European trade unions, represented by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), have backed calls from their Belgian members for the government to grant work permits to the undocumented migrants currently on hunger strike in Brussels.
As previously reported, some 200 migrants are in an advanced stage of hunger strike, attempting to persuade the government to give them some sort of official status. They originally took refuse in the Beguinage church in central Brussels, close to Place Sainte-Catherine.
Recently they closed the doors of the church to all but the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, who can provide palliative case for those who, at this stage, must be considered close to death.
The hunger strikers are calling for a blanket recognition of their official status as asylum-seekers by the government. Asylum and migration minister Sammy Mahdi (CD&V) however, has steadfastly refused, and has been backed by prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD).
Another 200 or so hunger strikers are on the campus of the two universities in Brussels, with the same demands.
Undocumented migrants are the prey of unscrupulous employers who know they have no rights as employees, and are desperately in need of money however earned. That leads to a vicious circle of exploitation.
Belgian unions, now backed by their European federation, are asking for the migrants to be given work permits for some of the trades that are currently subject to shortages of qualified tradespeople.
“Employers in Brussels, but also in Flanders and Wallonia, are searching desperately for electricians, plumbers, bakers, butchers, stonecutters, lorry drivers and nurses. The Covid crisis has created acute shortages in sectors that were already facing structural labour shortages,” ETUC said in a statement.
ETUC has also lobbied the EU to allow work permits to undocumented migrants, to prevent exploitation and allow them to report flagrant offences in health and safety laws without facing the risk of deportation.
“The hunger strike in Brussels is first and foremost about human rights, of undocumented workers seeking to be respected,” said Ludovic Voet, general secretary of ETUC.
“They have lived here for years and sometimes decades, their children are in schools with ours, but they live in fear of being detained and deported and work for €3 to €5 an hour.”
“They are cooks, bakers, mechanics, waiters, cleaners or agricultural, construction, care and domestic workers. They cannot even make a complaint about being underpaid or worse - undocumented women workers are harassed or sexually assaulted - because they would lose their job and risk deportation.”
“The Belgian government must show some basic humanity and work with trade unions and employers on the practical solutions put forward to end this strike before somebody dies.”