MAKING THE BEST OF BAD JOBS: THE AGENCY OF NEW MIGRANT WORKERS
This paper examines recently-arrived migrants to the United Kingdom, focusing in particular on their experiences as workers in businesses started by their peers. This context is often characterised by disadvantage and exploitation; yet we find workers to be resourceful and creative in the exercise of agency. Contrary to recent assessments of migrant labour and businesses, workers do more than simply ‘cope’ or ‘get by’. Migrant workers often see employment in such firms as a refuge from a hostile labour market and as a site for the development of longer-term agential projects. This has implications for theories of agency and the evaluation of the employment relationship in such contexts.
Recent migration to advanced western economies has been notable not only for its extent but also for the diversity of its sources. This represents a qualitative shift away from what had become the standard post-war pattern: no longer do immigrants ‘come in blocks from specific cultures … today’s immigrants are … from dozens of countries’ (Cohen, 2009: 89). Academic inquiry has already thrown considerable light on the causes and process of migration and also on the focus of this paper, the nature of migrants’ experience of the labour market once they arrive at their destination. Let us highlight three signal contributions. Anderson (2010) demonstrates that the regime of migration control does not just regulate the number of workers who arrive. It actively constructs certain types of worker, with migration status helping to shape workers’ rights and opportunities. Datta et al. (2007) underline the linkages between migrants’ labour market circumstances and their family and kinship situation so that the latter shapes workers’ awareness of job opportunities. These scholars also underline the role of workers’ own agency in the working out of market opportunities, though also stressing that such agency is generally about a tactical coping with constraints than a more strategic movement through jobs. Ahmad (2008) captures the work experience of a particular group, mainly illegal migrants from Pakistan to the UK, revealing their poor working conditions and the fact that they often laboured to secure a future that never arrived. Such research connects with an earlier phase of research on low-wage labour markets, which showed that positions were actively created by agents as well as being created by changes in the economic structure (Edwards and Ram, 2006). So what remains to be said? We make two main arguments. The first turns on the novelty of this new migration. Some wish to characterise novelty through concepts such as ‘superdiversity’ (Vertovec, 2007). Yet this concept simply underlines that migrants come from many different places; it does not say that their experience is qualitatively different from that of previous waves of migration. For Ahmad (2008), novelty arises from the fact that work in the UK is now of a post-Fordist kind, and he emphasises its precariousness and the contrasts with manufacturing in the past. But we should not exaggerate the contrast with the past. Not all work was ever Fordist, and not all migrants worked in factories. Indeed a commonplace was the Asian corner shop and the establishment of new businesses which were a long way from Fordism. The first argument, therefore, is that new migration has many continuities with the old and that in this field, as in many others, truncating or ignoring history is an error.
Secondly, what of the labour process? Scholars rightly stress the low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions suffered by migrants. They also show that migrants often have qualifications in their home countries which are not valued in the recipient countries, so that they find themselves de-skilled. The results reported below confirm much of this picture. But they also point to a degree of consent in the labour process. They support previous studies in this vein (e.g. Ram, 1994; Ram et al., 2007), which demonstrate that the equation commonly between hypercompetition in product markets and autocracy in the labour process (by, for example, Edwards, 1979, Burawoy, 1985, and Rainnie, 1989) is imprecise. Yet analysis of this kind has informed few of the more recent studies, and it needs to be pursued if the complex and contradictory situation of migrant workers is to be understood. Our contribution here is to show that, even very powerless workers who are new to the labour market have means to influence their working lives.
A third contribution is empirical. We add to knowledge about a new group in the labour force, detailing their work and social situations.
The argument is first located in theories of agency. It is then applied to recent migrants to the UK from two contrasting regions who generally work in businesses owned by people from the same background as their own. Two features of the sample make it suitable as en extreme test case. Firstly, the migrants have very limited experience of or power in the labour market. Secondly, their co-ethnic situation further constrained their options. Yet agency was still present: even in such an unlikely context it was evident, and its presence qualifies the interpretations of the scholars discussed above. We thus aim to deepen understanding of the work experience of an important new part of the labour force.