According to the Refugee Law and Ministerial Decree 308/2018 issued at the end of October 2018, asylum seekers are permitted to access the labour market one month after the submission of an asylum application. The Refugee Law affords the Minister of Labour, Welfare, and Social Insurance, in consultation with the Minister of Interior, the power to place restrictions and conditions on the right to employment without hindering asylum seekers’ effective access to the labour market.
In 2019, additional Orders were issued by the Minister of Labour, Welfare, and Social Insurance, allowing access to additional employment sectors for asylum seekers. Furthermore, a new Order issued in October 2021 allowed asylum seekers to access employment before a final, formal decision on the employer’s application to acquire the necessary permit to employ asylum seekers is issued by the Labour Department.
Currently, and according to the above-mentioned Orders, the permitted fields of employments for asylum seekers are the following:
|Permitted sectors and posts for asylum seekers|
|Sectors of labour market||Permitted occupations|
|Agriculture-Animal Husbandry-Fishery-Animal Shelters and Pet Hotels||-Agriculture Labourers
-Animal Husbandry Labourers
-Poultry Farm Labourers
-Fish Farm Labourers
|Processing||-Animal Feed Production Labourers
-Bakery and Dairy Production Night-Shift Labourers
-Loading / Unloading Labourers
-Poultry Slaughterhouse Night-Shift Labourers
|Waste Management||-Sewerage, Waste and Wastewater Treatment
-Collection and Processing of Waste and Garbage Labourers
-Animal Waste and Slaughterhouse Waste
|Trade-Repairs||-Petrol Station and Carwash Labourers
-Loading / Unloading Labourers
-Fish Market Labourers
-Automobile Panel-Beaters and Spray-Painters
|Service Provision||-Employment by Cleaning Companies as
Cleaners of Buildings and Outdoor Areas
-Advertising Material Delivery Persons
-Food Delivery Persons
-Loading / Unloading Labourers
-Pest Control Labourers for Homes and Offices
|Restaurants and Recreation Centres/Hotels||-Kitchen Aides, Cleaners
-Food Delivery Persons
All applicants and recipients of material reception conditions, who are physically and psychologically able to take up employment, are required to be registered as unemployed after the initial one-month period and show that they are actively seeking employment. A labour card is issued to the asylum seekers in order for their unemployment status to be confirmed.
The Labour Department provides job referrals to asylum seekers, usually in a form along with the details of potential employers. Applicants are required to contact them directly, and the employer is expected to provide a written report on the outcome of the meeting. The form does not provide space for the asylum seekers’ statements on the outcome of the meeting, including, for instance, the reasons why it was not possible for the asylum seeker to be offered the job and asylum seekers cannot challenge the statements of the employer. This may lead to asylum seekers being considered wilfully unemployed by the Labour Department and the Social Welfare Services, resulting in loss of material reception conditions and there is no effective procedure to challenge those results.
During the pandemic, changes in the provision of services by Labour Department and the Public Employment Services took place. Initially, during the lockdowns, the Labour Department started providing services by email. New registrations of unemployed persons were possible for Cypriot citizens, European citizens, and International Protection holders, but not for asylum seekers and other non-EU citizens, which were excluded from this process. Asylum seekers who were already registered as unemployed before the shift to email services, had instead their registration renewed.
For most part of the pandemic and up to June 2021, the measures taken by Labour Department foresaw that labour cards were automatically renewed for persons who had an active file in the Labour Department before the pandemic started. However, also due to the slowdown of the economy, very few referrals for jobs were given. Asylum seekers who wished to register as unemployed for the first time, or whose files were terminated/under review before the measures were taken and wished to register again, were not able to secure a labour card, therefore could not receive job referrals through this route.
Still, for those asylum seekers wishing to register for the first time as unemployed, Welfare Services were providing material conditions. Those with a terminated file wishing to register again, were deprived from MRC for prolonged periods of time.
