New immigration law adopted

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In January 2001, a new law was adopted on immigrant workers in Portugal. The legislation includes measures which will make it easier for immigrants in employment to gain residence rights and allow illegal immigrants to regularise their situation. Overall, the trade unions regard the law as positive, although they call attention to the implications of the use being made of immigrant workers.

Decree-Law no. 4/2001 amending Decree-Law no. 244/98 of 8 August 1998 (itself amended by law no. 97/99 of 26 July 1999) was adopted on 10 January 2001. The law regulates a number of social security and labour relations aspects of the presence in Portugal of non-EU immigrants (PT0006199F). It gives an important role for the General Labour Inspectorate (Inspecção Geral do Trabalho, IGT) and the Institute for the Development and Inspection of Labour Conditions (Instituto do Desenvolvimento e Inspecção das Condições de Trabalho, IDICT). The new law will make it easier for immigrants whose status has been legalised to obtain the necessary residential authorisation from the Foreigners and Borders Department (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, SEF).

The new legislation governs the conditions for the entry, residence, exit and expulsion of foreign people, to and from Portugal. Its main innovations include the granting of residence authorisation, which may be renewed annually, for foreign people who have been offered or have signed a contract of employment. Furthermore, fines may now be levied in the event of: self-employment by a foreign person who does not hold the required work visa or resident's permit; employment by an employer of a foreign citizen who does not hold a work visa or resident's permit.

From now on, companies and immigrant workers who wish to legalise their situation can refer the matter to IDICT (part of the Ministry of Labour and Solidarity). From mid-January 2001, immigrant workers also have an information centre at their disposal (known as Em cada rosto igualdade). Part of a project promoted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in partnership with Portugal's High Commissioner for Migration and Ethnic Minorities (Alto Comissário para a Migração e Minorias Étnicas, ACIME), this centre offers immigrants any assistance they might require. This includes details about available training and information regarding the new regulations.

Responses

Associations involved in protecting illegal immigrants are dissatisfied with the new legislation. They criticise the dependent relationship between migrants and employers, in that authorisation to stay in Portugal depends on the existence of a contract of employment.

According to the General Workers' Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT), employment grew in 2000, but the price paid was less secure jobs, low wages and illegal employment. In this context, it regards the new immigration law as a positive step, because it enables illegal immigrants to legalise their status and sets out a future immigration policy. UGT offers its support to immigrants and will fight illegal immigration which is aimed at deregulating the labour market. When the law was being debated in parliament, UGT called attention to a perceived need to:

  • enable trade union involvement whenever employers refuse to issue declarations pertaining to the existence of employment contracts with immigrant workers. This involvement should go hand in hand with action by the General Labour Inspectorate; and
  • better define the responsibilities for paying wages of construction project owners and contractors.

UGT also believes that an annual monitoring and assessment report on migrant workers should be drawn up, which should involve the social partners, accompanied by a report from the Consultative Board for Immigration Affairs (Conselho Consultivo para os Assuntos de Imigração).

According to the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP), the new law will not solve the serious problems experienced by immigrant communities, because what is required is a supportive and humane immigration policy.

Employers claim that there is a labour shortage, and are applying pressure to expand the use of immigrant labour. Statistics do not appear to bear out the claimed labour shortage. Consequently, CGTP believes that employers are turning to immigrant workers because of the low pay they are willing to accept when they are working illegally, and because they can be over-exploited, which Portuguese citizens will not accept. Thus, CGTP believes that the future aim should be increased qualifications, job enhancement and increased productivity, rather than greater use of immigrant labour. It calls on the state and government, particularly the labour inspectorate, to make positive moves to ensure compliance with "democratic legality" and avoid discrimination against immigrant workers.

Commentary

In a labour market as flexible as that of Portugal, immigrant workers have had a major impact, as can be seen by the positions taken by the social partners. The new law is one way of overcoming the difficulties experienced. (Ana Almeida and Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)

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