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EU cross-border workers feel the pain

Nik Martin
March 12, 2020

EU states are closing borders and stepping up health checks on cross-border workers to fight the spread of coronavirus. Severe labor shortages in critical industries are expected if quarantine measures are increased.

A driver has their temperature taken at the Italy-Austria border
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Balk

Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia have closed some of their borders with Italy as their neighbor struggles to control the worst outbreak of coronavirus outside of Asia. The Italian government has placed the entire country on lockdown amid a rising death toll — now 827 people — and more than 12,000 infections of COVID-19.

The effects of Italy's draconian measures are naturally being felt nationwide. But concern is growing for tens of thousands of cross-border workers, who travel between European Union states and are facing entry and exit restrictions that could see them unable to work or return home to their families.

"There are many people who work in one place but are really worried to return there because they may get stuck for several weeks or months," Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel told DW. 

Read more: Coronavirus latest: Germany reports fifth death from COVID-19

While Italy has exempted cross-border workers from the lockdown, Austria and Slovenia have introduced an entry ban on arrivals from the south without a medical certificate. For now, Switzerland has stepped up temperature screenings which threaten lengthy delays at road and rail frontiers. Several secondary border crossings have been shut. Some politicians in Switzerland's canton of Ticino, which lies directly on the border with Italy, have called for a total ban on people arriving from the south.

Not all have proof of employment

The new measures are expected to impact some 60-70,000 commuters who cross between Italy and Austria, and a similar number who travel between Switzerland and Italy each day. Many have high-paying jobs in private banks, hospitals, construction sites and factories. But others are freelance or work illegally and don't have work permits or written proof of their job. Switzerland also sees huge numbers cross into the country from France and Germany, two other European countries with high numbers of infections.

Italy, meanwhile, relies on a multitude of workers from eastern Europe to help staff hospitals, care homes and supermarkets. As frontline staff go sick or are placed in quarantine, the country faces a potential shortage of critical workers if borders are shut for any length of time.

"A shortage of health professionals and for old-age carers is not a new phenomenon. Given that close to 24% of Italy's population is over 65, the demand for these types of workers is already high," said Isilda Mara, an economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.

Read more: ECB shifts into crisis mode as coronavirus bites eurozone economy

And as coronavirus spreads throughout Europe, an even larger group of frontier workers — such as the 200,000 people living in Belgium, Germany and France who commute to Luxembourg daily — could also be impacted. According to EU estimates, some 1.47 million people reside in one EU member state but work in another. While many office positions offer the chance to work from home, as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, many roles will always require the employee to be present.

Missing legal protection

Cross-border workers also fear a lack of legal protection from the travel restrictions put in place due to the outbreak. "Unlike absence due to sickness, absence due to a border closure is not covered by any insurance and would give firms the right to stop paying salaries," Hilmar Schneider, chief executive of the Institute from Labor Economics, based in Bonn, Germany, told DW.

Despite Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte insisting that no one will lose their job due to coronavirus, discrimination is also a growing fear among many cross-border workers, who believe that locals will be prioritized to retain their jobs if a firm needs to introduce temporary or permanent layoffs. Several economists have predicted large-scale job cuts across Europe as firms' profits nosedive.

"Close to two-thirds of cross-border workers have jobs which require a low or secondary level of education, so this group is more vulnerable [to layoffs]," Mara told DW.

Those that do return home risk carrying the virus with them and the self-isolation demands that could delay their return to the country where they work.

The restrictions are not limited to Italy's neighbors. Germany has stepped up border checks at its border with France due to a cluster of coronavirus cases in the Grand Est region. 

Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, concerned that Germany has the fourth-largest number of infections in Europe, have renewed border checks. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Thursday that restrictions would be imposed on 13 risk countries, including several EU states. Cross-border workers are exempt from that ban for now, if they can prove their employment in another country.