The role of workers' organisations in integrating refugees in the labour market: what has already been done and what we still have to do

A seminar on “The role of workers' organisations in integrating refugees in the labour market: what has already been done and what we still have to do” was organized from September 14-15, 2018 by FIDESTRA (Workers’ Training, Research and Social Development Association). It took place in Madrid and was supported by EZA and the European Union.

Importance of the international seminar

At a time when the European agenda is set by the problem of people’s movements, integration into host societies continues to be a complex and multifaceted process.

There is an urgent need to assess the refugee framework in the field of industrial relations by identifying the behaviour and attitudes of business associations (and employers), trade unions and the State; as well as to assess the process of refugees’ social and employment integration in the EU.

In this sense, the international seminar that included 63 participants from 8 countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Poland and Albania) was organized to assess this reception/integration process.

To know the tasks, qualifications and working conditions of this mobile workforce, to know if it is a simple process of free movement of workers or a movement resulting from a poorly regulated market.

To assess the working conditions in some sectors, especially those that most employ this workforce (such as construction, catering and hotels and domestic employment); and the dynamics of expanding sectors, such as domestic employment and care for the elderly.

To ascertain the way that each country per se is performing and essentially what actions still need to be implemented.

The San Sebastián de los Reyes CEPI (Centre for Participation and Integration of immigrants) visit. These centres are financed by the autonomous community of Madrid. The visit provided information on the work being undertaken in institutional terms, since users (immigrants) who do not have work need to find a solution and process documentation, receiving training and support from technicians for this purpose. It is a social response with a strong administrative component, accompanied by integration actions based on multicultural co-existence. As an example, we highlight 3 actions/activities undertaken; a course on Spanish Employment Law; and a Spanish Language Course and multicultural activity.

The CEPI (8 operate in Madrid) are a measure implemented by the Madrid to assist integration, essentially of immigrants.

The second visit, to C.A.R. (Refugee Assistance Centre) in Alcobendas (the purpose of the C.A.R. is to offer full support to people who require international support and there are 4 centres), has enabled in situ assessment of the response found in Spain to enable users to genuinely integrate, initially at the linguistic level and at a later stage in employability issues. This is always complemented by a concern for cultural interaction and the undertaking of activities in conjunction with the local community.

This centre also provides information to users on hygiene care and the prevention of diseases, and a “Health Guide” has been created in several languages. Psychological and legal support is also provided.

In these units, asylum seekers are assisted for two years in total. However, people in situations of great vulnerability end up requiring more time.

“The centre should not function as a bubble or ghetto. It is very good that it is open to the outside", because integration is based on sharing and co-existence, hence the extreme importance of developing cultural activities involving customs from home countries and the host country, assisting in the process of inclusion. Carnival parties, competitions, food fairs and cooking workshops are therefore held.

Every year in summer, Alcobendas C.A.R., together with several youth organizations, volunteers, performing arts groups and the users themselves and the community, organize a large event with the sharing of typical dishes from each country, including a comic book contest. The event “Christmas for All” event is also held, involving about 600 children who are educated in human rights, multiculturalism and tolerance.

It is important to point out that the centre operates on an open basis, with users being free to leave and carry out external activities.

The opportunity to gather decision makers, politicians, technical experts and technicians in the field side by side, in the same room, after informative visits, leads to the result being a sum of knowledge, intersections, commitments and specific proposals with a view to enhancing existing resources, raising awareness of testimonies and developing ideas in order for utopias to become reality, to improve the lives of those who arrived some time ago, providing hope and integration in a free and democratic society that respects the individual, his or her culture, religious practice and condition in order for he or she to feel closer to home, family and society.

In order to assess the measures taken at local, regional and national level, in order to contribute to a cohesive, social and economic Europe as well as a Europe of Peace, probably the greatest merit of the European project, the afternoon session addressed the theme of the integration of refugees. Statistical data relating to migratory movements in the city of Madrid was presented, on the premise that “the best social policy in terms of migration is employment and co-existence between migrant and native citizens must be strengthened with the purpose of promoting social peace”

However, the growth of migratory flows must be monitored in order to create structures capable of providing specific and positive answers, measuring impacts and informing the social communication of the work carried out in the field. The implementation of individual and collective projects should be encouraged in order to prepare people for the world of work.

In terms of the political response given by Europe to this issue of migratory movements, and which must be European in vision and application (there must not be “Europes with various visions”), we should highlight Luis Pedro Mota Soares, the Portuguese politician who referred to the need for solidarity between peoples. He stressed that the European Community’s response has nevertheless been very positive and the reduction of impacts tends to decrease. He also said: “we want a free, supportive and democratic Europe and it is from these points of view that we must have solutions to the problems of migratory flows.” 

