The settlement of migrants and refugees in societies prompts questions in relation to the stratification of labour markets, the redistribution of resources, and the organisation of welfare states. Migrants are often stigmatised for taking the jobs of local people, for causing too much social expenditure, and for taking disproportionate social benefits compared to other local people in need. But what does the data tell us about the incorporation of migrants and refugees into host societies?

The first question we should ask is what kind of jobs are migrants most often employed in? They are over-represented among the so-called 3-D jobs: dirty, dangerous, and demanding; low-qualified positions subject to high levels of instability, low pay, precarity, and with few or no future prospects.

By Kin Li on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how many of the essential jobs required to sustain the everyday life of citizens in European countries depend on the migrant labour force. Be they in agriculture, housekeeping, caregiving, or in transport, migrants often occupy positions that imply very hard working conditions that local people are often unwilling to endure. Furthermore, due to the segmentation of labour markets and obstacles to social mobility, qualified migrants often face multiple barriers to get their qualifications recognised and to get access to those skilled positions for which they are qualified.

PART I: Migration and the labour market

The stratification of the labour market creates more difficulties for migrants, preventing access to jobs due to their position of vulnerability and due to structural discrimination that follows from the intersection of several axes of oppression that are linked to ethnic and racial origin, gender, age, language and/or educational background.

Labour access and over-qualification

In addition, those who are employed tend to hold more precarious and low-qualified jobs than autochthonous people. Eurostat data shows that in 2020 the EU employment rate for people aged 20 to 64 years was 61.9 % for those born outside the EU, and 73.5 % for the native-born population and for people born in another EU Member State. Correspondingly, people born outside the EU are more likely to be unemployed than their native counterparts. The same source shows that in 2020 the EU unemployment rate for people aged 20 to 64 years was 13.9 % for those born outside the EU, while for those born in another EU Member State and for the native-born population it was 8.1 % and 6.1 %, respectively.

Looking at the differences shown in the graph above in employment rates for the population aged 20-64 years between EU and non-EU born populations with tertiary education, we can clearly see a wide gap between the two. In relation to national context, Greece, Spain and Cyprus are among the countries with the largest differences of over 20 percentage points, while Malta, Portugal and Luxembourg are at the opposite end of the range.

This gap points to the problems of labour incorporation among highly-educated migrants and therefore to the challenges of homologation (including the recognition of education credentials) from their countries of origin. In this sense, the further data related to overqualification speaks for itself: in 2020, the overqualification rate in 2020 for nationals was 20.8 % compared with 32.3 % for citizens of other EU Member States and 41.4 % for non-EU citizens.





Difference in employment rates for the population aged 20-64 years having completed tertiary education, by country of birth, 2020

Source: Eurostat

Employment conditions

As regards the employment conditions, it is clear that migrants are more likely to find temporary and part-time jobs. In 2020, more than one fifth (20.3 %) of employees born outside the EU were in temporary employment, compared with 11.8 % for native-born employees and 13.8 % for employees born in a different EU Member State. Likewise, in the same year nearly one quarter (24.2 %) of employed persons who were born outside the EU worked part-time, compared with 16.9 % for employed native-born persons and 22.1 % for employed persons born in a different EU Member State.

It is also worth mentioning that migrants not only contribute to the growth of GDP and national economies through being employed, but they also often work as self-employed or create jobs for others through opening new businesses. Eurostat data shows that the share of persons born outside the EU that were self-employed in 2020 was 11.7 %, compared with 11.4 % for persons born in a different EU Member State and 13.9 % for the native-born population. Although the percentage of self-employed for foreign-born people is lower than for native-born, the difference is not as big as in previous indicators. This shows a tendency for migrants to start-up their own businesses or become self-employed, often as a mechanism to escape unemployment and/or underqualified positions. It should also be borne in mind that some of these businesses not only benefit national economies, but also those of the home countries. This is thanks both to migrants sending remittances back home and to engagement in transnational or international enterprises that may contribute to co-development and to the leveraging of worldwide inequalities between the Global North and the Global South.



Call shop in Barcelona

PART II: Narratives versus facts

At times of crisis and with rising levels of unemployment, exclusionary discourses which assert that  ‘migrants take our jobs’ under the perception of rising competition tend to increase in visibility.

Data on the effects of the economic crisis of 2008 show how the destruction of millions of jobs affected migrants much more than autochthonous people, due to the economic sectors they were previously employed in. As a report by the Ifo institute reveals, in 2008 and 2010 the unemployment rate of the foreign-born increased by 14% in Spain and by about 9% in Ireland and Iceland, affecting especially men. This is because women were (and still are) more concentrated in sectors related to social and household services that continued to experience employment growth during the crisis in many countries; whereas men were typically overrepresented in the most deeply-affected sectors (construction, manufacturing, finance).

By Mansado Louis on Unsplash

Many non-EU citizens are “essential workers”.

European Commission website, based on Eurostat data, January 2021

Labour stratification, racialisation and limited access to welfare

With the Covid-19 crisis, migrants and foreign-born populations were again adversely affected more than native-born populations. This is mainly because the former are more likely to be in temporary employment, earn lower wages and have jobs that are less amenable to remote working. Moreover, the pandemic has made it very clear that EU economies rely heavily on migrant workers to keep them running. According to a recent study, in 2020 migrants in the EU accounted for 13% of workers that were deemed ‘essential’. In particular, the share of foreign-born workers constituted up to a third of the total number of essential low-skilled professions, including cleaners and carers, and mining, agriculture and construction labourers. Other reports confirm that, despite natives making up the majority of key workers (comprising approximately 31% of all employed working-age individuals), non-EU born migrants also proved essential in filling those vital roles, especially during periods of forced closure.

