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[Feature] How can EU labour markets adapt to Ukrainian refugees in years to come?

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Sasha has been working in a vineyard in La Rioja for a few months now, although she has been living in the small village of Haro for a year. The young Ukrainian woman left Kiev shortly after the outbreak of war with her mother and younger sisters and moved to her cousins’ house in this northern Spanish region.

At first, she continued to work remotely for her former company. Then she took a break before looking for a new job and supported herself with some savings. “I wanted to find something that wasn’t remote, that would allow me to integrate into society, talk to people and learn Spanish,” she explains in a video call with EUobserver.

Despite not knowing Spanish at the time (she’s now at an intermediate level), it didn’t take her long to find her current position as a wine guide. Although she also puts it down to luck and the Spaniards who helped her. “Spanish people are very nice, something that somehow compensates for the fact that there is not as much financial support as in other countries,” she says, highlighting aspects of her welcome that could be improved.

Community support was key to getting accommodation, work, and education for the children. “When we arrived, we needed to buy books and materials for my siblings. The school raised money to pay for everything: clothes, school bags, books…”, she says, smiling.

Sasha is one of the 168,000 Ukrainians in Spain who are benefiting from the temporary protection mechanism triggered by the EU in February 2022, which offers accelerated residence permits, access to employment, education, and healthcare.

Across the EU as a whole, this protection reaches some 4.867 million, although the total number of refugees exceeds eight million.

The swift and coordinated response of the EU-27 gave Ukrainians access to enter the labour market and find work relatively quickly. One of the challenges now is whether to prioritise finding any job rather than one that matches their skills.

“The problem is not connecting them to the European labour market, but finding them a quality job,” adds Kate Hooper, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

There is evidence that displaced Ukrainians have a higher level of education than other refugee groups and above the Ukrainian average, according to the OECD analysis. The most immediate explanation is the large presence of women who have fled the war (at least 70 percent of adults), with 56 percent of them having higher education compared to 43 percent of men.

Ohla has been living in Alicante (Spain) for the past year. She is a project manager for two remote companies. One in Ukraine, the other in the United States. For her, it took between two and three months to find these positions, and neither is in the EU.

Living in Alicante has another advantage and disadvantage, she says: “With the large community of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians in the region, when a job comes up, someone else gets it before you”.

Moreover, she says, the sectors in which there was more supply, such as the hotel industry, did not match her skills. “The labour market in Spain and Ukraine is very different”, she laments.

Uncertainty about whether they will return to Ukraine when the war is over also conditions their (re)adaptation to European labour markets—and their needs.

For example, in order to work in Spain, they will need Spanish, and in Germany, they will need to understand and speak German. The language barrier is a major “challenge” in accessing jobs, as is the recognition of qualifications needed for certain regulated professions, says Hooper.

Another barrier is childcare, as a third of all refugees in EU countries are children. Policymakers will have to look at how to extend services, how to ensure they are sustainable in the long term through for example integration courses and reskilling. Flexibility will be the key to ensuring that Ukrainians can benefit from this support.

The EU’s response to the crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine also hides an uncomfortable truth: “Temporary protection provided very quick and direct access to be able to work in a way that other populations in need of protection have not been able to benefit from”, notes the IPM analyst.

Looking ahead, among the lessons learned from this crisis, one of the most important is precisely that, says Hooper. “Having access to early employment provides a degree of independence that is really important when people are rebuilding their lives.

A look into the future

The reconstruction process in Ukraine will be long and costly, and will also have to address important structural weaknesses in its labour market, notes Tito Boeri, Professor of Economics at Bocconi University (Italy).

Even before the war (and the pandemic), Ukraine had an unemployment rate of 9.9 per cent, low labour market participation and a large share of the agricultural and informal sector, says Boeri’s report on rebuilding the Ukrainian labour market.

Now the situation has become more critical, and they will have to deal with a large amount of internally displaced persons (more than five million Ukrainians), as well as the danger of a brain drain, with temporary protection in place until March 2025.

The mechanism is two-fold for Ukraine. On the one hand, it makes it easier for its workers to find work. On the other hand, it will make it more difficult to bring them back home, Boeri told this online media outlet.

Asked whether she will return to Ukraine, Ohla says that it depends on the economic situation. “It is important for me to feel financial security and I understand that this will not come quickly to Ukraine, so if it does, I will have no idea what to do there,” she confesses before ending the call.

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