Overworked, underpaid and over here

Submitted by Anon on 9 February, 2005 - 6:42

By Harry Glass

The Tories’ racist scare mongering on immigration last month ignores the vital role of migrant workers in the UK. Below we present the facts about migrant workers, the harsh reality of their working conditions, and the efforts of the labour movement to organise these workers.

The facts about migrant workers

The most recent large-scale study of migrant workers is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report, Migrants in the UK, published in December 2002. The report defines migrants as foreign-born, though around half of those who are foreign-born have UK nationality, and many have lived in the UK for many years.

The report revealed that:

  • Around 4.8 million people of all ages in the UK are foreign-born — about 8% of the population;
  • Around 3.6 million people of working age are foreign-born, representing about 10% of the working age population;
  • Migrants tend to be of working age and concentrated in the ages of 25–49;
  • Among those of working age, about half of all migrants are women (49%);
  • Over half (60%) live in the south of England with 42% living in London.
  • The employment rate among migrants is around 64% — compared to around 75% for the UK-born;
  • Unemployment of migrants is 7.2%, compared to 4.9% among the UK-born;
  • Migrants are more likely to work in the service sector (81% of all those in employment) than the UK-born (73%);
  • They are more likely to be self-employed (14%) compared to the UK-born (11%).

A Home Office report published at the same time as the DWP report concluded that migrant workers do not increase unemployment levels of the resident population, and may have a positive impact on wages of the existing population.

According to the research “an increase in immigration of one per cent of the non-migrant population leads to a nearly two per cent increase in non-migrant wages”.

The studies revealed that migrants came from many different places, with 23% coming from the European Union, 20% from the Indian sub-continent, 19% from Africa, and 11% from the Americas.

Their experience is also diverse, with migrants concentrated at both the low and high ends of the skills range. The foreign born are more likely to be highly qualified (with 19% holding degrees compared to 15% of the UK-born population), but a greater number also have no qualifications (19% compared to 16%).

It also found that while workers from most white immigrant communities have on average higher wages than UK-born whites with the same characteristics, immigrants from all ethnic minorities have lower wages.

The DWP and Home Office reports were based on figures on the stock of migrants measured by the Labour Force Survey, carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The ONS also provides figures on the annual flow of migrant workers. In 1997 there was a net inflow of 46,800 people, and in 2003 the net inflow was 151,000. However this trend is mainly because the labour market in Britain is buoyant, unemployment is low and firms are demanding more labour.

A 2003 TUC report, Overworked, underpaid and over here, showed that health care, education, cleaning, food manufacture and agriculture, hospitality, IT and construction are the industries most reliant on migrant labour.

Another TUC report, Propping up rural and small town Britain, published last year, found that most of the arrivals from the eight new eastern European EU member states are to be found in smaller towns and rural areas, rather than the big cities.

The report said that fewer than a quarter (23%) are to be found in London and just over one in 10 are working in the South East (13%). More than four in 10 Eastern European workers are to be found in the rural counties of the Midlands, East Anglia and the South West, especially Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Kent and Sussex.

Migrant workers also keep the NHS going. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) published figures last year showing nearly 10,000 people from developing nations registering to work as nurses in the UK between 2000–01 and 2002–03.

And researchers from London’s Cass Business School have predicted that up to 10 million immigrants may be needed by the year 2025 if the UK is to ensure pensioners can continue to receive £80 a week from the basic state pension.

Migrant workers’ conditions

A Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) report, Nowhere to Turn, published in 2003, documents the conditions of migrant workers. It found problems in a wide range of sectors including agriculture, food processing, hospitality and cleaning (especially in relation to motorway service stations) and the home-care sector.

The report revealed that migrant workers were as likely to be exploited through employment agencies as by gangmasters. Both often practised:

  • Misleading recruitment in migrants’ own countries using false promises of good pay, conditions and housing (the housing provided by the agency or gangmaster);
  • Extremely long hours, low gross rates of pay and substandard accommodation;
  • Excessive deductions from pay for accommodation, transport between the accommodation and places of work, utilities and repayment of the cost of travel to the UK.

The report also found migrant workers facing “summary dismissal and immediate eviction” from any associated accommodation if they assert their legal rights or otherwise “rock the boat”.

The TGWU has found virtual slave-labour conditions for many migrant workers. In Norfolk gang workers were paid just £3 to cut 1,000 daffodils, while in Cambridgeshire workers were forced to live in partitioned containers with no water supply — and had up to £80 a week rent taken from their meagre earnings for the privilege. In a fish-processing plant in Scotland, gang workers were found working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than the minimum wage.

UCATT construction workers’ union has witnessed serious exploitation of migrant labour. The union investigated a case where Indian workers were paid just 30p an hour.

And last year the horrific deaths of Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay showed that migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in society.

Union campaigns

These conditions make it hard to organise migrant workers. Labour Force Survey figures for 2002 show that only one in five migrant workers (20.4%) in Britain is in a union compared with 27.2% of UK-born workers.

The TUC report Overworked, Underpaid and Over Here, says that workers from earlier waves of migration, such as from Ireland and the Caribbean, have levels of union membership at least as good as if not better than the average. But it warns that unions have failed to develop strategies to recruit more recent migrants.

The TUC has run a number of initiatives in recent years. In 2001 it worked with Portuguese trade unionists to encourage migrant workers from Portugal to join UK unions while they worked here. In 2002 the TUC arranged for eastern European trade unionists to come to the UK to help with recruitment. The TUC also ran courses to improve the basic English skills of construction workers in the UK.

There are also localised union initiatives aimed at recruiting and organising migrant workers.

In Sussex the TGWU’s 1/888 Road Transport Branch has tried to recruit low-wage international drivers. This involves branch members going out to motorway service stations with a translator to try and talk to drivers, who are often very scared of harsh employers and of losing their jobs.

Another example of such work is in nursing. On arriving in the UK, nurses find they get significantly lower pay and grades than they were promised at the time of recruitment. The majority find themselves put to work as care assistants, largely undertaking relatively menial tasks such as cleaning.

UNISON public services union launched its Overseas Nurses Network (ONN) two years ago to provide information and social contact for overseas nurses, who often end up working in the private sector.

In Wales, the T&G has secured £80,000 worth of union learning fund money through the Welsh Assembly to teach English to migrant workers — mostly Spanish and Portuguese workers in meat and chicken packing plants in Anglesey, Deeside and Newton.

More information

  • Migrants in the UK, Department for Work and Pensions, 2002 can be downloaded from the DWP web site.
  • Migrants in the UK, their characteristics and labour market outcomes and impact, Home Office 2002, can be downloaded from the Home Office web site.
  • Overworked, underpaid and over here, TUC 2003, £20.
  • Propping up rural and small town Britain: Migrant workers from the new Europe, TUC 2004 can be downloaded from the TUC web site.
  • Nowhere to turn, Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) 2003 can be downloaded from the CAB web site.

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