The narrative around essential workers has contributed to raise awareness of the key role undertaken by migrants in the labour market of many EU countries. In the agriculture sector, for instance, migrant labour during the 2020 lockdown helped assure the functioning of global agri-food chains. However, this narrative also risks depicting migrants primarily as objects to be exploited in the service of the economy (‘we only praise them when we need them’). That utilitarian perspective should thus be contrasted with humanitarian approaches that defend the right to migrate and advocate for migrants’ human rights, including the right to work under fair conditions with freedom, equity, security and human dignity.

At the same time, we should pay attention to the narratives that put racism as the cause of structural inequalities. These narratives make one step beyond, since they do not focus on the migrants themselves, but on the structural inequalities related to racism. Under this approach, structural racism is considered a practice of exploitation of racialised groups and individuals that are assigned by default an inferior position, and an ideology that justifies and naturalises the fact that there are groups and individuals with less rights than others.




Limited access to welfare

Another narrative of disinformation about migrants revolves around welfare benefits. A recent publication from the International Migration Research Network (2020) offers in-depth analyses of the national welfare regimes in relation to the challenges of increasing mobility to and from the EU. It points to the fact that access by migrants and their offspring to welfare has become a key area of concern at a time when migration is highly politicised, and in the context of financial crises that produce high levels of unemployment and poverty like in 2008. Regardless of any increase in demand for social protection, the response of many States has been to reduce expenditure on welfare through cutting or freezing social benefits, public sector pay and pensions, increasing the retirement age, reducing unemployment benefits and/or restricting the potential range of beneficiaries. Specifically, governments have introduced (or suggested) policies aimed at limiting migrants’ eligibility for welfare benefits. In spite of these restrictions, migrants have been labelled as ‘abusers’ and an ‘unreasonable burden’ on domestic social protection systems.

Data from the 27 EU Member States shows that even when migrants do benefit from equal access to welfare, the required eligibility criteria (including qualifying periods of contribution and employment, waiting periods, documents and application procedures) often make it far more difficult for migrants to access benefits when compared to non-migrants.

By Mercedes Carballo on Unsplash


The idea of immigrants as competitors for social welfare resources and the need to restrict these to natives not only entails exclusionary narratives, but also a false debate about having to choose between ‘us’ and ‘them’ for scarce resources. This is what Jørgen Goul Andersen and Tor Bjørklund call  ‘welfare chauvinism’, an argumentation strategy used by right-wing populist parties in order to establish a connection between deficiencies in the welfare state and social groups at risk of social exclusion who may potentially receive more benefits. However, this reductionist and simplistic argumentation does not go to the root of the problem and avoids questioning the mechanisms of welfare redistribution, thus missing the opportunity to find solutions for building more cohesive and egalitarian societies.



Elaboration of contents: Berta Güell, PhD in Sociology and researcher at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and Elena Ananiadou, museologist at La Tempesta


Andersen, Jørgen Gou and Tor Bjørklund. 1990. Structural changes and new cleavages: The progress parties in Denmark and Norway. Acta Sociologica, 33(2), 195–217.

Chaloff, Jonathan, Jean-Christophe Dumont and Thomas Liebig. 2012. “The impact of the economic crisis on migration and labour market outcomes of immigrants in OECD countries.” ifo DICE Report https://www.ifo.de/en/node/28352

European Commission. 2021. Overall figures of immigrants in European society. Employment of immigrants. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#employment-of-immigrants

European Migration Network (EMN) & Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2020. Maintaining labour migration in essential sectors in times of pandemic– EMN-OECD Inform. Brussels: European Migration Network https://ec.europa.eu/migrant-integration/library-document/inform-3-maintaining-labour-migration-essential-sectors-times-pandemic-covid-19_en

Eurostat. 2021. Migrant integration statistics – labour market indicators https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Migrant_integration_statistics_%E2%80%93_labour_market_indicators#Employment_rates

Eurostat. 2021. Migrant integration statistics – over-qualification https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Migrant_integration_statistics_-_over-qualification

Eurostat. 2021. Migrant integration statistics – employment conditions https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Migrant_integration_statistics_-_employment_conditions

Fasani, Francesco and Mazza, Jacopo. 2020. “A Vulnerable Workforce: Migrant Workers in the COVID-19 Pandemic”. Publications Office of the European Union. doi:10.2760/316665, JRC120730.

Fasani, Francesco and Mazza, Jacopo. 2020. “Immigrant Key Workers: Their Contribution to Europe’s COVID-19 Response”. IZA Policy Paper No. 155 https://www.iza.org/publications/pp/155/immigrant-key-workers-their-contribution-to-europes-covid-19-response

Vintila, Daniela and Jean-Michel Lafleur. 2020. “Migration and Access to Welfare Benefits in the EU: The Interplay between Residence and Nationality.” In: Lafleur, JM., Vintila, D. (eds) Migration and Social Protection in Europe and Beyond (Volume 1). IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham  https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-51241-5_1

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