Why Sanctions are Ineffective: The Case of Undocumented Migrants and Their Employers

Over the last decade while we have both been conducting research into undocumented migration the sanctions regime has grown, extending further into civil society. Employers, landlords, banks and other agencies now all are charged with a legal obligation to police immigration. The law says that they may not offer employment, accommodation or other services to those who are undocumented and a failure to do so poses risks in terms of serious penalties, such as fines and even imprisonment. We have become increasingly concerned about the consequences of this regime, where the focus is on punishment, on naming and shaming and on public demonstrations of state punitive action, particularly in the form of raids on workplaces and on private homes. While the state measures its ‘success’ in terms of a declared reduction in the numbers of undocumented migrants, it cannot provide real evidence since there is no reliable data. Our view, which is based on data from a recent ESRC funded research project, Undocumented Migrants, Ethnic Enclaves and Networks: Opportunities, traps or class based constructs?’ (ES/I037490/2), is that the sanctions regime has an overwhelmingly negative effect on communities and on social cohesion and that other considerations influence employer decisions so that the impact of sanctions as a deterrent is limited.

The imposition of criminal penalties has to be measured in several ways. We need to ask what their intended aim is; whether they are effective and at what costs; what are their unintended consequences; what impact they have on society in general and on those in the target groups; can they actually cause the ‘problem’ to disappear; and of course, are there other policies that achieve the effects desired but which neither challenge human rights nor risk increasing racism and xenophobia. These are questions that social scientists pose in relation to any system based on sanctioning. If we impose such a critique in relation to immigration sanctions then we find that they are an inappropriate means of dealing with an issue – undocumented migration. Such migration is a consequence of numerous factors including global inequality, political unrest and uncertainly, economic disparities, environmental disasters, individual life choices and migration regimes which are often subject to change simply to appeal to public pressures. Examining the above questions in relation to the immigration sanctions regime which has been in place in the UK for almost 20 years, our conclusions are that the wider intended aims of the legislation have not been met and that where they have resulted in deportations and in criminal sanctions, these have negative consequences on individuals and on cohesion more generally.

There are a number of factors which lead us to draw these conclusions but here we want to focus on one major factor, which is in relation to the positioning of those against whom the sanctions regime is directed, in particular, those who employ undocumented migrants. Employers as a group are largely ignored within the literature on undocumented migration and where they are referenced it is usually in relation to their desire to exploit vulnerable labour that cannot demand employment rights. Characterising them in this way has made a sanctions regime appear more palatable. Governments suggest they are not only tackling illegality but are defending the vulnerable from exploitation. However, in our research we found that there were other, more important imperatives that encouraged employers to take the risk of employing someone without the right papers and the most important of these were the employers’ own positioning in relation to immigration policy, their political and humanitarian perspectives and their obligations to friends and family (see Bloch and McKay, 2015; Bloch, Kumarappan and McKay 2015). In other words, employers often argued that they had no alternative but to open themselves to the risks of sanctions, because there were other imperatives which had guided their actions. Time and time again we were told by employers that whatever the regime in place this would not mean that they would never take risks and employ those without documents. They might assess the extent of risk and perhaps decide to employ people only at certain times of the day, when they believed their business would be less open to the risk of raids or they might limit the number of workers without documents that they might employ at any one time; they might even offer work only for short periods of time or only to family members. All of these options were attempts to manage risks. They knew that they could not eliminate them completely but they had sufficient understanding of how the sanctions policies worked so as to reduce the risk. Personal biographies influenced actions. Some had experienced exclusion and discrimination, particularly in relation to work. Those who had been through the asylum system or had been otherwise vulnerable on arrival did not forget the difficulties that this had brought to them. They understood, better than many, the conditions which led people to migrate, even without papers; and they saw themselves as individuals who had responsibilities to those in need. Moreover employers are members of family and communities and that carries obligations. This very real desire to assist those who are most vulnerable ought to be a characteristic that is lauded in any society that promotes cohesive values. Societies that show concern for those in the most precarious positions are societies that also will respect the rights of all vulnerable minorities. These are the values of a genuine citizenship which governments ought to wish to promote. A response that is dependent and driven by punitive sanctions fails to reflect on both the causes and consequences of undocumented migration. An alternative is to recognise that migration will occur and to promote an alternative which guarantees employment and human rights to all regardless of immigration status.

This post has been jointly written by Alice Bloch and Sonia McKay, Professor of European Socio-Legal Studies at the Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University.


Bloch, A., Kumarappan, L., McKay, S. (2015) ‘Employer Sanctions: The impact of workplace raids and fines on undocumented migrants and ethnic enclave employers’, Critical Social Policy 35(1): 132-151.

Bloch, A. and McKay, S. (2015) ‘Employment, Social Networks and Undocumented Migrants: The Employer Perspective’, Sociology 49(1): 38-51

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