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Global flows and local labour: transnational migration and precarious labour. Linda McDowell University of Oxford Adina Batnitzky University of Texas, Austin and Sarah Dyer, University of Manchester. Leaving Poland.

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global flows and local labour transnational migration and precarious labour

Global flows and local labour: transnational migration and precarious labour

Linda McDowell

University of Oxford

Adina Batnitzky University of Texas, Austin and Sarah Dyer, University of Manchester

leaving poland
Leaving Poland

It was a quick decision, I had a call from London [from a Polish-owned employment agency], . . . . I bought a one way ticket [from Warsaw] . . . it was very cheap, but it was a bus, so 34 hours. . . . [I arrived] Saturday morning. I had to go to sign the contract with the agency; that was Monday, the next day I came to work [in the hotel]. (Stanislaw, Polish hotel worker)

working in the uk
Working in the UK
  • I am on a temporary contract. I have to work when they say. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening. I haven’t got National Insurance card yet . . . This hotel, somebody tell me, is fifth hotel in profit but last in salary (Peter, Hungarian, temporary chef).
  • I work for an agency; I have a fixed contract for a year. I clean rooms and the public areas, usually on the evening shift. I work when they say. It’s different each week. This few days, I work Monday, one day I was off, then I was in three days in a row, but tomorrow I am off (Vera, hotel cleaner, Bulgarian).
  • I was recruited through an agency in Boston. I decided to come here [London] because I wanted to travel in Europe before settling to my career back home. I signed a contract for one year, but my work permit and visa are for five so I could stay longer, I suppose. (Meg, US, occupational therapist, NHS).
structure of talk
Structure of talk
  • Transnational migration
  • Service sector growth
  • Interactive work requires co-presence
  • Rise of precarious employment relations
  • The significance of employment agencies
  • The case study
  • Globalised workers in local employment: a new migrant division of labour?
transnational migration
Transnational migration
  • Rising numbers: about 5.4% of labour force (1.5million people) but just over 30% in London
  • Multiple origins (2006 Poles largest single group) and multiple migration statuses
  • Superdiversity: drawing on GLA data – in 2005 migrants in London were from 179 countries, of which more than 10,000 from each from 42 countries; and over 5,000 from a further 12 countries. 23 per cent of foreign-born people came to London before 1970, 32 per cent between 1970-1990 and 45 per cent since 1990. Overall 30% of London’s migrants are from high income countries and 70% are from developing countries.
  • Here to stay or more mobile: shift from New Commonwealth to EU. Transnationalism: migration to several countries; remittances, institutional links, more frequent visits; exchange of resources between migrants, homeland and wider diaspora.
  • Polarisation in labour market: in general less skilled and non-white migrants have lower employment rates (Somalis 12% for eg; Albanians 32% (are they white?) than UK born Londoners (average 68%), educated and white skinned higher (New Zealanders 92%, Canadians 82%). Migrants from Philippines are exception here (85%) (GLA 2005)
  • Gender divisions: Slovakians, Czechs, Thais, Filipinos, Slovenes more than 70% are women; Algerians, Albanians, Afghans, Nepalese; Yemanis more than 60% men (latter also more likely to be asylum seekers and former economic migrants).
  • Overall though foreign-born women (56%) have lower employment rates than men (75%)
  • Effects of the points scheme in future

NB GLA figures are pre-large scale migration from EU between May 2004- end of 2006.

service sector polarisation
Service sector polarisation
  • Several common dichotomies: producer and consumer services (former are input into the production process and latter where the product is ‘used up’ in the exchange (Daniels and Bryson 2007); hi tech and high touch (Brush); good and lousy jobs (Goos and Manning 2005); immaterial and affective labour (Hardt); self programmable and generic workers (Castells);
  • Co-presence, interpersonal relations; significance of embodied characteristics and perfomative labour (habitus: Bourdieu; emotional labour: Hochschild; body work: Wolkowitz; interactive work: Leidner)
  • Bottom end typically constructed as feminised work even when done by men
  • Geographically ‘sticky’ types of jobs (caring labour in particular often 24/7 as need/demand immediate; hard to increase efficiency so expensive to provide) so ‘local’ and low paid
  • Rise of ‘vulnerable work’/precarious labour: significance of subcontracting
coincidence of precarious work and migration
Coincidence of precarious work and migration
  • As feminists have long insisted jobs are not neutral slots to be filled but constructed to reflect the social characteristics of labour available/assembled and so ‘the presence of migrants and their vulnerability influences labour markets’ (Bauder 2007 p 4).
  • In March 2007, John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), argued:  

