Global Cities at Work: New Migrant Divisions of Labour

April 22, 2010

This book presents the voices of migrant workers living in London and working in cleaning, construction, food processing, hospitality and domiciliary care. The authors show the ways in which the needs of the economy and globalisation have an impact on the lives of migrants working in precarious jobs.

The first two chapters provide a historical, theoretical and policy context for the detailed thematic analysis and extracts from the interviews that are presented in subsequent chapters. These contextual chapters explore the ways in which neoliberal economic management, especially the shift to subcontracting, and the expansion in areas of employment away from manufacturing and into finance, property and insurance, has increased the demand for service-sector jobs that are largely carried out by migrants who occupy insecure positions in global cities such as London. The need for migrant workers to fill these service-sector jobs, coupled with the necessity and demand for international migration from the global south to the global north in search of work, has resulted in the new migrant division of labour. This labour is characterised by low pay and poor terms and conditions of employment - in short, a disposable labour force of overseas-born migrant workers that serves to keep wage levels down in these sectors.

This division of labour is further stratified by the intersection of gender, ethnicity and immigration status. One of the areas crucial to determining the experiences of migrant workers is their immigration status and the rights associated with different statuses. Migrants from European Union countries, while evident in low-paid sectors of the economy, are able to use formal routes and exercise choice in their employment in a way that migrants who are working in breach of their visa or who are irregular migrants cannot. While the authors stress the relationship of immigration status to benefit entitlements and in turn its impact on the types of jobs and levels of pay that some migrants are forced to accept, the empirical data might have been used to better draw out the impact of these differences in terms of migrants' actual experiences, choices and strategies.

Global Cities at Work raises issues likely to emerge repeatedly in the run-up to the general election. These include immigration, the economy, social divisions and social cohesion. Immigration and social cohesion, as well as the interaction between them, have been high on the policy agenda in recent years. This book certainly sheds light on the restricted networks available to many migrant workers who depend for the most part on these limited networks, often from their own ethnic group, to facilitate access to the labour market. As many of them work in multi-ethnic environments, their everyday lives can include more diverse contacts, but importantly in terms of the social cohesion agenda these contacts are almost exclusively with other migrants.

Certainly the tension between different strands of policy is evident in this book. The rights of workers and their transnational obligations in the form of remittances, and their rights to broader development goals, are set against the needs of the economy and the managed migration agenda. The authors show the failings of government and society in protecting the most vulnerable, namely those without the safety net of benefits or other rights.

The book's strengths lie not just in the thematic content but the way in which it permits the voices of migrant workers to come through in a number of the chapters. Global Cities at Work provides a valuable insight into their everyday lives. It is an important contribution to the literature on experiences of migration and deserves a wide readership among scholars and students alike.

Global Cities at Work: New Migrant Divisions of Labour.

By Jane Wills, Kavita Datta, Yara Evans, Joanna Herbert, Jon May and Cathy McIlwaine. Pluto Press, 256pp, £22.99. ISBN 97807453983. Published 15 February 2010

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