Migration, Ethnicity, and Progression from Low-Paid Work in the United Kingdom

The current flows of people migrating from Syria and other war-torn countries have captured public attention. It has become clear that governments in Europe are ill-prepared to deal with the large scale displacement and movement of people. Much of public debate has centred on ‘spreading the burden’ of accommodating and integrating refugees within national and local communities. Yet migration can – and does – influence the supply of skills and expertise within the labour market.

Migrants often work within the low-paid sectors of the economy. My colleagues and I published a study recently which examined the relationship between migration, ethnicity and progression from low paid work and the implications for skills policy (Netto et al, 2015). It found that all low paid workers face serious challenges in developing their skills and progressing to better paid work. Further, it found that ethnic minorities – including recent migrants – face additional challenges. The study was based on in-depth qualitative research in nine large organisations in the public, private and voluntary sector in England and Scotland. It involved interviews with 65 low-paid workers and 43 managers.

The challenges faced by low paid workers are compounded by the current climate of recession and austerity. This has resulted in organisational restructuring in many large institutions, leading to retrenchment, flatter structures and fewer opportunities for promotion. Training budgets have become tighter as organisations seek to cut down  on expenditure. And, where training is provided, it tends to be focused on the current job, rather than on upskilling workers for the next step on the career ladder.

A major barrier to progression to better paid work is lack of formal qualifications. Pursuing education was seen by interviewees as a route to better paid work, yet the costs of such education were formidable. The task of combining work with study was also extremely challenging, with many individuals complaining of fatigue. Our study revealed that contrary to popular belief, many migrants already have further or higher educational qualifications obtained in their country of origin.  However, since these educational experiences were  often not formally recognised in the UK, this meant re-investing in education here.

The study also reveals that while achieving formal qualifications may enable some individuals to overcome one of the main barriers to progression, other barriers exist which may take longer to overcome. These relate to the role of informal workplace cultures which can play a powerful role in influencing workplace experiences and outcomes. Informal workplace cultures were shown to influence relationships with line managers, workload allocation, access to training and other developmental opportunities, opportunities for social interaction, and the extent to which people felt fully accepted within the organisation.

A common theme expressed was that favouritism strongly influenced the extent to which the contribution of some individuals was recognised and rewarded through progression to better paid work. It was seen to interact with ethnicity to the disadvantage of ethnic minorities, including recent migrants. In contrast, managers tended to believe that while recession and austerity had reduced progression opportunities, such opportunities were open to all. This view appears complacent in the light of the finding that, in all nine organisations surveyed, few people from ethnic minorities held middle or senior management posts.

Further evidence that informal workplace cultures may be hindering development opportunities for all comes from recent research revealing the low uptake of modern apprenticeship schemes by ethnic minorities in all four UK nations(Sosenko and Netto, 2013). Another barrier identified by ethnic minority interviewees (including recent migrants) was the lack of social interaction within the workplace, and the way its absence contributed to feelings of isolation and a sense of marginalisation from developmental opportunities. While exclusion from social networks within the workplace can be demotivating to individuals, it may also result in them being excluded from important informal flows of communication.

These studies suggest that at a macro-level, a diversity of knowledge and ability at the low paid worker level is neither being utilised, nor recognised in skills policy. This has major implications for the development of a skilled workforce, especially in the areas where migrant workers and other ethnic minorities tend to be over-represented. One fundamental issue is who is seen ‘to belong’, since this is often key in determining who gets which opportunities and when. Not being seen to belong can be a difficult position to transcend. Nevertheless, important steps can be taken by employers and managers, including raising awareness of the role of informal workplace cultures and the ways in which they can operate to undermine equal opportunities policies and processes.

It is important to acknowledge also that growth in job vacancies and tackling high unemployment are key to ensuring access to ‘good jobs’ rather than ‘any jobs’ (Lewis, 2011). Some economists believe that such growth needs to be accompanied by a greater emphasis on wage-setting mechanisms within institutions and reducing the wage ration between jobs at the top and the bottom. However,others are of the view that higher minimum wages would increase unemployment or lead to reductions in hours worked or fringe benefits. Tackling growing income inequality within and between nations is challenging. Economists have a key role to play in assisting governments to promote wage setting mechanisms that do not disadvantage sections of the population

Finally, cooperation is needed between governments in collecting and sharing data on current and anticipated skills demands, as well as on  the existing supply of skills. In the context of increasing flows of migration, as well as differences in the levels of skills between different waves of migration, this is likely to be facilitated by capacity building in data collection, in countries of origin as well as destination. Such developments would help ensure that skills provision is more closely aligned to skills demand, and contribute to better skills recognition and reward among migrants, including in low and middle ranked jobs. This may help to contribute to  a more nuanced understanding of the role that migrants can play in helping to develop a skilled workforce within the globalised market economy.


Lewis, P. (2011) ‘Upskilling the workers will not upskill the work: why the dominant economic framework limits child poverty reduction in the UK’, Journal of Social Policy, 40, 3, 535–56.

Netto, G, Hudson, M, Noon, M, Sosenko, F, de Lima, P, and Kamenou-Aigbekaen, N (2015) ‘Migration, Ethnicity and Progression from Low Paid Work: Implications for Skills Policy’ Social Policy and Society, Volume 14 / Issue 04 / October 2015, pp 509-522

Sosenko, F. and Netto, G. (2013) Scotland-Focused Analysis of Statistical Data on Participation in Apprenticeships in Four UK Countries, Edinburgh: Heriot Watt University, http://www.equalityhumanrights. com/sites/defa

This entry was posted in Ethnicity, Inequality and Poverty, Migration, Unemployment by Gina Netto. Bookmark the permalink.
Gina Netto

About Gina Netto

Gina Netto is a Reader in Migration, Ethnicity and Place in the Institute of Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. She has a longstanding interest in exploring ethnic inequalities, with recent work tending to focus on the relationship between migration, poverty and ethnicity. This has involved her in working with various international organisations, including the European Commission and with national and local government, and charitable organisations. Her most recent research – a study funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation - involves examining extreme housing exclusion in eleven countries, and identifying lessons for the UK.

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