Tax contributions are a key means through which migrants establish a relationship to the state – accessing social security, evidencing status, and affirming a right to belong. Dr. Dora-Olivia Vicol of the Work Rights Centre teamed up with Dr. Nicolette Makovicky of the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and Denis Kierans of COMPAS to research precarious work, tax, and infrastructures of citizenship.
As Brexit put an end to freedom of movement, millions of EEA migrants and their family members were asked to obtain a new status to secure their rights to live in the UK. Introduced in March 2019, the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) grants applicants a status, based on the length of past residence. Five continuous years or more means settled status - indefinite leave to remain, with full access to most citizens’ rights. Any less than that, and applicants are awarded pre-settled status - a limited leave to remain that imposes some restrictions on mobility and welfare, and expires unless upgraded.
With over 5 million applications processed, the EUSS has been hailed by the UK government as a success. And yet, what that figure doesn’t reveal is how much harder obtaining that status is for migrants who have been trapped in precarious work and unemployment. The absence of stable work means a patchy tax record - and without a tax record, proving residence becomes an uphill struggle.
Motivated by the urgency of Brexit, we have set out to take a close look at taxes, and how they moderate migrants’ relation to the state.
Why look at taxes?
In a very practical sense, paying income tax and social security contributions is essential to accessing the protections granted by the state. Take employment rights, for instance. Any type of work provides an income in the short term, but it’s only formal work (that is, taxed work) that opens access to benefits such as maternity pay or sick pay. It’s also taxed work that opens access to income top ups (known as “tax credits”), and to a pension after retirement age. For migrants in particular, formal work is inextricably linked to “habitual residence” - which they must demonstrate to be eligible to claim Universal Credit.
In addition to the practical benefits, tax payment is an important part of the way we think about and exercise our responsibilities and rights as citizens, and as members of society. Politicians and the media often invoke “the taxpayer” as an idealized type of citizen, who has paid her dues and thus deserves, in exchange, to hold the government to account. Similarly, supporters (and critics) of migration stake their arguments on migrants’ net tax contribution - and indeed, migrants themselves use their taxpayer status to challenge stereotypes, and assert their right to be included in the host country. Paying tax is therefore also a matter of what social scientists call “moral economy”: ideas about what is fair, equitable, and socially responsible behaviour on the part of citizens and the state.
To examine the role of taxes in migrants’ lives, we’ve begun a new research project.
From June to August 2021, we’ll run two workshops where charity advisers will reflect on: beneficiaries’ understanding of the tax system in the UK; their views of, and ability to access, institutions such as the HMRC and the DWP; the role of precarious work and unscrupulous employers in constituting migrants as taxpayers; and the ways in which paying tax reconfigures migrants’ relation to the UK government and British society - in practice, with reference to the EUSS, and the moral economy. It is unclear to what extent practices of paying tax affect, or are affected by, migrants’ integration in the UK. But this is one the questions we set out to address. The second of these workshops will be funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account “Knowledge Exchange Dialogue” grant.
There’s a lot to learn, and we plan to publish a report of findings in September. Subscribe to the Work Rights Centre's newsletter for updates. If you’re interested in further reading, we can recommend Dr. Makovicky’s Introduction to the Special Issue on the Anthropology of Tax, Dr. Vicol’s paper on tax and migration and Denis Kierans’ overview of integration data in the UK and commentary about integration after Brexit (co-authored with Madeleine Sumption).
Nicolette Makovicky is Research Director at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, and Departmental Lecturer in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford. She has published on themes including labour, ethics, informal economy, entrepreneurialism in Slovakia and Poland.
Dora- Olivia Vicol is an anthropologist with a long-term interest in work, mobility, and migration from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). In 2016 she co-founded the Work Rights Centre, a charity dedicated to employment justice. At the Work Rights Centre, Olivia leads on research, policy, and strategy.
Denis Kierans is based at COMPAS, working with the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity and the Migration Observatory. His research interests include integration, the mainstreaming of migration into development plans, public attitudes towards migration and the use of data on migration in policy making.