Asylum seekers are entitled to access the labour market, without limitations on the nature of employment they may seek. In terms of the Reception Regulations, this access should be granted no later than nine months following the lodging of the asylum application. In practice, asylum-seekers are authorised to work immediately.
Jobsplus is the Agency in charge of delivering ‘employment licences’ for asylum seekers, the duration of which varies from three months for asylum seekers whose applications are initially rejected, up to six months for those whose applications are still pending. Fees are payable for new licences (€58) and for every renewal (€34).
In May 2021, the Maltese Ministry of Home Affairs introduced a new policy that denies asylum seekers from countries included in the list of safe countries of origin the right to work for nine months from the lodging of their application. On 5 June 2021, 28 human rights organisations endorsed a statement issued by the Malta Refugee Council, expressing their concern about this new policy. The statement described the new policy as “discriminatory and inhumane”, claiming that it is aimed at denying people the possibility to work and earn a living.
NGOs outlined that asylum-seekers from countries deemed safe are now deprived of the income necessary to secure a minimum level of human dignity and self-reliance. The NGOs deplored that the absence of any meaningful State support will leave these asylum seekers no other options than resorting to extreme labour exploitation or dependence on the material support provided by non-State entities such as NGOs, friends/social networks, and the Church. It also makes them infinitely more vulnerable to involvement in criminal or other irregular activity.
The 2021 policy also introduced a new system whereby Jobsplus is obliged to request clearance from the Immigration Police for each employment licence issued. This led to an increase of rejections due to ‘security issues’, without provision of further information. NGOs reported difficulties obtaining access to the applicants’ files to obtain the reason of the rejection from Jobsplus or the Police. People that had been issued several employment licences in the past saw their applications refused from one day to the other without any reason. Asylum seekers are not informed of their right to appeal the decision before the Immigration Appeals Board.
In 2021, Jobsplus issued 3,723 employment licence, the countries of origin that received the most licences being Gambia (377), Mali (370), Nigeria (364), Ivory Coast (306) and Somalia (257). The number of licences issued do not correspond to the number of holders, since a person can apply for it more than once according to the length of the permit. Permits issued to people originating from countries of origin listed as safe amounted to 16% of the total number of licences issued. However, it must be noted that the policy came into force only in the second half of 2021.
In practice, employers are deterred from applying for the permits because of their short-term nature and the administrative burden associated with the application, particularly in comparison to the employment of other migrants.
Asylum seekers, even if not detained, face a number of difficulties, namely: language obstacles, limited or no academic or professional background, intense competition with refugees and other migrants, and limited or seasonal employment opportunities. Asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa or Asia are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Issues highlighted include low wages, unpaid wages, long working hours, irregular work, unsafe working conditions, and employment in the shadow economy. Furthermore, applicants are not permitted to obtain a driving licence.
A number of vocational training courses are available to asylum seekers, some also targeting this specific population group. In recent years JobsPlus, the national employment agency, implemented several AMIF projects targeting asylum-seekers and protection beneficiaries and focusing on language training and job placement. Organisations such as Integra Foundation, KOPIN or Ħal Far Outreach try to offer support with CV Writing and Job Search support. JRS also organised an empowerment workshop in 2020, specifically looking at skills for employability. The Migrant Advice Unit (MAU) at AWAS assists residents with updating a CV and looking for work and JRS also offers this service.
A report published in December 2021 by JRS and aditus foundation entitled “In Pursuit of Livelihood: An in-depth investigation of asylum-seekers’ battle against poverty and social exclusion in Malta” investigated the phenomenon of poverty among asylum seekers in an in-depth manner, with a focus on exploring the causes and maintaining factors of asylum seekers’ livelihood difficulties. The report draws on data collected by interviewing the head of household on income and health indicators, deprivation and dwelling conditions from 116 households.
In relation to employment, the report comments on the challenges faced by migrants in securing regular and stable employment. The research participants underlined the jobs available to them, being generally low-skilled jobs in the construction or services industries, were often unsafe, strenuous, and seasonal. They also flagged how these sectors tend to treat employees as disposable workers rather than part of a regular workforce. For asylum-seekers, the system granting employment licences in employers’ names limited employment opportunities to those employers willing to undergo the documentation procedure, and in all cases created situations dependency that often gave rise to risks of exploitation and abuse.
The report further highlights how, due to these structural issues, most migrants preferred seeking irregular employment as it secured quick payment and side-stepped administrative obstacles relating to status and documentation.
It concluded that “The combined impact of a steep rise in cost of living, including an exponential surge in rent prices, on one hand, and stagnant wages on another, emerged clearly as one of the main factors. Another significant factor appears to be the reality that most asylum seekers, due to a mix of poor English or Maltese, basic levels of education, racial discrimination and low transferability of job-related skills and competencies, are restricted to a very limited section of the employment market. At best, participants could aim for jobs slightly above the minimum wage, with no or little chances of progression. In this regard, in Malta’s current economic climate, the best they can aim for may still not be enough to lift them out of poverty, especially if they need to support a family. Furthermore, limited access to financial services appears to act as another barrier towards financial stability for this population”.
 JRS and aditus foundation, In Pursuit of Livelihood: An in-depth investigation of asylum-seekers’ battle against poverty and social exclusion in Malta, December 2021, available at https://bit.ly/3ZCiicS