In June 2021, the Public Employment Services announced that all future registrations and renewals of registrations for unemployed persons will be performed online through their website. After a toleration period for those candidates who had already an open file with PES, and since September 2021, all beneficiaries of Public Employment Services are required to create an individual online account. While online, the system is not automated. Registration process and use of the system still require direct email exchange, and/or telephone communications with Labour Officers, who still need to perform various verification procedures. This situation results in particularly limited capacity of the latter’s to timely attend and resolve issues as well as poor employment-related guidance.
This shift to the particular online services also poses extensive challenges for users with limited or no digital skills, poor access to equipment and non-easily accessible internet connection. Their difficulties in activating and efficiently using their online Labour Office account, started to affect Social Welfare Services’ capacity to examine applications for Material Reception Conditions, since registration to Public Employment Services is a prerequisite for allocating those benefits. In February 2022, an announcement was issued by Social Welfare Services, which set a deadline for applicants who are recipients of MRC to register in the PES website by mid-March, in order to continue receiving benefits. Social Welfare Services have asked the assistance of NGOs for facilitating registrations of asylum seekers in PES system and further monitoring is required in regard to possible termination or denial of MRC to asylum seekers, due to current situation.
Candidates who contact employers need to report to the Labour Department following their contact with employers. If employment is secured, a contract needs to be signed and stamped by the District Labour Office. All employers recruiting asylum seekers are required to be authorised by the Labour Department to employ third-country nationals.
The terms and conditions, including remuneration of the occupations, depends on the employment sector. For example, animal farming and agricultural sectors are regulated based on the Collective Agreement of Agriculture and Animal Farming. At present, the salary is €455 (gross) per month. Accommodation and food may be provided by the employer. The salary may increase up to €769 per month if the employee is considered to be skilled for the position, or if there is a specific agreement with a trade union. However, in practice, asylum seekers are employed as unskilled labourers and in businesses where there is no presence of unions. Therefore, their wages remain at minimum levels.
It is also important to note that although collective agreements do exist for a number of professions in Cyprus, through a voluntary tripartite system (employers, unions, state), they are not legislatively regulated and implemented. There is also no set national level of minimum wage. Only nine professions are legislatively regulated (salespersons, clerks, nurse assistants, childcare assistants, baby nurse assistants, school assistants, guards, carers, and cleaners) out of which asylum seekers are only allowed to exercise one (cleaners).
With regard to the obstacles faced by asylum seekers in accessing the labour market, the most prominent ones are the following:
- Low wages and lack of supplementary material assistance: Remuneration from employment is often highly insufficient to meet the basic needs of a family. This is particularly problematic for asylum seekers with families and is compounded by the sharp increase of rent in urban areas as well as a lack of supplementary measures for asylum seekers with low income. Labour conditions such as taking up accommodation at the place of work often lead to splitting up the family. These jobs can also be offered to single parents without taking into consideration the care of children or possible supplementary assistance for childcare support.
- Distance and lack of convenient transportation: Although the expansion of the permitted sectors for asylum seekers provides employment opportunities in urban areas, many jobs remain in remote rural regions, and working hours may include night shifts, or start as early as 04:00 or 05:00 am. Asylum seekers have reported difficulties in commuting to these workplaces using low-cost transportation (e.g. public buses) as public transportation usually starts from around 06:00am and is poorly connected in rural areas. Remuneration does not cover travel expenses.
- Language barriers: Lack of communication skills in Greek and English often impede the efficient communication between officials of Labour Offices as well as potential employers. Many asylum seekers are unable to understand their prospective employers’ opinion during meetings and/or the employers’ opinions on their job referral forms.
- Lack of interest from employers in the agricultural and farming sectors in employing asylum seekers. In fact, many employers in these sectors often prefer to employ third-country nationals who arrive in the country with an employment permit and are authorised to work for a period of up to four years. In order to receive a licence for the employment of third-country nationals, an employer is required to register at the Labour Department and to actively seek employees locally, nationally, or within the EU. As asylum seekers are referred to them by the Labour Department, the employers may try to avoid recruiting them with the hope that if they do not hire an asylum seeker, they will be able to invite/hire other workers on a working visa. Thus, they often place the responsibility of refusing the employment on the asylum seekers.
