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. According to the Ministerial Decree/Decision 308/2018, asylum seekers are permitted to access the labour market one month after submitting their asylum application.
In 2019, additional Decrees were issued by the Minister of Labour, Welfare, and Social Insurance, allowing access to additional employment sectors for asylum seekers. Furthermore, a new Decree 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.
At the time of submitting this report, however, the issuance of a new Ministerial Decision was announced which will increase the period of prohibition to work to 9 months after the date of submission of the asylum application, with effect from August 2023.
Currently, and according to the above-mentioned Decrees, 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
The shortage of staff observed in financial sectors in Cyprus, especially tourism industry, has led employer’s organizations to request facilitation of hiring non-EU citizens in order to overcome acute staff shortages.
According to the Ministerial Decision/Decrees, persons who entered Cyprus legally on work permit as agriculture or animal husbandry labourers and applied for asylum at a later stage can only work in the economic sector and position stated in their work permit.
Asylum seekers who have secured work contribute to the National Health System (GESY) by an amount 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.
According to the Refugee Law,367 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.
Procedure with the Labour Department
All applicants and recipients of MRC 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. In order to maintain their unemployment status, they need to renew on specific time-frames their registration in the Labour Department.
The Labour Department provides job referrals to asylum seekers. Applicants are required to contact the employers 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 a job. Asylum seekers cannot challenge the statements of the employer. This may lead to asylum seekers being considered as wilfully unemployed by the Labour Department and the SWS, resulting in loss of MRC and there is no effective procedure to challenge those results.
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. To do so, an application must be filed at the Labour Department along with a personal contract for the candidate they want 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 the conclusion of this process remains lengthy, this advancement has facilitated access of asylum seekers to jobs and more asylum seekers have started working. The increased numbers of asylum seekers entering legal employment has allowed for higher numbers of asylum seekers claiming social insurance benefits, such as unemployment benefit, maternity benefit and others.
It also allows more efficient monitoring of employers’ compliance with employment terms, since higher numbers of legally employed persons are able to submit a formal complaint at the Labour Relations Department. The importance of this prospect was highlighted in a recent demonstration undertaken for the first time by food delivery drivers, a working sector almost exclusively staffed by non- EU nationals, including asylum seekers. This mobilization received media coverage, and led to trade unions involvement and an investigation by authorities concerning complaints related to discriminative working conditions and terms, including subletting of workers to other companies, commissions paid by employees to agents etc.
According to the 2021 MLWSI annual report, published in 2022, 33 complaints by asylum seekers were filed. CyRC assists asylum seekers to file such complaints but further monitoring is required to assess the quality of services and the outcome of the assessment.
Terms and conditions of employment
The terms and conditions, including remuneration of the occupations, depend 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 are no unions. Therefore, their wages remain at minimum levels.
Furthermore, although collective agreements exist for a number of professions in Cyprus through a voluntary tripartite system (employers, unions, state), they are not legislatively regulated and implemented. Up until the end of 2022, only nine professions were legislatively regulated in regard to wages (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).
As of 1st of January 2023, a National Minimum Wage is in effect based on a Ministerial Decree issued in August 2022. The decree provides that the minimum wage is 885EUR for the first 6 months and will be increased to €940 after six months of continuous employment. However, the Decree excludes domestic workers, workers in agriculture and farming, workers in shipping and workers who are covered by the relevant Decree for the Hospitality Sector issued in 2020. Concerns have been raised by trade unions in regards to the height and the revisions of minimum wage and the actual implementation.
During the pandemic, changes in the provision of services by Labour Department and the Public Employment Services took place. For most of the pandemic and up to June 2021, labour cards were automatically renewed for persons who had an active file in the Labour Department before the pandemic. For asylum seekers wishing to register for the first time as unemployed, SWS provided MRC. 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 would be performed online through their website. After a tolerance period for candidates already with an open file with PES, since September 2021, all beneficiaries of PES are required to create an individual online account. While online, the system is not automated. The registration process and the 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 for them to timely attend and resolve issues as well as poor employment-related guidance.
