CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Labour in Migration Studies: a Theme with a Fluctuating Presence

1 In his research on Algerian ouvriers specialisés (specialised workers) during the three decades of massive economic growth in France following the Second World War, Pitti (2006) stressed the importance of “tying together” the figures of the worker and the immigrant. This special issue adopts this approach and, from a resolutely political perspective, explores the intertwinement of developments in international migration, changes in production systems and the reshaping of public policies (migration and asylum policies, labour market policies and welfare state policies).

2 Although the social science disciplines have formed a number of active sub-fields concerning labour (social and labour history, sociology of work), they have often relegated the issue of immigrant labour to the peripheries, despite the significance and the legacy of some of the research on this subject (Sayad, 1977; Noiriel, 1984 and 1988; Green, 1985). This is not the case of the interdisciplinary field of “migration studies” which, as it has been consolidated, has made immigrant labour a central focus. In sociology of migration, the role of immigrant workers contributed to reflections on the paradigm of post-Fordist thinking, through the study of the segmentation of the labour market in the 1970s (Piore, 1978). Until the 1990s, this structuralist paradigm informed numerous studies comparing national segmentation of labour markets and international division of labour (Harris, 1995). Feminist criticism and gender approaches supplemented and modified this research, emphasising the crucial and historical role of immigrant women workers in production systems (Morokvasic, 1984; Green, 1998). The 1990s then saw the development of the globalisation paradigm which produced a reflection on global labour circuits and their concentration in global cities (Sassen, 2000), as well as on the international division of reproductive and care work (Parreñas, 2001; Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003; Kofman and Raghuram, 2015).

3 Migration studies have thus extensively explored the issue of wage labour. However, from the end of the 1990s, much of this research moved away from this theme to focus on other issues, such as law or discrimination. The category of the “undocumented” migrant, widely studied in the 1990s, was thereafter less explored from the perspective of labour and exploitation, with some notable exceptions (Fassin et al., 1997; Moulier-Boutang, 1998; Balibar et al., 1999). In Europe, it was as if, following the introduction of family reunification policies and the end of official labour migration, some of the research went down the same route as migration policies, emphasising other aspects of the migration process (settlement, integration, changes in family structures, etc.) at the expense of production regimes and forms, thereby confirming the division made by migration policies between “de facto” and “invisible” labour migration, and the official end to labour migration (Laurens, 2020).

4 Other figures of immigrant labour appeared in migration studies during the 1990s, at first, those of employees in the service sector, whose share in the labour markets is increasingly significant (Marie, 1994). Above all, research focused on relatively autonomous figures of migration and labour, such as those of the transnational entrepreneur (Peraldi, 1999; Tarrius, 2000), the skilled migrant or the so-called knowledge diasporas (Meyer, 2004; Nedelcu, 2010), family traders and entrepreneurs (Ma Mung and Simon, 1990; Martini, 2001; Raulin, 2000; Zalc and Bruno, 2006).

5 More recently, migration studies have returned to the issue of wage labour, although this revival remains timid and is sometimes overshadowed by the many approaches related to borders and humanitarian issues. Several studies have looked at the struggles and forms of mobilisation of workers, the fragmentation of employment status and the way in which migration policies orchestrate the mobility of workers and contribute to the reorganisation of the labour market (Jounin, 2009; Rea, 2013; Mezzadra and Neilson, 2015). Multiple figures of migrant labour have been explored in these studies: for the past ten years, due to their renewed mobilisation in the workplace, undocumented workers have been making their presence felt in the public space and in research (Barron et al., 2014). Other studies have examined the role of posted workers — of whom there were more than half a million in France in 2017 — in the spread of the precarity of immigrants (Castel, 2007). More generally, recent work on immigrant workers has seen the return of a materialist critique, paying attention to the way in which migratory labour mobility is linked to capital in a post-Fordist or neo-liberal context and to the utilitarian nature of the demand for labour (Morice and Potot, 2010; Filhol, 2013; McDowell, 2013; Zeneidi, 2013).