- Lack of gender and cultural sensitivity in the recruitment procedure: Female asylum seekers often face difficulties accessing employment for reasons related to jobs allowed, which are typically manual and require physical strength as well as cultural barriers. For example, many women have never worked before and when it comes to the conditions in the sectors of agriculture and animal farming (remoteness, staying overnight, male dominated workspaces) there is a need for gradual and facilitated transition to employment. Women from Muslim backgrounds wearing visible symbols of their religious identity (for example the hijab/niqab) report having faced difficulties accessing the labour market as they were considered, in some cases, unable to maintain employment due to their attire. There have also been reports on behalf of African candidates regarding the unwillingness of employers to hire them in front-desk positions.
- Lack of appropriate information in respect of terms/conditions of employment, labour rights, complaint mechanisms: It is often reported that asylum seekers are unaware of their legal rights, the exact terms and conditions of their prospective employment, are not given a copy of the contract they sign and have no knowledge of available complaint mechanisms, or trade unions role.
- Problematic access to the services of the Labour Department: Existing capacity of the Labour Department prohibits asylum seekers from effectively using its job-seeking services. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, the public employment service in Nicosia was unable to attend all persons visiting its offices. This had led to the formation of long waiting lines, often with people gathering outside the office from 04:00 – 05:00 am in order to increase the chances of being seen during the day. This situation disrupted access to job referrals and reception conditions, since registration at the Labour Department is a prerequisite.
During the outbreak of COVID-19, asylum seekers who were registered with the Labour Department prior to the pandemic, would scarcely receive job referrals through email and telephone. Difficulties in communicating with the Labour Department Officers via email were reported, largely due to linguistic barriers and an unfamiliarity with digital means. The labour Department encouraged job seekers to use an online system for securing job referrals, which is available on their website. However, the unfamiliarity with this system, combined with linguistic barriers, has yielded poor results among the refugee population.
Candidate’s registration to the online system of Public Employment Services, has become obligatory for all job-seekers since September 2021. Currently, large numbers of asylum-seeking candidates report difficulties in effectively and timely use the particular online system. Although NGOs facilitate registrations of asylum seekers, many are not able to use it yet, especially those lacking familiarization with similar tools, persons holding poor English and Greek language skills and people without proper equipment (phones, laptops).
Prior to the decision to refer all new asylum seekers to Pournara Centre, obstacles that were reported included delays in the issuance of the Alien’s Registration Certificate (ARC) number for new asylum seekers which, along with the permission to enter the labour market after one month from the lodging of their asylum application, had prevented persons to register at the Labour Department until they obtained an ARC number.
This gap has been significantly reduced due to the policy change on reception of for newly arrived asylum seekers, that are now referred to the Pournara Camp, where the registration process and issuance of ARC number is, usually, completed prior to exiting the Centre.
According to the Refugee Law, asylum seekers are permitted to take part in vocational trainings linked to employment contracts relevant to the permitted sectors of employment for asylum seekers, unless otherwise authorised by the Minister of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance. In practice, however, there are no professional training schemes available for those specific sectors.
The outbreak of the pandemic has had severe implications on the economy, resulting in a sharp decline of offered positions, as well as termination of employment for many persons. The situation started to improve during 2021; however, up until October 2021, the lengthy procedures required for being hired and the inability of many to receive referrals from Labour Department, negatively impacted asylum seekers’ access to employment.
For an employer to hire an asylum seeker, an application must be filed at the Labour Department along with a personal contract for the candidate he/she wants to hire. The Labour Department will inquire whether the employer is reliable by checking that there are no debts/convictions regarding social insurance contributions; that there is an active liability insurance and (where it applies); and that the terms and conditions of hiring an asylum seeker are the same as in the case of nationals performing the same duties in the company.
