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Institutional obstacles to professional recognition in Portugal for Eastern European migrants undermine professional equal opportunities

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Discrimination harms its victims in so many ways. Crucially, discrimination stops people from achieving their true potential. It also harms societies that are unwilling or unable to tap into the skills and knowledge that people with diverse backgrounds can contribute. When I was thinking about what Zero Discrimination Day means for me, I was recalling a story I recently heard.

Anna*, an Eastern European migrant turned Portuguese citizen, looks back two decades in the past, when she first tried to legalise her professional diploma, which in the Portuguese translation stated ‘Nurse’. The Portuguese authorities recently adopted a directive pertaining to the new state of emergency starting on 14 February, which ‘brings new restrictions, tightens borders and opens the door to foreign health professionals in the combat against the COVID-19 pandemic’. This follows a sharp increase in numbers of infections per capita in Portugal, which resulted in additional pressure on the public healthcare system. The Publico reveals that ‘foreign nurses who came to fight COVID-19 must have five years of experience or 3600 hours of learning.’ Anna would later ask me, whom else should she contact to be able to put in practice what she studied, for after two decades most of the options have become obsolete.

Anna arrived in Portugal shortly after the beginning of the millennium. However, early 2000s was not to be the time for her to resume work in the medical field, as USSR diplomas from 1989 and 1990 such as her own qualification were not recognised in the EU. In 2017, she heard that some acquaintances had managed to obtain Equivalence of same-level diplomas elsewhere in the EU and thought to try again through Portugal’s Instituto de Emprego e Formaçao Professional (IEFP – Institute for Employment and Vocational Training), the public national employment service. During the interview, she talked about her profession in nursing and explicitly stated that she would like to practice her degree. The officer asked, ‘Do you have a profession?’ and Anna answered, ‘Yes, I have been trying to get legalised’. Then the officer further asked, ‘But here, what do you do?’, to which she replied, ‘What is written in the contract’. Without giving a second thought to the expressed interest in getting professional recognition, the officer simply said, ‘Then, we are going to register you with what you have in Portugal from the company’. As simple as that, one possibility to secure a higher-skilled job in Portugal was eliminated by a bureaucratic apathetic approach to labour management.

Not giving up, she started to research the IEFP and found that she could take courses and train for a higher-skilled position. On returning to IEFP, she was directed towards the local university, the closest body that could recognize a diploma. The local university´s curriculum did not offer ‘Nursing’, she was advised to try the regional university, which did have such a course. The regional university informed her that it is not with them since the translated document failed to mention ‘Bachelor´s degree’. Going back to square one, she tried a local secondary school, where the officers told her to get her qualification notarised by the Ministry of Justice in her country of origin. Thousands of kilometres, hundreds of Euros and countless hours and visits to the relevant institutions in the country of origin later, (bureaucracies tend to be close relatives across all ‘development’ levels of states), her Diploma finally had the much-needed stamp. Only the translation remained, and the rest should go smoothly, considering it was 2018 already. As if anything is ‘that’ easy, the new translation stated ‘paramedic’ not ‘nurse’.

On returning to Portugal, she went back to the local high school and applied for an Equivalence Diploma, only for the completion of 12 years of secondary education. The actual qualification falls under the dubious category of ‘Vocational Education and Training’ (VET), already somewhat disjoined across EU Member States, and much more so when coming from the Soviet Union. It took 12 months to obtain the Equivalence, which in principle should have taken 30 days. And even then, it only happened after countless calls, and a more efficient official complaint to the Ministry of Education which prompted the school to yield the document in only two days. One does wonder, when was it completed and why did it wait for that fateful call.