When Migration Policy and Economic Policy Shape the Figures of Migrant Labour

6 In current research, advanced capitalism and the intensification of borders (Balibar, 1994) intertwine to shape new figures of migrant labour. It is to this reflection, linking migration policy and economic policy, that this double issue seeks to contribute, by approaching the interconnection of migratory, legal and professional statuses from both a legal and socio-economic perspective. It looks at the intersecting relationships of domination within migrant work, the impact of border security and entry control mechanisms on the worlds of work, as well as the forms of resistance and opposition to the assignment, exploitation and subjugation of migrant workers or workers involved in the management of flows. By approaching the issue from these different angles, it shows that the issue of labour cannot be reduced to the mechanisms of a market divorced from politics and the political. This issue remains indicative of the political effects of the flexibilisation of working conditions and the denial of recognition faced by workers. The uberisation of the labour market, new forms of unpaid work (volunteering, internships), teleworking, working at home and atypical working hours are all aspects of an economic policy trend that goes beyond the issue of migrant labour, while at the same time making it central to developments. These policies introduce numerous divisions and hierarchies, for example between European and non-European workers. They are also gendered: welfare systems, for example, rely heavily on the work of migrant women — childminders, nannies, personal carers, nursing assistants, nurses — who have an increasingly important place among these new figures of migrant labour, in which the reproductive, affective and emotional dimension is central.

New Borders in Work, New Borders of Work

7 The process of establishing roots, as well as realising the migratory trajectory, can be achieved through labour, in the absence of access to a stable residence, despite the precariousness and, sometimes, illegality of status. These social worlds of labour combine legality and illegality, formality and informality, contractual and non-contractual work, and the ethnicisation of labour relations, to varying degrees, depending on whether it concerns European posted workers or non-European precarious workers. This “half-open door”, which legitimises the obstacles to legal recognition of new arrivals and the trivialisation of precarious, flexible work on the margins of the law, creates hierarchies, of varying degrees of stability, which the “employment offer” (Jounin, 2009) or the “regularisation offer” (Di Cecco, 2020) make tolerable.

8 The disengagement of states leads companies, in sectors such as construction and catering, to take de facto control of the regulation of labour markets (through the extensive use of subcontracting, for example) and the border becomes increasingly insidious and multilocalised (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2015), at the sub-national (in terms of interpersonal negotiations) or global level. To a certain extent, families also become employers, thus contributing to the blurring of the boundary between the work relationship and the private sphere, as illustrated in the article by Maurizio Artero, Minke Hajer and Maurizio Ambrosini in this special issue.

9 At the international level, a regulatory framework for worker mobility is proving difficult to find. However, this framework already exists in the form of the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. It is revealing that the countries that have ratified the convention are almost all countries of emigration, mainly located in the Global South (De Guchteneire and Pécoud, 2010). It is clear that Northern countries reject it. The way the labour market functions today differs significantly from the post-war period with its three decades of economic boom: state regulation and political agendas have evolved, preferring for example readmission agreements with third countries to labour agreements.

10 Border security and entry controls have intensified to such an extent since the 1990s that they are becoming economic worlds in their own right (Rodier, 2012). They have put the right to asylum and the protection of individuals at risk and under pressure, both for refugees themselves and for the professionals involved in the reception and examination of applications. The issue of the right to work for asylum seekers is in this regard a crucial and ambivalent issue, which fails to resolve the difficulties that statutory refugees face in following employment trajectories that correspond to their qualifications (Tcholakova, 2014). At the same time, restrictions on channels for legal entry and regularisation increase pressure on asylum claims. Thus, the worlds of asylum themselves are re-examined in light of the issue of work, as Simone Di Cecco shows in this special issue. The sites where entry controls and screening are carried out connect the issue of work to that of the humanitarian rationale, in particular through reflection on the employment of asylum seekers and the rise in jobs linked to the management of flows, between humanitarian and security work (Fassin, 2001). These jobs, most often public or association-based, are faced with a shortage of resources and contradictory injunctions that call into question the meaning and conditions of reception work (Kobelinsky, 2012), giving rise to new moral economies of reception. Several “worlds of work” are therefore emerging: on the one hand, the work of those involved in reception, support and voluntary services, which contributes to increasingly blurring the line between paid and unpaid work in the professions that make up the “third sector” (health, legal and educational assistance, etc.). On the other hand, the control, identification and selection mechanisms for new arrivals mobilise a multitude of workers (border police, coastguards, transport or security professionals) and contribute to the expansion of subcontracting and contractualisation through calls for tender. In addition, free movement, which has been gradually introduced in European countries, creates competition between different mobility regimes and produces new hierarchies within the immigrant workforce itself. Finally, in several European countries, a “refugeeisation” of the labour market is observed (Dines and Rigo, 2015): asylum seekers, in particular, are increasingly driven to work as a result of new regulations on procedures for accessing rights, which have a moral as well as an economic focus.

