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LABOUR MOBILITY IN CONSTRUCTION: MIGRANT WORKERS’ STRATEGIES BETWEEN INTEGRATION AND TURNOVER

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Abstract

The construction industry historically is characterised by high levels of labour mobility favouring the recruitment of migrant labour. In the EU migrant workers make up around 25% of overall employment in the sector and similar if not higher figures exist for the sector in Russia. The geo-political changes of the 1990s have had a substantial impact on migration flows, expanding the pool of labour recruitment within and from the post-socialist East but also changing the nature of migration. The rise of temporary employment has raised concerns about the weakness and isolation of migrant workers and the concomitant risk of abuse. Migrant workers though cannot be reduced to helpless victims of state policies and employers’ recruitment strategies. Findings of the research presented here unveil how they meet the challenges of the international labour market, the harshness of debilitating working conditions and the difficult implications for their family life choices.
www.clr-news.org
European Institute for
Construction Labour Research
CLR
No 2/2014
CLR News
The lives and
work of migrant
workers
Contents
Note from the Editor ························································································ 4
Subject articles ·································································································· 8
Bruno Monteiro, Portuguese construction workers in Spain: situated
practices and transnational connections in the European field of construction
(2003-2013) ···············································································································8
Claudio Morrison, Devi Sacchetto & Olga Cretu, Labour mobility in
construction: migrant workers’ strategies between integration and turnover ···33
Report: ············································································································· 50
International Asbestos Conference, Vienna, 6-7 May 2014, Jan Cremers ············50
Review essay: ·································································································· 52
Comeback der Gewerkschaften? Machtressourcen, innovative Praktiken,
internationale Perspektiven, Stefan Schmalz, Klaus Dörre (eds) by
Hans Baumann ·······································································································52
Review:············································································································· 57
Frank Manzo, Robert Bruno, Labour Market Institutions Reduce
Income Inequality. ··································································································57
CLR News 2/2014 3
In 2009 we published some
outstanding global contri-
butions dedicated to the
working conditions of
workers in nonstandard
employment relations (CLR-
News 2-2009). In that issue we
published, for instance, an
article on attempts by Chinese
students and scholars to
defend the interests of
peasant workers that served
as seasonal workers in the
Chinese construction industry.
Other contributions covered
the lack of decent regulation
and the higher safety risks for
temporary agency workers.
The data provided included
the estimate that agency
workers’ safety risks are three
times higher than the
occupational risks for direct
labour. According to the
labour inspectorate, the main
causes for these higher risks
were and are lack of
experience, with possible and
potential risks and poor
introduction and integration
at the workplace. The
temporary status of new
workers, probably with
difficulties in fully under-
standing the risks related to
their workplace, may place
them in danger. The idea is
that these workers are used
to carrying out quite simple
tasks and, therefore, the
necessary training is usually
only a couple of days. We also
quoted the conclusions of a
German health report that
temporary workers have
higher risks for muscular and
skeleton diseases and that the
chances for accidents and
injuries are higher. The
conclusion of the contri-
butions was that temporary
agency workers do not receive
the same level of health and
safety protection as
permanent staff. Also, the
representation of temporary
agency workers via the
classical systems of worker
representation (local union
representatives, works
councils or health and safety
committees) in work environ-
ment and health & safety
issues is often missing.
At a later stage (in CLR-News
2-2010) we applied some of
this knowledge to the theme
of migrant labour. The
position on work sites of
migrant labour is often quite
similar to the position of
temporary agency workers.
The construction industry
remains a ‘migrant dense’ and
precarious industry with the
Jan Cremers,
clr@mjcpro.nl
Note
from the editor
CLR News 2/2014
4
vast majority of workers on short-
term temporary contracts. In one of
the contribution based on UK data
on the level of migrant worker
deaths in construction, an upward
trend from reported deaths of
migrant workers in construction in
relation to the sector overall and
migrant worker deaths across the
economy was identified. This was
supported by a number of case
studies and by examining verdicts,
legal support and prosecution in
cases of migrant deaths.
In this issue we want to come back
to this theme for several reasons. Of
course there is the scandalous
situation in Qatar where workers
from Nepal, India and Bangladesh
are treated as slaves. The Qatar
government recently had to admit
that, only in the period 2012-2013,
964 migrant workers had already
died on the constructions and
infrastructure sites for the World
Soccer tournament 2022, a rate of
more than one a day. The ITUC has
calculated that, if nothing is done to
protect the rights of migrant
workers, 4000 workers will have died
by the time the tournament starts.
But also back here in the EU the
news on health and safety is not
always positive. The European
Commission has just published its
new H&S strategy (EU Strategic
Framework on Health and Safety at
Work 2014-2020), more than 2
years after the previous one
expired. The EU strategy does not
come up with legislative
improvements; on the contrary, the
Commission excludes the adoption
of new legislation and its focus is
much more on the simplification of
national regulations and on the
elimination of ‘administrative
burden’. The strategy does not pay
attention to the risks connected to
the free movement of labour or
migrant work whilst the old
strategy (Improving quality and
productivity at work: Community
strategy 2007-2012 on health and
safety at work) identified ‘new and
larger flows of migrants’ as one of
the challenges in the field of health
and safety.
The growth of the world's migrant
population more than doubled
between the 1960s and the 1990s,
reaching 2.6% in 1985-1990, and it
is forecast that this trend will
accelerate in the 21st Century. The
term ‘migrant worker’ covers a
wide range of people with
different reasons for migrating and
varying skills levels. Not all such
workers are ‘at risk’ regarding their
safety and health at work.
However, there are at least three
occupational safety & health (OSH)
CLR News 2/2014 5
Note from the editor
CLR News 2/2014
6
issues relating to migrant workers
that should give concern:
The concentration of migrant
workers in traditional (often blue-
collar) high risk sectors. According
to Eurostat figures, there is
enough evidence to conclude that
the incidence of accidents is
considerably higher in economic
activities where migrant workers
more frequently work, at least
where male migrant workers are
working. The number of
occupational accidents varies
considerably depending upon the
economic activity in question and
is positively skewed in relation to
male-dominated activities. Within
the EU-27 in 2009, the
construction, manufacturing,
transportation and storage, and
agriculture, forestry and fishing
sectors together accounted for
just over two thirds (67.8%) of all
fatal accidents at work and just
over half (50.2%) of all serious
accidents. More than one in four
(26.1%) fatal accidents at work in
the EU-27 in 2009 took place
within the construction sector,
while the manufacturing sector
had the next highest share
(16.1%)1.
Language and cultural
barriers to communication
and training. At most
workplaces workers have to
work in a team. Workers are
dependent from each other for
their safety at work and their
activity can have serious
consequences for all other
workers. In such a case it is of
the utmost importance that
newcomers are accepted and
not isolated from their
colleagues. But, if the
communication is hindered, they
will find it difficult to adapt to
the local culture. Moreover,
training related to the impact of
their activity on health and
safety at the workplace is often
missing, for cost reasons and
because of the temporary nature
of their work.
Migrant workers often work a
lot of overtime and/or are in
poor health. Evidence
gathered by several European
studies confirms the segregation
of migrant workers into certain
occupations and activity sectors
that feature the worst working
conditions in terms of wages
and working hours. Migrant
workers often work long hours,
unsocial shifts and are less likely
Note from the editor
—————
1. http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/
Health_and_safety_at_work_statistics
to have holidays or sick leaves. It
is also reported that migrant
workers do heavier, more
monotonous and more dangerous
work, at a higher work pace, and
that they work more often below
their qualification level2. The
topic is complicated by the
varying definitions of ‘migrants’,
an absence of robust statistics,
and figures that do not cover the
‘invisible’ part of the mobile
workers in the EU3.
The subject articles in this issue of
CLR-News have a broader scope than
just health & safety. Both the article
on Portuguese workers and the
contribution on Russia and Italy give
insightful information on the lives
and work abroad of migrants. Based
on talks with construction workers
we can gain a glimpse into the work
and time pressure to which migrant
workers are exposed. The
contributions also illustrate their
motives and the struggle to survive. I
can recommend this fascinating and
valuable work of the respective
authors. We have the usual reports
and reviews, this time topical
contributions, but not directly
related to the main subject.
And, of course we will again
welcome your critical remarks and
future contributions.
CLR News 2/2014 7
Note from the editor
—————
2. https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/literature_reviews/migrant_workers
3. https://osha.europa.eu/en/priority_groups/migrant_workers
CLR News 2/2014
8
PORTUGUESE CONSTRUCTION WORKERS
IN SPAIN: SITUATED PRACTICES AND
TRANSNATIONAL CONNECTIONS IN THE
EUROPEAN FIELD OF CONSTRUCTION
(2003-2013)
For a short period of time the presence, so imposing if transi-
tory, of Portuguese workers on building sites in Spain, ap-
peared as a symptomatic and exemplar expression of the con-
temporary situation in the European construction sector. Mar-
ket integration and free movement of persons and services
were more than expressions of economic terminology here,
apparently being concretely translated into the emergence
and growing exchange between Portugal and Spain in the
construction sector. Around 2003 and 2008, a mass of approxi-
mately 90,000 Portuguese construction workers officially la-
boured in the Spanish construction projects (other sources,
attempting to calculate in addition the number of workers
without any kind of registration, refer to 120,000 workers).
Often commuting via weekly or fortnightly trips between
their workplaces in Spain, above all in the Galicia, Madrid and
Basque regions, and their places of residence in Portugal
(concentrated, in social and economic terms, in peripheral
areas, such as the region of Vale do Sousa), these workers
seemed to constitute a particular case of transnational migra-
tion space (Faist, 2006; Levitt and Jaworsky, 2007) for the con-
temporary European construction sector. Suddenly, however,
this wave of workers in transit started to dissipate when the
first unmistakable signs of a prolonged crisis in the Spanish
construction sector were felt. From 2007 to 2008, the influx of
Portuguese workers to Spain fell from 27,178 to 16,876, with
a particular impact on the construction sector, whose propor-
tion of the total in the same period fell from 46% to 39%
meanwhile (Pinho and Pires, 2013). Of those workers who
passed through Spain, only about 20,000 appear to have been
rooted in that country; the remainder extended their migra-
Subject
articles
Bruno Monteiro
- Instituto de
Sociologia,
Universidade do
Porto
CLR News 2/2014 9
tion paths, transferring themselves to other work contexts
promising employment (Angola, France and UK, among oth-
ers) or, simply, returned to their even more economically de-
pressed Portuguese villages and towns.
The traces of such movements were, however, fragile, being
virtually invisible in terms of institutional registration. The
instruments of statistical classification and monitoring were
frankly unable to record, other than imperfectly, the move-
ments of workers, since their legal or professional situation
cannot always be fully clarified by resorting to traditional in-
dicators. If the predominant scholarship is usually technically
competent to register them in terms of people flows or eco-
nomic balances, it is not always able to realize this on the
ground. At the same time, it shows a tenacious insistence on
avoiding precarious working populations like construction
workers. Indeed, despite the continued relevance of the con-
struction sector in Portugal, there remains a certain degree of
negligence regarding research on the work context, with im-
portant exceptions however in the 1990s (Freire, 1991; Pinto,
1999; Queiroz, 2003). Such considerations led to a research
strategy, which we will later explain in detail that facilitates
the capture of both territorial movements and the personal
and collective experiences of construction workers on the
ground.
