Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview

28th September 2013
Next update
28/09/2014
Press contact
Rob McNeil

This briefing provides an overview of the employment levels and employment shares of migrants in the UK economy as a whole, and in specific sectors and occupations.

Key points

  • The number of foreign-born people of working age in the UK increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to slightly more than 6 million in 2012. 
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  • The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 13.6% in 2012. The share of foreign-citizens in total employment increased from 3.5% in 1993 to 8.3% in 2012.
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  • Compared to the early 2000s, the presence of foreign-born workers has grown fastest in relatively low-skilled sectors and occupations. The increase in the share of foreign-born workers was fastest among process operatives (e.g. transport drivers, food, drink and tobacco process operators), up from 8.5% in 2002 to 25.3% in 2012.
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  • In 2012, 36% of all foreign-born workers working as employees, and 45% of self-employed foreign-born workers lived in London.
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Understanding the evidence

Migrants can be defined in at least three different ways: by place of birth (i.e. foreign-born), nationality (i.e. foreign citizens), and length of stay in the UK. As the foreign-born definition is most commonly used in UK debates and analyses, it is the default definition used in this briefing. Wherever relevant and indicated, this briefing also provides figures for foreign citizens residing in the UK, as well as for recent migrants – defined as foreign-born people who have been living in the UK for 5 years or less. The focus is on those migrants of working age defined as 16 to 64 for men and 16 to 59 for women. The briefing draws on data from the UK’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) conducted by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS).

 

The number of foreign-born people of working age in the UK increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to more than 6 million in 2012

The number of working-age foreign-born people in the UK increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to more than 6 million in 2012 (see Figure 1). The annual increases have been mostly positive, but there are a few cases of slight decreases (e.g. 2007, 2009 and 2010). There was a significant jump in the number of foreign-born workers in the UK during 2006, which coincides with the opening of UK labour markets to workers from the A8 countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) in mid-2004.

Since 2005, there has been an even gender distribution in the stock of foreign-born people of working-age in the UK. Before 2005, foreign-born women workers outnumbered men.

Figure 1

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The share of foreign-born persons in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 13.6% in 2012

Figure 2 shows the share of migrants in total employment. The term “employment” is based on the ILO/OECD definition and refers to all workers aged 16 to 64 for men and 16 to 59 for women who are “at work” both part time and full time as employees, self- employed, under a government scheme or working for a family. The share of foreign-born persons in total employment increased from 7.2 % in 1993 to 13.6% in 2012. In 2012, foreign-citizens made up 8.3% of total employment, up from 3.5% in 1993. The share of recent migrants in total employment increased significantly in recent years although it declined slightly since 2008, possibly due to the global economic recession.

Figure 2

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Elementary process plant occupations and food preparation trades have the highest shares of foreign-born workers

The increase in the share of foreign-born workers in employment in the UK has been highly differentiated across occupations and sectors. Although foreign-born workers have been and remain employed in a wide range of jobs, the growth in employment shares of foreign-born workers in recent years has been fastest among lower-skilled occupations and sectors. In 2002, there was only one low-skilled occupation (food preparation trades) in the list of top ten occupations with the highest shares of foreign-born workers. As shown in Table 1, there are now at least five low-skilled occupations on this list (i.e. elementary process plant, food preparation trade, elementary cleaning, process operatives and elementary goods storage).

In 2012, 41.4% of workers in elementary process plant occupations (e.g. industry cleaning process occupation and packers, bottlers, canners and fillers), 28.4% in food preparation trades, and 26.4%  of workers in health professionals (e.g. medical practitioners and dental practitioners) were foreign-born. The increase in the share of migrant labour has been greatest among process operatives (e.g. food, drink and tobacco process operatives, plastics process operatives, chemical and related process operatives) up from 8.5% in 2002 to 28.2% in 2012. As discussed by Aldin et al. (2010) a significant share of relatively skilled recent migrants have taken up employment in less-skilled occupations in the UK.

Table 1 - Top ten occupations of foreign-born workers, 2012

Top 10 by workforce share, all migrants
%Occupation shareTop 10 by workforce share, recent migrants
%
Occupation share
 (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)
1Elementary Process Plant Occupations41.40.84Elementary Process Plant Occupations 20.5 0.84
2Food Preparation and Hospitality Trades28.41.49Process Operatives 10.7 0.96
3Health Professionals26.41.65Elementary Cleaning Occupations 9.2 2.46
4Process Operatives25.30.96Cleaning and Housekeeping Managers and Supervisors 8.3 0.23
5Textiles and Garments Trades25.20.13Elementary Storage Occupations 8.2 1.39
6Cleaning and Housekeeping Managers and Supervisors24.80.23IT and Telecommunications Professionals 6.3 2.67
7Elementary Cleaning Occupations24.42.46 Assemblers and Routine Operatives 6.0 0.84
8Elementary Storage Occupations21.81.39 Natural and Social Science Professionals 5.7 0.61
9Natural and Social Science Professionals21.70.61 Elementary Construction Occupations 5.5 0.48
10Assemblers and Routine Operatives21.00.84Food Preparation and Hospitality Trades 5.3 1.49

Note: occupation share indicates the share of total employment represented by the occupation.

