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Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview

01 Dec 2016

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.

  1. Key Points
    • The number of foreign-born people of working age in the UK increased from nearly 3 million in 1993 to 7 million in 2015.
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    • The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 16.7% in 2015. The share of foreign-citizens in total employment increased from 3.5% in 1993 to 10.7% in 2015.
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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 36.0% in 2015.
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    • In 2015, 36% of all foreign-born workers working as employees, and 45% of self-employed foreign-born workers lived in London.
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  1. 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. 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 nearly 3.0 million in 1993 to 7.0 million in 2015

The number of working-age foreign-born people in the UK increased from nearly 3.0 million in 1993 to 7.0 million in 2015 (see Figure 1). The annual increases have been mostly positive. 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.

Foreign-born women workers always outnumbered men, particularly from 2012.

Figure 1

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The share of foreign-born persons in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 16.7% in 2015

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 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 16.7% in 2015. In 2015, foreign-citizens made up 10.7% of total employment, up from 3.5% in 1993. The share of recent migrants in total employment increased significantly in recent years although.

Figure 2

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Elementary process plant occupations and cleaning and process operatives  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, process operatives, cleaning and housekeeping managers, elementary cleaning, food preparation and hospitality).

In 2015, 42% of workers in elementary process plant occupations (e.g. industry cleaning process occupation and packers, bottlers, canners and fillers), 36% of workers process operatives (i.e food, drink and tobacco process; glass and ceramics process operatives; textile process operatives; chemical and related process operatives; rubber and plastic process operatives; metal making and treating process and electroplaters) and 35% in cleaning and housekeeping managers and supervisions 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 36% in 2015. 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, 2015

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 occupations420.8Elementary process plant occupations190.8
2Process operatives 360.9Process operatives120.9
3Cleaning and housekeeping managers350.2Elementary cleaning occupations 112.4
4Elementary cleaning occupations 312.4Cleaning and housekeeping managers90.2
5Food preparation and hospitality 301.6Elementary storage occupations91.4
6Textiles and garments trades280.1Other elementary services occupations93.4
7Health professionals 261.7Assemblers and routine operatives 80.9
8Elementary storage occupations 261.4Elementary construction occupations 80.6
9IT and telecomms professionals253.1Elementary agricultural occupations70.3
10Assemblers and routine operatives250.9Mobile machine drivers and operations70.5

Note: occupation share indicates the share of total employment represented by the occupation. Source: Labour Force Survey 2015, Q1-Q4.

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Manufacture of food products was the sector with the highest share of foreign-born labour in 2015

In 2015 the industry with the highest share of foreign-born workers in its workforce was food products manufacturing, where about 41% of the workforce was foreign-born (see Table 2). The sector with the second highest share of foreign-born workers was manufacturing of wearing apparel (34%) followed by domestic personnel (31%).

Table 2 shows that recent migrants concentrate in low-skilled sectors. These include manufacture of food products (15% of total employment in the sector), manufacturing of wearing apparel (11%) and accommodation (9%).

Table 2 – Top ten sectors of foreign-born workers, 2015

Top 10 by workforce share, all migrants%Industry share (%)Top 10 by workforce share, recent migrants%Industry share (%)
(1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)
2Manufacture of food products411.2Manufacture of food products151.2
2Manufacture of wearing apparel 340.1Manufacture of wearing apparel110.1
3Domestic personnel310.1Accommodation 101.2
4Food and beverage service activities 284.2Domestic personnel 90.1
5Accommodation281.2Food and beverage service activities 94.2
6Security & investigation activities 270.5Services to buildings and landscape92.1
7Computer programming and consultancy262.2Warehousing and support for transport 81.2
8Services to buildings and landscape262.1Manufacture of beverages70.2
9Land transport inc via pipelines252.4Computer programming and consultancy72.2
10Warehousing and support for transport241.2Libraries, archives, museums60.4

Note: sector share indicates the share of total employment represented by the occupation. Source: Labour Force Survey 2015, Q1-Q4.

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In 2015, 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 2015 about one-third of total migrants working as employees, and 45% of self-employed migrants lived in London. The share of recent migrants working as employees who lived in London is the same as all foreign-born (36%). Meanwhile, about 50% 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.

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