1. The emergence of the commuting migration to
Spain.
The crisis situation that emerged in Portugal in the 2000s, evi-
dent from the slowing down of the business cycle and convul-
sion of the political and economic system and culminating in
recourse to external sources of financing, has had a particular
impact on the area of the Sousa Valley region. Here, the num-
ber of unemployed workers grew by 150% between 2001 and
2006 (Monteiro and Queirós, 2009). The rapid and intense
growth in unemployment was only the most visible expression
of the loss of competitiveness of traditional industries in the
region (textiles and clothing, footwear, furniture, etc.). These
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
10
segments of the local economy (which, whilst sustained by a
workforce with low wages and low skills, were, in contrast,
characterized by the incipient though reluctant integration of
innovation and technology into the production process), were
hit hard by the growth in international competition and the
liberalisation of European and world trade. Meanwhile, the
unemployment rate continued to grow steadily, coming in
2012 to skim 21% in some municipalities - though, in 2001, it
only slightly exceeded 4% (IEFP, Unemployment Monthly Re-
ports, 2001 and 2012). At the time, local politicians even used
a ‘calamity’ vocabulary, such as ‘social alarm’, to characterise
the social situation of the Vale do Sousa region.
Simultaneously, the paralysis in the construction industry in
Portugal (which, incidentally, was another major employer in
the Sousa Valley region), locally created by speculation in
housing values and by easy access to bank credit (especially
after an interest rate rise), together with the impasse in in-
vestment in public works, served to magnify the situation. It
enhanced the economic weaknesses of the Sousa Valley re-
gion and made it even more difficult to find a replacement
job for these workers, whose educational weaknesses in turn
complicated any occupational change. The consequence was
the creation of a massive contingent workforce, without occu-
pation and under the pressure of supplementary economic
constraints, for instance, to pay back frequent bank loans ne-
gotiated for the purchase of a house or vehicle (Monteiro and
Queirós 2010).
In turning to migration as a choice, not only possible but also
reasonable, the previously internalized tendency of these
workers was to rely on their social capital. They were usually
already in contact with local communities with highly devel-
oped and compelling means of entry into manual jobs, they
remained connected to family and community experiences
and networks of migration (some going back to the 1960),
and they had a strong concern to sustain a positive personal
and customary image. Not only was their preferred system of
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 11
work characterised - via their biographical trajectories - by
arduous tasks, low wages and prolonged immersion in infor-
mality, but this also came to be seen as the priority for invest-
ment and reward or the primary means to access the universe
of consumption and the universe of symbolic virtues
(Monteiro, 2014). Similarly, the long-standing and close con-
tact with family and neighbourhood experiences of migra-
tion, as well as access to entry-points and gatekeepers for
construction companies or networks of migration, turned mi-
gration into a plausible future, in particular in rendering the
territorial and social transitions usually entailed (such as legal
and material precariousness, change in occupation, or family
isolation), less onerous - in all senses of the word.
Until approximately 2008, the construction sector in Spain
experienced an exceptional period, buoyed up by the injec-
tion of public funds and privileged access to bank credit, cre-
ating a feasible source of employment for workers from the
Sousa Valley region as soon as the set of intermediaries char-
acteristic of the construction sector began to operate on the
ground. Prone to link shortages in the construction sector
with the dispositions of workers, these constitute a complex
swarm of micro and small subcontractors, promoting job an-
nouncements, temporary work agencies, and even illegal or
paralegal networks of recruitment. In order to achieve con-
vergence between demand and supply, concepts that syn-
thetically express composite and complex social formations,
these means of assembly, rather than the supposedly sponta-
neous equilibrium of the market, were crucial. The compati-
bility between the propensities and interests incorporated in
workers on the one hand, and the objective system of oppor-
tunities and demands that encompass the transnational con-
struction labour market on the other, was significantly pro-
moted by this web of intermediaries, which simultaneously
compete and cooperate among themselves to form a floating,
ready-to-use and precarious proletariat (Bosch and Philips
2003).
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
12
Around 2003 and 2004, the situation of posted workers in
Spain remained largely ‘unregistered, unnoticed and unmoni-
tored’ (Byrne, 2011: 25). According to Justin Byrne, Portu-
guese construction workers, who at the time constituted the
most important contingent among posted workers, found (in
generic terms) a triple level of employability. First, a small seg-
ment of these workers was able to find employment at the
‘high-end’ of the professional scale, being placed in technical-
ly more skilled occupations, with higher wages and in fre-
quent demand from Spanish companies. However, this situa-
tion did not arise solely or even mainly because of their expe-
rience or expertise, but was also a consequence of the
‘willingness of Portuguese tradesman to work for longer
hours and less money than their Spanish counterparts’, on the
one hand, and because the ‘employer’s social costs are signifi-
cantly lower in Portugal than in Spain, representing a further
saving in overall labour costs’, on the other (ibid.: 28). Second-
ly, the workers were able to enter a ‘low-end’ segment,
‘involving both tradesmen and labourers formally employed
by English sub-contractors’, which often promotes, even when
fully operational on a legal basis, ‘labour market segmenta-
tion and social dumping‘ (ibid: 29). Thirdly, there were the
workers who participated at the ‘bottom end’ of migrant la-
bour, where transactions founded in ‘systematic and contin-
ued illegal, fraudulent practices regarding conditions
(working and living conditions), evasion of social security and
tax obligations, or health and safety standards and
norms’ (ibid: 29) were common. This shows quite clearly that,
contrary to assumptions of homogeneity or innateness accom-
panying so many interpretations of workers groups, labelling
them with a common national or ethnic attribute (‘the Portu-
guese’), the same category of migrants (‘Portuguese workers’,
‘posted workers’) hides a plurality of personal profiles and a
beam of previous biographic trajectories.
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 13
Subject articles
Box 1 :
The construction sector in Portugal (2001-2013)
After reaching its zenith between 2000 and 2001, the
Portuguese construction industry has since faced a trend
towards stagnation. However, in 2012, the construction
sector still accounted for nearly 12% of the number of
firms, 11% of employment and 7% of turnover from non-
financial corporations in Portugal; the sector was, in fact,
the second most important in terms of the number of
companies and the third in terms of turnover and
employment (BdP, 2014). Even if fragmentation is a
prominent feature of the construction industry - populated
by a cloud of small and medium enterprises where
traditional technological and organisational characteristics
continue to prevail (for instance, a strong incidence of
informality, labour intensity or customary management
formats), it is necessary to note the process of
concentration into conglomerates and the renewal of the
protagonists of the business (fusions or mergers,
bankruptcies, foreign acquisitions of Portuguese companies
and Portuguese acquisitions of foreign companies). Quite
contrary to the general trend, the number of companies
with more than 250 employees increased from 64 to 97
between 2005 and 2010. If the turnover of the whole
sector grew timidly from 32,917 to 35,124 M€ (6.7%), the
turnover of companies with more than 250 employees rose
from 6,841 to 11,453 M€ (67.4%) in the same period. In
particular, it was found that the significance of the nine
largest companies for the total turnover of the sector grew
in the meantime from 12.6% (4,140 M€) to 20.3 % (6883
M€) (Rosa, 2013: 309-312). We must also note the
significant internationalisation of the (geographical) circle
of intervention of these companies (in 2010, 59.8% of the
turnover of the top nine companies was attributable to
foreign markets) and changes in the composition and
strategies of the enterprises themselves, such as the
horizontal diversification of their areas of activity (in 2010,
CLR News 2/2014
14
2. The emergence and functioning of the Europe-
an construction field
The emergence and institutionalisation of a European politi-
cal and economic space (Fligstein, 2008: 8-18), in which indi-
viduals and collective actors compete and cooperate
(communitarian programmes and agencies, nation states, po-
litical parties, companies, organisations for the representation
of collective interests, etc.), gradually promoted the emer-
gence and consolidation of a cohesive European field of con-
struction1. On the basis of their partially converging interests
in present and future European integration, such individual or
collective actors compete to maintain or modify the distribu-
Subject articles
—————
1. As we use it here, the concept of economic field recalls the system of concepts
articulated to foresee the economy as an order of action that is internally struc-
tured through the invisible and elastic relationships of competition and cooperati-
on between its participants (national and local political bodies, companies, workers,
interest representation organizations, etc.). These participants converge, in practical
and symbolic terms, with the form of value created, traded and accumulated within
such an order but are, at the same time, unequally empowered with opportunities
and resources and, therefore, specifically oriented in accordance to them (Bourdieu,
2001; Fligstein, 2008).
20% to 50% of the turnover of the five largest companies
was attributable to areas outside construction activities in a
strict sense) or the importance of their links to financial
initiatives (ibid.: 115). Symptoms such as the tendency
towards the centralisation of capital or the externalisation of
execution together with the centralisation of conception and
management activities (Rosa, 2013: 322-323), appear to have
completed the process of inter- and intra-corporate reshaping
of the Portuguese construction sector. In this new century,
the number of construction workers in Portugal has been
enormously compressed: just between the third quarter of
2011 and the same period of 2013 almost 150,000 Portuguese
construction workers disappeared from the statistical records
according to the figures provided by the Eurostat
(respectively, 436,400 and 283,800 workers).
CLR News 2/2014 15
tion of economic opportunities, the structures of political reg-
ulation and the balance of power that prevail in the simplisti-
cally called single market. The transformation of the Europe-
an project, which led to a dominance of neoliberal concep-
tions pointing towards a progressive universalisation of the
economic market principle (Hooghe, 2004: 118-141), had an
exceptional impact within the field of European construction,
where strong economic and political pressures powering the
movement of workers and businesses at the European level
were felt (Cremers, 2004: 7-13; Lillie and Greer, 2007: 551-
581). For the construction sector, changing political equilibria
promoted corporate strategies that, among others, intro-
duced: economic and political measures liberalising the regu-
latory frameworks for wages and rights at European and na-
tional levels; the extensive use of subcontracting, outsourcing
and inter-enterprise cooperation practices; or the invention
and widespread application of solutions for the
‘flexibilisation’ of the labour force, such as innovative forms
of temporary or precarious employment, the fracturing of
collective bargaining procedures and agreements between
the social partners, or the increasing posting of workers across
countries (Druker and Croucher, 2000).
