Bergen, case study

Irregular migrants’ structural vulnerability and survival strategies
A case study in the Bergen area
Faustin Gasana
Stein Rokkan Centre for social studies
UNI research AS
Juni 2012
ISBN 9788-82-8095-082-6

The following text is a copy of page 49-55, and describes the access to labor market for irregular immigrants:

Labor market participation

In Norway, immigrants without residence permits are not allowed to work or engage in income-generating activities. However, the Immigration Act (Utlendingsloven) and the Immigration Regulation (Utlendingsforskriften) allow asylum-seekers to access the labor market during the asylum application process (Immigration Act, art. 94 and Immigration Regulations, art. 17–24). All participants in this research had been allowed to work legally for several years before new restrictions were introduced in 2010. In fact, during the asylum application process, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) may decide, in accordance with the Immigration Act, to grant a temporary work permit to an asylum-seeker who (a) has done his or her asylum interview, (b) has provided a passport or acceptable national identity card to UDI, and (c) is not subject to the Dublin procedure, that is, he or she has not submitted an asylum application in another state that is party to the Dublin Convention (UDI 2010). This temporary work permit lasts six renewable months and is invalid if the applicant receives a final rejection of his or her asylum application. Issuing temporary work permits has been the prevailing practice in UDI for at least 10 years, between 1999 and 2009 (Valenta and Thorshaug 2011a). The temporary work permit gives the asylum-seeker a right to look for employment and to apply for a tax card to give to current or prospective employers (Tax Payment Act, chap. 5). After the first application, the tax card is sent automatically every year to all taxpayers. However, in practice until 2010, when asylum-seekers’ applications were finally rejected, UDI did not inform the asylum-seekers’ employers nor the Tax Administration (Bendixsen 2011). Consequently, employers were unaware of their employees’ current immigration status and the Tax Office continued to automatically send tax cards. The rejected asylum-seekers, who were then irregular migrants, continued to work and pay tax in breach of immigration law (Skille et al. 2011).

Access issues

Today, access to the labor market has become a real headache for irregular migrants. Most respondents interviewed claimed that they had worked and paid taxes for several years, but now had lost their jobs because they no longer could secure a work permit or tax card. Certain respondents said that before 2010, they had worked without a work permit, but had been given a tax card every year. Others claimed they had been able to work without a work permit or tax card because their employers did not ask for these documents. Now they found it hard and even impossible to work legally because the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) had withdrawn their work permit and the tax office could not issue them with a tax card. In addition, the Norwegian police had been carrying out raids in workplaces where irregular migrants were suspected to work. Employers faced heavy fines if they were found to employ irregular migrants. In Rogaland County, at least 30 private enterprises and public institutions were fined approximately five million Norwegian kroner (Kvalvåg 2012), and a small Rogaland company, Solabakeren AS, whose director had refused to fire an irregular migrant worker, was fined 300 000 kroner in early 2012. In that case, according to Kvalvåg (2012), the migrant had worked in the company since 2004 while his asylum application was under review; his application was rejected in 2010. After the fine, the director said: «Now I have no choice. I must terminate his contract» (Kvalvåg 2012). Similarly, the university hospital of Stavanger incurred a fine of 350 000 kroner for employing irregular migrants. The public relations officer of the hospital told the Aftenbladet newspaper: 

When we were made aware of the violation of the law, we immediately terminated our employment of irregular migrants. We also changed our procedures so that this shall not happen again (Kvalvåg 2012). 

These developments are emblematic of the pluralization of migration control (Aas 2007), as migration control responsibilities are delegated downwards and outwards (Guiraudon 2004) to actors whose primary duties have nothing to do with immigration controls. UDI’s increased control and surveillance for the exclusion of irregular migrants is facilitated by a coordinated cooperation between immigration authorities, the tax administration, and employers. Both the tax administration and employers have assumed control responsibilities that UDI alone has not been able to carry out. I argue that this cooperation is part of a broader migration control policy that aims to further tighten internal controls and restrictions meant to severely curtail irregular migrants’ access to welfare goods – and notably to the labor market – with the ultimate goal to push irregular migrants to leave the country. This coordinated over-tightening of irregular migrants’ access to the labor market affected all respondents in this study in important ways. Many of them lost their jobs, which were the sole income source for them and their families.