‘the only extra jobs at present [in the UK economy] are for temporary staff and the self-employed. This growth in “contract working” is almost certainly a reflection of the increased supply of migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe’ (quoted by Seager 2007 p 32).

Has recession made this worse? Increase in part-time and casual work; fall in in-migration?

precarious work and agency employment
Precarious work and agency employment
  • What is precarious work: includes agency workers, temporary and fixed term contracts, seasonal workers, casual workers: about 6% of all UK workers in Labour Force Survey
  • Agency work: not employed by the end user of labour but by an intermediary; UK not yet signed EU Agency Directive
  • How do agencies operate: may supply warm bodies or a service; not regulated; end-use employer evades employment rights (BMW – sacked 850 agency workers last month with an hour’s notice); agencies select, employ and sack workers.
  • Provide a buffer stock of workers to meet peak and troughs in demand
  • Polarisation among agencies: professional staffing agencies/global reach, skilled workers; local agencies, warm bodies for low skilled work where ‘most of the transactions are local ones – connecting local job seekers to local employers’ (Peck et al 2005; p 23).
  • Aim is to challenge this claim
why research on agencies
Why research on agencies?
  • Employment agencies are empirically and theoretically interesting as they are ‘active institutional agents in the remaking of labour market norms and conventions, brokering as they do between under-employed workers on the one hand and would-be employers of contingent labour on the other, while turning a profit in the process’ (Peck and Theodore, 2001, p 474).
  • Want to show that even at bottom end of labour market there is a new global division of labour for the most local of jobs. Networks of service sector workers stretching across space are a growing feature of the assemblages of workers who service global cities, keeping hotels open and hospitals clean as well as caring for the bodies of tourists and patients. Although consumer services by definition are tied to specific localities, the labour force involved in the production and exchange of consumer services increasingly is assembled across a wide spatial scale and so is an international, if not global, labour force.
hotels and hospitals
Hotels and hospitals
  • Hotels and catering – 4th largest employer of migrant workers; 40% of all employees have non-standard contracts, usually though an agency, mainly bottom end
  • NHS – also large employer of both migrant workers and contract and agency employers at both top and bottom end of labour force
aim and methods
Aim and methods
  • Aim: to explore in detail the connections between gender and ethnic origins in the developing patterns of labour segmentation in service sector occupations in Greater London.
  • Through a case study of two organisations: hotel and hospital
  • Ethics approval from University and regional NHS Trust required
  • Basic data provided by BI And WCH personnel sections but excluded contract workers in NHS and not good on ethnicity
  • Non-British born workers, employed both directly and by agencies, in a west London hotel and hospital contacted.
  • Interviews based on a semi-structured questionnaire survey undertaken with 60 employers in each of BI and WCH
bellman international bi and west central hospital wch
Bellman International (BI) and West Central Hospital (WCH)
  • The local labour market was (and still is though less so) buoyant and skill shortages are an issue for both workplaces, which experience high levels of labour turnover in most categories of employment. According to WCH’s assessment of local competition in 2006:

‘The West London labour market is probably the most competitive within London, with a highly mobile workforce, relatively low levels of unemployment (3.6% in 2006 when we started interviewing) compared to 4.6 for London, competition from blue chip companies located along the A4, Thames Valley IT companies and Heathrow Airport’.