Source: Labour Force Survey 2012

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Manufacture of wearing apparel was the sector with the highest share of foreign-born labour in 2012

In 2012 the industry with the highest share of foreign-born workers in its workforce was manufacture of wearing apparel, where about 41.5% of the workforce was foreign-born (see Table 2). The sector with the second highest share of foreign-born workers was manufacture of food products (32.9%) followed by domestic personnel (28.2%).

Table 2 shows that recent migrants concentrate in low-skilled sectors. These include tobacco product manufacturing (15.6% of total employment in the sector), food products manufacturing (14.1%) and domestic personnel (10.7%).

Table 2 - Top ten sectors of foreign-born workers, 2012

Top 10 by workforce share, all migrants
%
Industry share (%)
Top 10 by workforce share, recent migrants
%Industry share (%)
 (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)
1Manufacture of wearing apparel41.50.14Manufacture of tobacco products15.60.02
2Manufacture of food products32.91.18Manufacture of food products14.11.18
3Domestic personnel28.20.16Domestic personnel10.70.16
4Food and beverage service activities24.73.77Accommodation8.71.1
5Accommodation22.01.1Manufacture of wearing apparel6.50.14
6Warehousing & support for transport21.31.04Computer programming and consultancy6.01.88
7Security & investigation activities21.10.57Employment activities5.90.67
8Computer programming and consultancy20.81.88Services to buildings and landscape5.81.92
9Air transport19.60.21Food and beverage service activities5.73.77
10Residential care activities19.22.85Warehousing & support for transport5.51.04

Note: sector share indicates the share of total employment represented by the occupations

Source: Labour Force Survey 2012

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In 2012, 36% of total foreign-born workers working as employees, and 45% of self-employed foreign-born workers lived in London

The foreign-born population in the UK is particularly concentrated in London (see the Migration Observatory briefing on ‘Migrants in the UK: An Overview’). This is also the case for those migrants who are in employment. As Figure 3 shows, in 2012 about one-third of total migrants working as employees, and 45% of self-employed migrants lived in London. A lower share of recent migrants working as employees lived in London (33%). Meanwhile, about 51% of self-employed recent migrants lived in London.

Figure 3

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Evidence gaps and limitations

The LFS does not contain information on short-term migrants because the survey excludes individuals who have been resident in their households for less than 6 months (Dustmann et al. 2010). Also, the LFS excludes those who do not live in households, such as those in hotels, caravan parks, and other communal establishments; it also excludes halls of residence, thus missing many overseas students (many of whom are known to be legally working in the UK). Furthermore, the LFS does not include asylum seekers. Finally, the LFS is unlikely to capture migrants working without the legal right to live and/or work in the UK. See the data sources and limitations section of the Migration Observatory website for further discussion.

References

  • Aldin, V., D. James, and J. Wadsworth. “The Changing Shares of Migrant Labour in Different Sectors and Occupations in the UK Economy: an Overview.” In Who Needs Migrant Workers? Labour Shortages, Immigration, and Public Policy” edited by Martin Ruhs and Bridget Anderson. Oxford: OUP, 2010.
  •  Dustmann, C., T. Frattini, and C. Halls. “Assessing the Fiscal Costs and Benefits of A8 Migration to the UK.” Fiscal Studies 31 (2010):1-41.
  • Select Committee on Economic Affairs, House of Lords. "The Economic Impact of Immigration." House of Lords, London, 2008.
  • Ruhs, M. and Bridget Anderson. Who Needs Migrant Workers? Labour Shortages, Immigration and Public Policy. Oxford: OUP, 2010.

Further readings

  • Dustmann,C., F. Fabbri, and I. Preston. “The Impact of Immigration on the UK Labour Market.” Economic Journal 115 (2005): F324-41.
  • Larorre, M. and H. Reed. “The Economic Impact of Migration on the UK Labour Market.” Economics of Migration Working Paper 3, Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 2009.
  • Nickell, S. and J. Salaheen. “The Impact of Immigration on Occupational Wages: British Evidence.” Working paper, Nuffield College, Oxford, 2008.

Related material

With thanks to: Bridget Anderson, Martin Ruhs, Carlos Vargas-Silva and Mary Gregory for comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this briefing.

Press contact

If you would like to make a press enquiry, please contact:
Rob McNeil
+ 44 (0)1865 274568
+ 44 (0)7500 970081
robert.mcneil@compas.ox.ac.uk