British Journal of Industrial Relations 45:2 June 2007 0007–1080 pp.


Immigration, Labour Markets and Employment Relations: Problems and Prospects
Patrick McGovern

Abstract In this review essay, I argue that immigration presents employment researchers with a promising strategic research site because it raises a number of theoretically significant problems with mainstream economic approaches to labour and labour markets. Despite the tendency to view economic migrants as homo economicus personified, I argue that immigration brings the institutional nature of labour markets into sharp relief as it exposes, among other things, the influence of the state, processes of labour market segmentation, and the role of trade union policy and practice. Having identified a number of empirical anomalies that contradict neoclassical economic theory, I proceed to sketch out three areas where a more institutionally oriented approach should prove more fruitful.

1. Introduction International migration, whether voluntary or involuntary, has become one of the most prominent and controversial issues of the twenty-first century. Much of its prominence may be attributed to the current wave of international migration that has been building steadily over the past few decades. In 1960, for instance, there were approximately 75 million people living outside their usual country of residence; by 2005 this figure had more than doubled to 191 million.1 At the same time, the number of countries that host a significant number of migrants has also increased: in 1960 some 30 countries hosted more than half a million immigrants each; by 2005 this too had doubled to 64 countries (UN 2006: 1–2). However, even increases of this magnitude cannot account for the controversy generated by the international movement of people when compared with that of products, ideas or even firms. Immigration, it seems, stirs age-old fears about outsiders or strangers,

Patrick McGovern is at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

1998: 19). As an academic subject. scrounge welfare benefits. Among other things. as they are separated from their original social environments.2 This omission becomes all the more striking once we acknowledge that immigration is. migrants appear to be motivated primarily by money and. More specifically. care little about the status of their jobs. . can be fruitfully examined without succumbing to the seductive simplifications of neoclassical economics. possibly because the predicted fears never quite materialized (see e. when combined with the recent accession of Romania and Bulgaria and the potential entry of Turkey.218 British Journal of Industrial Relations who. Bennett 1988. are blamed for society’s ills. the eastern expansion of the European Union has generated a substantial East–West flow of migrants which. In particular. By contrast. I would like to argue that even economic migration. Nevertheless. Unlike those earlier waves of migration. I wish to argue that immigration presents employment researchers with a promising strategic research site (Merton 1973) precisely because it raises a number of theoretically significant problems with approaches that treat labour primarily as a commodity. launch crime waves. the influence of economics is becoming increasingly pronounced. if not the central issue (Favell and Hansen 2002: 581). Similar claims were made about earlier waves of immigration to Britain and the United States during the nineteenth century. the advent of the European Union and its common market for labour and goods has compounded these fears by fuelling the belief that member-states have lost the right to control their borders. Littlejohn 2003. not only within the academic literature but also in the formulation of immigration policy (Massey et al. In particular.g. Like other applied subjects. I shall argue that immigration brings the institutional nature of labour markets into sharp relief as it exposes. immigration closely resembles industrial relations in that much of the research has been influenced by the policy concerns and events associated with so-called social problems (Portes 1995: 2). amoral agent who propels economic models of human behaviour. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. as the legendary US labour leader Samuel Gompers insisted. both have attracted the attention of scholars from across the social sciences and have generated a voluminous body of literature. fundamentally a labour problem (Gompers 1925: 157). or the concerns of native-born workers. has turned migration into an issue central to the future of Europe. immigrants apparently take jobs. At least on the surface. among other things. and import ideas and practices that undermine the very fabric of society (e. Curtis 1971). immigration is strangely neglected by industrial relations scholars and only occasionally draws the interest of industrial sociologists. the influence of the nation state.g. selfseeking. This is not surprising in one respect as labour migrants are often described as the closest living embodiment of homo economicus — that rational. all too often. However. After all. with its apparently economically driven behaviour. but these appear to have been forgotten. Phillips 2003). most migrants move in order to find work and much of the public concern about immigration focuses on the labour market consequences of an influx of foreign labour.