The growing integration of the Portuguese construction sec-
tor in this European plan recently found further encourage-
ment in the depressing situation in Portugal, as the circle of
operation of construction companies and workers apparently
expanded until a broader European scope was achieved. On
one side, the growing value of Portuguese migration, which
continues to involve mainly workers without high academic
qualifications and is associated with low-skilled jobs
(construction, hospitality, cleaning), surpassed, in 2013, even
the massive flows of the 1960s (in the past year, there were
121,460 Portuguese leaving the country). For its part, Portu-
guese construction companies in the meantime saw the im-
portance of the external market for their turnover and invest-
ments to accrue (see Box 1 for more precise data). Even if
these appear as episodic clues, they are beneficially integra-
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
16
ted when considered in relation to the concept of a European
field of construction, a concept that helps to overcome the
hermetic conception of national states and markets, avoiding
the well-known methodological nationalism (Fitzgerald,
2004). Thereafter, this concept helps to replace mechanical
conceptions of the functioning of economic and political insti-
tutions (even if at the transnational level) with a relational
conception that sees them as an interdependent system of
relations of force conditioning and being conditioned
through the transnational strategies of the protagonists
(Levitt and Glick-Schiller, 2007).
The movement of Portuguese workers to Spain cannot be ful-
ly explained by isolating and inquiring into just one location
or protagonist (for instance, conducting research on a subcon-
tractor, the community of departure, or the construction site
in Spain). The social experience of Portuguese workers is
formed around a constellation of places, geographically sepa-
rated but socially interconnected, which simultaneously co-
produces the phenomenon of commuting migration. The pol-
ycentric character of this phenomenon and the mutual rela-
tionships that unite its social and physical locations, led us,
therefore, to conduct a multi-sited ethnographic study
(Marcus, 2005) from 2008 to 2013, that has sought to encom-
pass simultaneously the communities of departure in Portu-
gal, located precisely in the aforementioned Vale do Sousa
region, and in the communities of arrival in Spain (or, more
specifically, in Galicia). Such an option has, therefore, allowed
for the observation of connections and situations that conglo-
bate the multiplicity of economic and political forces operat-
ing across European transnational space, supplemented by
the ethnographic registration of commonplace transactions
(following the suggestion of Levitt and Glick-Schiller, 2005).
The work was completed through a series of interviews with
workers and employers in the construction sector that, along
with interviews with employers and Portuguese and Spanish
trade union representatives as well as policymakers from both
countries, allowed us to reconstruct the collective views on
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 17
migration that its principal players hold. Finally, we took into
account the corpus of information on the construction sector
produced in Portugal and Spain between 2001 and 2013, in
particular statistical series of public and private organisations
and press reports.
3. The everyday life of Portuguese construction
workers in Spain.
From 2003 onwards, the emergence of a mobile workforce in
the construction sector was noteworthy, characterised by ter-
ritorial and social commuting across national borders, i.e., a
contingent of workers with a pattern of existence whereby
the weekdays were spent working in Spain and the weekends
in Portugal (Monteiro and Queirós, 2010). Under these dipolar
circumstances, a peculiar way of organising social experience
for these workers can be seen to have arisen, transforming
them, through the junction between erratic itineraries and
cascade subcontracting, into a ‘nomadic’ population (Pinto,
1999: 27). One of the features of these commuting migrants is
the pattern of double disconnection with regard to their so-
ciability (Monteiro and Queirós, 2009), in sharp contrast with
traditional Portuguese migration characterised by a
‘relationship of double connection’ (terms of Albertino Gon-
çalves). In Spain, the triangle ‘site-house-restaurant’ practical-
ly monopolises workers’ everyday cycles. On the other hand,
meetings with Spanish locals tend to be avoided, due to the
lack of linguistic competence of many Portuguese workers, as
well as the feeling of inferiority that these workers experi-
ence as ‘foreigners’ and - what is more important - as
‘trowels’, which tends to turn these meetings, if they happen,
into troubling events (‘shame’, ‘they do not respect us’).
When expressing their inhibitions and uneasiness in encoun-
ters with other persons (supervisors, inspectors and native),
migrant workers seem to provide the very proof of evidence
that initially justified the prejudices heaped on them
(‘incompetent’, ‘rough’, ‘incomprehensible’). The constant
exposure to a situation of negation, where one is ‘a complete
stranger, linguistically inept, economically insecure and social-
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18
ly stigmatised’ (Jackson, 2008: 80), may in some cases lead
them to offer spontaneously a negative image of themselves.
In fact, the loss of social value surrounding them, in reality
due to the situation of social and economic deprivation in
which they live, is exactly what promotes their loss of public
visibility and appreciation. At the same time, an impoverish-
ment is also to be observed in the occasions necessary for re-
newing personal and collective links in the communities of
origin in Portugal (‘I avoid going to the cafe’, ‘there are peo-
ple who do not even know me’), resulting in their interactions
just being confined to the domestic sphere (‘I stay at home’).
Another feature of their lives is the logic of seeking to accel-
erate economic earnings while in Spain (‘make money fast’,
‘take advantage while it exists’). For workers who must face
the shortness, seasonality and uncertainty of periods of work
in the construction sector and its various social and physical
vicissitudes (‘bad weather’, ‘bankruptcy’, ‘accidents’), the
widespread existence of remuneration schemes connected
with the intensity and extension of work (‘work at an hourly
base’, ‘extra hours’) promotes, as a consequence, competition
between workers (‘teams’ that compete with ‘teams’) and
their atomisation (‘prizes’ connected with the personal per-
formances), which creates, paradoxically, the impression of
fairness since wages vary in the same proportion as the labour
applied (‘the more you work, the more you earn’). Moreover,
these schemes tend to promote self-exploitation through
overwork (‘work till you drop’). We noticed the occurrence of
bulimic patterns of behaviour among Portuguese workers, in
which the extent and intensity of work (‘overtime’, ‘fast-
paced’) merges with the confinement of personal and collec-
tive movement and consumption (‘do not spend’, ‘to save as
much as possible’, ‘not go out’). Under a situation of relega-
tion (‘in Portugal there is no way’), where the physical and
social precariousness of construction is coupled with systems
of contracting and payment closely linked to a strategy of
compressing labour costs (Cremers, 2009), the compliance of
the worker - apparently voluntarily but strongly penalised –
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with company impositions in terms of deadlines and produc-
tivity is only furthered. As this occurs with moves to outsourc-
ing and subcontracting, companies seek to ease their capacity
to react to market fluctuations (Bosch and Philips, 2003: 3).
However, it was also noteworthy that the work had a positive
component for workers. Without ignoring or deceiving them-
selves about the violent nature of their work (‘hard work’, ‘it
drains you’), extending 10 to 14 hours a day and permanently
exposing them to significant danger factors, these workers
seemed to recognise virile and virtuous values to the work
(‘it's not for everyone’, ‘you must have padding’). It was
turned into a series of tests and trials that allowed them to
develop physically and morally (‘to win strength’, ‘fulfil’) and
consisted of ‘practices of personal integrity’ (expression of E.
Dunber Moodie) that supported a sense of self-worth for
workers in potentially injurious and poisonous circumstances.
In these cases, it is possible to convert personal sufferings into
electable symptoms. Rather than being just the product of
customs and traditions of the trade, these behaviours and
feelings sponsored the accumulation of symbolic and practical
resources (‘respect’, ‘know-how’), allowing the worker, under
certain conditions (‘luck’, ‘it is necessary that the foreman in
charge likes you’), to be promoted up the hierarchy of the
construction site and possible progression within his occupa-
tional career. Seeing the construction site as a spatially cir-
cumscribed configuration of relations of power (Elias, 2004),
and not just as a functional unit, it is possible to understand
that workers, however short their margins of freedom may
be, can avail themselves to practical manoeuvres where their
investment and obedience (‘always available’, ‘do what we
are asked to do ‘) are exchanged for employers’ favours and
rewards (‘gave us respect’, ‘gave us a better job’).
A third feature we wish to emphasise precisely encompasses
the double truth of work (Bourdieu 2003: 190). On construc-
tion sites, work is a circuit for the consumption, conservation
and valorisation of the worker’s body (‘effort’, ‘to gain experi-
Subject articles
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20
ence’). On the one hand, the body is the worker’s principal, or
sometimes unique, source of economic and symbolic resource,
functioning as a reservoir for the technical and ethical values
of workers (‘strength’, ‘skill’, ‘respect’). Ensuring access to pay-
ment, work also permits participation in a process of virile
and virtuous aggrandisement (‘to become a man’). However,
the worker's body easily becomes risk capital in literal terms,
not only because it is subjected to progressive usury, but also
because it can easily suffer a sudden crash in its valuation
(‘accident’). Very frequently, construction work can easily be-
come demeaning and humiliating (‘be a workhorse’, ‘a slave’)
(for a similar phenomenon, this time in the French context,
see Jounin, 2008). At the same time, workers themselves are
aware that their bodies are often publicly seen and regarded
as vile or dangerous objects (‘the Portuguese people are seen
as hard people’). Through the pride or shame that Portuguese
workers feel whenever they are confronted with institutional
sanctions or interpersonal opinions of those with authority to
judge their manners and attitudes in Spain (Holmes, 2006),
they can end up perceiving themselves as necessarily belong-
ing to the place that they actually occupy in the hierarchy of
occupations and statutes of construction sites (‘I was born to
be only such a guy’). Accordingly, a curious naturalisation of
their bodily events (such as accidents or involvement in physi-
cally-demanding tasks) can creep in, as these are therefore
seen as complementary or inherent to the innate behaviour
of workers.
Quite ironically, whenever they escape the usual silence and
in order to avoid (‘shut up myself’), refuse or resist (‘yelling’)
such imputations of inferiority, their reactions tend, through
their very assertiveness (‘to make noise’, ‘use the hand’), to
turn into signs of confirmation of the initial presumptions of
inaptitude and violence that are hung on these workers
(‘violent’, ‘ignorant’). When they respond with words or ac-
tions, sometimes in exuberant ways, to the implication that
they are technically or intellectually incapable, their appear-
ance sometimes corresponds precisely to preconceptions
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 21
about which they felt initially offended. For instance, when
Portuguese workers try to show themselves as valuable work-
ers, they usually tend to assume imprudent and temerarious
behaviours (‘working with high speed’, ‘going there where the
Spanish don’t go’, ‘without fear’), which, in turn, only amounts
to a justification of the initial conjectures concerning their
deficits (‘they don’t think about safety’, ‘they aren’t careful’).
4. Alien pains - experiences of negation, combus-
tion and naturalisation among Portuguese con-
struction workers
We will now try to understand the consequences that the pre-
carious situation of Portuguese workers in Spain has for their
use and representation in relation to safety per se. It is neces-
sary to emphasise the importance of the ‘somatic cul-
ture’ (Corbin, 1991) to construction working practices, the im-
plicit and embodied schema of thought and action continuous-
ly reproduced through the mutual appropriation occurring
between the worker and his work, operating without any con-
scious calculus or prevision. The worker appropriates simulta-
neously the abilities and conventions, the routines and
rhythms that are necessary for the proper and efficient perfor-
mance of the work (‘habituation’), while he is, on the other
hand, appropriated by the work itself, integrating himself, un-
der the pressure of the hierarchy or by his own interests, in the
collective body of the construction site (‘obedience’,
‘discipline’, ‘do not create problems’). The site is an institution
with an intrinsic structure of opportunities and constraints
that, because they reflect a hierarchy of effort, prestige and
remuneration, are constantly subjected to the convergent
trends of workers, technicians and managers to maintain it, or,
on the contrary, to transform it. Such an imbrication between
worker and work seems to support the naturalisation of condi-
tions, impositions and obligations, which, however crude these
may be, tend to be sensed as inherent to the proper (and even
virtuous) execution and completion of work (Pinto, 1996).
