this apparently paradoxically situation: the granting of a work permit, combined with the suspension of any services and assistance offered by public employment services. (Asylum seekers are not entitled to drop in at job centres to get advice on how to look for employment, for instance.) While asylum seekers may technically take up any employment in Finland, they are reliant on businesses and non-governmental organisations reaching out to them. These outreach initiatives should be welcomed, because they demonstrate that the private and non-governmental sectors have recognised the potential of asylum seekers as workers – in contrast to the state, which appears to adopt a more passive approach. The unfortunate effect of this is that the state’s reluctance to acknowledge asylum seekers as workers is very likely to contribute to their experiences of unlawful employment practices, a trend reported in 2017. It is, thus, not necessarily the asylum seekers’ exposure to the nature of employment per se which contributes to their experience of the ‘hyper-precarity trap’, but rather the failure of the state to guarantee lawful employment opportunities.
In Italy, asylum seekers are theoretically on the same footing as natives in terms of rights, although Ciccarone (2016) provides a number of reasons as to why this supposedly equal treatment does not hold true in practice. Firstly, the availability of and access to integration programmes differs significantly according to the providers and their location. Secondly, the coordination of institutions tasked with facilitating the integration of asylum seekers at both local and sub-national levels needs improvement; according to Ciccarone, there seems to be a coordination and communication gap between the different institutions in charge of incorporating asylum seekers in the labour market. Thirdly, a number of obstacles hinder asylum seekers from obtaining a residence permit and thus from being able to seek lawful employment: the state institutions’ delay in registering asylum claims; the complexity of the administrative procedure; and a lack of resources/staff members by the agencies who are tasked with registering asylum claims. In the case of Italy, the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ seems to relate to where asylum seekers are based.
In conclusion, the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ differs in terms of its content and effects for asylum-seekers from one country to the next, and these may even vary within countries (see, for instance, the case of federal republics where local governments are in charge of asylum seekers). Still, the combination of constrained rights and entitlements, paired with neoliberal market policies, exacerbate asylum seekers vulnerabilities to ‘hyper-precarity’.
by Johanna K. Schenner,
University of Vienna, Austria;
HEUNI scholarship recipient 2016
Ciccarone G (2016) Labour market integration of asylum seekers and refugees – Italy. Brussels: European Commission.
Jokinen E (2016) Labour Market Integration of Asylum Seekers and Refugees – Finland. Brussels: European Commission.
Lechner F, Wetzel P and Selak-Ostojoc S (2016) Labour Market Integration of Asylum Seekers and Refugees – Austria. Brussels: European Commission.
Lewis H and Waite L (2015) Asylum, immigration restrictions and exploitation: hyper-precarity as a lens for understanding and tackling forced labour. Anti-trafficking Review 5: 49–67.
Schenner, J, Cavanna P and Ollus N (2019) Asylum-Seekers and the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ in Austria, Finland and Italy. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research 0(0): x-x.
Find out more in Johanna’s new article “Asylum-seekers and the ‘hyper-precarity trap’ in Austria, Finland and Italy” published in Volume 25, Issue 1 of Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research.
 The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines an asylum seeker as “[a] person who[,] owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."
 These three countries have been picked for the current purposes because Austria, Finland and Italy have tended to host asylum seekers in different ways in the past. Moreover, from the three researchers involved in the study on which this policy brief is based, one came from Austria, another from Finland and one from Italy.