Homo economicus and the (im)mobility of labour Conventional wisdom suggests that immigrants are poor. George Borjas. has introduced the concept of a global migration market in which rational individuals calculate the relative costs and benefits of staying relative to those of finding employment in a foreign destination (Borjas 1990). one of the leading economists of migration. The 191 million people who the UN estimates to be immigrants still amount to only three per cent of the world’s population (UN 2006: 1).e. To that end. . In sum. a more limited supply of labour will offer substantially higher wages. People migrate to those places where the expected discounted net returns are greatest over a set period of time. Subsequent formulations expanded the initial macroeconomic formulation by focusing on individual decision making. I shall begin by identifying some of the more obvious limitations in the way immigration is treated in the mainstream economics literature before sketching out three areas where a more institutionally oriented approach may prove to be particularly fruitful. have limited prospects in their country of origin. then migration ensues. and substantial unemployment. While income is undoubtedly a factor in migration. low wage economies to move to high wage countries. while those with an abundance of capital and. Countries with a large endowment of labour relative to capital will have a low equilibrium wage rate. sociologists find economic explanations troubling because they fail to account for some notable empirical findings about international migration. This wage differential will induce workers from poorer. the process begins when an individual considers the level of wages for someone with similar skills and experience. some of which may be attributed to a peculiar sentimental attachment to a country or place (i. the chances of obtaining employment and then subtracts the costs (both material and social) of making the journey. 1998: 18–28). migration is driven primarily by labour market mechanisms and.Immigration.3 Initial formulations of the neoclassical economic model suggested that international migration is caused by differences in wage rates between countries. assuming the laws of supply and demand are in operation. When the net benefit is greater than the cost. ‘home’). even for relatively unskilled jobs. This means that. and so migrate to other countries where they may earn higher wages. 2. in terms of economic costs and benefits. Paradoxically. the first is that most people do not migrate. Labour Markets and Employment 219 processes of labour market segmentation. the interaction of the laws of supply and demand should reduce migration as the supply of labour in the low wage countries decreases (and wages increase) while that of the capital-rich economies increases (and wages decrease). see Massey et al. and the role of trade union policy and practice. The second empirical anomaly © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. a huge number of people behave in a way that can only be described as irrational. Eventually. international migration should decline over the long term (for a detailed review. More specifically. consequently.

passports. Indeed. Indeed. for instance. such as wage differentials. The other reason is that migrants do not come from poor. Each act of migration creates additional social ties for future migrants. the increasing integration of the two national economies. The inability of wage differentials alone to explain international migration is strikingly evident in one of the most prominent migration flows of our time: the large-scale migration of Mexicans to the United States. especially if they have relatives there. generates a form of migrationspecific capital that is itself strongly associated with repeat migration. In particular.). migrants are. as well as the acquisition of knowledge about working practices in the United States. fail to explain initial. Although frequently underestimated. especially if in advance of employment) and. both the human capital formed through migration and the creation of additional social ties among the migrant Mexican population have a significantly greater influence on the decision to migrate than differences in wages (Massey and Espinosa 1997). wage differentials are far from being the only or even the dominant factor causing migration. Doug Massey and Kristin Espinoza find that macroeconomic factors. more often people who act out of an acute sense of relative deprivation rather than absolute poverty (see especially Portes and Rumbaut 2006: 15–17). This may come as a surprise because the prospect of better income features prominently in popular beliefs about migration. few people migrate to countries where the expected wages are lower than those they left © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. on travel costs. on food and accommodation after arriving (which may be considerable. What Massey and Espinoza find instead is that Mexico–US migration is more likely to be driven by three mutually reinforcing factors: market consolidation. . of course.220 British Journal of Industrial Relations is that international labour migration originates largely in countries where wages are some way above those of the lowest countries. is an expensive undertaking for those who live in the world’s poorest nations. as well as the mechanization of several sectors of the Mexican economy. Television and mass advertising. the very experience of migrating. human capital formation and social capital. one of the extraordinary features about this flow of migrants is that it has increased at a time when real wages in the United States have been in decline. Certainly. migration is a complex process that may involve expenditure in advance of moving (information. who in turn extend the range of social capital for further migrants. international migration develops through a process of cumulative causation that gives it a powerful element of self-perpetuation. In a detailed study of 25 sending communities. may generate feelings of relative deprivation by displaying goods and lifestyles that may be unattainable in developing countries. therefore. has displaced large numbers of workers and these workers are strongly inclined to move to the United States. Consequently. In short. Significantly. Part of the reason is that the very act of migration. Given that many hold jobs before moving. repeat and return migration. remote places that are isolated from the world markets but from regions and countries that are experiencing substantial change as they become increasingly integrated into the international economy (Massey et al. 1998: 277–88). etc. whether legal or illegal.

