Introduction to “Migrant workers”

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Kevin Teoh and Juliet Hassard, Birkbeck University of London, United Kingdom

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In the EU-27, 20.3 million people, or 4.1% of the population, live in a country which is different to their citizenship [1], with 12.6% of the EU-28 workforce having a migrant background. Historically, employment seeking is a key factor in the flow of peacetime migration, with labour demands for expanding national economies, income inequalities among countries, and processes of economic integration all contributory factors [2]. Globally, the International Labour Office [3] estimates the presence of 214 million migrants, with more than half of these being economically active. This article will provide a brief overview on the migrant working population, before reviewing some of the pertinent physical and psychosocial risks faced by this group of workers. The article ends by reviewing some of the work-related health and accidents outcomes. Interventions and practice involving migrant workers are not addressed in this article as they have been covered elsewhere.

Definition of migrant workers

EU Member States define migrants as EU nationals who are living within an EU member state of which they are not a national. An immigrant, in contrast, is person whose country of origin is one which is not a member of the European Union [4]. However, it is important to emphasise that both terms (i.e. migrant and immigrant) are used interchangeably throughout the academic, practitioner and policy literature. Hence, the term migrant used in this article encompasses immigrants as well. In terms of workers, according to the United Nation’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, "migrant worker" refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national. A more comprehensive definition is that provided by Sargeant and Tucker (pg. 51) [5], who define “migrant workers” as:

“Workers who have migrated to another country to take up work but who currently do not have a permanent status in the receiving country… The migrant category… includes both workers who have obtained a legal right to enter and work, as well as those who have entered and are working without legal authorisation. ”

Therefore, migrant workers encompass a vast group of individuals that vary substantially in their skill, education and language levels, purpose for migration, industry, cultural norms and expectations, legality and employment status, long term plans, and access to employment [5] [4]. Evaluating this particular group at risk, care needs to be taken to not treat migrant workers as a homogenous group, but to consider the different individual and contextual factors involved as well.

Migrant worker background

Key statistics

Statistics from 2013 in the EU-27 reveal that mobile EU natives, who live in Member State that is not their own, are more likely to be in employment (80.7%) than native EU workers (76.5%) and those from outside the European Union (71.4%) [1]. At the EU level, similar trends are observed in terms of age, with a higher proportion of older workers (55-64 years) being in work than EU natives or non-EU citizens. These statistics reinforce the free movement of EU citizens across Member States to seek employment activity. More detailed statistics are available in the Migrant workers.

Sector breakdown

Certain sectors contain a higher proportion of migrants than others. Occupations and sectors related to high-skilled information technology and professional work often rely on skilled labour from abroad to make up labour shortages. At the lower end of the skilled labour market, migrant workers are concentrated in the jobs which have poor and difficult working conditions [2]. Migrant workers in the latter group, typically find themselves in the agriculture,, hotel and restaurants, [[Work-related stress: Nature and management |transport, [[Work-related stress: Nature and management |cleaning and manufacturing sectors. For example, it is estimated that up to 30% of cleaners in the EU are migrant workers, although even this figure is likely to be an underestimate [6]. Data from the 2008 European Labour Force Survey [7] reveal a higher proportion of foreign-born than native-born men work in construction (19% vs. 12%), and in accommodation and food services (8% vs. 2%). Foreign-born women have a higher proportion of workers in the accommodation and food services (10% vs. 4%), household activities (10% vs.1%) and administrative and support services activities (8% vs. 4%) than native-born women.

Focusing on the hotel and restaurant sector in the United Kingdom [8], the prevalence of migrant workers is highlighted by the statistic that 21% of the sector’s workforce were not born in the UK; more specifically, 27% of staff employed in restaurants, 34% of restaurant and catering managers, 31% of chefs, and 26% of waiting staff were born overseas. The reliance on migrant workers, particularly agriculture and hospitality workers is in part due to locals rejecting work in these sectors [9] [10], creating a labour shortage. This is evident from a survey of 51 international hotel chains, where 87% of chains recruited migrant workers due to an absence of suitable skills in the local market, and 76% reported that locals were not interested in hotel work [9].

The division of top and bottom-end jobs amongst migrant workers is particular salient in the hotel industry, where migrant workers from developed countries typically occupying the high skilled and managerial positions, and those from poorer countries employed in low-skill positions [9]. Similar trends are observed in the agriculture and construction sectors, where unskilled labour is filled with migrant workers, who view these jobs as an entrance to paid labour [10] [11].


Migrant women attempting to enter the workforce face two disadvantages: migrant status and gender. Statistics from 2013 confirm that not only do women in the EU-27 have lower economic activity than men, but that this gap is even more evident in migrant women [1]. In terms of gender, approximately 59% of female migrants are in work, which is 24.3 percentage points lower than their male counterparts. This gap varies between Member States, with the largest gender gap observed in France (34.3 percentage points), Sweden (33.8) and Belgium (30.6), and the lowest in Cyprus (1.3), Denmark (9.4) and Portugal (9.8).