For the irregular migrants interviewed, the work permit constituted the precious key to the labor market. Without a valid work permit, it is impossible to secure a tax card and to work legally. Moreover, employers had terminated their contracts. The informants said:

Now I don’t work. It’s not easy to find a job. Before, I was cleaning. When I lost my work permit in 2010, it became difficult to find a job. (Lewis)

I left the reception center five years ago. I had been working, but now I have lost my job. (Kelvin)

Before I had two jobs with a permanent contract, but now one company has terminated my contract because I have neither a work permit nor tax card. So the situation is not easy. (Gloria)

I had a full-time permanent contract, but now I have lost my work because my employer says I can’t continue working without tax card. (Josette)

Without a work permit it’s impossible to work and no one wants to help me get a job. (Shiva)

For most respondents, losing work meant more than losing a source of income, as work also constituted a safety valve from stress and depression, that is, a release from their depressive feelings. Work also represented a meaningful use of time and a form of recognition of whom they were and of their willingness to make it in life. In his ethnographic study among irregular migrants in Oslo, Kjærre (2010:250–51) observed that his informants were aware of the importance of work to remain sane and feel less depressed. Kjærre noted that being engaged in employment helps solve problems related to lack of direction and dignity. Thus, even under dismal and exploitive conditions, work is always far better than a passive life, something that Maureen exemplified: 

What makes me strong? It’s my work. Before, I was remaining in my room, sleeping and listening to music and thinking about my situation. It was very hard to see others go to and from work while I was forced to stay in my room. Now I go to work at least three times a week and it makes me feel normal and positive about myself.

In addition, many informants indicated they had had a professional life in their countries of origin and they wished to continue working to give meaning to their life and support themselves and their families. Without work, they said, their dreams and hopes for the future were shattered and their illusions about Norway were destroyed.

Even though some respondents had lost their jobs as a result of their irregular status and the loss of work permits and tax cards, several of them were working at the time of the interviews. But the conditions under which they were working had changed. Certain informants reported that they were left with a reduced contract for one or two days a week, while others did not have a contract, but received some piecework via friends and acquaintances. The majority resorted to the black market where working conditions were highly exploitive in terms of payment, safety, and working hours. Here are some of their responses when asked to describe their current working conditions:

Without a work permit, it’s hard to get a job, but it’s possible to work black although the pay is very low. (Naomi)

As I don’t have a tax card, I pay 50 per cent of my salary in tax. My boss [has not sacked me because he] likes my flexibility and hard work. (Maureen)

I have a contract. They ring me when then need me. I do a cleaning job and work also in a restaurant. (Arafat)

I don’t have a contract and I don’t have any hope for a better job because I don’t have a work permit. (Kayat)

Some respondents described their working condition as extremely difficult. They complained about being given too much work for one person, working very long hours, and doing an overly difficult job. Alex said he worked at least 12 hours per day and if he got sick he did not get paid.

Many respondents resorted to the black labor market where the conditions were even worse. But in spite of difficult conditions, many respondents said they did not have any choice because work is life and life is money. Kayat said:

I get 30 kroner per hour. I accept it because money is life; because you can’t live without money … I work more than 15 hours per day to survive.

Kayat said he came to Norway both for his safety and for opportunities for a prosperous life. His dream was to study, work, establish a family, and help his old and sick parents. He said he had a girlfriend in Bergen who gave him comfort and consolation. As a young adult he said he needed money for his subsistence and leisure activities. He was unhappy about his life and conditions of work, but he knew that work was his only source of income.

As for Kelvin, work was a form of «slavery» – extremely hard and badly paid, if paid at all. He said work was indispensable, but he found the price too high to bear:

Work? It’s not work; it’s slavery. This system will kill us. There is no justice, no rights for us. They want us to die.

Moreover, Kelvin found his working conditions very dehumanizing. He used the metaphor of «machine» to depict the harsh inhuman conditions under which he sometimes worked. Kelvin did not put the blame only on employers who, according to him, had the blessings and green light from the state authorities. He reported that his employers were understanding and aware of the irregular migrants’ difficult situation. Kelvin’s representation of labor as slavery illustrates irregular migrants’ utter lack of job security and is reminiscent of Mile’s (1987) notion of unfree labor.

