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Access to information: Maximising the recast single permit’s potential

Migration / COMMENTARY

Date: 15/04/2024

The recast Single Permit Directive provides a renewed opportunity to address growing labour shortages and combat the risk of labour exploitation faced by migrant workers. Access to information is vital to meeting these objectives. Despite general improvements, challenges will likely remain for workers and employers if this is not prioritised in the implementation of the recast Directive.


On 12 April 2024, with everyone’s attention on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Council approved the revision of the Single Permit Directive (SPD) after a positive vote by the European Parliament (EP) in mid-March. By simplifying procedures to obtain a residence and work permit, the Directive’s revision is part of a broader EU effort to attract foreign workers from abroad amidst growing labour shortages across the EU. Concurrently, it aims at improving working conditions and addressing the risks of exploitation faced by migrant workers.


Whether the recast, which will only become applicable in 2026, will meet its objectives depends on its effective implementation. The SPD remains an underutilised instrument, with most member states opting for national schemes. A consequential and seldom discussed aspect of its implementation is the often insurmountable challenges that foreign workers and employers face in navigating complex procedures and understanding their rights and obligations under the SPD.


Although the recast contains several improvements, its impact will be limited if obstacles to accessing information are not addressed head-on. Employers and prospective workers will be less likely to use the single permit procedure. The risk of exploitation will also persist, undermining the EU’s attractiveness for foreign workers at all skill levels. For this reason, the European Commission and member states should prioritise these aspects when developing implementation plans in the next political cycle.

Advancements in the Recast SPD

The SPD regulates procedural aspects of labour migration, allowing non-EU nationals based abroad to obtain a work and residence permit through a single procedure. Currently, the SPD is an underutilised framework, with excessive processing times and expensive fees constituting two obstacles to its implementation. In addition, it includes restrictive and complex eligibility restrictions and gives member states discretion on whether applications can be submitted from within the EU and if single permit holders can change employers.

The recast SPD contains several improvements designed to encourage its use.  Among others, it shortens processing times for authorities and sets further limitations on fees. Applications made by those who already reside in the EU will have to be considered. Single permit holders will also be able to change employers and be unemployed for a minimum of three months without losing residence rights.

At the same time, the possibility for employers to make an application on behalf of foreign workers is preserved. This can bring certain advantages, as the employer can be presumed to be more familiar with the existing laws, conditions, and national language. 
These improvements should provide more avenues for non-EU nationals to obtain and retain the right to work and live in the EU. With the working age population predicted to decline by 35 million by 2050, and with several sectors already experiencing labour shortages, including the accommodation, agri-food, and healthcare sectors, these improvements would also allow employers to tap into a wider pool of available workers to address these challenges.


However, the potential added value of the Directive is not limited to addressing labour shortages. Together with other legislative reforms proposed and negotiated in the EU's current political cycle, such as the Platform Work Directive and the revision of the Victims’ Rights Directive, the recast SPD should become a useful instrument to ensure better working conditions and stronger protections for non-EU workers, many who continue to experience abuse and precarity tied to their status.


To this end, tighter monitoring and enforcement provisions on equal treatment are foreseen under the recast. At the same time, the recast establishes redress mechanisms for cases where employers do not comply with their obligations. Moreover, greater flexibility to change employment is envisioned for workers who experience serious contractual breaches, while an extension for the allowed period of unemployment is foreseen in cases of labour exploitation.


These additional protections for non-EU workers could lead to a welcome change. Not only would this entail more dignified working conditions for migrants, but it would also increase the EU’s attractiveness, thus boosting the EU’s efforts to address existing and future labour shortages.


Zooming in on access to information

One aspect that is key to the functioning of the SPD, and should not be overlooked is access to information. This enables non-EU nationals to navigate procedures and make informed decisions – especially important in contexts where they have limited bargaining power – and facilitates access to other rights under the Directive. Employers must also be able to access information to fully understand its added value and fulfil their obligations. Making information accessible, comprehensive and easy to grasp is therefore of the essence to encourage the use of the SPD and realise its benefits in practice.


