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Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview

09 Nov 2015

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 2.9 million in 1993 to 6.6 million in 2014.
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    • The share of foreign-born people in total employment increased from 7.2% in 1993 to 16.7% in 2014. The share of foreign-citizens in total employment increased from 3.5% in 1993 to 10.5% in 2014.
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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 32.0% in 2014.
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    • In 2014, 36% of all foreign-born workers working as employees, and 48% 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 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 6.6 million in 2014

The number of working-age foreign-born people in the UK increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to 6.6 million in 2014 (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 16.7% in 2014

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 16.7% in 2014. In 2014, foreign-citizens made up 10.5% 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, before increasing again from 2012 to 2014.

Figure 2

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

In 2014,43% of workers in elementary process plant occupations (e.g. industry cleaning process occupation and packers, bottlers, canners and fillers), 33.6% in cleaning and housekeeping managers and supervisions, and 32.0% 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) 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 32.0% in 2014. 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, 2014

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 occupations430.9Elementary process plant occupations190.9
2Cleaning and housekeeping managers340.2Process operatives120.9
3Process operatives320.9Cleaning and housekeeping managers110.2
4Food preparation and hospitality301.5Elementary cleaning occupations82.4
5Health professionals281.7Health professionals71.4
6Elementary cleaning occupations272.4Elementary agricultural occupations70.3
7Managers and proprietors in hospitality250.9Elementary construction occupations70.6
8Natural and social science professionals240.7Assemblers and routine operatives60.9
9Elementary storage occupations231.4Other elementary service occupations63.2
10Assemblers and routine operatives220.9Natural and social science professionals60.7

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Manufacture of food products was the sector with the highest share of foreign-born labour in 2014

In 2014 the industry with the highest share of foreign-born workers in its workforce was food products manufacturing, where about 38% of the workforce was foreign-born (see Table 2). The sector with the second highest share of foreign-born workers was domestic personnel (32%) followed by manufacturing of wearing apparel (29%).

Table 2 shows that recent migrants concentrate in low-skilled sectors. These include manufacture of food products (14% of total employment in the sector), accommodation (11%) and manufacture of domestic personnel (11%).

Table 2 – Top ten sectors of foreign-born workers, 2013

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 products381.3Manufacture of food products13.9.51.3
2Domestic personnel320.2Accommodation11.11.1
3Manufacture of wearing apparel290.1Domestic personnel10.70.2
4Accommodation271.1Food and beverage service activities6.41.1
5Food and beverage service activities271.1Manufacture of textiles6.10.2
6Scientific research and development220.4Extraction crude petroleum and gass6.10.1
7Security & investigation activities220.6Manufacture of electrical equipment60.3
8Air transport220.2Information service activities5.60.1
9Services to buildings and landscape222.1Warehousing and support for transport5.61.1
10Computer programming and consultancy212Services to buildings and landscape5.32.1

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In 2013, 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 2014 about one-third of total migrants working as employees, and 48% 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 56% 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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