POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - ECONOMY

Understanding the cross-border worker phenomenon



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For its 40th anniversary, Asti is taking a look at the cross-border worker phenomenon. Photo: Nader Ghavami.  

How have profiles of cross-border workers changed over time? What motivates people to come to Luxembourg for work? What are the main business lines and which challenges might cross-border workers and employers be facing in the future? Questions that Asti, the association for the rights of migrant workers, tried to address in a debate surrounding cross-border commuters. 

Do employess cross the border to Luxembourg only to come and work in the financial sector, attracted by a favourable salary? Stereotypes that Asti tried to deconstruct on Wednesday 13 January, during a conference-debate on "The Luxembourg Cross-border Workers: Beyond the Preconceptions". During the discussion, researchers Isabelle Pigeron from the University of Luxembourg and Rachid Belkacem from the University of Lorraine analysed the heterogeneity of cross-border workers’ profiles as well as the challenges ahead. 

Is the cross-border worker phenomenon new? 

Today, some 200,000 cross-border workers come to Luxembourg for work, representing 45% of the total number of employees in the grand duchy. This phenomenon has developed over the years, but it is not new. According to the two researchers, the last comprehensive studies date back to 1994. At the time, Luxembourg already counted 50,000 cross-border workers, a quarter of all employees in the country.

Those coming from France have always made up about half of cross-border workers, while the proportion of employees from Belgium compared to that of those from Germany, seems to have slightly decreased. On the other hand, the percentage of foreign immigrants working in Luxembourg has remained stable at around 28%. Going back to the '70s, there were already 10,000 cross-border workers. 

However, the crisis has somewhat decelerated the phenomenon, particularly regarding temporary recruitment. While in 2019, the country welcomed 9,310 new frontier workers, there were only 2,830 in 2020. 

Do these commuters live close to the border? 

For the most part, yes. Half of cross-border workers from France live in the vicinity of Thionville. 73% of those from Belgium live in the Province de Luxembourg. And almost half of cross-border workers from Germany live in or around Trier. However, over the years, there has been a slight shift to cities a little further away but still in proximity to railway and motorway networks, such as Metz in France or Bastogne in Belgium

Are there many cross-border workers? 

The phenomenon mainly affects men, which was already the case in 1994. Currently, 33% of those commuting from Germany are women, compared to 32.8% of those coming from Belgium and 37.6% of cross-border workers from France. This is still largely due to persisting stereotypes, as Pigeron explained: "Men are more prone to cross-border mobility because women are still often in charge of the family organization."

Are cross-border workers younger than residents?  

This used to be the case back in 1995, but since then "border workers have aged" and accordingly the age difference has decreased. Those from France are on average between 40 and 41 years old whereas those from Belgium are between 40 and 42, compared to German commuters who are between 42 and 43 years old. Similarly, the average age of Luxembourg residents is around 41. This is due to longer periods of studying as well as longer careers. 

Are they coming to Luxembourg to earn more? 

In a survey conducted in 2020, Asti asked 500 participants from different border countries why they commuted to Luxembourg for work. Unsurprisingly, 71% said it was for the favourable wage level offered in the grand duchy. 51% also reported that they had found work in Luxembourg that corresponded to their qualifications whereas 27% explained their choice by the lack of work in their region and 24% felt that Luxembourg represented a professional steppingstone. 

Do the majority of cross-border employees work in the financial sector? 

Not necessarily. The five main activity sectors of cross-border workers are trade (15.5%), construction (13.8%), finance (11.8%), industry (10.8%) as well as specialized scientific and technical activities (10.4%). 

On the other hand, cross-border workers are under-represented in certain sectors, such as public administration, as this requires proficiency in all three languages. 

Do they represent a homogeneous group?

It’s hard to talk about border workers as a homogeneous group. There are many differences. First, each country has its sectors. For example, administrative services and support activities represent one of the four main sectors of activity of French frontier workers, but not financial activities, which appear in the main sectors of Germany and Belgium.

Cross-border commuters are also more likely than residents to have a degree higher than or equal to a Bac+3, with those from Belgium being the most qualified overall.

Do cross-border employees come to Luxembourg just for work?

Commuters appear to be well integrated and 46% said they are in regular contact with Luxembourg residents in their private lives, with 70% of those from Germany, 47% from Belgium and 36% from France. The survey carried out by Asti also showed that many cross-border workers follow the media targeted at them (75% on a weekly basis), follow the political and social news of Luxembourg (54%) and visit the country’s stores (49%). "The image of the cross-border worker who only goes back and forth is flawed," said Pigeron.

Sophie Langevin, another guest during the debate, director of the play "Les frontalières", for which she interviewed various women working in Luxembourg but living across the border, said that a lot of them suffer from prejudices. On the one hand, they are seen as the “rich” that work in Luxembourg, but on the other hand as those coming to Luxembourg for financial reasons but not actually spending their money in the grand duchy. 

Do they only spend the beginning of their careers in Luxembourg? 

One would think that people would come at the beginning of their careers and return to their country of residence a few years later, tired of the commute when they start a family life and want to have a better quality of life. Chloé Philibert, human resources director at PwC, where 7% of employees are Luxembourg nationals and 52% live there, confirmed that it is easier to recruit juniors, who often stay only a few years. However, experienced profiles stay longer, because they come to settle in the grand duchy with their families.

What will be the main challenges for cross-border workers in the future?

More than 100,000 additional frontier workers are expected in 2035. In the context of an ageing cross-border population, one of the issues will be to rejuvenate the teams. The researchers also analysed the most sought-after skills among tomorrow’s frontier workers. In terms of soft skills, they noted the ability to adapt and be flexible, the professionalism and the ability to work as a team. On the hard skills side, there will be a move mainly towards computer science, economics, management, foreign languages and, generally speaking, a certain multidisciplinarity. "In the coming years, there will no doubt be an increase in the average qualification level of jobs." Telework, automation of tasks… will also be among the major trends in the coming years.

This article was originally published in French on Paperjam.lu and translated and edited for Delano.