11 However, outside Europe, the labour market situation may be the opposite of the refugeeisation situation described above. Assaf Dahdah’s article in this special issue provides a useful counterpoint by presenting a genealogy of displaced and refugee figures in Lebanon, particularly Palestinians and Syrians. It highlights the tension between integration into the labour market of “ethnicised” immigrant workers who arrived through the kafala system, a framework for hiring and overseeing foreign workers, and the ostracism of exiled Arab nationals, at the margins of the city. It shows the extent to which the policies of de-arabisation and ethnicity-based recruitment operate together to produce a “servile class”, which stands apart from the displaced and refugee populations.

Workers: Between Exploitation and Mobilisation

12 Whose labour, exactly? Whether they are undocumented migrants and/or asylum seekers, foreign nationals who have arrived recently, in conditions made increasingly difficult by restrictive entry control policies, lead us to take a fresh look at these figures of migrant labour. Whether we call them “migrants” or “exiles”, those subjected to waiting, uncertainty and constrained mobility (Michalon, 2012) in the long “corridor of exiles” (Agier, 2011) and the twists and turns of the search for a secure status (Fogel, 2019) are particularly vulnerable when they enter the labour market. Their access to work also leads us to understand the mechanisms that, depending on the circumstances, tolerate or integrate “stowaways”. It leads us to examine the tension between uprooting, wandering and establishing roots in very specific local situations: for example, undocumented women workers who are shunted around depending on the accommodation offered by the operators of the 115 telephone line in France (the emergency number for homeless people and people in serious social difficulty), and who are nevertheless domestic workers (Le Bars, 2018); undocumented migrants searching for somewhere to live who are employed to maintain the corridors of the metro every morning; foreign agricultural workers who move from one season to the next and from one temporary camp to the next (Perrotta and Sacchetto, 2014), etc.

13 There are multiple forms of resistance and opposition to the assignment, exploitation and subjugation of migrant workers and workers involved in the management of flows, and they are the subject of emerging research, both in terms of collective mobilisations (strikes, occupations, demonstrations) and less visible, infra-political resistance, which reveals the injustices associated with the migrant condition and bear witness to a crystallisation of social relations in a supposedly open world (Brücker et al., 2019). These multiple forms of action at the margins show that, far from being de-politicised, the issue of labour remains eminently political. Resistance is also expressed by women. [1]

14 The contributions in this special issue reveal the linkages between the reconfiguration of labour regimes and migration regimes, making immigrant labour a central issue in rethinking the emergence of a new form of social relation of production, based on both the retreat of labour law and the retreat of human rights.

Presentation of Articles

15 The articles in this special issue are structured around five key themes.

On the Margins of the Camp: between Legal Exclusion and Economic Utilitarianism

16 The first theme concerns the way in which undesirables can become an economic opportunity. The referral of exiles to camps or detention centres acts as a sort of political banner in the relationship between the government of reception and public opinion. However, those who experience highly precarious living conditions there, while awaiting legal status, represent an economic opportunity for employment in sectors where labour shortages make use of vulnerability and stigma to propose harsh working conditions.

