The pandemic will accelerate history rather than reshape it.
[Foreign Affairs, 7 April 2020].
This paper addresses the question of how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the labour market integration support (LMIS) organised for refugeesFootnote 1 in Austria and Sweden, and the potential consequences of the changes unfolding. This is an important question to explore, for two reasons:
First, the labour market integration of refugees has over the past 2 decades become a crucial topic for policy makers and scholars (Bevelander & Pendakur, 2014; Fossati & Liechti, 2020) as employment is increasingly seen as pivotal for successful participation in society (Brell et al., 2020; De Vroome & van Tubergen, 2010; Feeney, 2000). At the same time, refugees face many barriers to entering the labour market. Attempts to explain these challenges have focused on their reasons for emigration, which are generally not to seek employment (Lee et al., 2020), their limited knowledge of the host country’s labour market (Delaporte & Piracha, 2018), their lack of access to relevant networks (Bevelander, 2011), their subjection to discrimination (Diedrich et al., 2011), and their health (e.g. Bogic et al., 2015).
A range of measures are in place in host countries to alleviate these difficulties and support refugees’ labour market integration, such as language tuition, guidance, preventive health work, work placements, mentoring programmes and a host of other activities (e.g. Battisti et al., 2019). Such support measures are usually organised by public, private and community organisations and volunteers, often in collaboration (see Ortlieb et al., 2021; Qvist, 2017).
The complexities and consequences of such organising processes for LMIS have only recently received more attention (e.g. Brorström & Diedrich, 2020; Diedrich, 2017). However, we lack knowledge of how the organising of LMIS for refugees has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the potential consequences for refugees and organisers of support.
Second, we compare Austria and Sweden as they each host a large number of refugees, with diverging welfare contexts (Esping-Andersen, 1990) and specific LMIS policies (see e.g. Konle-Seidl, 2018). The countries differ greatly in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whereas Austria mandated strict lockdowns as the number of Covid-19 cases increased, Sweden issued non-mandatory recommendations.
To study the changes unfolding in response to the pandemic, we lean on relational frameworks of organising (Syed, 2008; Syed & Özbilgin, 2009). We thus acknowledge LMIS for refugees as a dynamic, multilevel process connecting the macro-national, meso-organisational and the micro-individual levels in mutually constituting ways (Knappert et al., 2020; Lee et al., 2020).
Previous research has pointed to numerous difficulties for refugees at each of these levels (e.g. Fasani et al., 2018). Early investigations suggest that some of these challenges have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic (Guadagno, 2020). However, we argue that the emerging narrative of exacerbated difficulties for refugees as a result of the pandemic, which is based on their comparison to other crises (Takenoshita, 2017), must be expanded to take into account the interrelated and interdependent multilevel challenges refugees face in the host countries’ labour markets in light of changes in the provision and organising processes of integration support. In doing so, the article points to three important consequences from the changing relationships in the context of LMIS across the two countries: (a) broader, macro-national level developments already underway prior to the pandemic become further entrenched; (b) mainstreaming practices increase; (c) the increased volatility of work affects refugees directly and indirectly.
In the following, we present an overview of the scholarly work on LMIS for refugees and a relational framework as a meaningful tool to analyse the unfolding changes to LMIS during the pandemic. We then illustrate the backdrop against which LMIS for refugees is organised in Austria and Sweden and recent developments in response to the pandemic, before outlining our methodology and presenting our findings. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings.
Emerging challenges of LMIS for refugees
Refugees face many challenges in their efforts to enter the labour market (e.g. Fasani et al., 2018; Lee et al., 2020) and are often deemed to require special support. A range of studies have explored these challenges from a policy perspective, by focussing on asylum or labour market policies and their impact on labour market integration (e.g. Emilsson, 2015; Hagelund, 2020; Jutvik & Robinson, 2020). Other research addresses obstacles affecting refugees at the individual level, e.g. language difficulties, health problems, or a lack of networks (Barslund et al., 2017; Verwiebe et al., 2019). Research on how support for refugees is organised in practice, involving a plethora of organisations, is limited, with few exceptions (see e.g. Ortlieb et al., 2021; Brorström & Diedrich, 2020).