  • The locality is also characterised by a significant minority population (accounting for almost a third of the total population of the London Borough of Hounslow) in which people of Asian origin are the largest single minority group, many of whom have lived in the UK for several decades.
research objectives
Research objectives

The specific objectives of the study were

  • to explore how and why a migrant labour force was assembled by the hotel and hospital and through what methods
  • to map and compare its social characteristics: demographic structure, class background, gender, national origins, previous work histories to explore development of a hierarchy of desirability/suitability based on the intersection of gender, ethnicity and nationality in interactive service jobs
  • Two further aims (not discussed here) were
  • to explore the variations in working conditions, pay rates etc
  • to assess the extent of inter-ethnic and other conflicts between workers, especially between new accession state migrants and migrants from other part of the world.
comparing bi and wch
Comparing BI and WCH
  • BI: employed in total 80 direct employees and 120 agency workers and both groups consisted almost entirely of migrants. Indeed, only three BI employees were UK-born.
  • WCH: total employment more difficult to ascertain at WCH, as services such as catering and cleaning are contracted out to a major international organisation – Greenspan (a pseudonym) - that employs both agency workers and direct temporary contract workers: about 500 in total.
  • The hospital itself employs almost 2000 workers of whom 30% are non-British born and a similar proportion (overlapping but not completely coincident groups) are agency or contract employees.
  • So between them capture range and complexity of precarious/agency employment
the interviewees
The interviewees
  • 120 in total: 31 current agency workers, as well as 14 others, initially employed through an agency but direct employees at the time of the interview.
  • 22 of these 45 worked at BI; 23 at WCH.
  • Excluding professional workers (doctors, nurses at WCH and managers at BI), there were 20 past and present agency workers at BI and 17 at WCH in basic entry level jobs in both organisations, requiring no credentials and little training.
  • From 16 nation states and, with the exception of migrants from the A8 countries or those who have taken British citizenship (and so have the right to work), have been employed in the UK for between one and five years, on a range of visas including student, working holiday and two year working visas, as well as one person participating in a five year skilled workers scheme.
  • 10 interviews with the owners and/or managers of seven employment agencies in Greater London, all of whom had been involved in recruiting the workers in our survey.
  • Also interviews with a representative of Greenspan and a Human Resources employee at both BI and at WCH.
assembling a precarious labour force in diverse ways
Assembling a precarious labour force in diverse ways
  • WCH: subcontracting of a service: uses Greenspan (a multi-national firm) to provide services (cleaning and security): Greenspan uses London-based agencies to recruit contract employees; had long-standing relaionship with agencies
  • BI: uses mix of local and international employment agencies to recruit warm bodies for specific vacancies (room attendants, waiters etc). Often changed agencies.
international divisions of labour wch
International divisions of labour: WCH
  • WCH reflects ‘older’ patterns – Black workers, small number of new commonwealth (eg India, Sri Lanka) but more also from Afghanistan, Ghana, Malaysia, Algeria and Turkey; only one from A8 country; majority here to stay; lower rates of labour turnover; older and less well educated workers; women in catering and cleaning though some men too, male porters; either hold or aiming for British citizenship; anxious to hold onto what seen as a good job and to transfer into direct NHS labour force.
  • Low paid and trapped in place (Castells) by high rents/house prices; high transport costs as we’ll as desire to stay
recruiting for wch and greenspan
Recruiting for WCH and Greenspan
  • Claire, an employee of an agency specialising in providing workers for catering and cleaning in hospitals told us that WCH and the sub-contractor Greenspan used to recruit, from an older, long-standing migrant population in the locality, predominantly British Asian women most of whom had come to Britain between 1968 and the mid 1970s but that:

‘these ladies are in their late 60s now, so they have been here quite a long time’.

On her books now there are more recent migrants including

‘Chinese, Afro-Caribbean (sic), Portuguese, Polish, Irish – this is where it all starts to change, and now definitely with the East Europeans, that’s definitely created a big change. There are more East Europeans – Latvians, Lithuanians’

but :

‘The level of English of East Europeans is quite low and that’s one of our biggest issues when it comes to recruitment. A lot of them could barely speak any English [on arrival]. What we try to do is to make sure that there is a basic level [before placing them]’.