17 Rocio Negrete Peña shows that the half a million Spanish Republican refugees who entered France between 1936 and 1940 were quickly cast as both a political problem and an economic opportunity. Economic utilitarianism was used as a justification in the face of the dissemination among the public of representations of the undesirable foreigner that accompanied their reception. Many employers, especially farmers, used these exiles as a workforce, forcing French agricultural workers to accept the same conditions. The pitting of workers against each other is a phenomenon that is by no means new, and it brings into play the immediate interests of employers and their relations with the labour movement. The context was unusual: with the effects of the 1929 crisis on employment, the rise of a protectionist and xenophobic far right and the labour movement, these arrivals accentuated friction and contradictions that were running through society. These divergences ran through the trade union movement itself, between those who wanted to avoid competition from foreign workers and those who defended them, while converging around the defence of all oppressed workers. Meanwhile, the nationalism and racism of the far right aimed to “clean up” the labour market by strictly controlling the use of foreign workers, whereas employers saw an interest in the use of such labour. Successive laws on the “protection of the French workforce” contributed to confining Spanish exiles to sectors affected by labour shortages and women to domestic work, strictly tying the residence permit to this assignment. These exiles were seen as “false refugees”, as a “contingent of undesirables”. Until, with the approach of war, their employment as “useful elements for the nation” was recognised.

18 Lucas Puygrenier’s research was carried out in a context that on the face of it is not comparable to the French case of the 1930s. His observations were made in the present day in Malta, a small-scale island context. It is very striking, but ultimately unsurprising, to read analyses of events that appear to repeat themselves throughout history, in different geographical contexts, displaying the same symmetry. The arrival of a large number of exiles on the island and the setting up of structures to support them are seen as imposing excessive constraints, fuelling discourses and actions of rejection. The discovery of the opportunity represented by the presence on the territory of foreign nationals in a precarious and uncertain situation fuels not only the recruitment of foreign nationals waiting in precarious conditions, but also the dynamics of economic growth and performance of certain sectors, particularly the construction industry. These two articles provide valuable insights into the interconnections between camps, legal uncertainty and economic utilitarianism. This research confirms the immutability of the “close link between places of exclusion of exiles and their inclusion as part of a labour force”.

Institutional Fragility, Ethnicisation and Professional Assignments

19 The second theme of this special issue concerns the relationship between state or regional regulation of migration and the creation of ethnic and institutional borders. These articles deal with the organisation by provinces or states of specific sectors for recruitment of immigrant labour, the symbolic and/or real barriers established at the point of entry to other sectors, and the ethnic borders produced in everyday life, in the world of work and even in the privacy of families.

20 Leyla Sall explores a world that is relatively unknown and little documented, especially for readers in France: that of a Francophone province in Canada, New Brunswick’s Acadia, which has a policy of attracting new Francophone inhabitants. The latter face another type of contradiction: while the promotion of immigration from Francophone countries and the province’s upholding of an institutional recognition of both minority and Francophone status allow new arrivals to begin on their pathway, particularly in terms of their studies, access to the professions where there is greatest demand for French speakers, such as teaching and health care, comes up against implicit and subjective barriers that constitute an unexpected form of discrimination. This research into young Francophone immigrants highlights two main findings: one is the ambivalence of the status of protected linguistic minority, confronted with issues of population settlement and preservation of an identity and community culture that struggles to accommodate the necessary openness to otherness; the other concerns the value placed on multilingualism. Indeed, while they are held back by a glass ceiling in French-language jobs, Francophone immigrants are valued in English-language employment sectors where a command of other languages is appreciated, with an openly utilitarian attitude. Surprisingly, it is therefore the non-Francophone sectors that contribute to the integration dynamic of these Francophone migrants.