such policies conceive the international movement of people according to the blueprint laid down by the neoclassical economic model. Cornelius 2004. This observation may seem somewhat dated in the British context.g. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. They do not. have been accentuated in the aftermath of 9/11 and include a remarkable additional step that makes non-state actors. notably by the state. as well as through social norms relating to ‘custom and practice’. the purging of ‘illegal’ labour from public service employment and the use of sanctions against employers of alien labour.Immigration. For much of the recent past. Smith and Morton 2006). In contrast.4 Nor do they consider the possibility that the labour market operates within parameters set by the nation state. has introduced more and more restrictions on the cross-border movement of workers. Guiraudon and Joppke 2001). impersonal and mechanical entity depicted in the neoclassical abstraction of the free market. if less fashionable. such as private organizations (e. one of the defining ideas of the new economic sociology is that markets are far from inevitable or natural. they are socially and culturally constructed (Granovetter 1985. as the institutional regulation of the labour market. versions of the same argument are already well known to scholars of industrial relations. employers and trade unions. Flanders and Clegg 1954. 1998: 288–89). the mobility that is so widely encouraged by neoliberal regimes ends abruptly at the national border. which are known as securitization of migration. These latter measures. local health centres and universities). responsible for monitoring and reporting potential breaches (see e. Labour Markets and Employment 221 behind. Smelser and Swedberg 2005). like the United States and several other affluent Western countries. Ironically. when it comes to access to the labour market. The Politics of Markets An influential strand of economics initiated by Ronald Coase in the 1930s assumes that markets are inevitable natural phenomena and it is the existence of firms that need to be explained (Coase 1937). The significance of this is that it reminds us that the market for labour is far from being the kind of disembedded.g.g. has been one of the guiding themes in the subject since its foundation (e. Yet wage differentials explain relatively little by themselves. ‘restriction of output’ and wage differentials. .g. explain why migrants move to one affluent country rather than another. Similar. As Massey and colleagues demonstrate. extensions to their powers and the use of detention centres for those suspected of entering the country ‘illegally’. the state seeks to reduce the flow of foreign labour by driving up the costs of entry and reducing the benefits of migration (Massey et al. By patrolling the border and penalizing employers. Kerr 1954). More recent measures include the hiring of extra immigration officials and border police. Such measures typically include random inspections of workplaces. airlines and haulage companies). where successive neoliberal governments have sought to deregulate the labour market by reducing the influence of institutions that apparently inhibit the mobility of labour (see e.g. Britain. for instance. as well as a wider range of public organizations (e.

at both the county and national levels. . Immigrants. research on immigrants and wages raises another. competitive and the price for labour behaves in much the same way as the price for any other commodity. Returning to a point made earlier. also behind public fears about the impact of immigration and occasionally appears in anecdotes about immigrants pricing indigenous workers out of jobs. Although they examined average wages for manual and non-manual workers. For instance. the results of extensive research by labour economists are. strikingly counterintuitive: overall. Instead. for men and women. it is not surprising to find that it accounts for much of the leading research on this subject. they acknowledge that the result cannot easily be accommodated within conventional neoclassical labour market theory.222 British Journal of Industrial Relations 3. The idea that an influx of immigrants will lead to a reduction in wages is. Similar results have also been obtained in a wide-ranging econometric analysis of British data by a team of economists from University College London. Given the long and contentious history of immigration in the United States. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. illustrate one way in which the labour market is politically constructed. If anything. In a report for the British Home Office. the results point to relatively modest effects of immigrant inflows on wages. have sought to examine the effects for different occupational groups at the city level. wages and employment conditions If immigration and policies of immigration control. whether effective or otherwise. more fundamental problem with neoclassical theories. the assumption is that labour markets are generally. if not entirely. Even those studies that report an effect acknowledge that it takes at least a 10 per cent increase in the fraction of immigrants in the population to reduce wages by 1 per cent (Friedberg and Hunt 1995: 42). and perhaps. Although the effect is weak. In the absence of any general labour market effects. Christian Dustmann and colleagues could find no convincing evidence that an influx of immigrants undermined the market for British-born workers. (2004) found no instance where the presence of immigrants was associated with a fall in wages. although this is evident only at the bottom of the labour market for a handful of US cities that experienced a massive expansion in the supply of labour (Card 2001). for the most part. they found a positive effect on the wages of native-born workers (Dustmann et al. Again. 2004: 48). immigration has a negligible effect on wage rates. negative effect on the employment prospects of workers. neoclassical models predict a fall in wages as foreign-born workers increase the supply of labour. Dustmann et al. Nonetheless. such as David Card. Finally. However. some American economists. an influx of immigrants may also have a modest. Of course. of course. they suggest that it may be due to migrants bringing skills that are complementary to those of the existing workforce or perhaps enhancing entrepreneurial activity. an influential review of the international evidence by Friedberg and Hunt finds no support for the popular belief that immigrants have an adverse effect on the wages of the native born.

