“To assert your rights, you must know what they are”

Good advice is an indispensable pillar of fair labour market integration, says Felix Litschauer of “Faire Integration” in an interview with the editorial team of the FES thematic portal "Displacement, Migration, Integration".

Mr Litschauer, what exactly does fair labour market integration mean?

Fair labour market integration implies that people can participate in the labour market under fair conditions and according to their qualifications. The most important prerequisites for this are: opportunities to acquire language skills and also have informal qualifications recognised without being under pressure to have to find employment quickly.

Regarding the employment relationship itself, full transparency as well as information on rights and duties at work is necessary. Furthermore, existing obstacles have to be eliminated to ensure that refugees and economic migrants from third countries are on a par with employees in Germany. In this context, the possibility to change the employer and protect oneself against exploitative employers without jeopardising one’s residence status is of particular importance. 

The advice centres of the German “Faire Integration” network offer their services to people who are not from the EU. In your opinion, what are the biggest problems third country citizens face in Germany?

For one thing, there is certainly the issue of recognising qualifications. While much has changed here in the past, the recognition process is still tedious and full of conditions. This is why refugees in particular are still often working in jobs way below their level of qualification. Unfortunately, we again and again see job centres placing their migrant clients in precarious jobs – for example in subcontracted employment – in order to be able to chalk up swift success. So far, long-term measures such as learning the German language – a basic requirement for good jobs in Germany – have not been at the forefront of efforts.

Then there is the major problem of residence permits being conditional on gainful employment or one’s ability to secure a living. This can result in considerable dependence on the employer. We again and again experience people seeking advice opting against bringing a legal action against their employer, even when the latter fails to pay wages or demands unpaid overtime, in order to avoid jeopardising their residence status.

How do these problems affect people coming to you to obtain advice?

Let’s take the family father from Afghanistan who has been granted a tolerated stay for the purpose of employment and who seeks to consolidate his residence status to enable his family to join him. He will then be under enormous pressure to also accept poor working conditions without being able to defend himself. And then there are more and more people from third countries who are consulting us having migrated to Germany for the purpose of employment – for example well qualified specialists who have come with the European Blue Card and are availing themselves of counselling because they have received a mere fraction of the wage they were promised. What all those seeking advice have in common is that their potential to become exploited by employers is immensely higher than that of German or European employees.

Such hurdles are amplified by manifold discrimination at various levels – whether it be in contacting authorities, in access to acquiring language skills or to the labour market and in the employment relationship. But lacking knowledge of their rights vis-à-vis the employer is another problem, and it increases the danger of exploitation.

What can be done to prevent this problem? For instance among the refugees from Ukraine who, following the invasion of the country by Russian troops in breach of International Law, have come to Germany?

In the first few months of the war, the focus was on disseminating basic information about the German labour market, for instance on “mini-jobs” (low-paid employment at not more than 400 euros a month), working hours and the minimum wage. Here, the emphasis is on prevention. Refugees are meant to be able to spot exploitative employment relations before even starting to work whenever possible.

In nearly all of our 28 advice centres throughout the Federal Republic, information was in very high demand among the refugees from Ukraine. The consultants also proactively approached the refugees, set up information stands at stations, visited reception centres or organised online events in Ukrainian. At 25%, those seeking advice who were from Ukraine formed the largest group of origin in April 2022. Now many refugees come with specific questions about jobs they are seeking and submit labour contracts for scrutiny by the advice centres. Advice continues to be in high demand on the topic of social security benefits. One very common question here is: “How much am I allowed to work as a recipient of SGB II (Social Security Code II) benefits, and is it worthwhile?” 

Do you have the impression that accommodation in private households, as opposed to hostels, helps the refugees more in settling down?

This tends to differ considerably depending on individual accommodation. There are many private hosts who also assist in visiting the authorities, step in to help with childcare, with job-seeking or with finding a flat of one’s own. But there are also some who have their guests working for them unpaid, where the line between mutual help and labour performance under the emotional pressure of being allowed to have free-of-charge accommodation sometimes gets blurred.

At the reception centres, different advisory services are frequently offered which can professionally provide people with information – this is something which private individuals of course cannot achieve in such a manner. But basically, one can say that if the host or hosts are willing and able to provide support when refugees arrive in Germany, this is a huge advantage!