However, the challenges connected to LMIS are interrelated, and in practice it is difficult to separate them. On the one hand, a change in policy may have consequences for both organisers of support and refugees. On the other hand, challenges associated with refugees as a particular group of new arrivals, such as the fact that they suffer more from health problems, may result in changes in policy. Further, changes in organising practices, such as the introduction of new communication technology, may increase obstacles such as language difficulties on the individual level. Yet few studies have highlighted how the practical work on integration support for refugees is multifaceted, with challenges emerging through the shifting relationships between these different levels. One way of capturing these relationships and challenges is through a relational perspective (Syed, 2008; Syed & Özbilgin, 2009). Exploring the field of diversity management, Syed and Özbilgin (2009) argued that many studies over-emphasise the policy level at national or organisational level, and through such “single-level conceptualisations” neglect the interplay of multilevel challenges and structural and intersectional concerns of diversity and equality. Instead, they suggest, the macro, meso and micro domains of diversity exist in a state of relational interdependence, as individual workplace experiences and perspectives are not just a product of, but also contribute to, the macro and meso responses towards diversity (Syed & Özbilgin, 2009).
Drawing on a relational perspective, it is essential to understand how broader societal issues at the macro level affect the organising of LMIS. Meso-organisational factors have a direct role in determining and influencing the integration of refugees into the labour market. On the micro level, the activities and events involving refugees and others influence integration into the labour market. We argue here that the roles policy makers, organisations and individuals can play in effectively organising LMIS are influenced by issues and changes at multiple levels.
Such a perspective also helps in understanding how refugees not only interact with, but also enact, environments and utilise their own resources to shape their future in the host economy (e.g. Hunt, 2008). Their attempts at integrating into the labour market should at the same time be seen as influenced by macro-national and meso-organisational opportunities and barriers. In other words, macro-national and meso-organisational phenomena are a result of—and are in turn influenced by—micro-individual activities, with potentially important implications for individual-level opportunities and outcomes.
By using a relational framework, we are able to address micro-individual, meso-organisational and broader macro-national issues together by pointing to the importance of their mutually influencing relationships based on contextual, contingent and comparative elements that allow them to be situated in their social and historical contexts (Syed & Özbilgin, 2009).
Austria and Sweden: organising LMIS in light of Covid-19
Both Austria and Sweden have large migrant populations and have, in recent years, admitted more refugees per capita than most European countries. In Austria over 88,000 individuals applied for asylum in 2015 while Sweden accepted close to 163,000 asylum seekers (Eurostat, 2020). These numbers have dropped markedly since then, in response to the 2016 EU-Turkey deal and the introduction of restrictive asylum and migration policies in both countries. In 2019, around 12,000 asylum seekers arrived in Austria of which 6,000 were granted refugee status, and 26,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden, where 5,700 received refugee status (Eurostat, 2020). In both countries, refugees continue to face many challenges to become an integrated part of society (e.g. Verwiebe et al., 2019; Wikström & Sténs, 2019). Below, we outline the organisation of LMIS showing the move towards mainstreaming at the policy level as well as differences in e-Governance and responses to the pandemic, which impact the provision of LMIS for refugees.
LMIS in Austria and Sweden
In Austria, the Integration Act and the Labour Market Integration Act, both passed in 2017, form the basis for labour market integration. The laws distinguish between asylum seekers with a high probability of being allowed to stay, and refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. The latter two groups are obliged to sign an integration contract and participate in an ‘Integration Year’. The Integration Year bundles existing labour market measures, focusing on competence, language courses, values and orientation, and job preparation measures (Ortlieb et al., 2021). The main organisers of LMIS are the Austrian Integration Fund (AIF), which manages the Integration Year, and the Austrian Public Employment Service (APES). AIF and APES cooperate with several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other private service providers in delivering LMIS measures across the country. Additionally, municipalities implement projects and support measures that aim to complement the AIF/APES measures. After the Integration Year, refugees have full access to the job market and to the general services provided by the APES.