it is the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups who have the greatest and most persistent wage differences (Dustmann et al. as well as the amount of time that had elapsed since migration (Portes and Rumbaut 2006: 87–91). Portes and Rumbaut 2006). however. there is a substantial body of evidence to show that immigrants generally receive lower wages than native-born workers. even when compared with people from the same ethnic groups who were born in the UK. Labour Markets and Employment 223 Dustmann and colleagues found no evidence to support the claim that immigrants displace native-born workers from the labour force or. Chiswick (1978) found that education had a positive effect among immigrants. although the nationalities of the foreign-born population differ dramatically. he suggested. How might we explain this persistent gap? An influential. However. early study by the American labour economist Barry Chiswick examined the influence of education. Kempton 2002). Bean and Stevens 2003. More recent US research by the sociologists Frank Bean and Gillian Stevens confirms that a significant gap exists for Mexicans and that this is evident across all levels of education. work experience and time in the host country for male immigrants. as the earnings of second and third generations of Mexican immigrants are also lower than those of other white men of similar immigrant status (Chiswick 1978: 914). A similar pattern is evident on this side of the Atlantic. The findings on Mexicans in the United States. Gordon 1964). language proficiency. migrants have lower levels of employment. Generally.Immigration.g. the result of an ethnicgroup effect. indeed. 2003. those who arrived through previous waves of migration. Persistent discrimination and structural barriers to equal © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. During the 1970s and 1980s. Generally. but crucially the influence of education for immigrants is lower than that for the native born. and on Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the UK. theories of assimilation indicated that the occupational attainment and earnings of immigrants and their descendants would converge with that of the majority group over time. a finding that has since been well documented (e. The Wages of Migration Nonetheless. Dustmann et al. Chiswick also revealed another intriguing finding: the earnings gap for Mexicans did not decline substantially with time spent in the United States. 2003. Within the world of work. Subsequent studies have confirmed the effects of education. This Mexican exception was. In this case. including the university educated (Bean and Stevens 2003). challenge the straight-line assimilation theories that held sway for much of the twentieth century (see e. customs and practices of the new country does not necessarily lead to convergence in the labour market or elsewhere. .g. labour market participation and wages than the UK-born population. Chiswick’s research showed that the earnings gap declined over time as immigrants accumulated work experience in the new country. a number of writers noted deviations from straight-line incorporation and concluded that familiarity with the language.

with higher rates being evident for those who migrate than for those who remain at home (Pedraza 1991: 313–14). Labour market segmentation and occupational segregation One of the major problems with the neoclassical conception of labour markets is that it removes workers and their work from the wider social © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. This is significant because the proportion of women in the migrant population has been increasing steadily since the Second World War and now constitutes almost half of all migrants.5 How might we explain these curious findings? Why does immigration not reduce the wages of indigenous workers even though immigrants tend to receive lower pay? One answer. they tend to congregate in a handful of female-dominated occupations. women often migrated by following their husbands or fathers. For instance. Yet the participation rates of migrant women still lag behind those born in the host country and they are also more likely to either work part-time or assist in the family business. immigrants take jobs that others leave behind. is that foreign and native-born workers do not generally compete for the same jobs. apparel manufacturing. which has already been mentioned. 2003: 29–32). but the proportion travelling independently has grown substantially in recent decades. Parrenas 2001). and health services (Dumont and Liebig 2005. with the proportion being slightly higher in developed countries (UN 2006: 3). lead to a process of segmented assimilation where some members of the group follow the classic straight line but others reject assimilation altogether and adopt an oppositional orientation (see Portes and Zhou 1993). they could be asked to provide a 24-hour service and ‘holiday’ support. Dustmann et al. Because of the ‘double-negative’ of being both female and foreign born. In the past. Immigration has certainly had a huge influence on the labour force participation of women. if they live with the family. Perhaps the most widely known example are Filipino women whose employment in domestic service across some 130 different countries represents one of the largest and widest flows of contemporary female migration (Castles and Miller 2003: 157–59.224 British Journal of Industrial Relations opportunity in employment may. Given the widely recognized gender gap in earnings. It is to this argument that we now turn. the choice for women is even more restricted. those employed in domestic service are vulnerable to mistreatment (especially if undocumented) because they are often employed on their own and. over a sustained period of time. 100). . such as domestic service. In addition to those who work in the sex industry. 4. it is not surprising to find that the wages of female migrants tend to lag behind those of their male counterparts as well as those of native-born women (Dustmann and Schmidt 2000. Portes and Rumbaut 2006: 97. To put it another way. if not worse (Anderson 2000. hotels and catering. may find it more difficult to separate their private and working lives. While male migrants tend to be concentrated in a limited range of occupations. Parrenas 2001: 1).