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22
Although tolerating a wide variety of personal and collective
situations, construction work generally assumes the character
of a regime of combustion of bodies, which the strongly pre-
carious circumstances of commuting migration appear to
worsen (Monteiro, 2014). The long working hours (usually 10
to 16 hours per day), perilous and heavy movements, re-
proaches and pressure from above, the aspiration to a premi-
um connected with meeting deadlines (and the threat of pen-
alties for their extension) - all these aspects show literally that
‘work comes out from the body’. Paulo F. had narrowly es-
caped (‘five minutes more and it was me who was dying
there’) an accident that killed his co-worker in the under-
ground works in Madrid. A few months later Paulo F. would
be the victim on another Spanish site. When we interviewed
him, he was still recovering from the accident, hoping to re-
turn as soon as possible to Spain. That would not happen
again: restricted by the accident scars and pains, Paulo F.
would, after a long period seeking employment, resign him-
self to a job as a night watchman in Portugal.
BM: How did you have an accident?
PF: I was working in a pool and I hitched my pants on an
iron and I turned down. It happened… Well, it was an ac-
cident! And I was always warning the others to pass there
with care, because of an iron that was there at the top...
And voilà, the boss stopped caring for me... It is like that,
it is only necessary who's here, who's not here is not
[necessary], and as I was no longer useful to the company:
“You have to find your own way!” I had to look for insur-
ance, had to walk to deal with the paperwork that I never
thought was necessary... (...) My life went backwards!
Turned completely! I stood without receiving [any mon-
ey]. I went to the recovery clinic every day, two sessions
per day. I wanted to get out of there; I wanted to get it
over with as quickly as possible. Until I reached a point
that the doctor told me I had deformed muscles after pull-
ing them so much in the physiotherapy...
BM: Did you want to recover quickly?
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PF: I wanted, I wanted to leave that shit to see if I could
work - but I cannot. I still went to work two days as a trial
to see if I could handle it, but... When I jumped down off
a ladder, I felt that something was defective.
BM: The boss's attitude changed towards you then?
PF: Very, very much. I was a bit disappointed… You know
that life is like that anyway. One cannot expect anything.
One cannot expect from the bosses one thing... Anyway, I
was for him just a way to make money, from the moment
that I am no longer useable, it is obvious that he will no
longer give me importance. This is an example as there
are many. This is so, you are working in a company, you
are a machine, you are a way to make money... You have
to give money to win to the boss, right? From the mo-
ment you cease to do that... You stop being useful to the
company, you are disposable! Another one is found!
BM: You told me that you had a good relationship with
that guy in Spain…
PF: This is the case, it is the kind of relationship that you
know that it is good because it is cynical, it's a cynical rela-
tionship you know that. You know that he is using you,
are you being used, do you understand? Only you’ll use
him also, in the way you can... After the accident, every-
thing is going well, we have lunch, he paid for the lunch,
everything is very beautiful. But we are coming to the
end, he knew what I wanted and he fucked me...I pre-
ferred that he had not paid the lunch, I said to him, "I
would prefer that you had said the shits in my face," and
he laughed, because he is the one who wins, this is it. We
feel discouraged a bit.
It is the critical moments, such as those that follow accidents,
which make clear the nature of the superfluity (‘a number’, ‘a
machine’, ‘is disposable’) of the worker who no longer meets
the economic requirements of companies that employ or re-
cruit them to other companies. The obsolescence that fol-
lowed the accident of Paulo F. becomes for him unbearable
not only because he depends upon the remuneration, but
Subject articles
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24
also since he has an image of himself as an applied and hon-
est worker (‘I worked with effort’, ‘I lived for the work’).
These situations, beyond having the nature of a corrosive of-
fence for workers (‘you are losing the willingness to work’),
forces us to consider the long-term costs of construction work
(Bosch and Philips, 2003: 10), in particular those that follow
the return of the employee to their country of origin. In a se-
quence of implications, accentuating or at least replicating
the situation of initial asymmetry between the countries of
origin and the receiving-countries that made migration prob-
able, since receiving countries usually have the possibility to
use a workforce whose breeding and training costs were at
least initially supported by the countries of origin (Burawoy,
1979), we see the mechanism of externalisation of costs oper-
ating again in the future. Though the receiving country meets
its social obligations (retirement pensions, for example), the
worker who returns later to his country of origin will rely on
its institutions, so easing the political and financial responsi-
bility of the receiving country for him.
5. Faster, harder – and hazardous. The immediate
consequences of the rhetoric and practices of
flexibilisation
Extremely sensible to fluctuations in the business cycle, con-
struction companies have always tried to strengthen their ca-
pacity for reaction and response to the factors of volatility
that afflict the sector (Bosch and Philips, 2003). Although re-
luctant in principle to adopt solutions such as mechanisation
or prefabrication of the production process, the sector has
followed the trend of a number of other industries with a
strong manufacturing character, consisting, in particular, of
increasingly applying means to mobilise the workforce
through a combination of intensified work rhythms and de-
mands and weakened employment conventions and guaran-
tees (Balazs and Faguier, 1996; Green and McIntosh, 2001;
Hatzfeld, 2004).
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 25
The interview with Hélder S. allows us to highlight the conse-
quences that arise in the immediate workplace from the inter-
twining of compressed time, pulverisation of workers’ legal
and organisational links (especially, with the conversion of
workers into single ‘service companies’ or ‘temporary work-
ers’), and physical exposure to risk, or, inversely, commitment
to safety codes and conducts. The compression of time, similar
to the sequence of demands concerning labour costs down
the cascade of subcontracting companies, is sometimes
fuelled through the tendering system between companies
seeking to gain public and private construction contracts (in
which the shortening of deadlines has the characteristic of an
advantage over competitors) and sometimes through acceler-
ating the pace of work in the name of productivity superim-
posed by the management logic that rules over a significant
portion of the European construction sector. On the other
side, the same management logic explains the extensive re-
course to subcontracting practices that has slimmed down the
connection between companies and workers through the cre-
ation of multiple legal and institutional intermediaries (e.g.
temporary work agencies).
BM: That is to say that the inspection of the Ministry of
Labour and the company’s own inspection have different
attitudes?
HS: Yes, the supervisor is there all day to see if you are
complying with the safety standards or not.
BM: What does he do often?
HS: He draws your attention… You're cutting with the
trimming machine, if you don't have the glasses, he is able
to draw your attention: "Look, at the second or third
time, you'll go a day or two to home". For example, I was
working in Y [in the facilities of a large oil company], if
you were hunted working without gloves, without the
glasses, without the vest or so, you have to pay a fine.
BM: You as a worker, and not your company?
HS: I myself, since it was me who was against the law.
They give you the standards of that work, you have to
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26
comply, if you don't... In this case I infringed the law of
passing over the [safety] net to the other side. I was pun-
ished [personally], it was not my company, I was a month
at home without working.
BM: But you told me that the work could only be done
that way...
HS: It could be done only that way, but we've been doing
that way without anyone seeing. If they leave the net
there, we cannot put in the tubes. (...) They wanted us to
hire a crane to hoist the pipes there. [The problem is] Only
you will not call a crane, paying five or six hundred euros
for a crane to do a job that you're going to do in five or
ten minutes, right?
BM: And what does the company tell you in these cases?
HS: In this case, my boss said, "Were you hooked to the
belt?" And I: "I was." [So, the boss said:] "So what can I
do? I can do nothing." Had I not been engaged with the
belt or so, he was able to dismiss me, it was normal, but as
I was hooked with the belt, it was the only thing that
safety said: that I was violating a law, the one that says I
could not pass the net to the other side. The inspector
sanctioned me during a month. The boss then said: "If I
can put you on another work, you go to another work,
otherwise you'll have to endure a month at home." And
I'll be waiting to see. (...)
BM: But if you're going to have to use all the rules and if
the rules make you take more time and give more compli-
cation, this is not harmful when the works have a dead-
line to be finished?
HS: Sure it is. In this case, we have three or four months to
finish this work, if we were to meet the standards as all
want safety, you were there two years to make that work.
You cannot climb a pipe by a rope, you cannot climb with-
out being hooked, you cannot walk from one side to the
other of the estanteria [pronounced in Spanish] without
being hitched... (Author’s note: Hélder S. was no longer
called back to work for that company. He remains unem-
ployed.)
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In Spain, the legislative initiative to bind companies legally to
occurrences that happen to firms or workers that they sub-
contract (Byrne and van der Meer, 2003) has encouraged the
creation of a preventive system of fines and punishments that
Helder S. refers to in the interview excerpt transcribed above.
However, the legal liability of the company can be reconciled
with institutional punishment and worker (self) blame. The
changes that the schemes of ‘servicealizing’ and subcontract-
ing the construction workforce have brought about (Druker
and Dupré, 1998), as a means of discipline and utilisation, are
based on the assumption that employees act only in their own
interests and direction. These changes have supported the
passage from a paradigm that made the employer responsible
over the employees - because the subordination implied by
the wage system carried with it a (legal and ethical) guardian-
ship over the workers (Jounin, 2006: 77, 80) - to a regime of
production that incorporates preventive punishment and the
personalisation of infringements in parallel with the increas-
ing individualisation and casualization of contracts and wag-
es.
The combination of new and old forms of precariousness that
pervade the construction sector seems to compromise the ap-
plication of safety parameters. The suspension or erosion of
collective agreements was accompanied by the ‘flexibilisation’
of work contracts, the erosion of social protection (with the
privatisation of health insurance, for instance), or the lower-
ing of wages (Cremers and Janssen, 2006). It is also possible to
include among these changes the intensified and personalised
prescription and evaluation of workers’ objectives and out-
puts. Such circumstances seem propitious for an enervated
encounter between workers and safety procedures. Whenever
the obligation to meet deadlines, results and standards weigh
acutely over single workers, contractual and remuneration
schemes demand of them an accelerated pace and longer
working hours, thereby excluding or minimising the need for
any intentional intervention from the company. At the same
time, as the system encourages them to better their col-
Subject articles
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28
leagues or other work-teams in order to obtain or maintain
the opportunity of working for that contractor, it also impels
subcontractors, subjected to reciprocal and ongoing compari-
sons and evaluations under a common contractor, to compete
with each other extensively. Sometimes, such a constellation
of factors impels workers to a seemingly voluntary violation
of security procedures, contrary to the express recommenda-
tions of companies, the official safety regulations or even the
customary rules of the trade (‘knowing how to do things with
common-sense,’ ‘do not run at work’). Principles that previ-
ously correlated just in economic terms with the logic of free
enterprise and liberalism appear to extend to the realm of
safety: it is now expected that the worker himself takes on
board under his own private initiative the hazards he or she is
confronted with.