Do you see a different need for advice among the refugees from Ukraine, especially given that they are mainly women and children?  

Owing to a major share of Ukrainian men being banned from leaving the country because of the war, it is above all women and children who have fled. Around three quarters of people from Ukraine obtaining advice at our centres are women. They have special needs regarding both the form and the content of counselling. Online counselling services are preferred since they are more convenient when children have to be looked after. Childcare is also an issue advice is sought for, such as when an integration course, looking after children and a job have to be reconciled. This can be a reason why many of the people seeking advice at our centres take “mini-jobs”, which however are particularly susceptible to labour law violations.

Furthermore, the consultants have to be trained in addressing the thematic fields of sexual exploitation and gender discrimination, by which women experiencing migration are disproportionately often affected. Also, corresponding information material has to be available. Further specific topics include rights at work during pregnancy and information on legal protection of expectant and nursing mothers as well as maternal leave.

What could politicians do to make integration policy more gender-sensitive?

From an integration policy angle, it is important for job centres to consider balancing family and work in promoting gainful employment and discussing individual needs together with the women themselves. Beyond this, employment promotion always has to take a wide range of factors into account, such as age, vocational qualifications and education status. Greater openness towards the needs of refugee women is also necessary for employers, for example regarding making arrangements for working hours. In addition, good, across-the-board counselling services with a firm financial base are required.

In addition to Ukrainian citizens, non-Ukrainian citizens from third countries – such as international students – have fled Ukraine. Can this group also reckon with a secure residence status or access to the education and labour market? 

Unfortunately, our experience is that here, there are a very large number of problems. It can generally be said that those who cannot return to their home country, for example because the security situation there is poor, are eligible for a residence permit in accordance with §24 of the Residence Act and therefore also for admission to integration courses and social security benefits. However, this only applies to a very small number of people. By now, all other Ukrainian third country citizens have to either leave Germany or apply for another residence permit, for instance for studying. However, in order to study in Germany, one has to speak German well and have a secure income. Without a scholarship, this means having roughly 11,000€ a year at one’s disposal. Most of those concerned do not meet this requirement. So it is quite possible that many of those who are not willing to leave are being forced into illegality. This is currently a huge challenge for the advice centres.    

As a network of advice centres, you are faced with many different languages and cultural backgrounds as well as, in some cases, people’s traumatic experiences. Are the advice centres sufficiently financed and staffed to also address the needs of refugees and migrants in the long term?

The advice centre network Faire Integration comprises a total of 50 consultants who, together, speak 19 languages. Most of our consultants have experienced migration themselves – having, for instance, fled Syria and Afghanistan in 2015. They are therefore sensitive to the situation of advice-seekers, for they have often had similar experiences. All of our consultants are regularly trained regarding both subject and method. Furthermore, there is a support team which offers assistance in difficult counselling cases and provides material for counselling work. Good counselling depends on applying a counselling approach aimed at enabling those seeking advice to assess their problem on their own and solving it as sustainably as possible. This form of empowerment requires that the consultants can impeccably impart necessary information in terms of content while demonstrating the existing options for action and describing possible consequences. During counselling, advantages and disadvantages of a certain approach can be discussed, although deciding what to do is ultimately up to the advice-seekers. Whenever possible, this process ought to take place in the mother tongue of those seeking advice.

As far as the structural prerequisites are concerned, first and foremost, better working conditions are required for the consultants in the shape of a long-term perspective for our network. We must at last depart from the project structure, which has created uncertainties in the form of limited contracts and short-term planning horizons. This is the only way to ensure high-quality counselling.

To assert your rights, you must know what they are. Therefore, good counselling is an indispensable pillar of labour market integration!

The network „Faire Integration"

Faire Integration is a German-wide, trade union-affiliated network of advice centres for migrants who are not from the EU offering counselling on labour and labour law issues.

“The advice centres support those seeking advice in protecting themselves from exploitation and discrimination and defending themselves against such practices. Knowledge of one’s own rights and duties within an employment relationship is essential in being able to securely move around the labour market. It is the basis of getting rid of precarious employment conditions and finding good employment in Germany. For in order to claim your rights, you have to know what they are.

“Faire Integration is part of the IQ network and is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) and the European Union.”

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