In particular. he sought to explain why they are often concentrated in semiskilled. Rather it results from the inbuilt demand for certain kinds of disposable labour that is an inherent feature of advanced industrial economies (see also Miles 1990. The easiest and least costly solution is. one of the leading figures in this initiative. service sector jobs. are those who view low status jobs simply as a means to earn money. indeed.Immigration. The second reason for the inherent demand for foreign labour stems from the motivating effects of hierarchy. But perhaps the most striking feature of Piore’s theory is that international migration is not caused by push factors. replace labour with capital or recruit foreign workers. institutional economists sought to rectify this by devising a theory of dual or segmented labour markets to account for persistent social divisions. Capital. therefore. therefore. according to Piore. Sassen 2001). Peach 1968. What employers need. but also for the accumulation and maintenance of social prestige. Michael Piore. our understanding of social behaviour is always constrained because of the inability to account for the influence of social structure or. that could not be captured by standard neoclassical models (Doeringer and Piore 1971). at least in the early stages of their migratory careers when they are more concerned with economic survival than social status. of the interaction between individual agency and social structure. such as in the employment of men and women. Piore identifies three reasons why the demand for foreign-born workers is ‘chronic and unavoidable’ (Piore 1979: 26–43). Some years later. it also marks the social status of the worker and this helps explain why native-born workers often resist taking menial. Occupational hierarchies are. critical for motivation because people work not only for money. capital is relatively expensive and raising wages may trigger ‘knock-on’ claims by groups of higher status who wish to maintain wage differentials with those whom they perceive to be of lower rank. foreign-born workers satisfy this requirement. to recruit workers from other countries. However. For sociologists. During the early 1970s. Labour Markets and Employment 225 context. . native workers gravitate towards the better-paying and more prestigious positions that become more widely available. Again. Consequently. and why migrants take work of low social status. when the economy expands. one of the strengths of Piore’s analysis is that he recognizes that work is more than a set of job tasks. The final reason relates to what segmentation theorists consider to be the inherent duality between capital and labour. repetitive jobs with limited job security. drew on labour market segmentation theory to explain some of the more enduring findings on the employment of immigrants (Piore 1979). Typically. as a fixed factor of © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. The first is the rather conventional claim that migration is simply a response to labour shortages that occur during periods of prosperity. such as low wages or unemployment. Employers facing shortages must then decide whether to raise wages. why the wages in such jobs rarely rise but frequently fall. Acute motivational problems exist at the bottom of hierarchies because there is little status to maintain and few opportunities for advancement.

immigrants are concentrated in the secondary sector because it is more likely to have openings and they are less troubled by the prestige of their work.g. at least in the initial stages. Such a theory has. come a step closer with the publication of Waldinger and Lichter’s How the Other Half Works. labour. skill or experience. cannot be kept idle because its owners will have to bear substantial costs. Such a theory should also be able to account for divisions emanating from the supply of labour. as a variable factor of production. which is based on the concept of hiring queues. Although employers invariably seek to allocate jobs to the best workers. of which the most prominent are those that segregate the labour force into separate and non-competing groups.226 British Journal of Industrial Relations production. the ‘best’ workers are not defined purely on the basis of aptitude. Taken in its entirety. Waldinger and Lichter embark on a deceptively simple. By contrast. but highly fruitful. The former enjoy secure jobs. it provides a plausible explanation as to why immigration has a negligible effect on the earnings and employment prospects of indigenous workers. . a detailed qualitative study of how ‘unskilled’ migrant labour continues to find employment within a post-industrial economy. Without going into too much detail. Although theories of labour market segmentation have been heavily criticized. Piore’s original application of segmentation theory offers a compelling explanation of not only how international migration originates but also why competition between native and foreign-born workers seems to be blunted. To understand how migrants get jobs in an economy for which their skills are not apparently suited.6 The first source of labour segregation. with regular increments in pay and promotion while the latter. The answer to this question helps flesh out how the interaction of the supply and demand sides of the labour market contribute to processes of labour market segmentation. fixed part of demand and labour for that which fluctuates. I believe Piore’s original adaptation provides us with a starting point for a more sociologically oriented theory of labour divisions. I would like to draw attention to the role of ethnic hiring queues. provides an insight into how employers discriminate in a race-conscious society like the USA where entire ethnic groups are ranked according to socially meaningful but arbitrary stereotypes. social networks and on-the-job training (see. who are more disposable. Waldinger and Lichter 2003: 220–25). we need to combine the institutional economists’ focus on the demand side with the sociologists’ interest in processes of occupational segregation on the supply side. notably for their economic determinism and preoccupation with employer behaviour (e. especially. employers use capital to meet the stable. In other words. have poor wages and conditions and lack opportunities for promotion. Accordingly. I believe. course of action: they ask employers why they hire immigrants. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. can be laid off because it bears the costs of its own unemployment. Rubery 1988). Whenever possible. In doing so. This dualism creates a division in the labour force between those who work in the capital-intensive primary sector and those who are employed in the labour-intensive secondary segment.

