THE ‘reality’ of migrant workers’ lives has been laid bare by a new report, according to St Saviour Deputy Raluca Kovacs.
She and several other States Members have said that these employees face poor living conditions, can be left feeling vulnerable and believe that ‘the Jersey system does not support or protect them’.
Several Deputies spoke to the JEP following the release of a Jersey Community Relations Trust report, which highlighted that those living in the Island for less than five years were particularly vulnerable to poverty due to a lack of housing qualifications and restricted access to benefits.
Deputy Kovacs – the first Romanian States Member, who moved to the Island in 2009 – said she had experienced ‘first-hand’ the key findings in the report.
And Deputy Carina Alves, the first States Member of Portuguese heritage, said that when people discovered the cost of living and accommodation standards, they decided: ‘It’s not worth my while being here.’
Migrant workers are often ineligible for income support payments due to the five-year residency requirement, according to the report. It highlighted high accommodation costs and poor job security as issues faced by seasonal tourism workers, while seasonal agricultural workers were ‘often required to live in substandard accommodation with multiple occupancy’.
The report calls for measures to ensure ‘a humane experience of living and working in Jersey’ for middle- and lower-earning migrant workers in the Island.
The report, issued by the JCRT, also decries a lack of research on migrants’ experiences.
This section of the workforce includes some of the Island’s lowest-earning workers, many of whom work in sectors like hospitality or agriculture, as well as higher-earning roles, for example in the finance sector.
Deputy Kovacs said that ‘many people on low and medium incomes need to reach more and more to food banks or live in relative poverty’ due to the amount that people spend on costs such as housing and food.
She said: ‘The very high increase in cost of living and housing on the Island only comes to deepen the gap, already too big, between the rich and the poor and this inequality also affects the spending into our economy.
‘I’m very much aware of the key findings in [the report], experiencing it first-hand during my time in Jersey, either as part of a migrant community or through my various previous and current roles.’
The report points to the fact that the Island’s economy relies on seasonal workers and new migrants, but they are some of the Island’s poorest families. They are more vulnerable to employers and, often, their jobs are less stable.
Deputy Kovacs said the report ‘comes to highlight the reality we live in’.
She said that one step the States had taken in the right direction was the Work Permit Holder Welfare Review Panel, which was set up in February to examine work permit policy.
Deputy Beatriz Porée, the first black States Member and chair of the newly formed panel, said: ‘Migrant workers feel vulnerable and believe that the Jersey system does not support or protect them, leaving them feeling vulnerable.
‘Workers often feel that Jersey does not have a mechanism in place to support them when there are employment disputes between them and employers. The JCRT Poverty in Jersey report does reflect what migrant workers in general feel and tell us they have been experiencing.’
Deputy Porée recently said her panel had received ‘very sad’ anonymous submissions describing the poor treatment that some workers were allegedly faced with, which included allegations of sexual harassment and bullying.
The panel was established earlier this month to scrutinise the welfare of work permit holders coming to the Island and has agreed to organise public hearings with the relevant ministers, departments and stakeholders. It is currently seeking to gather evidence from work permit holders.
In recent months, some actions have been taken to support migrant workers. The States introduced a parental support payment, a benefit aimed at registered workers who have been in the Island for less than five years (and therefore do not otherwise qualify for income support). They have to earn less than £36,000 for a single parent, and less than £48,000 for a couple. But the parental support payment did not get as many applicants as expected, according to Social Security Minister Elaine Millar.
Though the initial estimate was that around 250 to 300 families would benefit from the scheme, there were only 49 successful claims. A total of £14,500 have been paid.
Deputy Alves said that in her experience, people were not aware of when help was available, and they were worried about contacting the government.
She said: ‘The government needs to be more proactive in the way that it communicates with people.’
She suggested that people could be contacted directly, given that the government already collected people’s contact details when they registered.
‘There are efficiencies to be made, because if you have your target audience, you can contact them directly,’ she said.
‘Surely that costs less than those big campaigns.’
Deputy Millar said that the low number of recipients could be explained by a lower number of migrants in Jersey overall, since Brexit and the pandemic.
The benefit was controversial, she said, but ‘these people are here to do jobs and support our economy’.
She said: ‘We will be looking at the data on the uptake of that benefit in the near future to see what we can learn and to consider if we need a different model or change the people who can claim, as this one was aimed at families.’
Deputy Kovacs said that longer-term action was needed. ‘The Mini Budget support from the government was welcomed,’ she said, ‘but most of it is gone already, and many people continue to struggle massively.
‘Short term, maybe they can produce another 100-days plan for support actions to be taken sooner rather than later. However, topping up with bureaucratic benefits forever is not a sustainable solution.
‘What we need is long-term actions to be taken as soon as possible, to fix the housing crisis, sort the housing cost and lower the cost of living.
‘Until then, all we do is only adding plasters and not fixing the wound.’
The report points to a lack of research into lower- to middle-income migrants, which means that there is a lack of understanding of ‘where the most significant and potentially harmful inequalities may exist’.
It also calls for more research into migrants’ experiences of inclusion.
Deputy Porée said her panel was ‘at a stage of engaging with stakeholders and data collecting’. She added: ‘The panel is a response to the calling for those in the community, both migrant permit workers as well as locally based Jersey residents, who feel that Jersey is failing to
support them when employment issues arise.’
Jersey’s economy relies on their labour for prosperity, so there is an argument that more should be done to protect new migrant workers while in the Island from a humanitarian perspective, the report says.
Kate Wright, chair of the JCRT, said: ‘We need to understand how inequality is experienced across our community, especially for those on the lowest incomes – and, importantly, what we aspire for all Islanders in relation to their quality of life and standards of living.
‘Defining this vision, and a joined-up strategy to deliver it, are key if the government is to make meaningful progress in reducing hardship and disadvantage.’