Report from the employment charity Work Rights Centre shows how the year of Covid-19 has affected migrant workers in the low-paid sector.

“The feeling of hopelessness people have been experiencing has been deeply demoralising”

- WoRC advisor

The charity Work Rights Centre (WoRC) has today published its anticipated report into the effects of the year of Covid-19 on migrant workers in the low-paid sector. The findings illustrate the pervasive, multifaceted nature of these effects.

- Over 1,000 cases examined between March 2020-March 2021

- One in four people struggled to understand the Government's Covid support schemes

- One in five people in need of urgent financial assistance

- Women twice as likely to be unemployed as men

- Recent EU migrants unable to get a National Insurance Number

Most beneficiaries approaching the team were Bulgarian and Romanian, followed by Ukrainian, Spanish, Italian and UK nationals. Many worked in manual sectors, with the majority in construction, cleaning, hospitality, food packaging and services.

Discrimination and bullying concerns replaced by job security fears:

Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, the charity’s director, commented: “We’ve seen a shift in the kinds of questions people have been asking. The year before, almost half of all enquiries were related to job quality; things like payment, grievances, discrimination or bullying in the workplace.

“In the year of Covid, these types of questions constituted barely a quarter. Instead, we’ve had inquiries about job security, government support schemes, unemployment and, increasingly, financial help. One in four people had a question about furlough, the SEISS or the coronavirus in general, indicating that despite the media attention, the government’s support schemes were difficult to understand by migrant workers themselves. We also heard twice as many questions about redundancy, dismissals and disciplinary actions, and saw a huge increase in people who were unemployed and in serious financial need.”

Bethany Birdsall, a Work Rights Centre advisor, added: “Most of us probably know someone who accessed the government’s job retention scheme, but I think what is less understood is that this support was optional for employers. Many people lost their jobs and couldn’t access furlough. Perhaps they also faced one of the many barriers to accessing UC. In such cases, workers are left without any support at all.”

Women twice as likely to be unemployed, with men over-represented in self-employment:

There were clear gender disparities in how migrant workers experienced Covid. Women were twice as likely to be out of work than men. However, despite being more likely to be economically active, almost half of the men were self-employed, or in positions where employment status was unclear. A significant minority of 6% of men and women recounted working in informal positions without any terms of agreement.

“Informal work matters,” Vicol comments. “During the year of Covid, it wasn’t just a risk to employment rights. It also excludes workers from government support schemes and other contribution-based social security entitlements.”

Recent European migrants were unable to get a NINO:

From March to December 2020, the DWP stopped issuing NI numbers to applicants who didn’t enter the UK on a visa. During this time, EU nationals without a NINO reported struggling to find jobs and consequently being financially precarious, dependent on their partners’ income and demoralised by months of involuntary inactivity.

“Even when the DWP resumed the allocation of NINOs, we continued to receive questions about the process,” comments Vicol. “In one case, an EU national had her application rejected after the share code she used to prove her EU settled status (EUSS) expired by the time the DWP picked up her application!”

Brexit still an issue for one in every five EU nationals:

While 2019 was dominated by questions about how to apply for the EUSS, the year of Covid marked a shift to questions about rights under the scheme, particularly the rights of children, family and status holders. “Many of the EU nationals who approached us didn’t know whether their UK-born children had British citizenship and whether an EUSS application was necessary,” explains Vicol.

Additionally, many EU nationals returned to their home countries during the pandemic. Transnational travel restrictions made it hard to return, leading to periods of extended absence and concerns that they would lose their right to settle in the UK.

Under the current rules, EU nationals with pre-settled status who accumulate an absence of six months in any 12 month period retain their right to re-enter the UK, but risk losing their right to settle after their pre-settled status expires (five years after being granted it). The Home Office stipulates exceptions to this rule, but questions remain about what constitutes grounds for exception and how to prove it.

Charities working hard to protect workers’ rights:

Despite the slowdown in economic activity, the Work Rights Centre helped hundreds of people into work. The majority of beneficiaries who asked for their help drafting a CV and preparing for an interview were also successful in getting a job.

Over the past 12 months, the charity helped beneficiaries recover over £21,000 in unpaid wages, fees (for those who were self-employed) or unpaid holiday. This marked a decrease from the previous year, reflecting the changing nature of people’s inquiries. Overall, however, since the first day of activity, the charity’s advisors have helped recover over £95,000.

While this is all positive, the charity has felt the pain of workers in the low-skilled sector, who have been pushed to the limit. “The feeling of hopelessness people have been experiencing has been deeply demoralising,” one commented.

Moving forwards:

What is clear from the report is the need for investment in retraining and employability programmes, mental health programmes, and increased support for EU nationals struggling to prove their right to work. The charity has also urged the government to consider the unemployment support system, as returning to pre-pandemic UC levels would mean embracing one of the least generous unemployment packages in the OECD.

The charity has outlined its recommendations here:

Notes to Editors

Established in London in 2016, The Work Rights Centre (WoRC) is a registered charity dedicated to ending in work poverty and precarious employment.

We focus on supporting migrant workers, people of colour, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are often more at risk of precarious employment and social immobility. Migrant workers in particular are often less aware of, and less able to access, their rights.

An integral part of our mission to end in work poverty is the cultivation of personal and professional mobility. We do this via our advice clinics and by disseminating usable, useful information via social media and to specific migrant groups.

As long-term impact needs systemic change, we are also committed to challenging the policies and attitudes that facilitate precarious work at a structural level. Our policy-making, data-collecting and awareness-raising activities are a key part of this approach.

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