Also worthy of comment was the dominant tone of the speech given by Piergiorgio Sciacqua, Co-President of EZA, who pointed out: “We must strengthen moral, social and religious dialogue,” as instruments of understanding and progress. Encourage intercultural dialogue in order to promote the discussion of different ideas and visions with the aim of being inclusive.

We need a European policy, integrated with the youngest of the youngest, in order to fill cultural difficulties and at the same time create positive expectations for their future, without this being in conflict with the principles of our European experience.

There must be a broad political agreement that respects multiculturalism. But the road is long. There is a barrier between cultures and so the different models of integration must have common features regarding the host philosophy, so that it is adapted to the local reality of the centre.

Given that the conditions of refugee access to the employment market vary from Member State to Member State, it was considered relevant to assess: the refugee framework in the field of industrial relations, identifying the behaviour and attitudes of business associations (and employers), trade unions and the State; as well as to assess the process of social and employment integration of refugees in the EU.

Representatives of workers' organizations in Greece, Italy and Portugal explained the conditions of refugee access to the employment market.

In the case of Italy, this refers to the testimony of the current crisis situation that extends from 2014 until the present.

In Italy, with a high unemployment rate, especially among young people, refugees’ problems are getting worse. Emergency reception centres were set up to cover the increase in applications for entry into Italy.


 The proposal is a European and international agreement, with common policies and projects and not an “a la carte” Europe.

In the case of Greece, data and examples of how refugees have access to the employment market were presented in an attempt to integrate and reduce the social crisis created in particular in a country of entry.  Some development conditions of the centres were detailed with images that shocked and sensitized those present with regard to some cases of abuse by other refugees in breaching the basic rules of co-habitation and respect for different cultures amongst refugees.

Reception in private homes and, within families to compensate for the poor catering to the existing needs was also discussed.

In the case of Portugal, Mário Rui presented the case of PAR - Refugee Support Platform, and the work that has been carried out since 2015. He also explained entire development of the reception of refugees from the Mediterranean. The respect for human rights must always be present.

The challenges presented for the future, inspired in Christian terms by Pope Francis, with fundamental values ​​of standards, humanism, personalism, concern for human suffering and the search for social justice. PAR has all the necessary support for social, cultural, educational, work and health inclusion, in addition to insertion and integration in the community, its final objective being autonomy.

The most important aspects of this seminar were therefore the role of organizations, especially workers’ organizations, in order to improve the integration of foreigners, especially refugees, into the employment market after being welcomed into host societies.


 It is therefore important to raise awareness of realities on the ground, to visit refugee centres, to exchange long experiences, to have decades of experience on the ground in order to provide an account of the reality of each individual or each family, from the earliest days to full autonomy

Understanding the changes in the European employment market and the social and political changes in this context is relevant, and this was achieved in the explanation presented by the different participating countries.

It has been recognized that integration into the employment market, on the principle that work is dignifying, is one of the important ways for real integration.

But 2 points still clearly require the involvement of workers' organizations: the exposing of working conditions in some sectors, especially those that most employ this workforce (such as construction, catering and hotels and domestic employment); and in sectors such as domestic employment and care for the elderly.

It is important to assess the way in which each country per se is implementing European policy on the issue of employment market integration of refugees, and essentially what action still needs to be taken.

Organizations, whether private or public, play a decisive role in the local reception of refugees, integrating them in a simpler way. If they are placed in small centres, then the success tends to be greater because there is greater identification, ease, and increased trust between those who arrive and those who live in these local communities.

Pope Francis states that the true encounter with the other does not stop at reception, but involves three other actions: Protect, promote and integrate.

The seminar brought together experts from the field, with everyday experience in solving the difficulties that arise over the days and weeks, the difficulties of the co-existence of people that come from different parts of the globe, where simple things such as how to feed themselves, or how to care for or educate their children, can be an underlying factor of conflict. This can be solved through basic rules of good co-existence, complying with regulations and respect for others and their differences. There are no complete and common responses in Europe. Countries are overcoming their problems with their own solutions and focused on the regions where the centres are located.

From the conclusions of this seminar, we must rethink in a transversal and articulated way the European Union’s strategies and responses, global integration models that prevent problems identified in various areas such as: work, health, society, economy, education, training, demographics and religious, and the response should begin immediately in the home country.

A truly inclusive country is not the one that receives, but the one that includes.

We believe that much progress has already been made, but we are aware the knowledge concerning the refugee employment market is still insufficient. It is urgent to take decisions that contribute to European Social Dialogue in this new framework that draws on this new European geography, this Europe that is experiencing unprecedented migratory flows but which does not have to be a Crisis Europe. Workers’ organisations cannot avoid the fundamental role that we can and must assume for the construction of a common migratory policy.

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