Thursday 15 January 2015

The Labour Market Mobility of Migrants

By: Julie Knight, Towson University

What are the experiences of post-2004 Polish migrants in the UK labour market?  How have these experiences evolved since 2004? Are there any migrants that have experiences that are uncharacteristic of the wider group of Poles?  These questions have influenced my research since 2005.  In addition, many personal and professional factors have contributed to my interest in the labor market mobility of Polish migrants over time, including: my own migrant status in the UK; my understanding of migrant labour market mobility through working for migrants and with migrants; and my interaction with the wider literature that quickly formed on this topic.  These factors were all accounted for in my PhD thesis, which served as the foundation for an article recently published in SociologicalResearch Online.

I migrated from the US to the UK in 2004 to complete my Master’s degree at Cardiff University.  Shortly after migrating, I worked part-time as a bartender at a local pub.  The unsociable hours, unruly patrons and lack of tipping did not bother me as I converted the hourly rate (minimum wage) from GBP to USD and realised that I was making substantially more in the UK being a bartender than I would for the same job in the US.  As time moved on, I gathered more experience and knowledge about the local area, moved on to other jobs, graduated from the Master’s program, and eventually, in 2006, after starting my PhD, started working as a researcher at Cardiff University.  While this seems like a great story unrelated to Polish migrants, this journey through the labour market of a destination country is very similar for other groups of migrants, regardless of their language skills, previous employment or education level. 

For example, using longitudinal data gathered from high-skilled migrants in Australia, Chiswick et al.’s (2005) U-shaped pattern of occupational mobility highlights the exact same movement where high-skilled migrants enter a country, take any job regardless of previous employment, gain location-based knowledge, and ascend in the labour market.  In addition, the economic motivations of migrants to stay in low-skilled jobs, particularly when initially migrating, are commonly addressed in research on economic migrants (Anderson et al. 2006).  There are commonalities between my story and the literature highlighted here, where migrants are well-educated and take low-skilled jobs for a short-term when initially migrating.  These commonalities also extend to post-2004 Polish migrants in the UK if using the characteristics –young, economically-motivated, well-educated, short-term, willing to take low-skilled jobs—ascribed by academics, policymakers and the media immediately after enlargement (Home Office 2008; Pollard et al. 2008; Anderson et al. 2006). 

However, after interviewing Polish migrants in Cardiff in 2008 and 2011, it became clear that the characteristics of migrants in terms of education level and expected time in the UK in the sample were not uniform.  The lack of uniformity existed both amongst the participants in the sample as well as between the sample and the characteristics listed in the existing literature at that time.  The increasing complexity of the migrants’ characteristics was also noticed by other academics in the field, most notably in Kathy Burrell’s edited book (2009) PolishMigration to the UK in the “New” European Union: After 2004.  Furthermore, from the sample in Cardiff, the experiences of the migrants in the labour market in Britain also varied.  Those migrants that were low-skilled upon entering the UK were not confined to low-skilled jobs throughout their migration period, nor was their labour mobility confined to the ethnic economy. 

Using the information gathered from the interviews, I created trajectories to explain the migrants’ experiences and ascent in the labour market.  I contrasted the Linguists, who fit into the migrant paradox in the short-term but moved up the labour market in the long-term, with the Careerists, who ascended the labour market despite their low- education and skill levels.  Both trajectories highlighted the experiences of the migrants in the labour market, which along with the length of time that the migrants spent in the UK, was unplanned.

Beyond challenging the initial characteristics and experiences of migrants, the novelty of these trajectories lies in the timing of the fieldwork (2008 and 2011).  The timing is significant as the migrants that I interviewed in 2008 could have stayed longer than expected in the UK because of the onset of the recession and concern that conditions were worse in Poland.  However, in 2011, the migrants had stayed beyond what they initially expected and continued to be upwardly mobile in the labour market in the UK, despite the failure of many other workers during the recessionary period.  I would not have been able to capture this labour market mobility without going back out into the field in 2011, seven years after enlargement.   The ability of the migrants to stay in the UK indefinitely has been paramount to this study, but it is increasingly a cause for concern amongst policymakers in light of these findings.  Further research will also focus on how the Polish migrants are living in the UK as they are not settling with mortgages and loans but, in many cases, are not planning to return.

Read the full article in the November 2015 issue of Sociological Research Online.