Putting Lives on Hold – The Impact of COVID-19 on a Labour Mobility Scheme

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put the world on hold and impacted economies and people's lives, including those on the move. The socio-economic challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has imposed on labour migration and governments are complex. The labour mobility pilot scheme between Germany and Tunisia that is being implemented as part of the programme Towards a Holistic Approach to Labour Migration Governance and Labour Mobility in North Africa (THAMM) is no exception. When the pandemic hit, several potential migrants in Tunisia and employers in Germany were preparing for the arrival of a group of young North Africans to start traineeships in Germany in the hotel and gastronomy sector. When borders were closed, the involved actors needed to show resilience and adapt to the new reality.

Covid Passport

As part of support research for THAMM, we, therefore, asked the question what the impacts of COVID-19 were on the scheme and how the different stakeholders adapted to the new reality that was created more or less overnight.

In December 2018, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) was adopted and set a new framework for global migration governance. Among the objectives addressed in the GCM are the creation of regular migration channels (Objective 5) and the investment in the development and recognition of skills (Objective 18). It is in this context that the THAMM programme has been initiated by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). It is jointly implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Organization for Migration (IOM). THAMM aims to support the development of labour migration governance in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia on the one hand. On the other hand, it will strengthen existing and create new regular migration and mobility channels from North Africa to Europe. Specifically, this is a mobility scheme implemented in Germany, led by the GIZ, who developed the conceptual framework for this scheme. The target group are individuals of working age in North African countries, who are seeking a job opportunity or who want to pursue an apprenticeship in Germany. THAMM has been operating since 2019.

From the beginning of THAMM, GIZ has commissioned us at UNU-MERIT, Maastricht University to conduct support research on some of the components of THAMM. Through this support research, we aim to contribute to the understanding of the experiences that the different involved stakeholders make throughout the project and to look at the implications that this kind of labour mobility scheme may have for sustainable development. In the framework of the global pandemic, we, therefore, decided to use the unique opportunity to collect data on those involved in the labour mobility scheme at that point. We aimed to shed light on how the programme was adapted to still ensure that it can meet its goals and how individual participants and their employers dealt with the significant challenges that they suddenly faced.

At the time we conducted the research in 2021, 39 apprentices from Tunisia had been able to come to Germany while the pandemic was still ongoing. Numbers have increased since then and the first migrant workers from Egypt have also arrived by now. We conducted interviews with key stakeholders involved in the programme, including employers, programme staff and partners, and an online survey among the migrant workers. The findings allow us to understand the challenges that the different actors faced due to the global pandemic and how they worked, in many cases together, to solve them.

Movement disruptions impacted labour mobility and skills schemes and migrants and their families in different ways. For instance, in states with sectors and occupations (e.g., agricultural, domestic care, construction, health care and maintenance) that are reliant on migrant workers, labour market demands were often hard to meet. Migrants were not able to come due to border closures, while others were not able to return when they had initially planned. In addition, remittances did decline, though not as much as initially estimated, and many people relying on this money were also adversely impacted by the impacts on labour migration.

Specific to THAMM we identified several challenges that the different actors were suddenly facing. German language training is an essential part of the programme. This takes place in the country of origin and participants need to obtain a certain level before they can move to Germany to work. These classes, which normally take place in person, suddenly had to be moved online. At the same time, those that were ready to move, could not; essentially putting their lives on hold until borders opened again. While the latter was beyond the control of the THAMM team, the changes in the language courses were actually afterwards seen as a success because innovative ways and new partners were found to ensure learning was still possible.

Once the first participants did arrive in Germany, the reality of the sector in which they started their apprenticeships hit them and their employers. The hotel and gastronomy sectors themselves were heavily affected by regulations put in place to contain the virus. This made it impossible to engage in the tasks that normally would have been part of the training. Employers and apprentices needed to find ways to still ensure practical learning was taking place. At the same time, vocational schools moved online, if they took place at all, which was challenging for many of the participants in a situation where the language was also still a challenge.

Furthermore, the lockdowns and social restrictions significantly restricted possibilities to meet other people. This negatively impacted integration processes. Yet, in many cases, employers and participants worked together to make the best out of a situation that they could not change. Some worked on improving language skills further or trained specific other skills. Others took time to show the apprentices their new homes. Under normal circumstances, this likely would not have happened to the same extent.

Overall, our research finds that when the pandemic situation had somewhat established itself, the adjustment of the programme, structures and institutions began to still make the programme work under the changed conditions. What is more, this rather unusual situation provided valuable lessons learned about what is important in normal times and when unexpected things happen. The main takeaway and all sides agreed on this, is that nobody could have done this alone during the pandemic and likely not beyond. Working together is key and enables the different actors to overcome all possible challenges that could come their way.

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