ironically. However. the firm may develop a reputation as a Mexican. Excerpts from interviews revealed that ‘white workers don’t want to get their hands dirty’. are frequently the mechanism by which individuals find jobs (Granovetter 1974). Here the perceived attitude of the worker was often a major priority for employers. Work.or Vietnamese-only employer. In this way. in more extreme cases.g. Even where employers do not have an explicit policy of this kind. not only because it saves on recruitment costs but also because they feel they are hiring a known quantity. The second major source of segregation stems from the use of social networks to fill jobs. The co-operation of other workers is central to this process of ‘learning the ropes’ and the task is often easier when employees share social ties. Employers. too “Americanized” and so inclined to demand better wages and benefits (Waldinger and Lichter 2003: 176–77). when this tendency is combined with the use of hiring networks. see them isolated or ‘frozen out’. is a fundamentally social activity and this is most evident in the process by which employees share knowledge about how to do their jobs. Waldinger and Lichter argue that it is even more important for semi. job-hungry immigrant groups may capture the hiring process and this can have negative consequences for the employer. Waldinger and Lichter’s research indicates that both immigrants and employers find considerable value in hiring through social networks. as Waldinger and Lichter note. Accordingly. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007.Immigration. rather than markets. For instance. Labour Markets and Employment 227 Where qualifications are broadly equal. The final mechanism concerns the acquisition of skills or knowledge on the job. they often find that when they have vacancies (or even just about to announce vacancies) they are approached by members of the existing workforce who have the proverbial ‘cousin back home’ who is ideally suited to the job. an unintended consequence of this practice is that information about jobs may become restricted to the ethnic groups that already have a foothold within the firm. a retailer). . Lack of such ties may make the workplace less attractive for new members or. is that social networks. are happy to hire such workers.and unskilled jobs because these require little previous knowledge or experience and much of what needs to be known can be learned from other employees.g. which originated with Granovetter’s pioneering study of job searching. employers select those from the top-ranked group first and the rest follow according to how their racial or ethnic grouping are ranked in the wider society (Waldinger and Lichter 2003: 8–9). One of the central arguments of the new economic sociology. such as race or ethnicity. routines and other kinds of knowledge that can take some time to learn (e. However. that Latinos ‘like to work’ and that African Americans are. employers often feel obliged to take the views of their workforce into consideration when making hiring decisions. which may prove costly if the firm deals directly with the public (e. for their part. whom to ask when dealing with a problem). Even supposedly unskilled jobs involve tasks. hiring through social networks can become an exclusionary practice that gives the firm a nepotistic cast. While having the ‘right attitude’ is important for most jobs.

seeking to preserve the privileges of one section of the working class at the expense of another. However. . Immigration is a thorny issue for trade unionism because such actions contradict notions of international solidarity that are often part of union ideology. one of the intriguing features of the research is that even the recruitment practices of large organizations may be more reliant on networks than even their human resource departments may appreciate.228 British Journal of Industrial Relations Waldinger and Lichter acknowledge that the influence of these processes may be curtailed in larger. having recruited immigrants. Nonetheless. so a decision to continue opposing immigration may make it even more difficult to recruit from a potentially valuable source of new members. ethnic monitoring) or insist on the same. there is little empirical support for the idea that immigrants. At the outset. therefore. 5. formalized selection procedures reduce the possibility of a potential clash between employees and employers about the kind of workers that should be hired. accepting immigration presents a different set of problems. on racial discrimination. Although seldom stated in formal terms.g. and willing to accept low wages. more formal organizations where managers are less inclined to draw on hiring networks derived from the existing workforce. the fourth national © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. To put it briefly. Immigrants have a reputation for being difficult to organize. fear that admitting large numbers of migrants will exert a downward pressure on wages. Not only are they motivated by money. in effect. In Britain. unions must then decide if they should devise special policies that meet their particular concerns (e. Despite the reputation for being ‘unorganizable’. The trade union problem If employers have a long-standing reputation for preferring immigrants over native-born workers. the traditional trade union perspective on immigration is again one where migrants are viewed as homo economicus personified. including those from ethnic minorities. they must decide if they should resist immigration or co-operate with employers in the recruitment of migrant workers. for instance. undermine their bargaining power and divide the working class. Unions. Finally. By calling for restrictions on the flow of immigrants. Milkman 2006: 118–19). A second problem arises after immigrants arrive in significant numbers. Consequently. trade unions have historically been among those who are leading calls for a restriction on immigration (Dummett and Nicol 1990: 94–101. unions are. they are also deemed to be highly individualistic. are inimical to trade unionism. then the reverse is equally true of trade unions. immigration presents trade unions with three dilemmas (Penninx and Roosblad 2000: 4–12). which makes them difficult to unionize. Although information about potential vacancies may influence the kind of candidates who hear about potential jobs. general treatment for all workers.