Without questioning the preventative nature of surveillance
and enforcement of safety rules enacted by companies, or the
sincerity of philanthropic convictions of those employers who
apply them, as they individually punish the worker, they force
him to hide transgressions and comply with the opacity of the
construction sites’ everyday routines. Under these circum-
stances, workers strive to camouflage or simulate behaviour
(‘at the meeting I said it was all okay’) that only mimics offi-
cial regulations, or to regard ‘the inspectors’ as intruders and
ultimately as opponents of their (more or less precarious) pro-
fessional situation. So, workers, when they anticipate the pen-
alties or constraints that could be created by the intervention
of safety inspection, seek to voluntarily evade or circumvent
safety procedures. Either they ignore the advantages that
could be drawn from compliance with safety rules or they do
not understand the technical procedures for applying safety
regulations at work. The existence of mechanisms that rely on
the preventive and individualised punishment of workers
means that transgressions in safety rules - by which the acci-
dent is, so to speak, the corollary - are presumed to rest only
on behavioural aspects, that is, as a consequence of implied
worker’ idiosyncrasy. In this sense, the managerial logic that
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CLR News 2/2014 29
has individualised and ‘flexibilised’ wages and contracts ap-
pears to have contaminated the imposition of norms that
evaluate workers’ use and representation of safety rules and
equipment.
6. A final remark on the need to move beyond
the purely psychological, technical or individu-
alistic interpretations of safety use and repre-
sentation
When confronted with an unsafe situation apparently caused
by their own initiative, because it was they who ‘violated the
rules’ or ‘left out safety equipment’, workers may even as-
sume a sense of personal guilt – a conviction they share with a
vast range of specialists in work health and safety issues. Bear-
ing in mind that safety equipment has, however, its uses, bi-
ased less by the existence of psychological impairments or be-
haviour inspired by a certain ‘culture of risk’ than by the pro-
saic contexts of actual practice and power relations on site,
we can begin to understand the limitations (since the benefits
are already widely known) in initiatives that have recourse
only to pedagogical instruments to promote and raise aware-
ness among employees of compliance with equipment and
rules. Workers are not ‘ignorant’ or ‘impulsive’ as regards
safety matters; they are, rather, immersed in a system of in-
terdependences that transcends their boundaries of interven-
tion by demanding the accomplishment of urgent and una-
voidable routines and rhythms. Depending on the balance of
power and the continued interaction existing between politi-
cal actors, firms and workers, there are invisible and intangi-
ble pressures hanging over the building site that have very
palpable and visible consequences; the hierarchical and tech-
nical segmentation of the site, on its part, acts as a prism that
refracts the balance of power among the actors according to
its own specific and internal logic. Strong evidence exists that
the new epochal changes have promoted a trend towards
accelerating the pace of construction work and increasing
competition among companies (and workers themselves) for
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30
the acquisition, maintenance and completion of economic
opportunities. Altogether this has instigated a pressure on
labour costs and completion times and, thereby, furthered the
economic and social precariousness of contracting and bar-
gaining in the construction sector. Such principles are translat-
ed to site level, as the accounts of workers and ethnograph-
ical observations show us. The atomistic vision of workers,
isolating them from long-distance relationships of interde-
pendence connecting them to other economic and political
actors in the production of the social reality of the construc-
tion sector, usually fails to offer an explanation other than
cognitive limitations or (ir)rational behaviour.
Psychological and technical interpretations of the use and
representation of safety (‘ignorance’, ‘maladjustment of
equipment’, ‘greed’) appear to ignore the fact that workers’
professional capacities and ways of working are strongly con-
nected with a practical culture that is not easily changeable
through ideological inculcation and is deeply embedded. The
importance of work habits, which are internalised along the
biographical trajectory of workers through their continued
material and symbolical inclusion in particular contexts and
circumstances, needs to be taken into account. Only through
social and economic changes that effectively transform such
contexts and circumstances, strongly connected with the bal-
ance of power in the European construction field, would it be
possible to concretise legal and technical procedures already
endorsed by information campaigns and pedagogical initia-
tives. Even if there is strong evidence of the seemingly inten-
tional avoidance of work regulations by the very workers that
are supposed to be protected by them, safety equipment
needs to be more than a simple technicality but embedded in
the social context in which workers operate. Already in 1952,
Donald Roy observed that sometimes the concept of ‘cultural
drag’ could be more heuristic than the concept of ‘cultural
lag’ in explaining resistance to technological innovation
(1952: 442). Departing from the notion of somatic culture and
then relating workers’ practices to the system of power rela-
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 31
tions that structure, at the local site level as well as at the
transnational European economic space level, the everyday
reality of construction work, it is possible to pursue new ave-
nues of inquiry to understand the use and representation of
safety equipment and rules.
—————
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des travailleurs précaires des chantiers. Societés contemporaines. 70, 25-43.
 Levitt, P. and Jaworski, B. N. (2007). Transnational migration studies: past develop-
ments and future trends. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, 129-156.
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
32
 Lillie, N. and Greer, I. (2007). Industrial relations, migration, and neoliberal politics:
the case of the European construction sector. Politics & Society, 35(4), 551-581.
 Monteiro, B. and Queirós, J. (2009). Entre cá e lá. Notas de uma pesquisa sobre a
emigração para Espanha de operários portugueses da construção civil. Configura-
ções, 5-6, 1-23.
 Monteiro, B. and Queirós, J. (2010). Pela estrada fora.. In: j. M. Pinto e J. Queirós
(orgs.), Ir e voltar. Sociologia de uma colectividade local do Noroeste português
(1977-2007), Porto: Edições Afrontamento, pp.261-271.
 Pinho, F. and Pires, R. P. (2013). Espanha, Emigração Portuguesa por País, 1, Lisboa,
Observatório da Emigração, 20pp.
 Pinto, J. M. (1996), Contributos para uma análise dos acidentes de trabalho na
construção civil, Cadernos de Ciências Sociais, 15-16, 121-131.
 Rosa, E. (2013). Os grupos económicos e o desenvolvimento em Portugal no contex-
to da globalização. Lisboa: Página a Página.
 Roy, D. (1952). Quota Restriction and Goldbricking in a Machine Shop, American
Journal of Sociology, 57, 5, 420-450.
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 33
LABOUR MOBILITY IN CONSTRUCTION:
MIGRANT WORKERS’ STRATEGIES BE-
TWEEN INTEGRATION AND TURNOVER
The construction industry historically is characterised by high
levels of labour mobility favouring the recruitment of migrant
labour. In the EU migrant workers make up around 25% of
overall employment in the sector1 and similar if not higher
figures exist for the sector in Russia2. The geo-political chang-
es of the 1990s have had a substantial impact on migration
flows, expanding the pool of labour recruitment within and
from the post-socialist East but also changing the nature of
migration. The rise of temporary employment has raised con-
cerns about the weakness and isolation of migrant workers
and the concomitant risk of abuse3. Migrant workers though
cannot be reduced to helpless victims of state policies and
employers’ recruitment strategies. Findings of the research
presented here unveil how they meet the challenges of the
international labour market, the harshness of debilitating
working conditions and the difficult implications for their
family life choices.
Claudio
Morrison,
c.morrison@md
x.ac.uk
Devi Sacchetto,
de-
vi.sacchetto@un
ipd.it
Olga Cretu,
O.Cretu@mdx.ac
.uk
Subject articles
—————
1. Stawinska, A. (2010). The EU-27 construction sector: from boom to
gloom. Eurostat: Statisitics in Focus, 7, 1-7: http://
epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/cache/ITY_OFFPUB/KS-SF-10-007/EN/KS-SF-10-
007-EN.PDF
2. Zayonchkovskaya, Zh. A., Mkrtchyan, N. & Tyuryukanova, E. (2009). Ros-
siya pered vyzovami immigracii [Russia facing the challenges of immigra-
tion]. In Zayonchkovskaya, Zh. A., Vitkovskaya G. S. (Eds.), Postsovetskie
Transformacii: otrazhenie v migraciyakh [Post-Soviet Transformations:
Effects on Migrations] (pp. 9-62). Moscow, Russia: Adamant. (p. 34)
3. EFBWW study - Temporary migrant workers in the construction industry
in the EU. CLR-News 4/2013.
4. In-text citations for interview data will be provided in this order: expert
interviews are fully anonymised and will provide information about insti-
tution/place/year of interview; materials from interviews with worker
respondents will be citied in this fashion first name/place/year.
CLR News 2/2014
34
The research consists of ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth
interviews with Moldovan and Ukrainian construction work-
ers and key experts based in Italy, Russia and Moldova4. Field-
work has been carried out to investigate and establish the
impact on migration processes of informal networks, recruit-
ment mechanisms and employment conditions. Migrant tra-
jectories reveal the rationale behind short-haul and tempo-
rary migration strategies as well as the present limitations of
integration in host countries. Migrant workers’ individual
forms of resistance prove unable to overcome the constraints
imposed by states, employers and intermediaries, yet their
accounts show how policies aimed at their protection require
greater alignment with their practices and expectations.
Migration, mobility and turnover in Europe
In the last twenty years, two distinctive migration systems
have developed in Europe, one in the enlarged EU the other
in the former Soviet Union5. In both areas, the construction
sector has been the primary beneficiary of migrant labour
inflows. The institutional processes affecting these geo-
political areas have long appeared diverging, with integration
and promotion of free movement in the West contrasting
with fragmentation and instability in the FSU. Yet, socio-
economic dynamics have been remarkably similar, inspired by
neo-liberal notions of the centrality of the ‘market’. Post-
socialist countries in ‘transition’ to capitalism have been sub-
jected to ‘shock therapies’ prescribing large scale liberalisa-
tion and privatisation at the expense of workers’ rights and
representation6. EU enlargement, despite its apparent eco-
nomic successes, has pursued the marketization of employ-
ment relations with equal determination, leading to a decou-
Subject articles
—————
5. Molodikova, I.( 2008). Patterns of East to West migration in the context of
European migration systems. Possibilities and limits of migration control.
Demográfia 51 (5): 5–35.
6. Upchurch, M., Croucher, R., Morrison, C. & Danilovich H. (2014) The Trans-
formation of Work and Industrial Relations in the post Soviet bloc: 25
years on from 1989. Work, Employment and Society, e-special issue, forth-
coming.
CLR News 2/2014 35
pling of labour rights from salaried work which has represent-
ed the cornerstone of citizenship in modern Europe7. Income
inequality, as a result, has grown dramatically between and
within countries. Employers have taken advantage of the
cheapening of labour through outsourcing and delocalisation.