Obstacles faced by asylum seekers in accessing the labour market
The most prominent ones are the following:
- Limited allowed sectors: Asylum seekers are allowed to work in particular sectors of the economy, specified by a Ministerial Decree in line with the provisions of the strategy for the employment of third-country nationals.The strategy grants priority to nationals and EU citizens in accessing employment and foresees the possibility to approve the employment of non-EU citizens in sectors where the labour check procedure indicates persistent lack of local/EU staff. Apart from the current allowed sectors for asylum seekers, the employers’ organizations have been persistently pointing out high staff shortages in additional economy sectors, requiring permission to hire non-EU workers in order to cover their needs. However, the permitted working sectors for asylum seekers remain unchanged since 2009, significantly narrowing the available job options in sectors with lower wages and worst conditions.
- 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 efficient communication with 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 because of the jobs allowed, which are typically manual and require physical strength, as well as cultural barriers. For example, many women have never worked before. When it comes to the working 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 with respect to the 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. Resorting to the Labour Relations Court is also expensive since there is no legal aid for that purpose, as well as time-consuming.
- Problematic access to the services of the Labour Department: Existing system of the Labour Department requires efficient use of an online registration portal and direct communications 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 led to 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.
Prior to the decision to refer all new asylum seekers to Pournara Centre, obstacles that were reported also included delays in the issuance of the ARCnumber for new asylum seekers which, along with the permission to enter the labour market after one month from the lodging of their asylum application, 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 now referred to the Pournara Camp, where the registration process and issuance of ARC number is, usually, completed prior to exiting the Centre.
When asylum seekers leave the Pournara Camp, they must declare an address. Αccording to ar.8 of the refugee law, in case they decide to change address, they need to inform the competent authority (asylum service and immigration departments). Although not specified in the Law, the Immigration department requires the submission of a stamped rental agreement by asylum seekers, in order to register their new address. Taking into consideration that asylum seekers due to the very high rents often live with friends and relatives without a rent agreement, it is very difficult to change their address through this procedure. This situation affects the registration at the district labour offices as they require to change first their address at the immigration offices before they proceed with the labour office registration. Inevitably this affects the access to SWS.
Lastly, asylum seekers face issues to access food delivery jobs, for which a driver’s licence is needed. 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 that an applicant be residing in Cyprus at least 6 months. Moreover, for asylum seekers, the new requirements demand 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., the 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. At the same time, a bill, reviewing driving test procedure, the categories and validity of driving licenses, safety in work and other relevant issues is under drafting.
COVID-19 related issues
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 to secure job referrals, which is available on their website. However, the unfamiliarity with this system, combined with linguistic barriers, yielded poor results among the refugee population, as indicated by CyRC observations.
The outbreak of the pandemic 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, until October 2021, the lengthy procedures for being hired and the inability of many to receive referrals from Labour Department negatively impacted asylum seekers’ access to employment.
Asylum seekers were allowed to participate in the support schemes announced by the government to tackle 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, that 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.
 Article 9Θ(2)(a)-(b) Refugee Law.
 Article 9Θ(1)(b) Refugee Law; Ministerial Decision 308/2018, 26 October 2018.
 Information provided by Caritas Cyprus and Cyprus Refugee Council.
 Wolt strikers stage protest march; Department of Labour Relations calls for mediation, see: https://bit.ly/41KKHiH; WOLT delivery drivers: Labor violations confirmed, fines to be imposed. See: https://bit.ly/41Hk7XH.
 See also; Ombudsman, Report on access of female asylum seekers to employment and social welfare, 1799/2016, 11 November 2016.
 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”.
 Αρ. Θέματος 65. Το εργασιακό καθεστώς των διανομέων (delivery) στην εστίαση και στις ψηφιακές πλατφόρμες διανομής προϊόντων, available at: https://bit.ly/36D0AzA.