signs that trade unions have begun to resolve these dilemmas in ways that suggest a break with the fear-driven assumptions of the past. Rex and Tomlinson (1979) found that their subjects not only joined trade unions but participated actively. calling for the normalization of undocumented workers) that have had some surprising consequences. a number of pro-immigrant unions within the AFL–CIO argued that the labour movement needed to embrace immigrants if it were to survive. the AFL–CIO eventually passed a resolution in 2000 calling for the repeal of the long-standing policy of supporting sanctions against employers of immigrant labour. then the problem of immigration and trade unionism switches from being one of immigrants to one of trade unions. have had a dramatic rise in membership levels (Milkman 2006: 147). such as the Service Employees International Union. In some infamous cases. was also the conclusion of an early British study of West Indian and Asian immigrants in the city of Birmingham. trade union representation remains higher. Since then. indeed. Following on the momentum generated by the remarkable ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign. Even when allowance is made for the over-representation of ethnic minorities in certain occupations. however. Disputes of this kind led a number of writers to conclude that racist treatment by trade unions was evidence of how the white working class continues to accrue economic benefits from exclusionary practices directed towards immigrants (Gilroy 1987: 215–45. The exceptions were the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups. who in failing to support immigrant workers. This. 1997.Immigration. This led them to argue that the problem lies with trade unions. . notably among African-Caribbeans. Virdee 2000). One particular complaint was that trade unions failed to support their black and Asian members when they pursued complaints of race discrimination. If these findings are to be taken seriously. Perhaps the most striking is the landmark decision by the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) to reverse its historic opposition to immigration in the United States. After some lively discussions. the nearly moribund US labour movement has initiated a series of increasingly pro-immigrant policies (e. in which a mostly immigrant group of Los Angeles office cleaners won a substantial pay rise after a bitter three-week strike (Milkman 2006: 155–66). the union hierarchy was implicated. Labour Markets and Employment 229 survey of ethnic minorities by the Policy Studies Institute found that union membership rates were higher among most ethnic minority groups. There are. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. For instance. a pattern that has remained in place for some time (Brown 1984. Rex and Tomlinson documented a number of protracted disputes where black and Asian union members acted on the knowledge that the mostly white trade union officials had colluded with managers to provide preferential treatment to white workers on pay and access to promotion (Rex and Tomlinson 1979: 122–26). particularly at times of crisis. help maintain the vulnerability of much immigrant employment (Rex and Tomlinson 1979: 118). where union membership was noticeably lower. see also Milkman 2006: 126–33 on the United States).g. than among white employees. unions that cover industries with a high proportion of immigrants. Modood et al.

nevertheless. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. and trade union policy and practice. But such studies need to start with some basic. all of this raises the question of why trade unions have begun to embrace immigrants after decades of suspicion. preliminary questions. Wrench 2004). presents employment researchers with a strategic research site (Merton 1973) because it exposes the institutional framework within which the labour market operates. the TUC opposed the then Conservative government’s introduction of sanctions against employers and continues to campaign against attempts to turn employers into ‘immigration police’. labour economists have repeatedly found that international migration has little overall influence. hire them with a view to reducing labour costs? If so. As we saw earlier. Also. as I argued at the outset. in 2001. In 1996. The first area concerns the vexed issue of the impact of immigration on the wages of native-born workers. such as. may come from fine-grained. as well as the questions of whether. I would not be surprised to learn that few employers reduce wages and even those are likely to be specific to cost-conscious labour-intensive industries. it brings into sharp relief the problem of access to the labour market and the way this is shaped by the nation state. contract cleaning and catering. yet the question persists because the results contradict the basic assumptions of neoclassical economics. Having reviewed a wide range of literature on these subjects. I think scholars in that area are very well placed to resolve this theoretical conundrum. Given the rich tradition of research on wage setting in industrial relations. Three areas for further research Immigration. I would like to conclude by identifying a number of possible lines of enquiry in the three areas that I have reviewed: wages. how do they do this without unsettling their existing workforce? In this regard. The answer. . 6. intensive studies of wage-setting processes among employers of migrant labour. continues to draw attention to the plight of migrant workers through high-profile campaigns and reports (e. the British trade unions and the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) have gradually moved towards a position that is much more sympathetic to migrants seeking employment in Britain (Virdee 2000.230 British Journal of Industrial Relations Similarly. although many unions had already set up separate committees to deal with race as part of a wider interest in equal opportunities (Wrench 2004). In particular. the labour market is really a competitive arena in which workers compete with each other across social and economic boundaries. why do employers hire immigrants? Do they. the TUC. the TUC Annual Congress agreed to change its rules so that all affiliate unions would be obliged to promote equality. such as construction. Of course. labour market segmentation. This. I suggest. for instance. indeed. and to what extent. TUC 2002).g. While it supports a policy of ‘managed migration’. is but one of the areas where we need further research on the labour market incorporation of migrants.

