Maria is a seasonal worker from Romania, who goes to Germany every spring to work in the agriculture sector. A recruitment agency arranges her contract, accommodation and bus trip from her village to the remote farm where she works abroad. Since she has very limited contact with German society and institutions, before learning about a company that claims benefits on migrants’ behalf, she was not aware of her eligibility for child benefits as a temporary worker in Germany.
I didn’t know anything about child benefits [in Germany]… We don’t speak the language and we aren’t familiar with the laws… I heard that [companies] team up with lawyers. We don’t know anyone, there are many obstacles for us.
Other EU migrants face similar challenges. Despite their entitlement to social protection in the country where they take up work, they are not always able to access those rights due to several barriers. To address this issue, a group of actors specialising in cross-border social protection that mediate between EU migrants and civil servants has emerged at the EU level. These actors – welfare brokers – are motivated by profit, the desire to gain recognition in the community, political views or altruism.
My larger research on welfare brokers, conducted as part of the ERC-funded project “Migration, Transnationalism and Social Protection“, draws on Romanian migration to Germany to understand how these intermediaries shape the exchanges between EU migrants who claim child or unemployment benefits and the civil servants who process their claims. Additionally, it explores the ways in which welfare brokers work across borders and migrants’ recourse to their services.
I became interested in studying the role of welfare brokers in facilitating access to cross border social protection when I noticed migrants on Facebook groups recommending to one another third-party assistance for claiming social benefits and have conducted this research between October 2020 and June 2021.
I reached out to welfare brokers via their contact details available online and via recommendations and have recruited migrants through welfare intermediaries, the Orthodox church in Berlin, Facebook groups, and personal contacts. A large part of the interviews had been carried out online but I did in-person fieldwork in Berlin, when the sanitary restrictions allowed it. The sample consists of Romanian migrants from various socio-economic backgrounds, including low-paid sectors and highly skilled migrants. Some interviewees experienced marginal work, labour abuses, and housing insecurity in Germany.
The most complex actors that I came across during my fieldwork are transnational companies, like the one Maria resorted to. Such companies, that claim child benefits and tax return worth millions of euro for Central and Eastern European migrants who work in high income countries, have offices in multiple EU countries and have developed wide networks of sub-brokers (like recruitment agencies, transport companies and informal intermediaries) who find new customers and maintain the relationship with them.
A typical fee for processing a child benefit claim is around 200 euro + 10% of the benefit, and involves managing the entire benefit application process (collecting payslips from German employers, collecting documents from tax offices in Romania and Germany and handling correspondence with the Family Welfare Office). In Germany, temporary workers are required to reapply for benefits every year and some of them renew their contracts with transnational companies on a yearly basis.
However, besides transnational companies, throughout my fieldwork, I encountered various formal and informal brokers, whom I will briefly mention to provide an understanding of the diversity of actors involved in cross border social protection.
- Romanian associations that assist their fellow Romanians in claiming social benefits in Germany.
- Counselling offices that provide advice in Romanian language, primarily for integration and labour-related issues, but also offer assistance with social benefit claims.
- Unions – a small number of unions in Germany offer welfare advice on child benefit and unemployment, and may work with counselling offices to overcome language barriers.
- Small scale companies started by Romanian migrants in Germany that specialise in offering assistance in the process of claiming social benefits.
- Romanian migrants who have been in Germany for longer periods of time offer services like filling out forms or translating during welfare office appointments.
Welfare brokers can generally help reduce the inequalities between migrants and non-migrants when it comes to accessing social benefits
Thanks to their mobility, Romanian migrants in Germany may gain access to better economic and social opportunities (for example, higher wages), which may help reduce some of the inequalities they face back home. However, once in Germany, they encounter a different set of challenges that non-migrants do not experience, including hurdles in accessing their social rights. For instance, my interviewees were not familiar with the institutional structure of the German social protection system and the criteria that they will need to fulfil in order to access child or unemployment benefits. Additionally, language barriers added to their difficulties in navigating the German social protection system.
On the other hand, since they are typically trained to work within their own country’s national policies, the civil servants who handle their claims are not always familiar with EU cross-border regulations. This can lead them to ask migrants for documents that go beyond what national or EU laws require, as explained in the next quote:
The law has changed so often in the last 10-15 years that, in many cases, [Jobcenter] employees do not know [what is needed]. They make a lot of mistakes: they ask for the Freizügigkeitsbescheinigung [freedom of movement certificate], […] for insurance… Ok, but if it’s written in black and white that you need [specific documents], why do you ask for more than that? (migrant councillor)
At the same time, a recurring theme during my interviews was that part of the Romanian mobile citizens felt discriminated against by social administrators. This is illustrated in Ina’s quote, who describes her interaction with a civil servant, while seeking an extension of her social housing benefit:
A women […] kept refusing me […] and she told me: “go back to your country, to Romania”, and she made a hand gesture of rejection. I got angry and I told her: you are racist. I started crying.