In industries such as construction, agriculture and personal
services, characterised by immobility and seasonality, the pre-
carious employment of migrant labour has prevailed. This
notwithstanding, labour mobility has not proved the only
outcome of structural changes introduced by capital and
states. Workers in post-socialist countries, among others, have
responded to declining wages, employment security and wel-
fare provisions with ‘exit’ strategies, generating high levels of
labour turnover. Employers have responded by expanding the
areas of recruitment and modifying recruitment strategies,
further sustaining migration flows. This process is evident in
the formation of an international labour market supplying
the European construction industry. Here employers have de-
signed tighter forms of control such as ‘subcontracting and
worker ‘posting’, to protect themselves from legal liability,
while isolating migrants from the economic and social norms
of the host society’8. These strategies prevail in northern Euro-
pean countries due to greater regulation. In the south, a large
shadow economy has allowed informal methods of migration,
recruitment and work to prevail9. There, the costs and difficul-
ties of entry, combined with expectations of legalisation and
formal employment, have so far favoured long term migra-
tion strategies. Workers can follow a path of integration but
also taste its downside as migrant discrimination and class
relations call into question the myths about the West. In the
former Soviet Union, a large grey area of economic activity
Subject articles
—————
7. Meardi, G. (2012). Social Failures of EU Enlargement: A case of Workers
Voting with their Feet. London, UK: Routledge.
8. Lillie, N. & Greer, I. (2007). Industrial Relations, Migration, and Neoliberal
Politics: The Case of European Construction Sector. Politics & Society, 35
(4), 551-581. (p. 552)
9. Cremers, J. (2007). Self-employed and the Free Provision of Services. Euro-
pean Institute for Construction Labour Research News, 2, 34-47.
CLR News 2/2014
36
also facilitates the informal employment and open discrimina-
tion of migrants.
Here labour migrants are prevalently FSU citizens, entitled to
a three months visa-free stay dependent on obtaining regis-
tration and work permit. Specific regulations for individual
nationalities and fluctuations in the harshness of implementa-
tions have varied over the years10. Such arrangements have
engendered a system of circular migration. The propiska re-
gime of the compulsory residence, to which access to welfare
and legal jobs is tied, guarantees the exclusion of most mi-
grants, including internal migrants, from contractual employ-
ments rights. Family ties, the large presence of Diasporas and
a common language, among others, make sure Russia remains
a primary destination for CIS migrants. In Russia too, research
indicates that agency recruitment of teams from central Asia
is replacing Moldovan and Ukrainian migration based on in-
formal networks11. Experts suggest that informal networks,
which are held primarily responsible for abuses12, offer great-
er bargaining chances vis-à-vis agencies13. Another emerging
feature is represented by the use of bogus self-employment,
set to avoid employers’ contractual obligations. This is widely
reported in the EU.
In both areas, segmentation by nationality, migratory status
and skills allows for the continuation of dividing tactics and
enforcements of informal, often illicit, forms of employment.
It is generally held that informal networks and regulations
concur to heavily constrain workers’ agency, leaving them
exposed to fluctuating market conditions. The crisis has ap-
Subject articles
—————
10. Rios, R. R. (Ed.) (2006). Migration Perspectives: Eastern Europe and Central
Asia. Vienna, Italy: International Organization for Migration: http://
www.iom.lt/documents/Migr.Perspectives-eng.pdf
11. Expert interview, Centre for Social and employment Rights, Moscow 2012
12. Human Rights Watch (2009). “Are You Happy to Cheat Us?” – Exploita-
tion of migrant construction workers in Russia. New York: http://
www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/russia0209web _0.pdf
13. Expert interview, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow 2010
CLR News 2/2014 37
parently further restricted options available to migrants, re-
ducing them to survival tactics14. While appreciating structural
constraints imposed by capitalist accumulation, this research
has found some evidence of migrant workers’ agency and re-
sistance. Following the migrants’ own trajectories across spac-
es, labour markets and workplaces, the research explores their
individual and collective forms of agency. The study unveils
their practices and expectations and shows how these trans-
late into a wide variety of strategic options. Migrants’ ac-
counts also reveal how they perceive the structural differ-
ences between these two geo-political spaces.
Moldovan and Ukrainian workers between East
and West
The recently constituted republics of Ukraine and Moldova
are neighbouring countries with a population of respectively
47 and 4.3 million inhabitants. Constituent parts of the Rus-
sian empire and later the Soviet Union, their independence
has emerged from the geopolitical earthquake following the
collapse of the Union. They now stand as a contested border-
land between new Europe and a smaller Russian Federation,
marred by weak economies, fragile institutions and crippling
foreign interferences. Their peculiar position makes for sub-
stantial and continuous migratory flows in both directions.
Migration from the region began in the mid-1990s and has
now reached considerable proportions: by prudent estimates,
there are now six to eight hundred thousand Moldovans and
about two-three million Ukrainians working abroad. The ex-
perience of migration is popular in many households. In Mol-
dova, about one third of families receive some kind of sup-
port from remittances15. Ukrainian migration affects directly
Subject articles
—————
14. Krings, T., Bobek, A., Moriarty, E, Salamonska, J. & Wickham, J. (2011).
From Boom to Bust: Migrant labour and employers in the Irish construc-
tion sector. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 32(3), 459-476.
15. Mosneaga, V. (2008). Circular migration of the population of the Republic
of Moldova. Carim-East Explanatory Note 12/68. EUI and RSCAS.
CLR News 2/2014
38
up to 20% of the working age population but at household
level the experience of migration involves about one third of
the population. At home, migrants worked with very low
monthly wages, respectively 50–200€ in Moldova and 150–
300€ in Ukraine, often without an employment contract.
Migrant construction workers in Russia
Reports on international migration indicate that only a small
proportion of Moldovan and Ukrainian migrants who work in
Russia express a preference for permanent resettlement.
Those who move to Russia are na zarabotki, which is under-
stood as leaving temporarily one’s place of residence in order
to earn a living. In this ‘temporary’ situation workers could
live for years:
My family now is in Moldova. Well, temporarily – but you
know what they say: ‘there is nothing more stable than
what is temporary’. . . I say it again – I left for a year or two
and it is already six years. (Arkady Moscow 2012)
Mobility to Russia is perceived as a ‘work trip’ during which
work performance is temporally concentrated, so that work-
loads and intensity are unusually high. Migrant workers indi-
cate that family or friends either offered jobs or facilitated
the search initiated by the respondent:
My father and brother were on zarabotki on construction
sites. In Russia, I went by myself: my friends work there.
(Stas, Cainari Station 2010)
Some respondents originally left for different jobs (‘I first
worked as a plumber in a company, then back home, then
again in St Petersburg I fitted fire alarms, then I worked as
security guard,’ Roman, Pervomajsk 2010). Construction
proved attractive, at least until the crisis, since it is better paid
and more rewarding than some of the menial jobs mentioned
above (‘Every job has its wage: I went where they pay more’,
Roman, Pervomajsk 2010).
If family and friends act as facilitators, actual recruitment is
carried out by intermediaries who work on site and are in di-
rect contact with site managers or subcontractors. Once the
migrant has been familiarised with the work and is acquaint-
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 39
ed with the bosses, he will await a call or seek an offer from
them. On occasion, he can be required to recruit others and,
over time, become a recruiter or brigade leader. This way,
long chains of recruitment are constantly developed.
Most respondents are returning migrants, observing the three
-month threshold set by the state and enforced by employers
(Roman: ‘I work for 3 months then home for 2-3 weeks, boss-
es know’). This pattern allows the migrants to recuperate
from an arduous job and the often dismal conditions afforded
by life in barracks on isolated construction sites (‘/.../morally
and physically I could not tolerate it,’ Ivan, Pervomajsk 2010).
It also proves highly advantageous for both business and the
state. It allows the extraction of high productivity and maxi-
mum flexibility (‘I would not have left if they kept paying;
now it seems all right – they ask me back,’ Dyma, Pervomajsk
2010). Workers’ accounts indicate the unsuitability of these
forms of employment for long-term settlement and a stable
family life. Issues most commonly raised concern the insecurity
of job tenure, pay and career prospects due to the informal
nature of the employment relationship as well as the hazard-
ousness of the work.
Employment, wages and working conditions in
Russian construction
Migrants universally report irregularities in their migrant sta-
tus or employment position. As FCU citizens, since 2001 they
are required to register for immigration, obtain a work per-
mit and ideally an employment contract too. Most of them
failed one or more of these stages. The risk of hefty penalties
has put pressure on bosses and employees alike, yet resistance
on the part of employers is still strong and sometimes sus-
tained by the workers’ interest in higher pay (‘In Russia, I
work without a contract. Even if I had a work permit, they
employ without contract’ Stas, Cainari station 2010). Even
Russian nationals struggle to find genuine employment, with
actual pay and benefits matching the official paperwork.
Viktor, a Russian from the Volga provinces who works for one
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
40
of the ‘safest’ employers in Moscow (a protégée of the former
mayor with a steady procurement portfolio) voices equally
sceptical remarks:
I am officially employed, yes, but it’s a fraud! We never get
holidays and as for sick leave they only allow it in serious
cases, which are normally their fault anyway. (Viktor,
Navoloki 2010)
Informality means that the workplace is governed by custom
rather than law and collective bargaining, resembling in many
aspects the paternalistic and authoritarian management of
the soviet shop floor but with less bargaining power for the
workforce. Pay and working conditions can vary significantly
depending on type of site, size of firm and skills of the indi-
vidual employee. Nationality is the primary factor deciding
occupation and its conditions. Piece-rate is the prevailing pay
system (‘The employer prefers hourly pay, but in general eve-
rybody goes for piece-rate’, Slavic, Moscow 2010). Working
time can stretch from a minimum of nine up to eleven hours
per day. Late hours and weekend work do not generally gar-
ner extra pay, and workers often bargain over timetabling.
Virtually all respondents report payment in cash by the man-
ager, the brigade leader or even from fellow colleagues. Pay-
ments are made in stages with only small sums anticipated for
expenses; therefore, disputes over wage arrears are common.
Work organisation is based on small teams or brigades, often
ethnically homogeneous, performing specific tasks under the
supervision of a brigade leader. Workers’ interviews portray
him as the target of resentment – ‘Brigade leaders, who get
paid for work but sit and smoke’ (Slavik, Zalotiefka 2010) –
but also as a leader of whom workers have high expectations:
‘We do not get paid holidays: it’s the fault of the brigade
leader – he could do much more for his brigade’ (Andrei, Za-
lotiefka 2010).
The whole employment and work relationship hinges on in-
termediaries, but workers do not appear to be at the mercy of
brigade leaders. They try to turn this volatile system to their
advantage by differentiating and selecting recruitment net-
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 41
works and constantly bargaining over conditions. A ‘good’
intermediary has to prove himself by guaranteeing jobs and
regular payments:
This is the way it works: there is a brigadier [i.e. gangmas-
ter] who has long worked in the field. And people know
that if you turn to him there’s a job awaiting you. It is up
to his intelligence and his ability to bargain whether peo-
ple go to work with him or not. Wages are also his respon-
sibility. (Victorio Kishinev 2012)
Turnover, therefore, can be used by workers to their ad-
vantage. According to Professor Mukomel this has affected
intermediaries, ‘Nowadays, they are interested in a stable
market /.../this is decent form of employment relations, yet it
exists as part of the shadow economy’16. The latter represent a
stumbling block to reducing turnover. Issues of health and
safety also continue to rate high among workers’ concerns:
Yes, it is heavy and dangerous work. [Safety equipment]
gets in the way of working /.../ there were [fatal incidents],
people fell off /.../ in 4 years 2 died: a guy just arrived, no
induction, fell and crashed to the ground. Minor injuries
are more frequent: often something falls down on
someone’s head, leg or hand and [the protective helmet] is
uncomfortable, falls off all the time. (Viktor, Navoloki
2010)
Finishing jobs are less heavy and dangerous than structural
work; the construction site, though, is always described as
being awash with risks, especially when working at heights.
Workers’ agency: between informal bargaining
and further mobility
Despite the many constraints to which they are subjected,
workers display acute awareness of their condition and try to
act upon it either individually or in small groups. Grievances
range from wage issues to working time and poor working
and living conditions. The informal character of the employ-
Subject articles
—————
16. Interview with expert, Sociology section of the Russian Academy of Sci-
ences, RAS, Moscow 2010
CLR News 2/2014
42
ment relationship and the lack of union support mean that
such bargaining occurs in a direct, often personalised fashion,
with line managers on site. Roman explains: ‘There are no
trade unions over there; in Europe they defend [workers].
Here they do not exist, if only we saw them’ (Roman, Pervo-
majsk 2010). Slavic’s account summarises the options normally
open to workers to further their grievances:
One morning the brigade leader calls the managing direc-
tor, workers refuse to work because of unpaid wages/.../.
Once he failed to do so and people started to quit. I went
to his office/.../ and said: ‘I demand to be paid’. He gave me
only half of it. /.../You just go and take the wage yourself.
(Slavic, Moscow 2010)
Individual mobility between firms, jobs and ultimately coun-
tries, remains the most common strategy for addressing those
issues. This raises the question of resettlement and family ar-
rangements.
Circular migration and dilemmas of resettlement
in Russia
Migrant strategic options revolve around the need to com-
bine employment and social life satisfactorily. Respondents,
depending on their circumstances, develop a variety of op-
tions to answer this dilemma. The older generations who ac-
quired family, home and profession in Moldova and Ukraine
during soviet rule expect to sustain their social capital at
home. They can return to low paid local jobs hoping for sup-
port from children or wives abroad. Among the younger gen-
eration, those who reject distant resettlement also exist, espe-
cially when locally married. They show an interest in develop-
ing their own business or moving into new professions. Most
respondents, however, continue to travel. For them there are
two options: the long and difficult process of moving to Rus-
sia or a more complex compromise. Mobility to Russia is fa-
voured by the apparent homogeneity of rules governing work
and everyday life in former Soviet countries. Permanent reset-
tlement, though, is perceived as a different enterprise linked
to hard-to-obtain access to secure and well remunerated jobs,
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 43
public welfare and full residence rights. As for the latter op-
tion, this may consist in minimising shuttle work, including
easier destinations to southern Russia and Ukraine. Finally
when options in the region are exhausted, those with connec-
tions or knowledge of the West begin to contemplate the
longer step to ‘far flung’ destinations:
Saint Petersburg is a cultural centre; there are friends ask-
ing me to go/.../My wife’s in Italy – Bologna. Vicenza would
be fine. Russia is a progressive country, it does not stand
still. In Italy I can do everything. I do not have to go to Rus-
sia necessarily. I am not even sure whether to remain here
or not. (Tolik Cainari 2010)
The wide variety of geographic destinations contemplated by
workers in their plans is certainly significant in terms of agen-
cy. Mobility in the East, therefore, does not simply mean en-
gaging in survival strategies but entails a wide variety of op-
tions. More importantly, mobility appears as the opposite to
acquiescence or acceptance of life and working conditions
offered to manual workers. In this way, reluctance to resettle
in Russia, for example, can be reconsidered (‘a passport makes
no difference: Russians too work informally – the firm has no
interest in having many formally employed’ Dyma Pervomaisc
2010); in other words, there is a realisation that they will have
it no better as workers elsewhere, if they move permanently.
Workers’ aspiration to remain in their place of origin too
should not be disregarded – it expresses a claim to the right
to stay, behind which stand their unanswered social demands.
The difficulty in finding a feasible answer to these demands
does not, therefore, limit strategic options but rather multi-
plies them. Workers, through direct experience and word of
mouth, build up ‘mental maps’, detailing the financial and
social costs of various destinations. In this way, they can regu-
larly evaluate their position and compare between geograph-
ic options. The experience of migrant workers to Italy allows
us to verify to what extent the West, with its promises of in-
tegration, represents an altogether different experience ra-
ther than just another point on the migrant’s map.
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
44
Migrant construction workers in Italy
Moldovans and Ukrainians have increasingly turned toward
Western Europe where Italy represents the preferred destina-
tion for both man and women. Important factors influencing
the choice of migration to Italy are the presence of social net-
works, EU passport and, for Romanic speaking Moldovans,
language and, sometimes, strong anti-communist sentiments.
Moldovan and Ukrainian women are seen as prime movers in
Italy, but most of our (male) respondents emigrated first.
Their accounts signal that migration to the West entails ex-
pectations of ‘stability’, i.e. permanent resettlement to a place
allowing them to ‘earn a living and live their lives’. Stability
contains the aspiration for development both of professional
skills, and in this way a ‘career’, and of a life project. In gen-
eral, stability at work implies continuity of employment and
wage payments. Life projects are checked against opportuni-
ties in the labour market but also potential for agency both in
the workplace and the wider social environment. There is
awareness though that such achievements, if any, come at the
cost of sacrificing the web of family and communal relation-
ships from back home and the rich cultural texture in which
they are embedded.
Migration flows to Italy from the FSU are fairly recent and
there is little evidence from interviews of recruitment struc-
tures but, as first migrants settled, chains facilitating mobility
have grown. Earlier work experience in Russia is common, and
reverse benchmarking, that is workers evaluating different
work settings the same way businesses normally do, emerges
from workers’ accounts (‘[In FSU] the discipline is harsher than
in Italy or Spain /.../ let’s say the boss is not only the chief, he
feels like a king there’ (Ivan, Padova, 2010). It also differs in
that it is a financially and legally onerous enterprise, which
generally implies a period of illegal stay. Family re-unification
with spouses engaged in the much expanded private care sec-
tor is the only exception. Respondents refer invariably to the
purchase of tourist visas, false residence permits or false pass-
ports as an entry device. Prices for such services vary consider-
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 45
ably – from five hundred up to two thousands Euros. The debt
burden forces migrant workers to accept irregular jobs to pay
off their debts.
Employment and working conditions: from illegal-
ity to regularisation
Until 2007-8 finding an illegal job on a building site was a
matter of days: ‘All people work in construction, because they
find work more easily’ (Sasha, Milan 2010). Migrant workers
can easily move to where jobs are available, and selection for
recruitment is carried out on the spot. Wages are initially very
low, ranging from three to five Euros per hour, including
transport but not meals. Working time ranges from nine to
twelve hours, usually for six days a week. Initially, migrants
will find work on construction sites through word of mouth,
generally from other migrants. At busy times, recruiters are
said to visit public locations, such as bars or squares, normally
populated by migrants looking for journeymen. These jobs
are poorly paid and normally without contract. This results in
significant labour turnover as workers seek better conditions
elsewhere. Undocumented migrants working illegally can eas-
ily be subjected to harsh working conditions and abusive
management. Increasingly, migrant workers can find employ-
ment in small businesses run by their own country’s nationals
or other migrants. Recruitment is informal and relies heavily
on language-related ties. In such cases, workers feel under
particular pressure to perform because of personal trust
bonds with intermediaries.
Regularisation of stay has an immediate effect on employ-
ment conditions and reduces turnover. Most commonly re-
ported changes relate to formal employment, access to union
services and reduced risk of abuse. Regularisation, they argue,
may also lead to a reduction in working time. Outstanding
issues remain, however, concerning the role of the trade un-
ion, work organisation and the extent of integration. The un-
ion is described by respondents as an organisation providing
discrete services, rather than a tool to organise and defend
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
46
their interests in the workplace.
I am a union member from the very beginning /.../ When I
need to fill up some forms I always go there; they are very
kind all the time. If there is an issue with the employer
though, I better deal with him directly, with the unions
you never know how is going to come out. (Stefan, Padua
2010)
As a result, workers are often left to fend for themselves in
the workplace. Here, the contentious issue is represented by
harsh discipline aimed at taxing production targets, augment-
ed by ethnic segregation. In Italy, direct supervision prevails
and strict discipline is imposed: ‘You can have a chat [with
colleagues] but never stop moving; if you do, insults start fly-
ing at you’ (Dyma, Padua 2010). Migrants with substantial
work experience in both the East and Western countries exer-
cise a sort of reverse benchmarking: ‘I got used to it in Portu-
gal: ‘you have to work all the time’. Even if you smoke, you
always work’ (Emiliu, Padua 2010). Ukrainians and Moldovans
are also perceived and treated differently, exposing the ex-
tent of occupational segregation by country of origin. The
division of labour among different nationals in the construc-
tion sector both in Italy and in Russia is succinctly captured in
a worker’s sarcastic reply to the interviewer’s questioning:
Vasile: To build a house [in Russia], as we put it: the Tajiks
dig, we [Moldovans] do the walls and Ukrainians handle
the roof.
Interviewer: How would it be in Italy? Who is the digger
here?
Vasile: Well, here, what about digging, I am the one doing
the digging.
(Vasile, Milan 2010)
Not surprisingly, working in Western construction sites does
not feel any easier despite higher levels of mechanisation.
Accidents followed by serious injuries, such as ‘loss of limbs’ or
‘broken ribs’, are relatively common among respondents. A
worker who suffered from a fall comments, ‘I have worked
here for a year; once I got injured /.../ if you suffer an injury it
is not a good thing because after that they look bad at you,
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 47
you understand? They need you to work; they do not need
you to stay home sick, never’ (Vasile, Milan 2010). Control by
state inspectors and trade unions is largely absent: ‘For eleven
years I have been working in Italy, but I have never seen any
safety inspection on construction sites’ (Emiliu, Padua 2010).
Some workers report moving into self-employment. Employ-
ers’ pressure is most commonly referred to as motivating fac-
tor, ‘I decided to start my own business because they forced
me’ (Bogdan, Milan 2010). These workers can then hire a rela-
tive or a friend or ask them to follow the same path. Some
migrants resist the change, fearing discrimination over prices
in sub-contracting work. They also note how self-employment
offers flexibility for employers transferring the risk onto the
migrant. Self-employment has a dual aspect. When initiated
by the migrant, it represents an attempt, like in the Russian
cases, to escape the pressures of wage labour. However, find-
ings suggest that its popularity owes more to the employers’
attempts at countering workers’ demands.
Moving to Italy represents a complex and often life-changing
experience which these workers clearly identify as migration.
Migration trajectories are not homogeneous: those with ex-
periences in the East retain network relations which allow for
wider options and further mobility. In contrast, those immedi-
ately re-settling to Italy rely entirely on their family. For all,
migration holds the prospects of improving substantially and
permanently their social and economic position. However,
integration is often perceived as an entrapment. These work-
ers realise that access to limited social opportunities entail
substantial losses in both emotional and status terms. In other
words, western destinations are much less the expected land
of opportunity than a last stop in a complex set of migration
routes.
