‘Did you hear the one about the immigrant barman?’ The role of legal status and legal insecurity in immigrant occupational attainment in Europe

Owen Corrigan
Owen Corrigan

Owen Corrigan, Trinity College Dublin, introduces his article ‘Conditionality of legal status and immigrant occupational attainment in western Europe‘. It is now available on Policy & Politics fast track.

Why is that immigrant barman fresh from architecture school designing only shamrocks on the head of your Guinness? Or that cleaning lady with perfect English and the degree in literature, why is she cleaning the blackboard at your kids’ school and not teaching at it? Traditional accounts of immigrant success, or otherwise, in the labour market highlight a number of important, even obvious, factors at play in outcomes such as these: grasp of the language, level of education, time in the country, and networks of contacts all matter.

Not all migrants hold low level jobs of course: 28% of third-country nationals in the UK in 2006 were employed in ‘prestige’ occupations. However this compares to only 9% of similar migrants holding such jobs in Italy. So the question remains: Why do immigrants do the jobs they do? Traditional accounts often overlook or simplify the complex reality of immigration in Europe today.

Certain aspects of this reality can be stated bluntly: some people are racist, and if they’re hiring it may make it hard for migrants to get a job. Some labour markets are highly regulated and make it difficult for young people in their native countries, let alone immigrants, to land gainful employment. And sometimes a forbidding economic climate simply militates against the generality of the population, not pausing to discriminate between the newcomers and the locals. Occasionally immigrants are just illegal and can hardly expect to find themselves drawing seven figures in the City of London under such circumstances.

Other aspects of the story are more nuanced and complex or exert a more subtle effect. The European Union distinguishes in law between EU-natives and non-natives for purposes of immigration, with different requirements, regulations and entitlements in play depending on which category one finds oneself in. Countries themselves regulate non-EU immigration in diverse ways, drawing on the particularities of their national and historical situations. Some set the bar high but welcome the highly skilled with open arms, while others set the bar higher and welcome nobody.

For legal non-EU migrants who end up in a European country, the state presents them with a framework of status and regulation through which they can be expected to navigate over the course of their time in the host country. Those who secure long-term residency (LTR) status will enjoy greater protections and security than those living under temporary arrangements. Access to the protections of the welfare state, a more stable life situation, and greater job prospects may ensue. Ditto for those who make the bigger leap and move, in time, from LTR status to fully fledged citizen of their adopted country.

However the frameworks of regulation – or conditionality – governing movement between these different types of legal status are not uniform across countries and may be much more stringent in one domain than another. Likewise, the security of interim legal statuses may not be secure at all. Both of these points are evidenced in the body of work produced by Mipex, the Migrant Integration Policy Index.

Insecurity can be expected to impact on migrant job outcomes in a number of ways: where migrants are insecure they may not bother investing in improving their education or brushing up their English skills; where remittances are important they may endure poor jobs simply in order to continue sending money back home; and similarly where residency status is contingent on holding employment they may take any job at all simply to maintain their presence in the country. But where migrants live under conditions of insecurity they can be expected to seek out more secure positions, and the extent to which they can do so will be governed by the conditionality imposed on moving to a different legal status. The interaction between these two factors has been neglected in previous accounts of migrant labour market outcomes, until now.

Constructing measures of security and conditionality on the basis of Mipex data and testing for such an interaction effect using large-scale cross-nationally comparative data (EU-SILC) on non-EU immigrants in 14 European countries finds evidence to support the hypothesis that security and conditionality of legal status – not just legal status itself – work in interaction to partly determine the types of jobs that migrants hold. Where security is low and the conditionality of moving to a more secure status in that country is high, and therefore difficult, the results show that migrants are likely to be in lower status jobs as measured by the ILO’s standard classification of occupations. This finding holds when controlling for individual-level migrant factors and for the host of traditional explanations outlined above, including labour market regulation, selective immigration systems, or an anti-migrant climate.

Not knowing the lingo, being relatively poorly skilled, or being illegal will certainly not help one’s case on the labour market. But that’s not the whole story, and even legal migrants’ job outcomes are in part determined by the subtleties of the regulations governing legal status acquisition and the protections promised, or denied, by that very legality. The whole story is often more complex – as any good barman will tell you.

Dr Owen Corrigan is an Irish immigrant living and working in London. Rumours of his taste for shamrock designs on pints of Guinness are greatly exaggerated.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you may be interested in a similar article: Familialism and migrant welfare policy: restrictions on social security provision for newly arrived immigrants

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