Research has explored the state’s role in making irregular migrants vulnerable to precarious working conditions (Anderson 2008; Anderson and Ruhs 2010). Some researchers of irregular migrants in the labor markets in Western states have argued that the process of irregularization aims not to hermetically keep irregular migrants out of the labor market, but to discipline them into flexible, docile, cheap, and exploitable labor (De Genova 2002:439; Green 2011; Scheel 2011). For Scheel (2011), the state’s increasingly restrictive migration policies and ever more sophisticated forms of migration control cannot stop irregular migrants from working; rather, they aggravate the conditions under which they work. He stressed that the state’s migration control policies produce disenfranchised individuals, thereby creating a range of modes of «unfree labor» (Miles 1987). Scheel (2011) insisted that the irregular migrants’ working conditions be conceived as unfree labor since these working conditions are possible only because of the irregular migrants’ precarious status. Anderson (2010:313) went even further and argued that immigration controls should be conceived as:

… a mould constructing certain types of workers through selection of legal entrants, the requiring and enforcing of certain types of employment relations, and the creation of institutionalised uncertainty (italics in the original).

Anderson described irregular migrants as precarious workers whose jobs are characterized by instability, insecurity, uncertainty, social and economic vulnerability, and lack of protection (p. 303). Following are some examples of how the respondent dealt with their precariousness in the labor market.

Alternative strategies

A question to consider is what irregular migrants do when they lose their jobs, or risk losing them, or when their work conditions deteriorate considerably. To gain access to the labor market, most informants reported they resorted to the black labor market or were contemplating doing so. Kelvin said:

I work in the black market because I’m obliged to do so.

Although the Norwegian government is aware that irregular migrants work in the black labor market, the government’s position is that «combating undeclared work is important to combat illegal immigration».9

The interviewees knew that the working conditions in the black market are unsatisfactory in terms of wages, working hours, working environment, type of contract, and stability of work. Alex worked in exploitive conditions for some years, but indicated that he had no other choice:

At work you do not even have the right to talk about your rights. If I dare ask for improvements of my conditions of service, then I can be fired. I can’t change my job because I don’t have a work permit. It’s worse if I get fired.

Kayat said he talked to his boss about improving his working conditions, especially his wages of 30 kroner per hour. The boss said his prime preoccupation was to make a profit for his company in a very competitive business environment. He explained that it was extremely hard to meet his company’s obligations in taxes and other overhead costs. Kayat’s boss invoked the state policies and the broad economic and business environment to justify Kayat’s precarious working conditions, attributing the blame to a higher level. Kayat’s weak position emanated from his irregular migrant status, which his employer tended to exploit. Although the government’s policy is to fight against social dumping (Arbeidsdepartementet 2008), the state exposes migrants to work conditions below the country’s acceptable standards through policies to irregularize many of them. Some employers, particularly in the informal sector, view this group of migrants as beneficial to their businesses and aim to make the most of this opportunity. For irregular migrants, working in substandard conditions is a necessary evil; while for employers, irregular migrants’ labor is a necessary good and a strategic opportunity.

Certain municipal councils, such as in Bergen, Trondheim, and Stavanger, have adopted resolutions in opposition to the central government’s decisions regarding irregular migrants’ ability to work legally while on the national territory. These municipal authorities contend that allowing irregular migrants to participate in the labor market represents a win-win situation whereby local employers would be free to employ the migrants without fear of breaching the immigration law and irregular migrants would be able to contribute to the local economy and meet their basic needs. The central government’s position and response has remained adamant, categorically rejecting such propositions and insisting on the ongoing state-sponsored repatriation programs.

Losing one’s employment often means losing the most important source of one’s livelihood. Therefore, those who have lost their jobs as a result of their irregular status must depend on their friends in the community to meet their basic needs. They may get assistance with accommodation, food, money, and clothes, as well as moral and psychological support. Arafat said he would not have managed without the solidarity of his friends and people from his country of origin. For couples or single parents with children, losing a job leads to a particularly complicated situation.10 Indeed, without income, they find if virtually impossible to meet their children’s needs. Families find it hard to stay with friends for a long time. Consequently, most irregular migrants with families choose to return to reception centers where at least they can get shelter, although their deportability increases.