Despite the importance of ensuring easy access to information, in the legislative text that the EU co-legislators decided to reform, this right is not defined in much depth. For example, member states need only provide information on the required documents if the employer or foreign worker requests it. While information about entry and residence conditions must be made publicly available, details on the rights of migrant workers and the obligations of employers may not. The Directive’s transposition into national law has also posed problems, with some member states failing to set out clear obligations for competent authorities. This has led to fragmentation in its application across member states, including the standards, channels and languages used to communicate information.


Therefore, while providing some baseline, the old framework did not go far enough in ensuring effective communication about rights and procedures to employers and non-EU nationals.


The recast SPD tries to address some of these shortcomings. It expands the range of information to be made easily available, including applicable fees, the rights and obligations of non-EU workers and their families, procedural safeguards, such as legal redress, as well as information on workers’ organisations. Where the employer submits the application, it will have to keep the non-EU national informed about its status, reducing the risk of opportunistic behaviour. Additionally, non-EU nationals who are granted a single permit will have equal access to information and advice from employment offices as nationals.


Realising the recast Directive's objectives – what challenges remain?


The recast SPD expands minimum standards on access to information, making it easier for non-EU nationals and employers to understand their rights and obligations as well as navigate procedures, thus potentially encouraging the Directive’s use. However, challenges will remain, with three deserving specific attention:

  1.    Persisting dependencies on employers.
  2.          Absence of minimum standards on communication channels.
  3.          Uncertainty about the involvement of third-party organisations.


In the first place, employers remain able to apply for non-EU nationals under the revised framework, which can have advantages. And yet, not all employers have the resources to navigate and explain complex procedures to migrant workers. Moreover, while the employer must provide updated information to non-EU nationals, no direct communication channel between the applicant worker and public authorities will necessarily exist. This reinforces the relationship of dependency between the employer and the applicant, which in some cases, could lead to fraudulent behaviour or even exploitation. Who is an employer is also not defined in the recast SPD. This risks creating loopholes for certain types of employers, such as temporary work agencies, to skirt their obligations.


Moreover, while more information will be provided under the revised SPD, nothing has been said about the channels or the language in which it is to be communicated. Without minimum requirements, foreign workers may continue to face challenges in navigating the single permit framework. For those already in the EU, lack of awareness about rules on eligibility, unemployment, and change of employer could heighten risks of falling into irregularity or being exposed to abuse.


To avoid fragmentation that would arise in the absence of such requirements, the EP had called for establishing a transnational advisory network, in which a lead authority from each member state would serve as a contact point for advice and information to employers and foreign workers alike. Although this idea was not incorporated in the recast SPD, a similar platform was included in the recently proposed Talent Pool – which aims to facilitate the matching between employers and non-EU job seekers. This could benefit non-EU national workers abroad, although not those already in the EU. Calls to involve agencies such as the European Labour Authority (ELA) and other relevant actors should be considered in this context, to ensure that all single permit applicants benefit from more consistent communication.


On this account, migrant workers will likely continue to rely on other channels, including personal and professional networks, to retrieve information and seek further guidance on protection and redress. These include trade unions, but also diaspora communities and civil society organisations (CSOs). As seen above, the recast SPD explicitly recognises the role of workers’ organisations in protecting their interests. By contrast, CSOs and community associations were left out of the final text. Considering that not all migrant workers are represented by trade unions, this could make it harder to ensure that non-EU nationals are appropriately informed, guided and empowered.


Looking ahead – the pivotal role of access to information

The recast SPD has the potential to better facilitate labour mobility to the EU and to ensure decent working and living conditions for single permit holders, promoting their rights and aspirations while making the Union a more attractive destination. However, access to information must be prioritised and safeguarded to incentivise the use of labour migration channels and combat exploitation. While some improvements on this front are present in the recast SPD, more needs to be done to make it easy and comprehensible to navigate, and to guarantee that all relevant elements of this legal tool are understood.


With a new political cycle on the horizon, this is an opportune moment to reflect on future implementation needs at the EU and national level, to prevent the revised Directive from becoming another underutilised instrument in the field of labour migration. Considering that the Commission has made the better implementation of future migration systems an upcoming priority, along with overarching objectives of addressing demographic change, protecting human rights, and promoting safe and regular pathways, closing information gaps should be made a core part of the EU and national strategies.

Marina Grama is a Programme Assistant in the European Diversity and Migration programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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