Migrant workers and vulnerable employment

Impact Area: Human Resource Management

Institution: Keele University Business School

Leading Academic: Dr Steve French



Research by Dr Steve French, Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations and HRM at Keele University, has directly influenced UK employment law and changed how policy makers and practitioners think about vulnerable employment. It raises awareness of the characteristics of employment in ‘migrant-dense’ sectors, poor employment practices for migrant workers, and a mismatch between the skills and employment of migrant workers.

Combining quantitative labour market analysis with qualitative research based upon interviews with migrant workers, employers of migrant workers and service providers, the research focused on a broad range of migrants. The main location of French’s research is North Staffordshire, an area characterised by industrial contraction and restructuring, low-paid service sector and industrial work, persistent unemployment, and distinctive periods of new arrivals of different nationalities, ethnicities and legal status. This enabled exploration of the relationships between groups of migrant workers.


  • Migrant workers have comparatively less knowledge of their employment rights and less access to independent advice and guidance on these rights. This has been abused by some employers, notably employment agencies, resulting in pay levels below the minimum wage.
  • There is evidence of the substitution of refugees and existing migrant workers by more recent migrants and limited evidence of substitution of low-paid ‘indigenous’ workers.
  • Employers increasingly favour (east European) migrant workers, because of their perceived stronger work ethic and greater flexibility, gaining them significant unit labour cost savings.
  • There are frequent mismatches between migrants’ educational and skill levels, and the (lower-skilled) work they undertake. This is partly due to employer perceptions of what constitutes ‘migrant work’, but also because there are few practical mechanisms to recognise non-UK qualifications.
  • English language ability is an important factor in explaining migrant workers’ limited knowledge of rights, inability to get qualifications recognised, and lack of progress within the labour market.
  • Trade unions need greater knowledge of the work undertaken by migrants. They need to recognise the employment problems migrants face and actively support them.

Benefits and impact
Instrumental Impact

French’s research directly influenced the improvement of employment conditions for migrant workers, through better enforcement of National Minimum Wage (NMW) and by developing workers’ understanding of employment rights. Following presentation of his research to the Low Pay Commission (LPC) in 2007, the Commission recommended to government that enforcement of National Minimum Wage should be targeted at sectors with high concentrations of migrant workers. This resulted in changes to the language support services provided by government agencies.

The 2008 Employment Bill changed the law to increase the powers of inspectors to enforce and bring legal proceedings against employers and employment agencies illegally paying below minimum wage. A consultation document produced by Parliament cited research done by French when outlining the need for greater penalties for employment agencies flouting the law. Under the 2008 Bill, penalties can now be imposed on employers found to be illegally paying below the NMW and giving inspectors greater powers to bring proceedings. In the first year of the new law, employers were fined over £100,000 in penalties.

At a national level, the research findings highlighting migrant workers’ lack of knowledge about employment rights and illegal wage practices were cited as evidence by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee, while the LPC research informed Stoke-on-Trent Citizens Advice Bureau’s successful bid to become a HMRC Centre of Excellence.

Finally, as a direct result of a report authored by French in 2008 for UNITY, the trade union conducted an internal review and implemented changes to improve support to Polish migrant workers, including language support and translation services. Evidence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills identified that this ‘had a dramatic effect on the union, far beyond the changes envisaged at the outset.... [and enabled it] to develop a strategy to move away from its traditional base and towards a new position, taking on the role of an active partner in civil society'.

French’s research has been publicly funded by the ESRC, Nuffield Foundation, Low Pay Commission, Union Modernisation Fund and Lifelong Learning Network.


BIS (2009) Ceramics and Allied Trades Union (CATU) – Widening the union’s remit in a changing society. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, London. Available from: http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file53718.pdf