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Undocumented Worker Transitions: Compiling evidence concerning the boundaries and processes of change in the status and work of undocumented workers in Europe

Final Report Summary - UWT (Undocumented Worker Transitions: Compiling evidence concerning the boundaries and processes of change in the status and work of undocumented workers in Europe)

This report presents the key findings of the UWT project, which was initiated in March 2007 and which formally concludes at the end of February 2009. The project has brought together partners from seven EU Member States, of whom six were 'old' Member States - Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom and one, Bulgaria, is a new Member State having joined the European Union just two months before the UWT project began. The project aimed to answer a number of questions to understand the factors that underlie migration flows, legal and illegal. It also aimed to explore, primarily through interviews with migrants who were or who had been undocumented, their knowledge of host labour markets, together with pathways into work they had followed. Our objectives have been:
- to give more reliable estimates of migration and refugee flows into the EU;
- to deepen understanding of the impact of migration flows on EU labour markets;
- to theorise the relationship between the presence of 'informal' or 'shadow' industry labour markets and migration flows;
- to map and model migrant and refugee pathways into and within the EU;
- to deepen knowledge of how legal status interacts with migrant labour market positions;
- to test key theories concerning human capital and social capital in relation to migration; and
- to explore the particular consequences of migration for women workers, including trafficked workers.

Recognising that gender, age and ethnicity were key factors in understanding migrant and refugee flows, UWT has sought to analyse migration and work trajectories in a differentiated way to better understand the process and to see the extent to which these differentiated situations impact on the work experiences of undocumented migrants.

The outcome of our research within the UWT project leads us to conclude that despite the tightening regime of immigration controls, the numbers in some of the countries examined remain high. This suggests that migration occurs irrespective of the immigration regime in the destination country and is more frequently a consequence of poor conditions of life in the country of origin, matched with a belief that work will be available in the destination country and that this will enable the migrant and her / his family to escape the poor economic or political conditions in the country of origin and also as a way of providing their children with better life chances, through access to education either in the home or host country.

It is also plausible to argue that the tightening of migration controls is likely to result in an increasing number of desperate people ready to risk their lives to enter a host country by using dangerous entry routes thus increasing the profits of unscrupulous smugglers. It is also likely that migrants will continue to enter through the decreasingly available legal routes, but then seek work in violation of their visa terms, thus becoming irregular once in the host country. For these reasons it is important that there is more focus on these issues of what drives people to migrate, rather than on the 'consequences' of their migration in destination countries.

Thus, while states focus on how to keep out 'unwanted' migrants, by introducing tighter and more repressive measures and by narrowing the range of migrants who can enter with permits, those who cannot secure a lawful means of entry, or whose entry entitlement is terminated, will use whatever alternatives are available. States argue that they oppose undocumented migration because workers without papers are extremely exploited. However, it is the legislative regimes in place that promote this exploitation.

Some employers know that they can offer terms and conditions that are below the legal minima because they also know that those without papers or whose papers are not in order cannot afford to challenge poor treatment. Indeed, as the UWT research has shown, as immigration rules tighten, those with irregular status are thrown into even more exploitative situations. Strict immigration controls have not eliminated undocumented migration; they force such migrants into the darkest corners of the labour market, setting the scene for an even more hazardous and exploitative working environment.

Yet, there are measures that states could take. One would be to separate migration and employment regulation and to allow all workers, regardless of migration status, to benefit from the protection that labour laws are set up to provide. Undocumented workers are super-exploited because they cannot challenge their employers and cannot enforce their labour law rights. Indeed any attempt to do so brings them to the attention of the immigration authorities and risks deportation. At the same time, if immigration laws were separated from other regulatory systems, like employment, health and safety and social and health care, the economic advantages to employers to use undocumented labour might disappear.

But this leads us at least to question whether the consequences of undocumented labour are not actually sought out. Certainly, our interviews with experts in all seven countries and at EU level, together with our interviews with migrants themselves, suggest that employers knowingly enter into employment relationships with undocumented workers precisely because they perceive that these workers will provide the ultimate flexibility they want. The lack of statutory enforcement of breaches of labour law by employers in most Member States in this study, particularly in the often large and widely known-about informal sector, suggests a certain knowledge of, and tolerance of the employment of undocumented migrant workers.

Our research has also shown that migration status is not fixed but fluid and that those who are documented one day can slip into undocumented status either through a specific change in immigration rules, through failing to renew work permits in time, through losing work tied to permits or through working outside the terms of their work permission. Equally, those who are undocumented can become documented through marriage, through a change in immigration law and through political changes, such as the accession of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in May 2004 and the EU accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

We therefore conclude that the attempt to categorise migrants as either 'documented' or 'undocumented' fails to understand that these are not necessarily two separate groups of workers whose paths never cross, but rather are better conceptualised as a single group, whose members are located at different positions on a migration spectrum, from documented to undocumented, and who move and shift, dependent on the migration regime. Even those who gain a regular status after a period of irregularity, for example through the regularisation programmes carried out in Italy, Spain and Belgium, can be at risk of losing their status again, as this research has shown, principally because their jobs change and regularisation is linked to specific employment. Our research findings have also indicated that there were no strict boundaries between formal and informal labour markets; these were rather blurred. And, documented legal status did not necessarily entail a formal employment.

Our research leads us to conclude that there are specific measures that could be taken, by government / policy makers, in particular, that would address many of the injustices identified within the UWT project. The recommendations start from a premise that migration into the EU will continue and that a continued regime of tight immigration controls is unlikely to halt unauthorised migration but rather contributes to the exceptional vulnerability of those who migrate without authority to work. The recommendations are presented in the full report.