Migration Pulse

The Plight of Chinese Migrant Workers in the UK: Survey findings from East Midlands

The rise of China and the expansion of the Chinese population in the UK have resulted in increasing needs for ethnic products, services and migrant workers. This is in contrast to the adjustment of government migration policies to reduce the entry of legal migrant workers and penalise the recruitment of irregular migrant workers. In the current situation, what are the consequences for Chinese migrant workers, and how do they respond to these changes in the policy environment? Dr. Bin Wu, a senior research fellow in the China Policy Institute, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, highlights research findings from a pilot survey on Chinese migrant employment in East Midlands two years ago.
April 5, 2011
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Dr. Bin Wu

Dr. Bin Wu is a senior research fellow in China Policy Institute, the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. His interests and research experiences include: globalisation and Chinese internal and international migration; working conditions, health and safety of Chinese migrant workers in Italy and UK; university engagement with overseas Chinese communities.

In connection with the emergence of China as a superpower in the world, there is a growing demand for not only Chinese capital, investment, high-skilled workers and international students in western societies such as the UK, but also for ethnic products and services, such as Chinese foods, herbal medicine and language skills.

This resulted in rapid growth of the Chinese population from 227,000 in 2001 to 400,000 in 2007, the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK according to Office for National Statistics. The figure might have already exceeded 600,000, according to an estimate by the Chinese Embassy in London, which includes some 100,000 students but excludes irregular migrants.

Against the increasing needs for Chinese ethnic products and services in the UK in the last decade, the shortage of Chinese migrant workers has become a serious issue facing Chinese entrepreneurs and the Chinese community. According to the Chinese Immigration Concern Committee, the number of Chinese catering outlets in the UK increased from 15,000 in 2001 to 17,000 in 2008, and each year contributes £4.9 billion to the UK economy.

An increasing gap has developed between demand and supply of Chinese migrant workers which could amount to a shortfall of some 60,000 workers. The shortage of legal migrant workers has been worsened by tight immigration policies in recent years, with the introduction of the points-based system and compulsory English tests, and heavy penalties for the employment of irregular migrant workers.

To learn about the consequences of the economic recession and the change of government migration policies for Chinese ethnic business and migrant workers, we conducted a pilot study in East Midlands region in the period of Spring and Summary 2009 with the financial support of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Over 60 Chinese business including Chinese restaurants and take-aways, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinics, Chinese supermarkets, DVD sellers and child-minders were visited, and 37 people were interviewed in depth. 

While the detailed survey findings are available in a published report, our main survey findings can be summarised as follows:

  • The ownership profile within the Chinese catering sector is changing. According to our observations, 60% of the total sample of businesses are now managed by new Chinese migrants from mainland China, including Fujianese, Dongbeinese (northeast China), and other provinces, rather than established migrants from Hong Kong or other overseas-Chinese communities.
  • There has been a decline in irregular Chinese migration to the UK through people-smuggling agents, and also an increase in the flow of irregular migrant workers returning to China. This can be explained by a number of factors, including clearer pathways for regular migration from China, stricter measures against irregular migration, difficulties in obtaining work in the UK, depreciation of the British pound against the yuan, and changes in the demographic profile of potential migrants.
  • A severe shortage of qualified Chinese migrant workers persists in the Chinese catering sector. As more irregular migrants leave the UK, the growing supply of people on various kinds of student visa has so far proved inadequate to fill the labour shortage in this sector.
  • There has been a deterioration in working conditions for all Chinese migrant workers, with a particularly severe impact on certain sectors and groups, such as irregular migrant workers.
  • Many legal migrant workers, mainly work-permit holders in the Chinese catering or herbal-medicine sectors, are also prone to labour exploitation. Because they are tied to a specific employer, legal migrants in some respects are actually less able to resist the imposition of worsening pay and working conditions than are irregular migrants, who can at least leave a job if conditions become unacceptably poor.
  • Poor working conditions do not merely mean long working hours and low pay, but also a lack of appreciation for their hard work and respect for their basic human dignity. Many suffer from deteriorating health and report feeling depression and a sense of hopelessness.
  • Bonded labour among Chinese work-permit holders is a serious issue to which UK government agencies, Chinese community and civil-society organisations should pay more attention. Personal documents are withheld or a large deposit is required to tie work-permit holders to their employer and impose lower pay and/or increased intensity of work.
  • Bonded labour and labour exploitation of regular Chinese migrant workers cannot be attributed merely to the bad practice of individual employers, but also related to deficiencies within the systems of labour recruitment and contracting in both the UK and China.
  • Divisions within Chinese communities based on skill level, region of origin and migration experience, together with a lack of mutual understanding and respect between different community segments, have served to hamper overall community integration.

Tackling the novel forms of coerced or bonded labour and labour exploitation highlighted in this project calls for a broad understanding about Chinese community structure, fragmentation and segmentation, social cohesion and incorporation with mainstream society in the UK. In this regard, perhaps, the sufferings of Chinese migrant workers and issues within Chinese communities are a good case study in the debate on ethnic communities and the “Big Society”.