In terms of migrant status, in 2013, 70% of native women in the EU-27are in employment compared to 59% of migrant women [1]. Large gaps between these two groups observed in Belgium (27.5 percentage points), the Netherlands (25.9), Sweden (25), Germany (24.9), France (24.7), and Finland (23.4), as well as in the United Kingdom (16.1), Austria (18.8) and Denmark (15.5). All these countries report high activity rates for the national population as well as for the national female population, indicating that specific integration actions are required for female migrants.

Differences are also observed in the occupational distribution of migrant women [12], with a higher proportion of migrant women from EU (26.4%) and non-EU (38%) countries working in elementary occupations than natives (9.6%). Non-EU women (26.5%) are also far more likely to be working in service sector or sales jobs then EU-migrant (20.6%) and native (19%) women.

Work-related risk and migrant workers

Policy makers both at the European level (i.e., the European Parliament) and the national level consider migrant workers to be one of the occupational groups facing increased exposure to occupational safety and health risks [13]. Work-related risks particularly relevant to migrant workers, both physical and psychosocial, are reviewed below.

Precarious employment

Migrant work has long been characterised as low paid and in precarious work relationships, with workers reporting higher job insecurity and fewer entitlements than their native counterparts [2] [5]. Surveys of Polish workers in Nordic cities (the Polonia Surveys) reveal that depending on the city, between 27% and 34% of Polish migrant workers in Scandinavia, claim to have been cheated on their pay, either on their current or previous job [14]. In addition to the negative health effects associated with precarious employment, there is further evidence that migrant workers in precarious work tend to be tasked with the more difficult and unwanted jobs which native-workers do not want [2].

Precarious work and poor working conditions have been attributed to some employers taking advantage of migrant workers’ low understanding of employment rights, being employed on on-standard contract (such as temporary or agency work), and low trade union participation [5]. Temporary employment at the EU-28 level is higher for migrant workers (18.7%) than for native workers (12.4%) [1]. The largest difference is observed in Cyprus, where 79.2% of employees with non-EU citizenship are temporary workers, compared with only 10.0% of the native workforce. This means that they are more likely to have low levels of employment protection under employment legislation and may be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse of employment rights [5].

The Polonia Surveys [14] illustrates the precarious labour circumstances faced by migrant workers. Here, Polish migrants in Copenhagen (Denmark), Reykjavik (Iceland) and Oslo (Norway) revealed that between 18% and 31% of workers feared for their jobs if they talked to the authorities or the unions. Polish workers in, manufacturing and low skilled services, in particular, were more fearful than those in other industries. The same study showed that in terms of being threatened with dismissal by their employers, 20% of Polish workers in Copenhagen acknowledge experiencing this, with lower prevalence rates reported in Reykjavik (9%) and Oslo (13%). Despite national legislation and collective agreements in Denmark, Iceland, and Norway which provide the general right to sick leave, respectively only 48%, 22% and 42% of Polish migrant workers knew they were eligible to sick leave with pay. Of those who did not know this, approximately half held incorrect views that they were either not entitled to sick leave, or that they were not eligible for paid leave.

Harassment and discrimination

The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey [15] underlines the fact that a higher proportion of migrant workers experience discrimination and bullying compared to local workers. When asked if they had experienced discrimination in the previous 12 months, regardless whether it was due to nationality (7.5% vs 0.6%), sex (2.2% vs. 1.6%) or religion (3.9% vs 0.5%), more migrant workers reported discrimination than natives. Similarly, in the previous 12 months, 13.4% of migrant workers were subjected to verbal abuse, 2.5% received unwanted sexual attention, and 6.6% experienced threats and humiliating behaviour, all of which were higher than the respective native worker prevalence of 10.4%, 1.6%, and 4.8%.

Not only are sexual harassment, bullying and violence associated with various health and performance outcomes, but discrimination towards migrant workers have implications for those attempting to enter or climb the labour ladder. [16] highlight a study where in their sample of French job-seekers, workers with native sounding names were five times more likely to be called for job interview than those with North African sounding names, despite having equivalent qualifications and experience. Similar studies in Italy [17] and Sweden [18] revealed comparable results, suggesting that minority candidates had to make three to five times more attempts before receiving a favourable response to an employment application. Moving away from experimental studies, examination of transition from vocational training to employment in Germany found that foreigners had a higher probability of being unemployed or experiencing occupational or skill mismatch than native workers, even when demographic details (e.g., gender, education, occupation) were controlled for [19].

