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 affording asylum seekers access to additional employment sectors.
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
-Loading / Unloading Labourers
-Pest Control Labourers for Homes and Offices
|Food Industry||-Food Delivery Persons|
|Restaurants and Recreation Centres||-Kitchen Aides, Cleaners|
|Hotels||-Kitchen Aides, Cleaners|
|Other||-Advertising Material Delivery Persons
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 often leads to asylum seekers being considered wilfully unemployed by the Labour Department and the Social Welfare Services, resulting in loss of material reception conditions. Furthermore, there is no effective procedure to challenge the results. Candidates 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.
During the lockdowns due to the pandemic, the Labour Department started providing services by email. Up to now, new registrations of unemployed persons are possible for Cypriot citizens, European citizens, and IP holders, but not for asylum seekers and other TCN, which are excluded from this process and cannot receive job referrals through this route.
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).
Additionally, 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. Currently, due to the measures taken by Labour Department for the pandemic, labour cards are automatically renewed for persons who had an active file in the Labour Department before the pandemic. Asylum seekers who wish to register as unemployed for the first time, or whose files were terminated/under review before the measures were taken and wish to register again, are not able to secure a labour card. For those wishing to register for the first time as unemployed, Welfare Services are currently providing material conditions. Those with a terminated file wishing to register again, were deprived from MRC for prolonged periods of time.
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: Given the nature of employment that asylum seekers are permitted to take up, workplaces are often situated in remote rural regions and working hours may start as early as 04:00 or 05:00am. 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 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, as 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.
- Lengthy procedures governing the recruitment of asylum seekers: 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. Those procedures often take two-three months to conclude, which, as a result, is difficult and unattractive to employers, despite the shortage of personnel in some of the allowed sectors.
- 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, and have no knowledge of available complaint mechanisms.
- 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.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, asylum seekers already registered with the Labour Department may scarcely receive job referrals through email and telephone and their access to reception conditions continues. 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.
Concerning asylum seekers whose files were terminated in the past and are now willing to re-register, as well as for newly arrived asylum seekers who want to register for the first time, access to labour services is not allowed, which effectively deprives them from securing referrals to jobs. This practice adversely affected access to reception conditions for those persons whose files were already terminated before. It did not, however, affect newly arrived asylum seekers, as SWS did take into account the Labour Department’s practice and provided those persons with material reception conditions.
Prior to the decision to refer all irregularly arriving 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 is no longer happening due to current situation. New asylum seekers are referred to Pournara Camp where the registration process and issuance of ARC number is (usually) completed prior to exiting the Centre. In addition, asylum seekers allowed to exit the Centre will not be able to register with Labour Department, as the latter does not perform new registrations of asylum seekers as per the measures taken due to the pandemic.
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. Given the lengthy procedures required for being hired and the inability of many to receive referrals from Labour Department, asylum seekers’ access to employment has been particularly impacted.
Asylum seekers are allowed to participate in the support schemes announced by the government for tackling lockdown implications for businesses. Most measures allow a business affected by the lockdown to receive, under certain criteria, a subsidy of the salary paid to its employees, provided that there will be no dismissals. The main issues observed regarding asylum seekers’ participation in the support schemes are 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 try 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 need 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 has hindered their access to the 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 prevents their access to issuing 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 before the Human Rights Committee of the Parliament in February 2021 for discussion 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, however at date of publication this had not taken place.
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 the 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”.