Immigrant labours lost in Europe

By Khaled Diab

Immigrants in are more likely to be over-qualified for the or unemployed than the native population.

December 2008

A supermarket I frequent in Brussels is much like any other, except for one key difference. Many of the people who work there have university degrees, including a few master's and PhDs.

Younis, a young Moroccan with a small family, has been working there for at least the past seven years. When he arrived in Belgium already armed with a master's from Morocco, he could not find suitable work, so he decided to work at the supermarket while he completed a second post-graduate degree in political science, something which should be fairly useful in Brussels.

But even with that additional qualification in hand, he has not managed to check himself out of the supermarket. Younis has recently embarked on a new campaign to break out of the supermarket aisles and negotiate broader avenues to the future: he has become a volunteer local party activist.

 Younis and his colleagues are not alone. A new OECD report of four European countries – Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Portugal – has found that first- and second-generation immigrants there are more likely to be doing jobs for which they are overqualified than the population at large. They are also more likely to be unemployed, except in the case of Portugal where is lower among immigrants due to the fact that many moved there with the express purpose of filling labour shortages.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Netherlands was among the first European countries to develop a proactive integration policy, the results since the severe economic recession of the 1980s have been poor, with the position of immigrants and their offspring in the labour force among the worst in the 30-member .

Here, in Belgium – which, with more than 12% of its population born in another country, has one of the highest rates in Europe – labour market outcomes for non- immigrants is also disappointing. The reasons behind this are complex. The collapse of Belgian heavy industry and mining has hurt disproportionately those migrants, and their families, who moved here decades ago to fill the post-war labour shortages.

These early immigrants tended to be uneducated rural dwellers, many were even illiterate. Although better educated than their parents, second-generation immigrants are often less qualified than more recent immigrants and significantly less educated than the population at large. This is because, in many poverty-ridden households, children are often discouraged from pursuing or unable to go on to higher education.

 Their families either undervalue the benefits of education or the youngsters don't believe that going the extra mile will improve their prospects – as this report partly confirms. In addition, schools with sizeable numbers of immigrants tend to be under-funded and teachers there often advise their students to work towards a technical qualification rather than go to university.

 This prejudice continues into the workplace, where employers, even if they are not overtly racist, do not believe that qualified immigrants truly possess the requisite skills or cultural understanding to do the job. “Testing in the past has pointed to the existence of discrimination against immigrants in hiring,” points out the OECD report.

Unemployment among immigrant communities is 2.5 times that of the native population. Only one third of immigrant women are in employment. Nevertheless, despite the oppressed popular image of women in many immigrant communities, more Belgian-born North African and Turkish women go on to university than their men. Studies have also shown that immigrant girls perform better than boys in school and university.

Despite their underprivileged roots, economic hardships and the burden of prejudice, many immigrant families have struggled hard to make a go of things. For instance, one Algerian family I know of five sisters and a brother have all, thanks to their parents sacrifices and their own dedication and hard work, received university educations and are building good careers for themselves. One of the sisters, an academic, has even become an adviser to the minister of integration.

This is all the more remarkable when you consider that their parents are illiterate and can barely speak French or Dutch. In fact, language is a major barrier in multilingual Belgium, where many jobs require applicants to be competent in three languages (French, Dutch and English) or more.

In recent years, the Belgian government has been dedicating significant resources to the challenge. For the past decade, there has been a robust anti-discrimination drive and a comprehensive diversity policy, and indirect incentives and mechanisms to bring about equal opportunity in both the labour market and the education system. Belgium also has one of the most liberal naturalisation policies in the OECD and this, among other benefits, has gradually opened up the substantial public sector to immigrants.

As the economic crisis deepens, immigrant communities are likely to be among the most to suffer. The report urges governments to continue investing in policies to boost the job prospects, and long-term integration, of immigrants.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 10 December 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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