Society 09/03/2021

Covid crisis pushes precarious migrant workers to the limit

Despite border closures, Barcelona's migrant and refugee service only saw an 8% drop in numbers served in 2020

3 min
Queues at the soup kitchen of 'Las misioneras de la caridad' located in Arco de Santo Agustí street in the Arrabal neighbourhood, Barcelona

BarcelonaThey worked in the informal economy in sectors such as care or catering and when covid forced everything to stop they were left with nothing. Neither unemployment benefits nor aid from the furlough scheme. This vulnerability, which especially affected foreigners who had arrived in Catalonia recently, explains in large part why, despite the closing of borders and the fall in international mobility due to health restrictions, Barcelona's Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees Assistance Service (Saier) has hardly noticed a decrease in activity in 2020. In total it attended 19,001 people. And that represents a drop of only 8% from the 20,620 it assisted the previous year.

"People who were already in the city have suffered an increase in vulnerability," said the Councillor for Citizenship Rights, Marc Serra, when giving an explanation for the fact that the decline in the number of people assisted has not been as low as expected when the crisis broke out. Requests to help cover basic needs such as food, housing for families or aid for very specific procedures such as recognition of studies for people who have been living in the city for some time.

During the first stages of the confinement, Saier attended to many women who worked as domestic workers and lost their obs suddenly. This left them without any income and without the possibility of collecting unemployment benefits, so they turned to this municipal service that focuses on people who have been in the city for less than two years to seek help to get ahead. Saier has seen how during 2020 it had to increase its social care expenditure to cover basic needs and, instead, slightly decreased its newcomer assistance, which still accounts for 45% of its work. Prior to the pandemic, the number of men who received Saier's assistance was much higher; now, however, 1% more women than men seek help.

More precarious

"Many women have been left with nothing and many of those who still have jobs have seen how their conditions have worsened, suffering pay cuts or no longer being able to take days off out of fear of being infected and bringing the virus into the house where they work," explains Carmen Juares, from the association Diverse Migrant Women. She explains that they are seeing many cases of women in a very precarious situation, "on the verge of finding themselves on the street", and that these are working women, who in many cases work very long hours for very low wages and that some have to pay their own Social Security to avoid breaching the criteria of the Law on Foreigners. "These are women who earn €900 or €950 [a month] and have to pay €275 to for their social security. How do they live? This does not allow you to have savings. When you stop earning you are left with nothing," she explains.

The City Council also reiterated today the need for changes to the Law on Foreigners to facilitate the regularisation of migrants who arrive in the city and who are forced into the informal economy. The Councillor for Citizenship Rights pointed out that it does include the possibility that people who have worked irregularly for someone for a minimum of six months can report it, but he assured that it is a difficult process because not everyone is willing to report it and it tends to take a long time.

Of those assisted by Saier, 80% are in an irregular administrative situation and 44% are asylum seekers, a slightly lower percentage than in the years before the pandemic. The bulk of people who used the services come from Latin American countries, especially Colombia and Venezuela, but also from Honduras and Peru, while Morocco is in fifth place.

The municipal government reproaches the Generalitat and the State that, despite having the competences in migration and reception, they have not increased the contribution to the service, while the city has more than doubled the resources it allocates to the service since 2016 until now: it has gone from €2m to €4.8m.

Main nationality of Saier users

Criticism of the State

Barcelona councillor Marc Serra has accused the Spanish government - now made up by the same forces as the City Council - of allocating the money that arrives from Europe for reception policies, about €330m, "to shielding borders, building Centres for Internment of Foreigners (CIE) and police spending". "They do not end up reaching town and city councils", he reproached; and added that the resources "exist but are not being used in the right way".

The director of the Information Center for Foreign Workers (CITE) of CCOO, Carles Bertran, also warns that he now foresees a boom in demands for citizenhips requests and residence permits "We foresee a significant increase in demand and a certain collapse." He trusts that as a result of the current crisis situation, the Spanish government will make the criteria of the Law on Foreigners more flexible and that, for example, a year's full-time employment contract will not be required because now this is "almost impossible".