21 Assaf Dahdah sheds light on the notion of the service proletariat by analysing the Lebanese system of precarious employment, which is based on assignment of identity and ethnicisation in its segmentation, offering specific employment conditions according to national origin. The Lebanese context is one of historically high immigration of refugees, mainly from Arab countries (firstly Palestinians, then Syrians), in addition to immigration from non-Arab, Asian or African countries. This overabundance of labour supply fuels competition between workers, particularly with the mass arrival of Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war. Undeclared Syrians, who can be exploited at will, as well as women workers from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or the Philippines, add to this reserve army. What they have in common is the multidimensional dependence on employers as a result of the legal system of kafala, but they experience different stereotypes: unlike exiles from neighbouring Arab countries, who are associated with political prejudices, people from further afield, participating in the globalisation of domesticity, have been seen as an opportunity to “de-arabise” and “asianise” this segment of menial work. Both ethnic and professional assignments are thus fully in play. However, the economic crisis that Lebanon has experienced since 2019 has had an unexpected consequence: Syrian exiles who accept payment in Lebanese pounds keep their jobs, while others, preferring to be paid in dollars, are dismissed, in debt and trapped by the crisis.

The Moral Dimension of Employment Relationships in Situations of Legal Precarity

22 The third line of research sheds light on the moral economies of employment of foreign nationals in precarious situations.

23 In 2013, 2.3 million Italian families delegated the care of the elderly to care workers, mostly women employed at home. The article by Maurizio Artero, Minke Hajer and Maurizio Ambrosini describes the impact of migratory regimes on intimate relationships by analysing the cohabitation of care workers (badanti) and vulnerable elderly people. The article highlights the ambivalence of the triangular relationship between women migrant workers, the people they care for, and the “care managers” — most often women, family members — who are in charge of managing the employment relationship. The ambivalence that characterises the moral economy of these quasi-familial relationships is highlighted, between affection, reciprocity and exploitation, and sometimes violence.

24 Sébastien Chauvin, Stefan Le Courant and Lucie Tourette study the legitimacy of the labour presence of foreigners in an irregular situation. In their article, they combine their research into foreign workers in an irregular situation and offer a comparative analysis. The way in which legitimacy, value and merit are negotiated in this biographical moment of irregularity sheds light on a moral economy. Their analysis confirms that it is important to take work into account in access to regularisation of residence, which recent research polarised by humanitarian emergencies has tended to relegate to the background. The primacy of work is once again confirmed: although some regularisations are granted on family grounds, it is the whole application that is considered, and in particular integration into employment. Undocumented migrant workers, who are both in an irregular situation and deportable, are caught up in the complexity of economic and moral relationships that bind them to their employers. They have little recourse against their employers, while the latter tend to consider that their employees have a moral debt towards them since they have employed people who are a priori unemployable. While the regularisations following the recent strikes by undocumented migrants in France revealed the diversity of labour situations and the link between economic performance and citizenship, the issue of this “constrained workforce” is not settled when a residence permit is obtained: the working relationship must be made permanent, discrimination must be overcome and the application for renewal of the residence permit must be prepared.

Volunteering and Proof of Employability: the “Gratuitisation” of Exiles’ Labour

25 The fourth line of research developed in this special issue concerns, in conjunction with the reflection on moral economies, the role of exiles in the production of a world of work linked to asylum. The two cases of voluntary work studied bear witness to what Simonet (2018) has called the “gratuitisation” of labour.

26 Maureen Clappe reveals a very singular world, that of volunteer interpreters who, while waiting to obtain their status, accept work assignments in order to build up a file of certificates or a so-called “volunteer passport”, which they hope to be able to use to obtain official documents. These jobs, on which regularisation is conditional, known as “hope labours”, are full of contradictions. These “beneficiaries put to work” are both among the population received by the associations and essential personnel. As former asylum seekers, recognised refugees, rejected asylum seekers, or individuals still in the process of applying for asylum, with or without a residence permit, they make themselves useful and pay the debt of having received help, while accumulating evidence of civic responsibility and citizenship. Their situation confirms that associations constitute a specific world of work, where generosity, guarantees of “good conduct”, merit and proof of employability can generate a clientelist relationship. It is unsalaried work, although workers receive some compensation, and can be a stopgap for want of anything better, as well as a means of enhancing an application for legal status. This illustrates a shift from spare-time volunteering to formalised volunteering.