  • Amber, middle aged woman from Jamaica (initially came on a visitor’s visa to see her sister, now indefinite right to remain) who had previously worked for several agencies in different types of low paid domestic work including hotels told us: I love my job and I really want to keep it’.
  • She also talked movingly of the social worth of her job and her efforts to provide emotional support to patients as she cleaned the wards: ‘I would go and cheer them up “hello darling, this is Amber, your nice beautiful friend” and you know, you’d cheer them up’.
  • Hafiz, a 40 year old Afghani man, entered the UK as an illegal/trafficked migrant: ‘the agent, the agent, they will transport someone, someone, someone, we come this country. I pay about $10,000, I sell from my mother, I have some gold in something to come to this country because it's not easy to come this country. . . We pay for the agent so they transport… because lot of countries, we're going from a lot of countries because I don’t know how I come’.
  • Until recently an agency employee for Greenspan. In the month before we talked to him, he had transferred to employment with WCH, in both capacities working as a ward cleaner.
  • This direct employment on a part-time basis; he also worked an evening shift in a garage where he earned slightly more per hour than at Greenspan. And yet he assured us that ‘I am happy, I am really happy yes, I’ve very happy, I like this job, I love this job. … this is my mission, I want this job for ever’. At the time of the interview, he was attempting to persuade his supervisor to find more hours for him.
  • ‘I want to apply for the citizenship… now I am thinking I am only from this country, I forget Afghanistan, I forget everything’.
international divisions of labour bi
International divisions of labour: BI
  • BI: new pattern; East European and A8 (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia) migrants significant (all but four); well educated, rapid turnover; 8 recruited in own country, 12 in London but often by own nationality agency e.g. Polish and Bulgarian-owned agencies; legal status often problematic; here to improve English and get better jobs. Room attendants all women, kitchen staff almost all male.
  • Intend to be spatially and socially mobile: space of flows (Castells) (although also low paid and so temporarily trapped in place in London)
educated east europeans at bi
Educated East Europeans at BI
  • ‘they (East Europeans) are actually very skilled back in their own countries, some of them are lawyers, some of them are management graduates and well, they don’t make that kind of money over there, so they come here to do this, and to learn the language’. (Comment by Indian waiter recruited abroad so also non-local)
  • I just go to agency and then I come. I want to learn good English.

But as he says later:

  • ‘You know when you are young, you want to see a lot of things so you come to London, basically don't want meeting with Hungarians. Now I don’t want meeting because six, seven people working in the hotel who is Hungarian now and I am speaking more times in Hungarian than I am in English and this is not good for me’.
  • And so ‘I have got two plans, change the workplace or go to brasserie’. (26 year old Hungarian working in hotel kitchens)

Some of the Polish room attendants also mentioned the disadvantage of working with co-nationals and the head of the housekeeping section the problem of ‘Polish cliques’.


26 year old Russian woman who paid a Russian agency to come to London - $3000. High school educated and wants to train as a nursery school teacher

Asked why she came to London: ‘I would like to improve my English, and some money. . . I go to Russian agency in London. I went to the agency in Hammersmith and they explained. My first job is to pack chicken. (also found BI job through an agency).

  • ‘My visa finished, so I should back. . . I am tired too and homesick so I return soon’.
local jobs global workers
Local jobs/global workers

The jobs are local in a threefold way:

  • First, they are local in the sense of providing an immediate embodied service to a set of clients/customers/patients in west London;
  • Secondly, they are local in the sense that the potential workers constitute an immediately available labour force, assembled by staffing agencies at minimum costs to end-user employers, requiring no specialist knowledge, skills or training to able to undertaken the required work tasks almost instantly on recruitment;
  • Thirdly, they are local jobs in the sense that their low pay means that they attract only those living in the immediate vicinity.
global workers
Global workers
  • The potential and actual labour force is a trans-national one. New and more established economic migrants – some with no skills and few options, and others with an inadequate command of English are assembled by employment agencies to staff the basic services that keep hospitals running and hotels able to sell a service.
  • The agencies that provided workers for BI and for WCH (indirectly though Greenspan) ranged from small, almost informal agencies to large multinational firms that are part of the increasing internationalisation of service provision. But both types of agency recruit from the growing international and increasingly diverse labour force, born abroad and now working in Greater London. Even the smallest, informal London-based agencies utilised a network of trans-European, and often trans-national, contacts to mobilise applicants.
  • Thus, internationalization is not only a feature of the growth of producer services and their global demand for labour, but is also significant in the production of consumer services