Migrant labour in Europe – a special challenge for decent work in selected sectors

The proportion of migrant workers in European employment structures is steadily increasing. Meanwhile, migrant work is an essential part of agriculture and the care landscape in Western Europe. The meat processing industry in Germany makes negative headlines. Not only there are working conditions called "modern slavery". Regardless of industry and deployment, working conditions are often dangerous or disastrous.

In Herzogenrath, around 29 participants from Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, gathered in the framework of the working group "Migrant labour in Europe – a special challenge for decent work in selected sectors", which took place from 11 to 14 March 2019 in Herzogenrath, Germany. Information was supplied from Germany, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Bulgaria on the status quo of migrant workers in the European Union. The invited initiatives presented their work on the topic exchanged experiences and developed the dialogue with initiatives and unions from sending countries. The participants came from trade unions and Catholic institutions of the workers' movement. The working group was carried out with the support of EZA and the European Union.

The most important aspects

The so-called labour emigration takes place from Eastern European EU countries such as Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. The partially criminal recruitment agencies recruit people with false promises to Germany and other Western EU countries.

Most of the labour migrants lack information about social, economic and cultural conditions in the target countries of employment.

There is a lack of interest in national and European politics - because it is EU citizens who are free to choose their job throughout the EU. There is both legal and illegal migrant work, and employment are not or only poorly controlled for abuse by employers.

Right now this seminar is essential.

At present, there are around 3 million migrant workers in Germany alone. It does not matter if they are in social security or illegal employment.

The issue is not relevant in public nor national and European policies, and as long as income, labour and economic conditions in the Eastern EU are significantly worse than in the Western EU, there will continue to be migrant workers who have to live in so-called "modern labour and wage slavery". However, all EU citizens have the free choice of jobs in the EU and the same rights - including human rights and dignity. It is important to make the subject more public to contain or prevent this "modern slavery".

Discussed topics

The example of the meat industry in Germany presented the inhumane working conditions. The sectors construction industry, the private care sector, agriculture, service sector in the gastronomy in luxury hotels also played a significant role.

Prelate Peter Kossen (Diocese of Münster) reported on the so-called German "Meat Mafia". There are mafia structures in dealing with Eastern European migrant workers. With their labour, millions of euros are earned for mediation and exploitation. The affected workers earn well below the German minimum wage, live in demolition homes, are not entitled to treatment in the event of illness and cannot inform themselves about their rights because they do not speak the language and are afraid. They are used, consumed, worn out and fired when they are no longer performing.

Dr Hildegard Hagemann from Justitia et Pax from Berlin, together with the DGB, commented on the European Mobility Policy. She reported that the social impact of migrant labour migration has not yet been adequately researched across Europe. About 50% of all employment worldwide is informal. Mobility is a keyword in the global workplace. Migrant workers are employed in agriculture, household services and the food industry to keep production and service costs low. Overall, labour migration in Germany is rising at 3.5 million people.

The European Union is having a hard time with the legal regulation of labour migration. There are guidelines, such as the EU Home Affairs Convention, the Stockholm Programme or the UN Migrant Workers' Convention. However, these have not been ratified by many states. At the same time, there is insufficient protection for migrant workers, their families, and a lack of sensitivity to the effects of increased labour migration on their countries of origin.

Country reports

Veselin Mitov (Podkrepa, Bulgaria) reported that around 2 million people from Bulgaria work in poor conditions in Western EU countries because the average salary in Bulgaria is around € 300. Bulgaria has about 9 million inhabitants, and more and more people want to leave the country. Skilled labour and know-how are lost. The situation is terrible in Bulgaria. State and economy are poorly managed, cultural, educational and social conditions are below average.

Eero Mikenberg (ETÖK, Estonia) reported that labour emigration is seen as somewhat positive there. For example, people work in Finland - because their incomes are much higher and their working conditions are right. There is no low-wage sector in Finland. Finland needs about 20,000 migrant workers in the next five years. In Estonia itself, however, wages have been rising for some time from € 1,000 in 2016 to € 1,400 in 2018 on average. The inflation rate is falling (currently 4%) and there has been economic growth for some time. Estonians return to their country again.

Advice; exemplary initiatives dealing with migrant workers and consequences for daily work

Sister Svitlana Matsiuk, Steyler Missionary Sister (SSpS), and operating sorcerer Johannes Eschweiler from the Diocese of Aachen reported on their support and support of migrant workers in the so-called 'live-ins' in Heinsberg and the surrounding area. The migrant workers come mainly from Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine. They work primarily in private households as nurses, in agriculture and construction. There are no real employment contracts, no sensible communication. Within the framework of the support, contact is made with migrant workers and discussion groups are established with encounters and exchanges. Moreover, pastoral and personal accompaniment, as well as the mediation of support in labour and social questions. This is accompanied by public relations, political work and language courses.

Rosi Becker and Heinz Backes present the self-help network "Respekt" of the Diocese of Aachen and the Catholic Workers Movement (KAB) Aachen. Since 2017, the network has been organizing around 80 Eastern European care workers. They get in contact with each other and attend German courses to improve their communication in Germany. The migrant workers often have no training. For example, they are trained in nursing.


Maria Reina Martin introduces the International Cooperation and Migration Platform IPCM. Its primary objective is to promote actions of solidarity concerning international development and migration cooperation. It helps to eliminate hunger, poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Catalina Guia presents work and life DGB / VHS NRW e.V. The association advises and assists workers from Eastern and Central Europe on labour and social questions and helps to set up a network of information, counselling and support structures and assists in the implementation of fair working conditions. The transfer of knowledge with trade unions and the population is obligatory.

Justyna Oblacewicz introduces "Fair Mobility" of the DGB Berlin, which looks after employees from Central and Eastern European countries in the German labour market and helps to ensure fair wages and fair working conditions. The project works together with the European Trade Union Confederation and the interregional trade union councils.

The main findings

Labour migration is mainly due to poverty and has serious consequences: children grow up without parents (so-called Euro-wise). Families are destroyed. Workers and know-how are migrating - the economic, cultural and social development in the home countries is getting worse. "Modern slavery" is also a consequence of neoliberal capitalism. Equal living and working conditions in all EU countries prevents migrant labour and wage slavery. The topic is not perceived in public and politics. Trade unions and church organisations are "too kind".

In Germany, migrant work is often synonymous with moonlighting. There are precarious employment contracts or bogus self-employment. The industries most affected include the meat industry, luxury hotels, construction, households (looking after and caring for old and sick people) and agriculture (seasonal workers). The migrant workers often work around the clock, cannot claim their rights, do not receive their overtime pay, so the hourly wage is usually well below the statutory minimum wage.

The most important demands

Trade unions need to modernise their ways to reach people in such work situations. New forms of communication must be made, e.g. Web platforms to improve contact with migrant workers. Cooperation also with non-governmental organisations is essential. People need to be empowered to care for their rights together. The Catholic Church needs to face this problem internally and externally. Control authorities - such as customs - need to control sustainable jobs and criminal companies must be punished. National and European policies need to be made aware of the issue through joint public campaigns. The many small and more significant projects and regional advice centres on the subject need better financial and logistical support.


The organizers, together with the participants, have decided that, due to the many regional and international projects and advice centres from the trade unions, the church and free organizations, it is worthwhile for the European Commission (under the Erasmus programme line) to share in a project experiences, promote collaboration, and develop working methods for everyday working life and to present the results by publishing them so they can  be discussed by the public, society and politics.