hiring queues. this does not explain why the AFL–CIO. for instance. At a time when the very idea of social science is under threat and distinctions between scientific and lay knowledge are elided. perhaps. structure and. wages are important. and the general process of occupational segregation (both vertical and horizontal) are essential in understanding how immigrants are incorporated in the labour market. especially access to positions of power and prestige. Finally. I highlighted the work of Waldinger and Lichter as an example of a more sociologically oriented approach that may. in the composition of immigrant populations (Wrench 2004 provides a rare example). While it may be tempting to surmise that an increasingly pro-immigrant stance is the direct result of a collapse in membership. or impede. provide the basis for a new programme of research in this area. Significantly.Immigration. and. theoretical developments have followed advances in empirical research. Huge progress has been made over the past couple of decades in identifying factors associated with union membership generally. given the number of myths that exist about immigrants. to the structure. wish to see consideration given to the way union officials frame the discussion about immigration. values and political orientations of trade unions generally. indeed. Here cross-national comparisons of the kind initiated by Penninx and Roosblad (2000) should be revealing given national differences in union ideology. is essential if we are to understand ethnic disparities in occupational attainment. in conjunction with Piore’s work. yet they are but one measure of labour market success. continued to insist on immigration restrictions long after their membership had declined. Theoretical work of this kind. immigrant unionization (see also Milkman 2000: 2–3). I think the first task is to understand the approach that trade unions take towards immigrants and ethnic minorities before subsequently examining how and why this has changed over time. how this relates to policies on discrimination. social networks and ‘on-the-job’ training. then it is extraordinary that the literatures on immigration and trade unionism come together so rarely. Here we need a much more sophisticated theory of labour market divisions than that initiated by the institutional economists. indeed. If immigration is in important respects a matter of labour. Western 1997). therefore. political and economic conditions that enable. Significantly. Labour Markets and Employment 231 Of course. with sophisticated institutional theories being developed to overcome the limitations of ‘thin rational choice’ theories (e. both draw our attention to the role that social status plays in blunting competition between native and foreign-born workers. particularly when unions have traditionally viewed some of these with suspicion. The second gap in the literature concerns the social. Occupational attainment. the identification of false and © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. Similar work is now required for distinct subpopulations of the labour force. it is inevitable that research on the labour market incorporation of migrants will challenge and. To return to a point made earlier. Ebbinghaus and Visser 1999. which identifies and explains the causal mechanisms driving processes of segregation. occasionally shatter some popular myths. .g. I would. Other important variables include language.

the subject of immigration is so controversial that even a conservative position on the aims of social science may seem like a radical political statement. I neglect the role of language because the argument is fairly intuitive (see Waldinger and Lichter 2003: 63–80). and to where. 3. Robert Miles. Japan is a notable anomaly here because it is a rich country in proximity to several poor countries and yet immigration is less than 2 per cent (see Castles and Miller 2003: 164–65). In producing these estimates. But then. Acknowledgements This article was written during a Leverhulme-funded (Study Abroad) Fellowship at the Department of Sociology. Parrenas 2001: 72–76). the United Nations (UN) uses the widely accepted definition of an immigrant as anyone who changes his or her country of usual residence for a period of more than 12 months. 5. are relatively free to decide whether. Princeton University. domestic service provides a particularly striking example of the idea that immigrants take work that those in more affluent societies leave behind (Anderson 2000: 16–21. I would like to thank Ed Heery for advice and Pat Carr and Krisztina Csedo for providing detailed comments at incredibly short notice. claims that this reflects the dominance of the ‘race relations’ perspective. One of the few British specialists on the subject. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2007. and the ‘hegemonic assumption that Britain has evolved as a nation state in the absence of any large-scale. to my mind. The usual disclaimer applies. Immigration. challenging the status quo is never easy. 4. provided we do not let pro. Notes 1. . With the possible exception of geography. 2. unlike refugees and asylum seekers. inward migration of people’ (Miles 1990: 283). cleaners and cooks. which focuses on the problematic presence of ‘coloured’ peoples. they should migrate. For purposes of brevity. This paper focuses on labour migrants who. 6. I do not consider professional or entrepreneurial migrants as they constitute a small proportion of overall immigration and tend to achieve considerable economic success over the long term. Sadly. Portes and Rumbaut (2006: 19–34) provide a useful discussion of the different types of immigrants and their experiences. As many of these workers are young female migrants. Some of the recent rise in domestic service may be attributed to the growth of dual-career couples who resolve conflicts over the household division of labour by hiring nannies.232 British Journal of Industrial Relations prejudicial beliefs becomes even more important. the subject of migration has generally been neglected by British social science.or anti-immigrant sentiment colour our analysis. presents us with a wonderful opportunity for doing this. Final version accepted on 24 January 2007.

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