In Sweden the legal basis for labour market integration is the Act on the Responsibility for Settlement Measures for Recent Immigrants. The Act stipulates that refugees granted a residence permit for protection and received by a municipality shall have the opportunity to participate in the 2-year Settlement Programme run by the Swedish Public Employment Service (SPES). As part of the programme, refugees are offered a range of measures to facilitate their integration into the labour market, such as subsidised employment, skills assessment, language training, civic orientation courses, education, vocational training, internships and matching activities. The SPES does not undertake these activities itself. Instead, LMIS for refugees is decentralised, and involves a plethora of public, private and community organisations, including companies, municipalities and other state agencies and non-profit organisations (Diedrich, 2017; Diedrich & Hellgren, 2018; Qvist, 2017).
Additionally, LMIS in Sweden has been influenced by broader movements within the Swedish public sector towards e-Governance (e.g. Bernhard, 2014; Garcia Alonso et al., 2020), not least visible in the 2015 establishment of the eSam programme around digitalisation that involves 28 national and local authorities. The country is ascribed a fast-growing level of “digital maturity” and its citizens today communicate predominantly with authorities via digital channels (Swedish Center for Digital Innovation, 2020). Influenced by these developments, the SPES began to replace face-to-face contacts with jobseekers with digital communication tools—even before the onset of the pandemic. In contrast, in Austria the digitalisation of the public sector progressed very slowly. While some efforts towards e-Governance had been made, APES and other organisers of LMIS have only recently started to broadly implement digital tools in practice (Bröckl & Bliem, 2020). APES, for instance has begun to translate its digitalisation strategy into practice, by financing courses to increase the digital skills of trainers in support organisations.
Notably, the restrictive asylum and migration policies introduced in both countries after 2015 have led to a successive decrease in the numbers of refugees in the Integration Year and on the Settlement Programme, as well as in other support programmes. At the same time, agencies and public, private and non-profit service providers in both countries developed an array of measures specifically focussing on asylum seekers and refugees. In line with broader moves towards mainstreaming of labour market integration policies from 2018 onwards, a mainstreaming of such measures can be observed in practice, where refugees are to be treated first and foremost as jobseekers. Subsequently, much of the specific support available to refugees before 2018 is no longer available today.
Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic
In response to the pandemic, the Austrian government imposed the first lockdown in mid-March 2020, which led to widespread closures of businesses. After a brief re-opening during summer 2020, two subsequent lockdowns were imposed, in November 2020 and December 2020, and only a few restrictions were lifted in February 2021 (Böheim & Leoni, 2020). The pandemic continues to impact the labour market, with unemployment figures standing at around 10% in February 2021 (APES, 2021). The Austrian job market is furthermore faced with a significant number of furloughed workers (around 300,000) and a 7% drop in GDP for the first few months of 2021 (WIFO, 2021).
Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic differed from most other countries, including Austria. Until January 2021, the Swedish government introduced mainly non-mandatory hygiene and physical distancing recommendations in the hope that people and organisations would follow those (Kavaliunas et al., 2020). The Swedish strategy of working mainly with recommendations was widely seen as an expression of the public’s strong trust in the country’s government and public institutions. Most stores, hotels and restaurants remained open throughout the pandemic and the Swedish economy has not suffered to the same degree as other European countries. Nevertheless, the labour market was impacted, with unemployment standing at 8.3% in September 2020 and a record number of furloughed workers: 71,740 by November 2020 (Swedish Agency for Economic & Regional Growth, 2020). Unemployment is expected to increase to over 11% during 2021 (Swedish Public Employment Service, 2020).
In both countries, public institutions closed and state agencies such as APES and SPES mandated their employees to work from home and avoid face-to-face meetings with clients. Communication in general was instead facilitated digitally or via telephone (during lockdowns in Austria, but throughout the period in Sweden).
This brief overview of LMIS, and the developments in response to the pandemic, shows that the policy direction in both countries appears to move towards more mainstreaming (Scholten, 2020; Scholten et al., 2017) in labour market integration. We argue that the pandemic has further accelerated this development. Additionally, while the responses to the pandemic are diverging and the digital maturity of the public sector differs, we argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the actors involved in LMIS in similar ways, as outlined in the findings section further below.