Urbanization from Below 2013 – 2016


This international collaborative research project aims to explore precarious employment in the construction trades of three cities: Toronto (Canada), Chiang Mai (Thailand) and London (UK). Reliance on migrants in construction industries in these cities is particularly high. Migrants include persons without national citizenship in the jurisdictions in which they work, who are very diverse in terms of their origins and migration trajectories.

Using a comparative framework, this research will look specifically at the parallel processes that have fashioned this reliance, and at the uneven character of social and economic risk borne by migrants embedded in urban growth, city-building and construction labour markets. It will examine (1) the factors that have shaped the reliance of construction industries on migrant workers; (2) the experiences of migrants in construction; and (3) the role that migrant construction workers play in processes of contemporary urbanization. In doing so, it will explore how precarious (and often low-waged and low-status) forms of construction work fit within the political economies of urbanization.

Principal Investigator

Michelle Buckley (University of Toronto Scarborough)


Bridget Anderson
Emily Reid-Musson (University of Toronto Scarborough)
Raluca Bejan (University of Toronto Scarborough)


Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Professionals' Advisory Group

University of Toronto Scarborough


Canada, Thailand, UK


CitiesIllegalityLabour MarketsLow Skilled Migration


AsiaEuropeThe Americas


The primarily theoretical lens used in the research is that of urbanization. First, the research foregrounds the experiences of migrant workers and the labour of city building to understand contemporary capitalist urbanization, to query how labour justice and transnational geographies of construction labour are involved in the production of urban landscapes.


The methods for this research are qualitative, consisting of primary policy document reviews and semi-structured interviews with government officials, construction sub-contractors, labour unions, migrant welfare organization and construction migrants in the UK, Canada and Thailand.


The research so far shows how migrants compose a significant proportion of both the high and the ‘low-skill’ building workforce in Toronto and London. This is particularly evident in the residential sector (new house-building and renovation & repair). Non-residential work on commercial, industrial and institutional projects tends to offer safer, more secure and permanent employment. Yet certain subcontracted forms of construction work within the non-residential sector display characteristics endemic to the residential sector, which impact migrant workers in the non-residential sector in particular. The research tentatively points to three parallel transformations that have shaped vulnerability for labour migrants into Toronto and London’s construction industries. These are:

  • Patterns of employment deregulation that have hollowed-out residential building workers’ security (connected in particular to subcontracting, temporary agency employment and false self-employment).
  • Emergent immigration regimes in Canada and the UK which insert migrants into and restrict their mobility within new divisions of labour according to skill, origin, race and citizenship status, and also curtail their access to various social provisions like health, education & training, employment benefits, etc.
  • Uneven skill, training and sector regulation where patchwork, jurisdictionally inconsistent systems of informality on the one hand, and standardized/compulsory qualifications & training on the other, partly determine where and how dangerous and insecure work emerges (ex.: repairs & renovations vs. non-residential sectors).


Findings from the research so far have been presented at major conferences, including at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (Tampa, FL, April 2014) and the City Institute at York University (Toronto, Feb 2015). A full list of published and unpublished outputs will be made available on the project website.