The wages of fear

The wages of fear


Written by: Jenny Bourne

A new report on undocumented workers reveals the violent consequences of immigration clampdowns for migrant workers.

‘Illegal’ labour keeps many of us alive – providing so many vital services from the trimmed vegetables in our supermarkets to the care in residential homes. Such labour is almost by definition cheap and plentiful. The defining force being the immigration and asylum laws designed, in an era of managed migration, to throw those who have not ‘achieved’ legal status into the pool of marginalised, rightless, cardless, humanity eking out a living on the margins of society.

In this pamphlet, The Wages of fear: risk, safety and undocumented work, two progressive, committed academics, David Whyte and Jon Burnett, present their findings from in-depth interviews with fourteen of the rightless – failed asylum seekers desperately trying to make enough to support them and their families as they avoid the authorities that would send them back. Their wages are appalling. Some work for as little as £2.50 per hour or £25 for a fourteen-hour day. Overtime can be imposed at will, reductions can be taken at whim. The work is often dangerous and these workers fall prey to accidents – nine of the interviewees had themselves been seriously injured. Yet no one dares to call an ambulance. That might bring the police, questions, then members of the UK Border Agency. The end.

Everyone works in fear – the fear of being found. Not the fear of being found out by employers. They know their workers are ‘illegal’ that is why they can treat them with contumely, pay them so little, discard them when done. The fear is of being caught by ‘immigration’, detained and deported. And it is the knowledge of this fear that maintains the employers’ hold over them and determines the rock bottom pay. ‘With their very presence in the country criminalised, workers are much less able to formally organise themselves or join a trade union; they are less able to seek redress if and when abused.’

The authors show that this exploitation is not just a matter of nasty, shady employers and gang masters but the socio-economic context and a constructed labour market segment consequent on the EU’s vision of ‘flexicurity’. This term is used in the EU to signal a supposed common interest between employer and employee in the flexibility demanded by a global economy where ‘firms are able to adjust prices, output, employment and investment more quickly in response to shocks and changes in macroeconomic policy’. In reality ‘flexicurity means the transfer of risks from employers to employees … economic flexibility is exchanged for increasing the physical risks experienced by undocumented workers.’ The report demonstrates very graphically a ‘basic contradiction at the heart of the state’ between a law enforcement that ensures health and safety and the ravages wrought by immigration laws.

This 40-page pamphlet is a quick and easy read and tells you everything you need to know about that iniquity at the heart of our economy.

Related links

Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS)

Download the The Wages of fear: risk, safety and undocumented work here (pdf file, 352kb)

The Wages of fear: risk, safety and undocumented work, by Jon Burnett and David Whyte published by Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS) and the University of Liverpool is available to download here (pdf file, 352kb).

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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