Several studies confirm that the interactions between migrants and civil servants are often influenced by assumptions about migrants’ origin country, skills, knowledge of German language, ethnicity or class background. These assumptions can lead to biases that impact the way in which social administrators process migrants’ claims, as shown in the quote of another migrant adviser:
The [Unemployment Office] is an authority that works based on the law, but, in fact, all that matters is what is not written, your behaviour, your appearance, your clothing […] I mean, yes, clearly there is institutional racism at play and I think that someone who speaks German without an accent can have more chances than someone with an accent.
While promoting their own agenda, welfare brokers provide support to migrants in dealing with these supplementary challenges that they may encounter when accessing social protection. First of all, they offer assistance in migrants’ first language: they inform migrants about their social rights and the support documents they need for applications and offer assistance in filling out forms and drafting clarification correspondence with welfare offices. While some brokers provide partial assistance, companies usually handle the entire process of claiming social benefits.
In addition to administrative assistance, welfare brokers are also able to support migrants in dealing with the unspoken rules and discriminatory practices that govern the process of claiming benefits, as a migrant adviser shows in the following quote:
[Romanian migrants would often] tell me: You know that if we call there, we are treated in racist ways, we are served worse. If you call, you will at least get the necessary information”… People are aware of [my] privileges in contact with authorities…. I fulfil a function, I am like a tool, like a key over which certain things work easier.
Unlike migrants, intermediaries possess the knowledge to question and challenge decisions made by welfare authorities, especially when claims are incorrectly rejected or benefits are miscalculated. Moreover, they are not passive participants in a predetermined framework but they attempt to introduce changes in bureaucratic practices and regulations to benefit both their commercial interests and the interest of their clients. For instance, at the time of the interview, one of the transnational companies I interviewed, was challenging in court a relatively recent law that limits the period for which EU migrants in Germany can retroactively claim child benefits to six months from the date of application (down from four years previously).
Yes, we are going against this law, using his case as an example… We do that on a pro-bono basis, because [it is of interest] for us, of course, because we could finish a lot of cases and get more money but, on the other hand, I think it is also a social point that is really important for me […].
There is also some kind of pressure we can use, because we have that many cases and the Familienkasse knows that. That gives us in some way a little bit of power and of course, yes, we are not just any lawyer doing a little case, we are a big company standing for 40.000 cases.
Migrants’ use of brokerage service often reproduces existent inequalities between different categories of migrants
While mediation in accessing social protection generally benefits EU mobile citizens, it can also perpetuate existing inequalities between different categories of migrants. Depending on their social backgrounds, my interviewees engage with welfare brokers for different reasons. Migrants in precarious situations would often need the assistance of brokers to access social benefits because they lack the resources to do so independently. Higher skilled/ higher paid migrants have access to knowledge resources and networks that enable them to access social benefits independently, but they may still opt for brokerage services out of convenience.
As time goes by, migrants become more familiar with the German social protection system and language and are able to develop their knowledge about social rights, including as a result of their interactions with brokers, as shown in Laura’s quote:
[they asked us what benefits we applied for] …and they explained very well that we were rejected in place A because we did not apply in place B. Then, we more or less got how this works and we learned where to impose ourselves.
However, even after several years in Germany, migrants with low levels of education continue to face persistent challenges when it comes to obtaining information about their welfare rights. For instance, when I ask Iulia if her knowledge of the German social protection system has improved over time, Iulia mentions:
[I know] 10 percent more [about the welfare system in Germany]. I still do not know it very well. Because I didn’t do those things myself, someone else has done it for me. I only acted as the post for those forms – I would just submit and receive them, nothing else.
Especially such vulnerable migrants could become dependent on welfare brokers and a sustained source of financial gain for these actors, who, in some cases, might act as predators. One example in this sense is that of migrant who reported paying high fees to have forms completed, only to have them rejected by civil servants due to errors in completion.
The rise of welfare brokers that mediate between migrants and social administrators is a result of EU member states failing to integrate migrants into their social protection systems. To overcome the inequalities that emerge between migrants and non-migrants in accessing social protection, the EU should focus on addressing language barriers and discrimination based on origin country, skills level and ethnicity, on simplifying and harmonising the process of exchanging documents across different countries, and on informing migrants about their social rights.