Migrant Workers in Northern Ireland

Helen Lewis outlines the impact of migrant workers and their experiences in NI

Stories of migrant worker disadvantage and exploitation have recently hit the headlines – particularly following the case of Ukrainian woman, Oksana Sukhanova, who had her legs amputated after suffering frostbite sleeping rough on New Year’s Eve 2004.

As a fast growing category of employees, migrant workers are making a significant contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of Northern Ireland. Yet migrants here experience daily harassment and abuse – not only in the workplace, but in the home and on the streets where they are most often told to ‘go back to your own country’.

Migrant workers are defined as non nationals who have migrated to Northern Ireland for work. Unlike immigrants, migrant workers do not necessarily come to Northern Ireland to settle or to integrate into the local population – although some inevitably do.

According to this definition, nearly everyone in Northern Ireland has probably had a ‘migrant worker’ in their family, that is, a family member who has worked abroad for a period of time.

Facts & Figures
The 2001 Census suggests there are 26,659 migrant workers and/or their dependents currently living and working in Northern Ireland. However, these figures are not accurate.

This is because many migrant workers may not participate in the Census in the first place, but also because the ethnic monitoring categories used in the survey do not give a good picture of Northern Ireland’s cultural diversity. For example, Portuguese, Polish and Canadian workers may all tick the ‘white’ box on the Census form.

Unofficial estimates suggest there may, in fact, be up to 45,000 migrant workers in Northern Ireland – in addition to Jewish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Pakistani, Sikh and Irish Traveller minority ethnic communities who have long been established here, as well as a small number of asylum seekers and refugees.

Types of Migrant Worker
Migrant workers in Northern Ireland include: European nationals from countries like Italy and Portugal who have a right to travel, live and work anywhere in the UK; nationals of the eight poor countries from Eastern Europe like Poland and Latvia who joined the EU in 2004, who have a right to travel, live and work anywhere in the UK, but who must also register on the Workers Registration Scheme at a one-off cost of £50.00; and nationals from countries like the Philippines, who require a work permit obtained by a local employer on the grounds that he/she can’t find a suitable national for the job. There are also an unknown number of undocumented workers.

Push & Pull
So why do migrant workers come to Northern Ireland in the first place? Many describe having been ‘pushed’ by limited opportunities for work in their home country. For example, in the Philippines there are currently more qualified nurses than nursing posts available.

Others are ‘pulled’ by the higher salaries available in Northern Ireland – particularly because higher salaries enable migrants to send money back home to their extended families. Some migrant workers also see the potential for opening up their own business here at some later date – especially those working in the catering trade. In comparison to England, many migrants prefer Northern Ireland’s size, culture, cost and standards of living.

Of course, migrant workers are also actively recruited by employment agencies. There are stories, for example, of well-known local employment agencies standing outside factory gates in Poland soliciting workers to come to Northern Ireland.

Migrants work in different areas of the economy, including food processing, construction, engineering, agriculture, hospitality and health care. Workers from different national backgrounds can be found working in any of these areas. However, some patterns are beginning to emerge between nationality and occupation.

For example, there are high levels of Portugese speaking and Polish workers in food processing factories in Ballymena, Derry/Londonderry, Coleraine, Dungannon and Portadown. The public and private health care sector in Northern Ireland benefits particularly from nurses and medical practitioners from the Philippines and India. A large number of Lithuanians have also worked on mushroom farms and in other agriculture businesses in Newtownards, Portadown and the border region.

It is clear that these workers are filling significant gaps in Northern Ireland’s labour force, such as the lack of skilled workers in the health care sector. Many employers here have also gone on record stating that they simply cannot find nationals willing to work in low paid, back-breaking jobs such as mushroom picking.

Migrant workers have therefore helped Northern Ireland keep certain industries, which would otherwise have disappeared. Indeed, the Transport & General Workers Union has indicated it has around 300 migrant members in one large factory alone here.

In addition, migrants contribute significant tax revenues to Government and spend money in the local economy. Predictions suggest Northern Ireland is only going to become more dependent on this type of inward migration in the future.

Despite this contribution, the 2002 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey gives some idea of the negative attitudes displayed towards migrant workers in Northern Ireland. For example, the survey states that only a third of people believe that immigrants are good for Northern Ireland’s economy; 70 per cent feel ‘it would be better for society if groups adapt and blend into the larger society’; 48 per cent believe immigrants take jobs away from people born in Northern Ireland and they increase crime rates; and 48 per cent feel the number of legal immigrants should remain same.

Another survey by Connolly and Keenan (2000, Racial Attitudes and Prejudice in Northern Ireland, NISRA) suggests about 25 per cent of persons in Northern Ireland are unwilling to have an African Caribbean, Chinese or South Asian person as a resident in their local area; over 20 per cent would not accept them as a close friend; and about a third would not be willing to accept them as colleagues at work. Perhaps most worryingly, Connolly and Keenan have found racial prejudice to be twice as significant as sectarian prejudice in Northern Ireland.

Exploitation & Disadvantage
It is therefore no surprise that migrant workers have been subject to exploitation and disadvantage here. For example, there are stories of Lithuanians working on mushroom farms for as little as £1.20 per hour, whilst living in substandard accommodation and have been charged £1,000 for the arrangement of passage to Northern Ireland.

The Polish Welfare Association in Derry/Londonderry has recently highlighted cases of landlords getting away with charging migrant workers more than £300 a week rent for one dwelling by charging them all individually.

Migrant workers’ skills are also often under-used because their qualifications are not recognised, for example, in relation to nursing. Other problems in the workplace include underpayment and refusal of holiday, sickness and maternity pay – particularly by employment agencies.

Government policy can also discriminate against migrants. For example, new anti-fraud legislation means it is almost impossible for a migrant worker to supply the necessary documents to open a bank account.

More generally, migrant workers have difficulty accessing government services, especially as public bodies are only just beginning to provide interpretation. Bureaucracy can also make life extremely difficult. For example, a number of migrant workers have described having to wait long periods of time to receive a national insurance number.

Harassment & Abuse
The Police Service of Northern Ireland reports that the number of racist incidents recorded doubled in the last year. Moreover, the rate of racial incidents in Northern Ireland in 2001/02 was 12.9 per 1000 of the minority ethnic population compared with 6.7 per 1000 in England and Wales. Responding to these incidents is especially difficult because of the organised element behind a number of them - with both police and journalists reporting links to Loyalist paramilitaries.

Yet, most harassment experienced by migrant workers probably goes unreported because it takes ‘low-level’ form such as shouts of ‘go back to your own country,’ verbal taunts in shops, bars and taxis, as well as abuse in and around the home – including windows being broken, bottles thrown at houses and graffiti.

Northern Ireland is just beginning to wake up the fact that there are, and always have been, more than two communities here. Moreover, as peace takes hold, Northern Ireland is only going to become a more diverse place. Migrant workers look set to play an increasingly important economic, social and cultural part in this future.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation