Migrant workers

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Annick Starren, Linda Drupsteen, TNO, the Netherlands


This article explores Health and Safety aspects related to migrants working in multi-cultural settings (heterogeneous teams, working together on one location). Several assumptions can be made related to cultural differences and safe and healthy behaviour, but research evidence on this matter is very weak. [1] There is a danger of overrating the differences between cultures. When managing cultural diversity in work teams, it is better to increase awareness of its consequences on OSH, and also to provide guidelines that team leaders can use to deal with cultural diversity effectively. Some typical approaches will be presented.

To appreciate the consequences of workforce migration on occupational safety and health (OSH), the article begins by presenting a statistical overview of migrants and workforce migration in Europe.

Figures and statistics related to migrants and workforce migration in Europe

People migrating are not a new phenomenon For example, the 2004 Directive on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States (see Directive 2004/38/EC,[2]) led to a peak in migration. Actually, migration is continuous, triggered by various economic and political factors. Migrants within the European Union can be classified into two groups: European Union (EU) nationals staying in an EU-28 country of which they are not nationals (citizens); and immigrants i.e. people coming outside the EU-28. The difference between them is based on the right to entry or free movement in the EU Member States.[3] In general one of the most common objectives of migration (in peace time) is seeking employment caused by such structural factors as income inequalities among countries, processes of economic integration, labour force shortages in host countries, etc.[4]

Statistical data on migration in the European Union shows the growing proportion of migrant workers in its labour force during the past decades and this trend is likely to be maintained in the future. As on the 1st of January 2013, there were 20.4 million (4.1% of the population) people residing in EU-27 countries who are not from EU Member States [41]. In addition, a further 13.7 million EU citizens lived in a different Member State to that of their own. The leading host countries for migrants are Germany (7.7 million persons), Spain (5.1 million), the United Kingdom (4.9 million), Italy (4.4 million) and France (4.1 million). In 2013 together they hosted more than 77% of the foreigners in the EU. In terms of proportion, 44% of the population of Luxembourg consists of non-nationals, with Cyprus, Latvia, Estonia, Ireland, Austria, Belgium and Spain, also having more than 10% of their population coming from abroad [5]. The largest group of non-EU foreigners are citizens of Turkey (more than two million people), Morocco and Albania (exceeding one million people from each country). Very often there are specific Member States where a significant part of particular non-nationals have settled.[6] Some Western Europe countries have a long history and experience of migration, whilst the majority of Eastern Europe countries are just starting to deal with the migration issues. These variations are reflected in the labour market strategies and social policies of host countries.[3]

Migrant workers are a highly diverse working group, and are found across different sectors and job levels. An analysis of the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey found migrant workers, regardless of gender or type of work (i.e. manual vs. non-manual), to be exposed to negative psychosocial conditions [7]. Manufacturing, mining, energy,, wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants and health and social work are the sectors with the highest presence of migrant workers. In agriculture, where the working conditions are very poor the proportion of migrant workers is probably higher than registered. The movement of migrants into less paid jobs and sectors rather than skilled jobs may be due to language and legal barriers, as well as various forms of discrimination[4] [8] [9]. Moreover the migrants that work in undeclared work, are probably confronted with the most unhealthy and unsafe working conditions. These migrants have a very weak and vulnerable status.[10]

Consequences of multinational aspects to OSH

Regarding to OSH, there are several signals that migrants are more involved in accidents and/or confronted with health issues. Several national reports have been published concerning migrant workers, and these reports underline that migrant workers are more exposed to risky situations than local workers, such as in Austria, Italy and Spain.[11]. Based on results of the Netherlands Working Conditions Survey among approximately 25 000 workers, non-Western migrants are significantly more involved in an accident with physical or mental injury. Similarly, data from Denmark revealed that immigrant workers have a higher prevalence of accidents per 10,000 workers (217) than Danish workers (181) do [12]. Moreover, migrants have less access to personal protective equipment than Dutch citizens.[13] The reasons why migrants seem to be more vulnerable are widespread (see the next paragraph).

These findings are not surprising when the relationship between (cultural) diversity in relation to organisational performance is examined. For example, a meta-analysis by Bell and colleagues [14] found a negative relationship between diversity and team performance. . When people from multiple cultures have to work together, difficulties or misunderstandings may occur due to language issues or because of differences in attitudes, beliefs and competences. Therefore, in addition to, negative effect on Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), other negative consequences may be the occurrence of tensions, misunderstanding and conflict.

However, it is important to recognise that workplace diversity has been associated with numerous positive outcomes [15] [16], including:

  • Hiring disabled, etc. will help the organisations to increase the influence on consumers in these groups and extent their markets.
  • Creation of diverse workforce should be considered as a social and moral necessity because the development of the society as a whole depends on all its segments.
  • Diversity helps provide an organisational advantage by increasing creativity and innovation.
  • Diversity helps organisations entering the international arena --- diverse teams provides organisations with the increased flexibility to respond adequately to change.[15]

So, to understand the relationship between migrant workers and OSH consequences, one first needs to understand the importance of (cultural) diversity to organisational performance as a whole. There may be negative consequences, but there are also important positive benefits. In general, one can say that cultural diversity should be considered as an ‘ethical imperative’ and be meant as a commitment to human rights, particular the rights of persons belonging to minorities.[17] One of the areas where cultural diversity plays a very important role, is the world of work.

Causes of safety risks for migrant workers in multicultural teams

For migrant workers in jobs and sectors with poor psychosocial working conditions, it is plausible that the aspects that cause migrants to be more affected by safety risks, have to do with aspects like lack of safety knowledge, values about work, and communication. Factors that can contribute to these include:

  • Language barriers, e.g. understanding safety regulations;
  • Risk perception;
  • Knowledge and understanding of local habits and standards;
  • Cultural values like obedience, for example some may be more reluctant to challenge authority and raise safety issues;
  • Context factors, like eagerness to earn money quickly.[18]

Language problems and cultural differences often cause problems with respect to understanding safety regulations. E.g. next to understanding regulations, they may have different perceptions on the importance of obeying safety regulations and, probably as a result, feel less committed to these regulations. In addition, they are less acquainted by local safety standards.

It is also shown that a higher risk involvement may partly be explained by characteristics of the low skilled jobs. Both characteristics of migrants (e.g., language comprehension, knowledge and understanding of local habits and risk perception) as well as their working conditions (e.g. temporary, unskilled and risky work) places the occupational safety of the worker at risk .[19] [20] Language problems and cultural differences often cause problems with respect to understanding safety regulations. E.g. next to understanding regulations, they may have different perceptions on the importance of complying with safety regulations and may be less acquainted by local safety standards.

Actually, since migrants predominantly have access to work that is characterised by high job insecurity, poor working conditions, part-time jobs and low wages (work is more often physically demanding and monotonous, working hours are longer, wages lower and migrant workers tend to do more often shift work than native workers), it can be concluded that no differences in occupational accident rates are found when migrants and natives work in the same jobs in the same organisation. However, overall, migrants do seem to be more often involved in occupational accidents. [3]

Language barriers

When working in multicultural teams, one of the first barriers to overcome is the language barrier. Failure to comprehend safety instructions and values means migrant workers revert to their own experiences and standards from their home countries, which may be lower than those in the host countries [12]. There are several approaches to assist in language comprehension and reducing risks in the workplace [21] [22]:

  1. At first, a company can decide that hazardous activities or tasks with the greatest accident risks are only allowed for workers that speak the same language to minimize the risks caused by language problems. This is an important starting point since it is an illusion that all language issues can be handled by assisting tools. Particularly this is not true with complex tasks.
  2. For the medium or non-risk activities, there are several(technical) tools and approaches available, which facilitate language comprehension within multi-lingual groups. Examples of these tools are selecting one official language for the work floor, using pictograms, using interpreters, or hiring dual language supervisors, e.g. supervisors fluent in Polish and German. In the metal industry in the Netherlands, an online dictionary was launched with specific terminology for the metalworking and technological industries.
  3. There are sector- based dictionaries available that consist of frequently used keywords. A new development is the use of Mobile phone applications, which can easily be used for translating on the work floor.

However, most important message is: language solutions are useful, but certainly not the only solution for better communication in culturally diverse work teams.[23]

Culturally based risk perception

There is limited information about culturally based risk perception in relation to OSH[24]. However, there appears to be a relationship between OSH knowledge and risk perception, with OSH knowledge influencing the development of risk perception. For example, to develop a shared perception of risk it is helpful to provide risk information (information on the probability and consequences of certain unsafe actions in the workplace), however the acceptance of this information may be very different depending on the cultural backgrounds of those who receive this information. The involvement of health and safety bodies to facilitate migrant workers’ understanding of OSH issues is inherently difficult, in part due to migrant workers’ inherent suspicion and mistrust of governmental agencies [12].

A well-known approach to enhance risk perception among migrants is the use of pictograms. This helps to overcome language barriers, by visualising risks or (un)safe circumstances instead of using written procedures. It is however important to bear in mind that people with different cultural backgrounds may understand such pictograms in distinctly different ways. Setting up training programmes in OSH (involving migrant workers as much as possible in the discussions through, role playing, toolbox talks, etc.) may also involve specific challenges when targeted at people with different national backgrounds.

Culturally based safety values

Every country develops its own culture over time. Countries and its people develop habits, norms and values that differ from other countries. It is assumed that these different culturally based values have consequences on how people deal with safety as well. Earlier research by e.g. Hofstede, Schwarz [18] has tried to find dimensions that explain those differences. Cultural difference are important to be aware of, but tend to be overrated. Especially when workers with different backgrounds work together in one team on one location, team characteristics are probably more relevant than the individual cultural background. Actually, dealing with diversity within teams requires awareness of such differences in order to create a work environment in which differences are addressed or valued, and where the full potential of performance is ensured.

More than the individual differences related to safety values in teams, it is important to consider psychological team processes, like ‘socialization’ and ‘identification’, of employees within work teams working together: Negative effects of diversity in organisations can be explained by the a low level of identification. Organisational identification refers to the alignment of individual interests and behaviors with interest and behaviors that benefit the organisation as a whole. Identification is related to job satisfaction: people with high identification levels have lower intentions of leaving the organisation. In addition, high identification levels are related to organisational citizenship behavior.

To enhance organisational identification, it is important to create a “truly inclusive work environment” where people from diverse backgrounds feel respected and recognized, given the fact that diversity is essentially about cultural norms and values” [25]. It is plausible that this mechanism also concerns to safety and OSH related values, and especially to the creation of a shared safety culture within a team. Therefore it is a challenge for organisations not to manage the separate values of individuals for better OSH, but it is important to manage diversity in teams, and to stimulate inclusive teams.

Managing multicultural work teams on the shopfloor

It is important that employers and supervisors on the shopfloor have as least as possible preconceptions about managing individuals with different backgrounds. Cultural differences vary not only between cultures but also between individuals. For instance a Turkish national may not identify with the Turkish culture if he/she has lived and worked in France all his/her life. Those individual differences may also extend to gender and age where different values and beliefs may apply. Moreover, male employees may behave differently from female employees; older employees may have different values from younger employees. In this way, the amount of “cultural differences” in culturally diverse organisations may be infinite. Consequently, knowledge about cultural differences may be useful; it may not be sufficient in dealing with cultural diversity in organisations. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is a valuable amount of research describing effective diversity management.

Managing OSH in cultural diverse work teams

Style and quality of leadership are associated with, and predictive of, many OSH outcomes, ranging from workplace accidents and organisational safety climate through to health issues like musculoskeletal disorders, worker stress and psychological well-being. Leadership development, mainly through training of formal leaders at the different hierarchical levels in an organisation, has in addition proven to be effective in positively influencing these OSH outcomes, and should therefore further be considered and applied as an actual primary prevention strategy Style and quality of leadership are associated with, and predictive of, many OSH outcomes, ranging from workplace accidents and organisational safety climate through to health issues like musculoskeletal disorders, worker stress and psychological well-being. Leadership development, mainly through training of formal leaders at the different hierarchical levels in an organisation, has in addition proven to be effective in positively influencing these OSH outcomes, and should therefore further be considered and applied as an actual primary prevention strategy.[26]

Also, leadership style is important for better organisational performance in multicultural teams.[18] A major aspect in managing diversity is the awareness that not everybody is similar, and should therefore not be treated similar. Nevertheless, in many times, there is a belief among managers that all workers in a multicultural should be treated equally. This is also defined as the ‘moral imperative” to ensure justice and the fair treatment of all members of society.[27] This is contrary to the findings that all team members should be treated similar. As a result, problems are often not addressed, and managers deny a link between diversity and the central goals of a work team, such as performance.

Interesting is that the same leadership styles, like transformational leadership and Leader Member Exchange, that were already an important leadership style with respect to occupational safety, are also important in diversity management. On a team leader level, transformational leadership is a leadership style that challenges employees to think about old problems in new ways and that stimulates the work team to work on shared goals.[28] Transformational leaders are role models, who provide inspirational motivation and intellectual stimulation, and show individualised consideration. In addition, they are assumed to facilitate team performance by aligning team members’ goals and values and by fostering collective optimism, efficacy and identification. It shows that this leadership style is very effective in culturally diverse work teams.[29]

Another important factor on the team leader level are leader-member relations. High quality leader-member exchange is generally associated with more open and egalitarian communication with respect to non-routine problems[30]). However, in culturally diverse work teams, high leader-member relations pose a challenge. Therefore effective leader-member exchange in a multicultural setting requires effective intercultural communication skills. [1]

For this reason we expect that a leadership style that inspires, stimulates to think in new ways, creates openness, and focuses on shared goals, to be beneficial in work teams with high levels of cultural differences.[18]

Intercultural competencies

As cultural differences combined with individual differences and regulations are inexhaustible, it is important to train competences that increase leaders, as well as team members’, intercultural effectiveness.

Literature describes competences that are relevant in culturally diverse work teams.[31] They discuss five intercultural traits that are expected to contribute to intercultural effectiveness. These traits relate to effective coping with intercultural situations:

  • Cultural empathy is defined as the ability to empathise with the feelings, thoughts and behaviours of members of different groups;
  • Open-mindedness refers to an open and unprejudiced attitude towards different cultural norms and values;
  • Social initiative is defined as a tendency to approach social situations in an active way and to initiate them;
  • Emotional stability refers to the tendency to remain calm in stressful situations; and, finally,
  • Flexibility is characterised as the tendency to consider new and unknown situations as challenging and the ability to adjust one’s behaviour to the demands of new and unknown situations.

Those five traits are expected to enhance intercultural communication among team members. In this respect, it can be argued that both team leaders as well as team members profit from these competences of intercultural effectiveness.

The importance of organisational culture related to diversity and safety

Much attention is given to the aspect of Safety Climate Towards an occupational safety and health culture in relation to leadership and OSH performance. It can be expected that individual perceptions of safety climate may vary in a culturally diverse work team. So, enhancing a constructive Safety Climate in a diverse workforce requires special attention. Therefore, work teams should pay special attention to developing a shared vision on safety climate. Again, this requires an ‘inclusive organisation’, or, as described earlier, an environment where people from diverse backgrounds feel respected and recognized. It is the role of good leadership to develop such a shared vision. This asks for a culture that fosters enhanced workforce integration and brings to life latent diversity potentials; a culture that is built on clarified normative grounds and honors the differences as well as the similarities of the individual self and others. Every self is a human being, but as a unique person he or she is also always different from others.[25]

At last, we conclude by stating that national culture is in itself important to be aware of when managing OSH in diverse teams. However, cross-cultural differences are overrated, and their complexity underestimated. There is no “checklist/manual” available that would gear to its complexity. More important is to stimulate good leadership styles, and intercultural competencies, to stimulate an inclusive and safe organisation. As an example of actions targeting migrant workers, we mention the implementation of the equality schemes by the HSE. For the promotion of workers’ equality and tackling work-related discrimination based on age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, the HSE developed Equality Schemes. These guideline also included detailed consideration of the most recent legislation, results of research and consultation and trends in the area of diversity. This had led to

  • publishing and promoting core information on OSH in several languages;
  • developing and launching of the Equality Impact Assessment Tool;
  • training new policy recruits and existing colleagues on Equality Impact Assessment;
  • to provide accessibility to information, research, case studies and good practice related to migrants;
  • learning and development activities for the HSE’s ethnic minority staff including skills workshops (covering personal, leadership and organisational issues), mentoring, action learning sets, personal development activities, etc.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Starren, A., Hornixk, J. & Luijters, K., ‘Occupational safety in multicultural teams and organizations: A research agenda’, Safety Science, 2012. Available at: [1]
  2. Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States amending Regulation (EEC) No 1612/68 and repealing Directives 64/221/EEC, 68/360/EEC, 72/194/EEC, 73/148/EEC, 75/34/EEC, 75/35/EEC, 90/364/EEC, 90/365/EEC and 93/96/EEC, OJ L 158, 30.4.2004. Available at: [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Literature study on migrant workers, 2007. Available at: [3]
  4. 4.0 4.1 EWCO – European Working Conditions Observatory, Employment and working conditions of migrant workers, 2007. Available at: [4].
  5. Eurostat, Migration and migrant population statistics, 2014. Available at: [5]
  6. Vasileva, K., ‘6.5% of the EU population are foreigners and 9.4% are born abroad’, Statistics in Focus, 34/2011, Eurostat, 2011, p. 8. Available at: [6]
  7. Lindhout, P., Language Problems at BRZO- and ARIE-Companies, An Underestimated Hazard? Gildeprint, Enschede (in Dutch), 2010.
  8. OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Over-qualification rates of native and foreign-born population, 2006. Available at: [7]
  9. Belin, A., Zamparutti, T., Tull, K., Hernandez, G., Occupational Health and Safety risks for the most vulnerable workers, DG for Internal Affairs Policy Department A: Economic and Scientific Policy, Employment and Social Affairs, Brussels, 2011.
  10. ILO - International Labour Office, Labour inspection in Europe: undeclared work, migration, trafficking/ - ILO, Geneva, 2010.
  11. EWCO - European Working Conditions Observatory, Employment and working conditions of migrant workers, 2007. Available at: [8]
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Guldenmund, F., Cleal, B., & Mearns, K., An exploratory study of migrant workers and safety in three European countries, Safety Science, 52, 2013, pp. 92-99.
  13. Van den Bossche, S.N.J., Hupkens, C.L.H., de Ree, S.J.M., Smulders, P.G.W., Nationale Enquête Arbeidsomstandigheden 2005: methodologie en globale resultaten [National Survey of the Working Conditions in the Netherlands 2005: Methodology and Results] , TNO, Hoofddorp,2006.
  14. Bell, S.T., Villado, A.J., Lukasik, M.A., Belau, L., & Briggs, A.L., Getting Specific about demographic diversity variable and team performance relationships: A Meta‐Analysis, Journal of Management, 37, 3, 2013, pp. 709‐743.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Kundu, S.C., ‘Managing cross-cultural diversity: a challenge for present and future organizations’, Delhi Business Review, 2, 2001. Available at: [9]
  16. Kochan, T., Bezrukova, K., Ely, R., Jackson, S., Joshi, A., Jehn, K., Leonard, J., Levine, D., and Thomas, D., The effects of diversity on business performance: Report of the diversity research network, Human Resources Management, 42, 1, 2003, pp. 3-21.
  17. UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001,. Available at: [10]
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Cultural diversity in OSH Leadership and Worker Participation, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2013,. Available at: [11].
  19. Guldenmund, F.W., Chen, M., Cleal, B. and Mearns, K., The relationship between accidents of foreign workers and their cultural background; an exploratory study, Delft University of Technology—Safety Science Group, Delft, 2010.
  20. De Vries, S., van de Ven, C., Winthagen, T., Aan de slag met diversiteit: praktische tips voor HR beleid [Practical Tips for Diversity Management in HR Policies] , TNO, Hoofddorp, 2007.
  21. Bust, P.D., Gibb, A.G.F., & Pink, S., Managing construction health and safety: Migrant workers and communicating safety messages, Safety Science, 46, 4, 2013, pp. 585–602.
  22. Paul, J., ‘Improving communication with foreign speakers on the shop floor’, Safety Science, Vol 52, February, 2013, pp. 65–72.
  23. Lindhout, P. & Ale, B.J., ‘Language issues, an underestimated danger in major hazard control?’, Journal of hazardous materials, 9, 2008.
  24. Renn, O. & Rohrmann, B., ‘Cross-cultural risk perception: states and challenges’, Renn, O., & Rohrmann, B. (eds), Cross-Cultural Risk Perception: A Survey of Empirical Studies, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 2000, pp. 211–233.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Pless, N.M., & Maak, T. ‘Building an inclusive diversity culture: principles, processes and practice’, Journal of Business Ethics, 54, 2004, pp. 129-147.
  26. Kelloway, E.K., and Barling, J., ‘Leadership development as an intervention in occupational health psychology’, Work and Stress, 24, 2010, pp. 260–279.
  27. Ely, R., Thomas, D., ‘Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes’, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 46, No 2, 2001, pp. 229–273.
  28. Podsakoff, P.M., MacKenzie, S.B., Moorman, R.H., and Fetter, R.,. ‘Transformational leader behaviors, and their effect on followers’ trust in leader, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behaviors’, Leadership Quarterly, 1, 1990, pp.107–142.
  29. Kearney, E., Gerbert, D., ‘Managing diversity and enhancing team outcomes: the promise of transformational leadership’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 2009, pp. 77–89.
  30. Christian, M.S., Bradley, J.C., Wallace, J.C., Burke, M.J., Workplace safety: a meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology 94, 2009, pp. 1103–1127.
  31. Van der Zee, K.I., Van Oudenhoven, J.P., ‘The multicultural personality questionnaire: a multidimensional instrument of multicultural effectiveness’, European Journal of Personality, 14, 2000, pp. 291–309.

Links for futher reading

Douglas, M. & Wildavsky, A., Risk and culture, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982.

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: [12].

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: [13].

HSE - Health and Safety Executive (UK) (undated). Diversity in the workshop. Retrieved 5 November 2013, from: [14]

HSE- Health and Safety Executive (UK) (undated). Singe equality scheme Retrieved 7 November 2013, from:[15]

Hofstede, G., Culture’s Consequences, Second edition, Sage Publications, London, 2001.