‘Tighten up labour market to stop exploitation of migrant workers’

Posted on 22 September 2014
What we have shown is that British taxpayers are subsidising employers who are benefiting from employing migrants in low-wage, insecure, sometimes exploitative jobs.

The UK’s labour market must be tightened up to stop migrant workers being exploited, say academics from three British universities.

A paper based on new research led by Dr Simon Pemberton of Keele University, with University of Birmingham’s Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) and Sheffield Hallam University urges the government to intervene to help reduce migrants’ poverty and their reliance on in-work benefits.

The researchers say there is a ‘strong relationship’ between migrant poverty and the precarious nature of many migrants’ employment.

They also say government intervention would save money for British taxpayers, who are ‘subsidising’ employers that profit from the exploitation of migrant workers by paying so little in wages that the workers have to rely on in-work benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit.

Dr Simon Pemberton of Keele University and IRiS, lead author of the paper, said: ‘Poverty is an important driver of migration. Many people migrate to escape poverty. However, far less is known about the incidence and experiences of poverty once economic migrants arrive in the UK.

‘There is clear evidence that the increased risk of poverty faced by economic migrants can be partly attributed to the labour market, as well as being directly linked to legal status, rights and responsibilities.’

Co-author Jenny Phillimore, Professor of Migration and Diversity at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘There is a clear relationship between flexible, precarious employment and migrant poverty and reliance on in-work benefits.

‘What we have shown is that British taxpayers are subsidising employers who are benefiting from employing migrants in low-wage, insecure, sometimes exploitative jobs. We could make a huge difference to workers – not just migrants – in these positions if we were to increase regulation of employers and enforce labour law. This would have the knock-on effect of reducing welfare costs, as well as some of the local impacts of migration, such as overcrowding in poor neighbourhoods.’  

Dr Pemberton added: ‘To date, most studies have tended to concentrate on singular processes or outcomes of poverty for specific groups, rather than the interconnections that exist between key determinants of wellbeing for the whole population, including employment and income, housing, education, health and key services. Our work indicates that without greater labour market regulation, the exploitation and discrimination of vulnerable workers – including economic migrants – will continue, and with it the prevalence of poverty both within and beyond the workplace.

‘We also need better intelligence on those who really need support. Many migrant workers from beyond the EEA have a higher risk, on average, of experiencing or being susceptible to poverty. But they are increasingly being marginalised in contemporary analysis.’

The paper focuses on low-paid, low-skilled migrants, who are often vulnerable to poverty. It makes a number of recommendations for government, including:

• ending the unequal treatment of agency workers
• ending the reliance on self-employed workers
• making migrant workers aware of their rights
• providing additional language support
• introducing a tax on employers of migrant workers or reinvigorating the contributory principle associated with the social security system
• challenging architects and developers to create flexible, short-term, good-quality accommodation that could alleviate exploitation and overcrowding in areas experiencing high levels of migration

The paper – based on work funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – reviews the existing evidence on poverty and migration and includes new data analyses. It is titled ‘Causes and experiences of poverty among economic migrants in the UK’ and is part of the newly launched 2014 IRiS working paper series.