New measures seek to ensure decent working conditions for immigrant workers

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Immigration to Portugal is a comparatively recent phenomenon, but is increasing, accompanied by rising levels of illegal, clandestine employment of immigrant workers, notably in the construction, hotel and metalworking industries. In mid-2000, the government announced a set of measures to combat clandestine work and thereby improve working conditions for immigrant workers and help combat racism and xenophobia. Trade unions have demanded equality for immigrants under labour law and collective agreements.

In mid-2000, the Portuguese government announced a set of measures to combat clandestine work, which will have a major impact on immigrant workers, notably in the construction, hotels and metalworking industries. The measures were announced at a time when the Ministry of Labour and Solidarity was participating in EU Council of Ministers meetings to approve the draft Directive implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of their racial or ethnic origin (EU9912318F), on which a political agreement was reached at the Employment and Social Policy Council on 6 June 2000 (EU0006256F).

The measures, which are being prepared jointly by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Labour, Equality, Public Works and Home Affairs, are designed to regularise and combat illegal, clandestine employment of immigrants from outside the EU, improve the working conditions of the workers concerned, and thus to help eliminate discrimination based on race or ethnic origin. Provisions include:

  • a new system of work visas as a way of regulating occupational activity, thus setting set up a legal framework for temporary "guest workers" coming to Portugal from outside the EU;
  • increased inspection and control of illegal work and workers' living conditions;
  • obligatory written employment contracts, which are to be reported to the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training (Instituto do Emprego e Formação Profissional, IEFP), and made subject to a favourable ruling from the General Inspectorate for Labour (Inspecção Geral do Trabalho);
  • making recruitment of illegal labour a criminal offence;
  • making efforts to establish agreements with the countries of origin so as to avoid clandestine immigration, which can leave workers in an illegal situation whereby they find themselves in a subcontracted work situation that does not comply with minimum level of working conditions; and
  • the possible extension of two-year residency permits for up to five years.

Immigration in Portugal

The shape of discussions in Portugal on foreign workers has changed recently, but the question continues to centre on the illegal contracting of workers and the precariousness nature of their jobs. Key factors to be borne in mind in this area include the following:

  • Portugal needs foreign workers. In addition to the country's already relatively low unemployment rate, 80,000 jobs per year are being created. These jobs are in sectors that do not attract more highly qualified young people and immigrant workers will be needed to fill them. This is a real turn-around for Portugal, which has traditionally been a country of emigration, rather than immigration;
  • clandestine immigration has increased dramatically. According to unofficial data, there may be as many as 40,000 illegal workers in the country; and
  • these immigrants come primarily from Africa, especially from Portugal's former colonies, such as Guinea-Bissau, and from central and eastern European countries. In the latter case, the workers concerned are considered skilled and have rapidly become highly productive from the standpoint of the Portuguese economy, but they are at the same time more vulnerable because they often do not speak Portuguese and there are no established central and eastern European communities in Portugal.

Anti-racism organisms like SOS Racismo and Olho Vivo state that immigrant workers will increasingly constitute a new group of citizens with limited capabilities, because their residency permits do not allow them to become members of professional organisations, enrol in universities, or apply for credit. Nor are they allowed to have their families join them. The fact that they receive lower wages increases feelings of racism and xenophobia.

Working conditions

Clandestine work is often performed through companies that are themselves clandestine. This may be one of the reasons that the construction industry is the sector with the highest number of job-related accidental deaths. According to the General Inspectorate for Labour, there were 152 such accidents in 1999. More efficient intervention on the part of the Labour Inspectorate, campaigns on safety and health in the workplace, and recent legislation on sanctions for labour law violations (PT9909162N), along with the new government proposals to facilitate integration and proper employment contracts may help reduce the level of precariousness in the sector. According to the National Federation of Construction, Wood Products, Marble and Construction Materials Unions (Federação Nacional dos Sindicatos da Construção Madeira Marmores e Materiais da Construção), the number of self-employed workers in the construction industry increased from 90,476 in 1997 to 167,390 in 1999.

Social partners' positions

Employers' associations in the metalworking, hotel and construction sectors have met with ministerial governmental services to look for integrated solutions to problems related to illegal and immigrant workers. The associations do not want to loss competitiveness due to increased labour costs, while at the same time they want to maintain the quality of services. The Portuguese Association of Metalworking, Metal-Mechanics and Related Industries (Associação dos Industriais Metalúrgicos Metalomecânicos e Afins de Portugal) has declared itself willing to coordinate matters in its sector and serve as an intermediary between companies and the authorities, by employing only workers whose qualifications are approved by Centre for Occupational Training for the Metalworking Industry (Centro de Formação da Indústria Metalúrgica, CENFIM)

The trade unions in various sectors believe that low pay and long working hours, a lack of dignity and job stability, abuses of rights, poor health and safety conditions and a lack of opportunities to pursue further training are reasons why young people are not interested in careers in these sectors. The sectors thus continue to rely on cheap immigrant labour. The Algarve Hotel Workers' Union (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores da Hotelaria do Algarve) has called for legalisation on fair wages in the hotel sector.

In Portugal, construction of public infrastructure is far from being completed. Construction trade unions from various regions have been pushing for agreements relating to large-scale construction projects, especially state-sponsored projects, that would integrate clandestine workers through means of legal employment contracts. This has been accomplished in the case of the construction of the future Oporto underground railway system. A commitment has been made by employers and the Union of Construction Workers of the North and Viseu (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores da Indústria da Construção do Norte e Viseu) to hire only workers who have a legal contract, a professional licence and insurance against work-related accidents. Consideration of employment qualifications is very important when immigrant workers are "legalised", in order to keep skilled workers from being lumped in with unskilled workers and to make it possible take advantage of their skills and knowledge. Talks are now underway over the work surrounding Oporto's position as "European capital of culture" in 2001 The aim is to set up contracts between the organising bodies and the major companies involved in construction projects, that would contain clauses requiring that the latter comply with the law and collectively-agreed working conditions in their entirety.

Construction workers' unions and other bodies responsible for occupational training in the sector are making efforts to provide more attractive training for young Portuguese people. They are also looking at how to improve the image of traditional occupations, by changing their profiles and the names used.


There is a rising level of interest in combating racial discrimination at the workplace in Portugal, and especially an increasing need to implement measures to help legitimise pre-existing situations of illegal immigration. To ensure improved working conditions for immigrants, the trade unions have demanded that collective agreements and labour legislation respect the principle of equality among all workers. (Maria Luisa Cristovam)

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