It is already mid-2019 with one Secondary Education Equivalence Diploma achieved. Anna still needed to get the professional recognition required for employment purposes. That is, back to IEFP and another round of suggestions about whom could help. Then the pandemic hit. Following the first wave and after long email exchanges which resulted in a curt conclusion from their part: ‘Your level 4 certificate is in an area that does not exist in Portugal. Thus, except in the best opinion, it will not be possible to obtain the recognition of the desired certification.’ To get that ‘best opinion’, an appointment with the centre was booked during which, Anna tried to explain that, ‘Yes, I understand these are the National Frameworks, I have read about them. However, surely there is a mechanism that could not waste the skills already present, considering we are living in a pandemic and medical staff is needed. I am willing to take additional classes to make up for the difference.’ In answer to this, the IEFP sent an invitation to a course paid by the social services. The course included some modules stated in the translated original document, which by law cannot be recognized in Portugal, or at least, the institution that could recognize by modules studied not the name of the profession has yet to resurface from the vast Portuguese bureaucracy. The officers themselves suggested that there could potentially be such an institution, but they were not aware of it.

The convoluted journey above is only a small piece of the whole experience many migrants and members of minorities face, potentially even more keenly now during the pandemic, when certain skills are particularly needed. A Study on Obstacles to Recognition of Skills and Qualifications commissioned by the European Commission in 2016 found that recognition of foreign qualifications in Portugal is particularly challenging for a variety of reasons, including the complex bureaucratic requirements, just like Anna has experienced. I would add one more, namely the lack of dissemination of information among responsible offices which, most often than not, resulted in contradictory advice and countless circular visits to same institutions which were unsure of each other´s responsibilities.

At this point you might ask – this is about administration inefficiency; how can it be discrimination? It is, much like how women’s movements fight against laws, rules, legislation and procedures in order not to be discriminated. Discrimination is an umbrella term covering events permeating every single area of life. Discrimination in social settings, while cruel, is sometimes balanced by genuinely kind acts from other native people. Another EE migrant turned citizen who later managed to get a higher-skilled job said, ‘I would have never reached where I am if not for the friendliness and acceptance of the Portuguese people who supported me’. Institutionalised, systemic discrimination while more subtle, long-term is more harmful and fuels much of the animosity felt on a social level. So when an ‘anthropic’ disaster, like the COVID-19 pandemic, hits the country, on the one hand, you have healthcare professionals dying alongside patients, or suffering unimaginable psychological damage turning them from heroes into victims. On the other hand, you have people confined at home, watching the news about retired, in reserve and foreign health professionals will be able to be hired, willing but unable to help through their professional qualifications. This does not apply to the health sector alone, and it bodes down to individual choice. Some would choose to practice their profession, others would opt to continue in the current field, but people have to be equally free to pursue either path.

What can be done? We all know the answer; we´ve heard it countless times – improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state institutions. Really, it takes the prize for empty talk. However, things can be done. The government of Portugal could at the least encourage communication between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour, potentially through an Inter-agency Task Force focused on re-evaluating work force qualifications. Furthermore, a national register for migrants practicing other than their profession/qualifications in Portugal could be created for employment institutions throughout the country to update every time a migrant registers with their services. This way, changes in national legislation or the labour market could be followed up with the respective individuals, asking them whether they would be interested in getting professional recognition or taking up a job closer to their qualification or an Equivalence towards similar ends. At the same time, this will ensure people already qualified abroad will not be invited to training events covering similar skills at the expanse of the state, thus bridging the gap between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour. More importantly, by addressing institutionalised discrimination against migrant workers, unforeseen global challenges would be easier dealt with through the foresight of a state which efficiently manages its labour force and deploys human resources as necessary. International organisations genuinely wishing to be active in Portugal, could collaborate with the civil society on related issues. Two such organizations are Casa do Brasil de Lisboa and SOSRacismo.

At a time of global emergency, the issues are clear. So are the ways forward. Meanwhile, Anna and so many others like her have had to spend decades trying to get, many still unable to, professional recognition. This would mean, empowering them with the equal opportunity and the freedom to choose how to contribute to society with their skills and knowledge, rather than allowing institutional limitations to dictate the range of accessible choices.

By Mihaela Cojocaru, Research Assistant at Minority Rights Group International

*For confidentiality and security purposes the name has been changed, while gender is the author’s stance on using the generic ‘she’.

Feature photo: The entrance door to an IEFP office in Portugal. 2 March 2021. Credit: Mihaela Cojocaru.

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