Up until October 2021, employment would be only considered legitimate after the conclusion of the procedure described above. This would typically require at least two-three months, which, as a result, made legal engagement of asylum seekers difficult and unattractive to employers, despite the shortage of personnel in some of the allowed sectors.
The situation improved with issuance of the new Orders in October 2021 by the Ministry of Labour, which allow asylum seekers to start working before a final, formal decision of the employer’s application is adopted by the Labour Department. Although this advancement facilitated access of asylum seekers to jobs and an increased numbers of asylum seekers commence work, further monitoring is required in regard to its exact implementation, especially when it comes to the extent to which employers uphold information on working terms/conditions, resolution of working differences, efficient access of asylum seekers to social insurance benefits and longer waiting reported times for the employers’ approval process to conclude.
Asylum seekers were allowed to participate in the support schemes announced by the government for tackling lockdown implications for businesses. Most measures allowed a business affected by the lockdown to receive, under certain criteria, a subsidy of the salary paid to its employees, provided that there would be no dismissals. The main issues observed regarding asylum seekers’ participation in the support schemes were the following:
- A lack of information and guidance regarding support measures and procedures to access them. The measures announced involved many different procedures, criteria, and were constantly revised. Given the complexity of the measures, and as a result of linguistic barriers, understanding and accessing the schemes is a challenging task. NGOs tried to address the situation by routinely providing information, translated material and advice to asylum seekers, as well as helping them with applications, procedures, document submissions, and communication with employers etc.
- Limited access of asylum seekers to bank accounts: employees of companies participating in the support schemes needed to present an active bank account to receive the subsidy of their salary. Throughout the reporting period, asylum seekers have been facing considerable difficulties in opening bank accounts in most private banks, which hindered their access to support schemes.
In September 2020, the Department of Transportation issued a Circular/Guidance note concerning the criteria and the procedures for obtaining or renewing a driving license in Cyprus. The Circular established additional requirements for non-Cypriot citizens (including asylum seekers), which hindered their possibilities of obtaining or renewing driving licenses and, as a result, accessing one of the few allowed and most popular job sectors among asylum seekers, i.e., food delivery. The requirements are considered to be in violation of the Driving License Law, that transposes the relevant article of the EU Directive on Driving Licences, which requires 6 months residence in Cyprus for an applicant of a driving licence. Specifically, for asylum seekers, the new requirements request a valid residence permit whereas asylum seekers only receive the Confirmation of Submission of an Asylum Application, which acts as a valid residence permit and is accepted by all state agencies, such as the Labour Department, public hospitals, and Welfare Social Services etc. This includes the date of submission therefore verifying the requirement for a 6 month stay in the country.
Following interventions by NGOs, UNHCR, and employers, the issue was brought for discussion before the Human Rights Committee of the Parliament in February 2021, in view of the discriminatory policy and violation of the Law and EU Directive. During the discussion, the Department of Transportation agreed to review the criteria. In May 2021, a new circular was issued, but it did not provide any further clarifications on the main problematic point, i.e fact that for asylum seekers, their Confirmation of Submission of an Asylum Application acts as a valid residence permit. The issue was brought up by the main opposition party before the Parliamentary Committee for Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance; to date however, no decision on the matter has been reached.
Asylum seekers who have secured work contribute to the National Health System (GESY) by an amount which is proportional to their salary and deducted every month. Still, they are not allowed to access GESY services and receive lower standard health care through public hospitals.
 Article 9Θ(1)(b) Refugee Law; Ministerial Decision 308/2018, 26 October 2018.
 Article 9Θ(2)(a)-(b) Refugee Law.
 See also; Ombudsman, Report on access of female asylum seekers to employment and social welfare, 1799/2016, 11 November 2016.
 Article 9I(1) and (2), Refugee Law.
 Article 12. EU Directive 2006/126 on Driving Licenses (Recast), “For the purpose of this Directive, ‘normal residence’ means the place where a person usually lives, that is for at least 185 days in each calendar year, because of personal and occupational ties, or, in the case of a person with no occupational ties, because of personal ties which show close links between that person and the place where he is living”.
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