Psychosocial working conditions

Exposure to poor working conditions has been observed to have detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of workers, including migrant workers, and is reviewed in detail elsewhere. When contrasting the working conditions of native and migrant workers, the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey found that a higher proportion of migrant workers reported [20] having monotonous tasks (52% vs. 48% of natives), and the pace of work dependent on a machine (55.5% vs. 44.5%). Migrant workers had lower prevalence rates on the more positive features of work, when compared against the native sample; these include being involved in complex tasks (46.9% vs. 53.1%), having job rotation (47.5% vs. 52.5%), and job involvement (47.1% vs. 52.9%). These findings are congruent with the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey [21] and the Spanish Itsal survey [22].

The work which migrant workers more frequently do not match the qualifications, skills and experience that they already possess. Within the EU-27, 34% of migrant workers aged 25-54 years reported being overqualified for the work they are asked to perform, compared to 19% of native workers [23]. This is particularly prevalent in the hotel and restaurant, service, retail and cleaning sectors [2] [6]. The implications of this include increased job dissatisfaction and frustration, making workers vulnerable to work-related stress [2]. In addition, the nature of low-skilled work means workers on such tasks typically have little control or autonomy over the work that they do.

Dangerous substances and work practices

Research and guidelines [24] [25] have identified a number of issues on the usage of dangerous substances in the workplace which are specifically applicable to migrant workers. These include:

  • Tendency to work in high risk sectors such as farming and, which by their nature increase exposure to dangerous substances, such as pesticides or silica dust.
  • Language barriers, which hamper communication of written and verbal OSH information, as well as technical information.
  • Long working hours and overtime work, which is increases exposure time to the ‘dose’ of the substance received. That safe work exposure limits on substances are usually based on exposure on an 8-hour workday, regular long working hours undermines existing safety protocols.
  • Cultural issues, where workers from less developed countries are accustomed to different, and even lower, OSH standards and practices.
  • Transient nature of migrant workers in some sectors, facilitating precarious work, and allowing little time for inductions or other safety interventions.
  • Migrant workers receiving either no personal protective equipment, equipment of poorer quality, or an inability to use such equipment effectively.

Migrant worker health

Considering their greater exposure to physical and psychological risk, it is not surprising that there is tentative evidence revealing migrant workers having poorer health outcomes than native workers [2]. In terms of physical health, migrant workers in the United States suffer from the highest rates of toxic chemical injuries amongst all occupational groups [26]. Higher prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders [27], skin diseases [28], and hearing problems [29] has also been observed in migrant workers than their native counterparts. In terms of non-physical risks in the workplace, over qualifications have been associated with poorer mental health [30], and increased injury risks [31] amongst migrant workers in Canada. The effects of discrimination and harassment, have been linked with higher rates of burnout and stress in migrant or ethnic workers, than by white or native workers [2] [32].

Away from work-related health and disease, in the United Kingdom, there are a disproportionate number of migrant workers involved in a fatal workplace incident [33]. At the sectoral level, migrant workers in construction were twice as likely to be killed than native workers. Similar findings were found in Ahonen and colleagues’ [34] systematic review, where six out of ten studies which compared occupational accidents or deaths between migrant and native workers observed higher prevalence in the migrant population. Where no difference was found, other demographics such as language proficiency, experience and time in the country were found to be contributing factors towards work-related accidents and fatalities [35] [36].

Despite the observations outlined above, the literature on migrant worker health has not been consistent, with some studies revealing migrant workers to be healthier than native workers [37] [38] [39]. This has been attributed to the “healthy migrant hypothesis” [40], which postulates that migrant workers tend to be younger and healthier when migrating to a new country and that over time, with exposure to poor living and working conditions, these effects will diminish [41]. An alternate explanation for better migrant health could be due to underreporting, lack of awareness and help seeking, or the desire to appear healthy in order to remain economically valuable to an employer [41] [37].


Migrant workers form a significant minority of the working population across Europe. As an employment group, their increased exposure to psychosocial and physical risks, including, precarious work, psychosocial risks, harassment and discrimination, and dangerous substances, makes them more susceptible to some forms of [[ Introduction to occupational diseases |occupational disease]], work-related health issues, accidents, and even deaths. Although beyond the scope of this article, it is also important to acknowledge undocumented, or undeclared, migrants is a related aspect of migrant workers [2]. Lack of statistics and information about this group makes it difficult to understand their working conditions and health outcomes. Looking ahead, considering the working conditions of migrant workers, appropriate measures need to be taken to improve them for migrant workers, through proper risk assessments and intervention designs. These are covered in greater detail through other OSH Wiki articles.

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Workforce diversity and risk assessment: Ensuring everyone is covered’, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2009. Available at: [13].

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘Literature study on migrant workers’, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2007. Available at: [14].


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