The influx of people from the eight eastern European countries that recently joined the EU and headline-making incidents like the Morecambe Bay tragedy, where 23 Chinese people lost their lives when trapped by the rising tide, have focused attention on the vulnerable position of some migrant workers. This, combined with concerns arising from research into the working conditions of migrants and feedback from regional inspectors, led the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to commission research to establish the extent of the problem.
The study, carried out by The Working Lives Research Institute at the London Metropolitan University, explores the patterns of employment of migrant workers and assesses the implications for workplace-related risks and ill health, to help inform decisions about how to direct HSE programmes and guide employers.
More than 200 migrant workers, 62 employers and more than 30 key respondents from government, industry, union and community organisations were interviewed for the research.
Exposed to risk
Many migrant workers told of events where they felt that they had been exposed to health and safety risks at work. About a quarter had experienced or witnessed an accident at work and many also reported work-related ill health or stress. The research confirmed that they often work long hours or anti-social shifts in relatively unskilled areas where there is no suitable local labour. Yet they are often over-qualified for this work.
Factors identified in the research which may contribute to health and safety risks, include:
increasing use of temporary and agency workers in certain occupations, resulting in unclear health and safety responsibilities and gaps in procedures
relatively short periods of work in the UK, often in new occupations, leading to a limited knowledge of the health and safety system and differing perceptions of risk
motivations in coming to the UK that result in a willingness to take on any available work (eg earning as much as possible in the shortest possible time)
difficulties in communication with supervisors and co-workers caused by migrants’ lack of English or a common language, leading to poor understanding of risks
inadequate employer procedures for checking skills and abilities and ensuring access to and understanding of health and safety inductions and ongoing training
lack of knowledge of health and safety rights and an absence of worker representatives, resulting in an inability to raise concerns and a fear of negative outcomes
experiences of discrimination and racism contributing to greater exposure to more difficult working conditions and workplace stress.
Notably, migrant workers employed through recruitment agencies and labour providers for a variety of businesses were more likely to have an inadequate knowledge of health and safety and to be exposed to patterns of work that may contribute to risks.
The cross-section of employers interviewed generally reported fewer concerns about the health and safety of migrant workers than the workers themselves. Many of them said that they had established practices to ensure that migrant workers are provided with health and safety training and information that they could understand, that they are given appropriate personal protective equipment and that they have channels for raising concerns. But this picture differed from that presented by many of the migrant workers.
Some employers were candid about current or past inadequacies in their health and safety procedures for migrant workers, and raised concerns about how competitive supply chains and poorly regulated agencies and labour providers in their sectors can result in a lack of resources and responsibility for ensuring health and safety standards for migrant workers. Others recommended that the HSE focus programmes of work more closely on sectors and companies where large numbers of temporary migrant workers are employed.
A number of recommendations can be drawn from the research for employers of migrant workers (see box above). The main driving force responsible for taking these recommendations forward is the HSE, in conjunction with other national or regional government departments, industry representative bodies and trade unions.
Irrespective of the type of worker, the direct relationships between health and safety, and factors such as the level of temporary and agency employment, the extent of discrimination and inequality, the pattern of working hours and shifts and the causes of workplace stress are still debated.
This qualitative research adds to the evidence that there are occupational health and safety concerns associated with these factors and indicates that migrant workers are more likely to be exposed to them.
Marc Craw is research fellow and Dr Sonia McKay is comparative discrimination senior research fellow, Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University. A longer version of this article was first published in IRS Occupational Health Review.