The Cyprus economy would collapse if it weren’t for migrant workers, Labour Minister Yiannis Panayiotou said on Monday as they comprise nearly a quarter of the workforce.
A total of 110,000 third country nationals currently work legally on the island – and pay into social security, compared to 340,000 Greek Cypriots, with another 10,000 Greek Cypriots registered unemployed, the minister said.
Therefore, should migrants leave, the workforce would suffer a severe deficit, even if all Greek Cypriots were employed, the minister reasoned.
The size of the economy dictates the need for migrant workers the labour minister added, speaking after a weekend that saw anti and pro-migrant rallies, adding that strict regulation of the issue is the way to prevent economic problems and extremism.
He underlined that a distinction must be made in dealing with those seeking protection from war or persecution and economic migrants.
“Migration is a multifaceted problem,” the minister said. “Within the next few months, the results of government policies [to this end] will become visible.
“Economic migrants [must be processed differently] from those seeking refuge from danger whom we are under EU and international obligation to protect,” the minister explained.
Their status must be based on preconditions of economic necessity, he said.
The minister was quick to add that in a hypothetical case where all migrants were to leave the island – a chant heard from fascist elements during the recent violence – the economy would collapse, as the resultant labour shortage would hit key sectors.
Compounding this is the matter of low birth rate, and even if this were suddenly to increase, two decades of labour deficit would still be expected before the demographic became productive, Panayiotou said.
“We can’t maintain our economy without migrants,” he underlined, citing as examples the 40,000 domestic workers brought in legally through direct employer sponsorship and 25,000 workers brought in by the labour ministry to bolster other sectors.
Also, he said, among identified irregular economic migrants the vast majority – 90 per cent – have their applications rejected.
Of 28,500 pending applications, roughly one third, that is 10,000, are also working legally, in certain sectors, the minister said.
“There are limitations placed on access to their employment for a reason,” the minister elaborated, stating that a policy of unimpeded automatic access to employment for all pending applicants would establish a never-ending cycle of delayed processing, among other problems.
“A clear message must be sent that those who are here for economic reasons have a different process [to genuine asylum seekers] which is regulated and based on the needs of the economy, and includes bringing particular skills,” the minister said.
Asked about illegal workers, which is believed to cover large numbers within the construction and service industry, Panayiotou said that such cases have been noted and over the next two months a big crackdown on undeclared labour is foreseen.
Trade union leaders have also spoken out about undeclared workers.
“Illegal employment and exploitation [of workers] must be checked,” general secretary of Sek union Andreas Matsas, said.
“Labour needs must be evaluated and human potential must be built up. We need to clarify our needs and not demonise third country workers,” he added.
Matsas called for collective agreements to be agreed on and put in place, to safeguard the rights of all workers equally, and provide an outlet to the current crisis.
General secretary of Peo union Soteroulla Charalambous said it has for years called for the “root of the problem of racism” to be addressed.
“The problem is not who is working [what colour the person is] but the fact of exploitation,” Charalambous said.
“We must examine the conditions under which people are employed and end the exploitation [inherent in] cheap labour practices. Workers have nothing separating them but the profiteering of employers,” she said.