This project aimed to provide background information and provisional analysis for understanding the impact of the global recession of 2009 on vulnerable or precarious workers, including migrants. It looked specifically at the dynamics and inter-relations of global, national and local labour markets through a migration "lens"; the nature of the social, political and economic restructuring processes; and the changes in dynamics of discrimination, citizenship and migration in the context of economic downturn. It reviewed academic, official and press sources not with the intention of being definitive, but in order to generate research priorities and contribute to ongoing debates and campaigns around the issues of low-wage labour and migrant exploitation in the UK.
Economic and Social Research Council
Initial research involved the drafting of a discussion document summarising the state of knowledge of the recession and its impact on vulnerable workers, particularly migrants. This included a review of published material and an outline survey of what’s going on at a local level. Researchers also produced a briefing on legislative changes to welfare benefits, immigration and citizenship.
These documents helped inform a round table discussion hosted by COMPAS and the Public and Commercial Services Union in March 2009. This brought together practitioners, policy makers and academics active and knowledgeable about issues affecting low waged workers and those marginalized from labour markets, in particular migrants, and unemployed and inactive people. The final report was finalized in the light of the workshop discussions.
Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)
The principal findings of the research were as follows:
- The impact of the recession on low-wage migrant workers has been overlooked in the initial response to the downturn, relegated by concerns about migrant return, the threat to core workers and the taking of British jobs. This is also because, as a group, vulnerable workers, including migrants, are hidden – from official statistics, press and media focus and popular concern. To see the impact also necessitates a switch in focus, from the effects of immigration on labour markets to the effects of labour markets on immigrants.
- There is much to be gained from holding together on the one hand studies of vulnerable or precarious workers (including the unemployed and claimants) and on the other a focus on migrants in low-wage labour markets, not least because these groups have much in common. Despite often being addressed separately, by organisations, in the academic literature and in the press, the recession also contains the opportunity for people who are active and knowledgeable about the issued affecting them entering into greater dialogue.
- The nature of impact is not certain or obvious and cannot easily be deduced from existing economics or labour market theory. Past recessions may not provide good parallels. We suspect that there will be considerable variation, sectorally, geographically and possibly at the level of firms and communities. This is further complicated by the recession being a “moving target” for research. Economic conditions are not only contingent but highly volatile. Distinguishing between long-term consequences and temporary effects (that may contribute to structural change) is a real challenge.
- Whatever the impacts are, they are not working in isolation but in conjunction with other changes – in welfare and benefits, immigration and citizenship. In this regard, the current recession is closer to the early 1980s, when a determined government drove through reforms amounting to a structural change in the labour market and society more generally.
- The recession marks a period of social and political as well as economic change. Social ideas about what being a “migrant”, a “lone parent”, a “benefit claimant” means, their characteristics and social costs and benefits, are shifting. In particular we cannot forecast the nature and direction of public attitudes to migrants.
The research arrived at the possibly unexpected conclusion that there is no such thing as ‘the impact of the recession on migrants’, or rather that it does not constitute the most appropriate or valid object of inquiry. Putting low-wage migrant workers, or precarious and vulnerable workers in general, at the centre of analysis reveals a different picture. Work, benefits and citizenship intersect in a threatening and unpredictable trinity. Looking at the recession from the field, the meatpacking plant, the care home or the construction site does not afford the same view as from the commercial bank, auto assembly plant or even the university.