27 Simone Di Cecco highlights another contradiction: exiles who are in the process of applying for asylum are accommodated in centres of varying status in Italy. The allowance and support provided in these accommodation centres compete with employment. Indeed, from two months after submission of an asylum application, there is nothing to prevent asylum seekers from taking up paid work in the labour market. However, the accommodation of asylum seekers is conditional on a very low-income threshold. As a result, asylum seekers who have the opportunity to obtain a better paid job are forced to leave the accommodation system, while others forgo the opportunity to find themselves in a highly uncomfortable and precarious waiting situation. This contradiction gives rise to a paradoxical situation: in order to enhance the image of exiles as socially and economically useful in the eyes of the public, who are increasingly wary of new arrivals, they are offered a professional type of activity, in the public interest, which is poorly paid or unpaid, unrewarding and unrelated to their qualifications. The author reveals the way in which these people deal with the constraints, their frustrations and aspirations.

Collective Organisation, Reappropriation and Legitimacy

28 The last line of research concerns the mobilisation, resistance and forms of organisation of foreign workers, who succeed, by alternative means, in institutionalising processes of recognition.

29 Emeline Zougbédé studies the process of routinisation of undocumented workers’ mobilisation. Her research into several strikes which took place in the 2010s, in the wake of those of 2008-2009, focuses on the interconnection between labour situations and administrative situations. Legislative developments since the 2000s have introduced limited leave to reside through work. It is therefore in the form of labour strikes that collective mobilisation of undocumented workers can be developed, contributing to the recognition of the place of undocumented migrants in the world of employment. In this case, too, there is a high degree of dependence on employers, particularly for the pay slips and employment offers that have to be provided in the regularisation procedure. This dependence reveals the precariousness, beyond the instability of temporary and subcontracted work situations, viewed as the prolongation of situations of uncertainty and the need to gather evidence of economic performance. These strikes enabled the reappropriation of a social and economic identity as well as a register of professional and organisational dispositions. The link with a trade union, the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) enabled the appropriation of “conflictual routines”, which were understood by those on the other side: these work strikes became institutionalised.

30 The last article in this special issue is based on two ethnographic surveys carried out in Switzerland by Christina Mittmasser and Isabella Stingl, among refugees and social workers involved in specific work programmes, and migrant entrepreneurs. The joint analysis sheds light on the functioning of an original organisation, founded and run by migrants, which contrasts with the institutional programmes set up for the employment of exiles. The main actions are aimed at counterbalancing three trends that produce high levels of frustration and generate avoidable waste by missing opportunities for more coherent professional integration: first, the de-skilling and devaluing of skills that is generally observed on the labour market; second, the dominant categories of thinking which, by associating stereotypes of otherness with processes of exclusion, contribute to devaluing the place of migrants in the world of work; and third, the reduction of exiles to the role of menial workers. This independent initiative contributes to legitimising a different perspective on the role of foreigners in employment.

The coordinators of this special issue would like to thank Jean-François Dars and Anne Papillault who kindly provided the cover photograph and continue their tireless work putting research into images. Among their numerous audio-visual contributions, see Histoires courtes (short stories) at


  • [1]
    Gender of mobilisation had been explored by historians such as Linda Guerry (2009a and 2009b) and sociologists such as Catherine Quiminal and Claudie Lessellier.
  • ethnicisation
  • précarité
  • travail
  • migrations
  • asile
  • bénévolat
  • etnicización
  • migraciones
  • precariedad
  • asilo
  • trabajo
  • voluntariado
  • migration
  • precariousness
  • asylum
  • ethnicisation
  • labour
  • volunteering
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Camille Schmoll
Professor of Geography, UMR 8504 Géographie-cités/École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Campus Condorcet, Bâtiment de recherches sud, 5 cours des Humanités, 93322 Aubervilliers cedex;
Serge Weber
Professor of Geography, Gustave Eiffel University/Laboratoire Analyse comparée des pouvoirs, Cité Descartes, 5 boulevard Descartes, Champs-sur-Marne, 77454 Marne-la-Vallée cedex 2;
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Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
Katherine Booth
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