Conclusions
Findings from this study contradict commonsensical assump-
tions about workers’ acceptance of flexibility, their depend-
ence on networks and, generally, their lack of strategic op-
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
48
tions. In comparative terms, labour turnover in the Russian
and EU construction industry is structurally different. In Rus-
sia, job rotation built around the visa-waiving regime and the
overall temporary nature of employment allows for continu-
ous and substantial turnover. This circular migration system is
entirely functional to the production system and applies also
to internal migrants. The system is policed by state control on
immigration and by gang masters, but is also managed by the
workers themselves. Positive changes in brigade leaders’ be-
haviour can be seen as partly accommodating their’ expecta-
tions. In Italy, migration is built on long-term expectations.
Legalisation of stay and work are associated with a decline in
individual mobility. The employment system allows for stabili-
sation, but both at the initial stages and later, employers’
strategies – easy hire-and-fire and self-employment – mean
that such opportunities can be easily reversed. In both areas,
the increasing use of self-employment and agency work sug-
gests the employers’ preference for a more controlled man-
agement of migration flows.
Migration satisfies the workers’ immediate need for higher
cash earnings but falls short of their aspirations for stable em-
ployment, family plans and professional growth. Their atti-
tude is not without consequences. In Italy, they seek regulari-
sation and unionisation. In Russia, where this is not possible,
they minimise trips or seek alternatives to zarabotki. Employ-
ers and states are reluctant to accommodate such pressures: in
Italy, they force workers into self-employment; in Russia, they
push recruiters to seek cheap labour further afield. In both
countries, migration is willingly expanded in new forms: post-
ed workers in the EU, Asian workers in Russia, shipped by
agencies to replace ‘free’ migrants.
Migrant workers’ life trajectories reveal a wider range of mi-
gratory paths and mobility options than normally acknowl-
edged. Migrant workers have adapted to the breakup of na-
tional systems by inhabiting complex networks at transnation-
al level. Few respondents engaging in geographical mobility
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014 49
are actually interested in either migration or long-term reset-
tlement. What Moldovan and Ukrainian respondents, those
who stay put no less than those who emigrate to different
places and with different strategies, share is an appreciation
for socio-economic stability. Their transnationality, therefore,
calls for rethinking labour and citizenship rights beyond the
confines of the nation-state.
Subject articles
CLR News 2/2014
50
International Asbestos Conference
Vienna, 6-7 May 2014
Over a hundred delegates of the building and metal working
sectors participated during a two-day conference in Vienna
organised by the global trade union federations, Building
Workers International (BWI) and IndustriAll. After the wel-
come by the Austrian host organisations, BWI health & safety
director Fiona Murie sketched out the perspectives and the
changes since an earlier conference (in 2008), also in Vienna.
Brian Kohler, director of health & safety at IndustriAll, the
global federation of metal workers unions, rightly stated that
it is a shame that we still have to discuss the use of asbestos.
With contributions from the Asian ban Asbestos Network (A-
BAN), Canada, Europe, South Africa, Australia, Japan, India
and Latin America a broad overview was provided of the ac-
tual consumption of asbestos, with Russia having the lead of
asbestos suppliers and exporters. In the top ten of asbestos
consuming countries 6 Asian countries are presented, led by
China (the biggest user and second producer), followed by
India (the largest importer). Also Brazil still figures in the list.
The domestic use in Russia decreased substantially after a
peak between 1985 and 1990. The European ban that became
effective in 2005 and the withdrawal of Canada, after a
change of government in September 2012, had a serious im-
pact on the production and export of asbestos. However, in
recent years the number of countries that have decided to
ban asbestos has not increased. Only recently, from 4 April
2014 on, Hong Kong decided to introduce a ban on the use of
the dangerous fibre. The fight for a ban is still topical.
Asbestos use in not limited to the building trades, but can be
found in a broad range of industries. The use (and the expo-
sure risks for workers) is, for instance, notorious in the Chi-
nese textile industries, but can also be found in shipbuilding.
The life cycle of ships is quite long: the scrapping of ships that
Report
Jan Cremers,
CLR
CLR News 2/2014 51
are constructed with tons of asbestos containing-materials
takes place in Asia and Turkey, whilst asbestos waste is col-
lected and 'reused' in slums.
United Food and Commercial Workers Canada's trade unionist
Larry Stoffman illustrated the disastrous effects of the produc-
tion of asbestos for those regions where asbestos pits were
based: ghost towns and deserted mines, a doubling of asbes-
tos-related occupational diseases among the population since
the mid-1980s, with 500 workers dying of mesothelioma every
year. It took a long time to bring the campaign against the
asbestos lobby to a successful end and this was the result of a
strategy that can be characterised by four interrelated and
crucial activities: the creation of union solidarity among work-
ers of producing and using industries, community coalitions,
media support and political alliances.
Larry also pointed out that the lobby organisation Interna-
tional Chrysotile Association that promotes 'the safe use' of
asbestos is still active, and is nowadays mainly focusing on the
promotion of asbestos and asbestos-containing products in
Asia.
One session was dedicated to the EFBWW campaign and the
national experiences in Europe after the ban of asbestos. Sev-
eral contributors referred to the CLR-Study on asbestos, pub-
lished in 2013, as an important source and handbook for ac-
tivists who are interested in the lessons that can be learned
from the campaign for and achievement of the European
ban.
The different contributions to this conference including a re-
port on future strategies and activities are available on http://
www.bwint.org/default.asp?Issue=asb2014&Language=EN
Report
CLR News 2/2014
52
Stefan Schmalz, Klaus Dörre (eds) Comeback der Gew-
erkschaften? Machtressourcen, innovative Praktiken,
internationale Perspektiven. (Comeback of the Trade
Unions? Power Resources, Innovative Practices, International
Perspectives.) Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York, 2013. 454
p., €34.90, ISBN-13 978-3593398914.
Looking at the situation of the trade unions in 2014, the pre-
dominant picture is gloomy. In most industrialised countries,
membership figures have been on the decline since the 1990s
and the membership rate is dropping. This development is
associated with a weakening of the ‘institutional power’ of
trade unions, as measurable, for instance, by the coverage
rate of collective agreements, though for example in Europe
this trend was not as unambiguous as with membership
rates1.
Anyhow, in Germany the coverage rate of collective agree-
ments (‘Flächentarifbindung’) declined from 70% in 1996 to
54% in 2011 (Urban, p. 386). For many countries a decline in
trade unions’ possibilities of influence also meant a worsening
of social protection through the reduced importance of col-
lective agreements as well as the dismantling of statutory
health and safety regulations. Even after the financial crisis of
2007, this trend could not be reversed. On the contrary, in
particular in Southern and Middle-/Eastern Europe, the con-
tractual and statutory protection of employees was again se-
verely reduced. This happened in spite of trade union mobili-
sation in Southern Europe, in spite of strikes and mass pro-
tests. The development of the various crises since 1970, its im-
pact on the organisational power of trade unions as well as
their counter strategies are presented in the contribution of
Schmalz and Weinmann (pp. 76 ff.)
Given these developments, what motivates the editors of the
present book to choose ‘Comeback of the Trade Unions’ as a
Hans Baumann
—————
1. ETUI, 2014: Benchmarking Working Europe, Brussels.
Review
essay
CLR News 2/2014 53
title? It is not a coincidence that the title has been given a
question mark. For Germany, the authors notice a degree of
‘trade union revitalisation’, evident for instance, through the
fact that in recent years the largest German trade union, IG
Metall, witnessed an increase in membership. Also the second
largest German trade union, ver.di, for the first time for many
years has been able to increase its membership. This is not a
pattern typical of all countries. Nevertheless, many social scien-
tists defend the thesis that trade unions are definitely renewa-
ble and do not have to emerge weakened from the stage of
‘market-driven conquest’, characterising post-Fordist capital-
ism. Others have their doubts about trade unions’ ability to
reform and assume, like André Gorz, that the trade unions will
disintegrate irreversibly and that an entirely new model of
labour relations will develop (Dörre/Schmalz, p. 18).
The 36 authors of the present book resume this controversy
and analyse the most important developments of recent years
and approaches to reform in various countries. In this, most
articles use the ‘Jena Power Resource Approach’ (Jenaer
Machtressourcenansatz) as their analytical tool. This approach
was developed in Jena by the working group ‘Strategic Union-
ism’, whose members represent some of the authors. The
question is raised, what represents the foundations for the
possibilities of the trade unions to wield influence (power)? In
this a distinction is made between structural and organisation-
al power, which means the position of the employees in the
production process, on the one hand, and the genuine capa-
bility for organisation and collective trade union action, on
the other. The third power resource, institutional power,
stems from the position of trade unions within existing institu-
tions (for instance collective agreements or social insurances)
and is a help to stabilise trade union ability to assert itself. Fi-
nally, strategic capability is an additional fourth power re-
source. This denotes trade unions’ capability to take a position
in the public sphere confronting employers and the state and
to use or mobilise their power resources at the right moment.
A first set of articles in the book is dedicated to these theoreti-
cal foundations of trade union power and the debate about
Review essay
CLR News 2/2014
54
its renewal. Two sets deal with the present trade union policy
in Germany including examples of trade union revitalisation.
Then the perspective is widened through examples from inter-
national case studies. Finally representatives of the working
group and a representative each of IG Metall and ver.di try to
draw conclusions for trade union practice.
Kim Voss in her contribution reminds us that current trade un-
ion approaches to revitalisation originated in the USA. It was
there that in the 1990s a model was developed under the term
‘Social Movement Unionism’ (SMU), which focussed on organ-
ising the non-organised and relates to the experiences of the
US Civil Rights Movement. The contribution also resumes the
current discussion about the effects of the SMU model on in-
ternal trade union democracy. A top-down organising model
introduced by the trade union leadership may well have the
effect that representation of the interests of employees al-
ready organised become neglected and internal democratic
principles denied. It becomes evident in Voss’ contribution
how different the preconditions for revitalisation are in the
USA and Europe. Thus, for instance, the unionisation rate of
11% in the USA is extremely low as compared to the OECD
countries. The same is true for the coverage rate of collective
agreements. In addition, in the USA the dominant level of col-
lective bargaining is the enterprise and the institutional power
of trade unions is significantly weaker as compared to most
European countries. The regulation in companies as well as
beyond is usually at a completely different level in Europe.
This concerns typically codetermination, collective labour
rights, or tripartite structures. It is astonishing that, despite
these differences, in Europe most of the activation efforts
summarised under the term ‘Organising’ are based on the US
approach. And, according to the reports presented in the
book, at first glance they seem to be successful. This may be
related to the fact that the organising approaches have been
applied in particular in areas of so-called ‘white spots’ or
‘trade union deserts’, for instance, the fight for improving the
conditions for agency labour (Schmalz/Hinz/Woschnak/
Review essay
CLR News 2/2014 55
Schwetje/Paul, p. 258) and various examples of successful or-
ganising in the services sector such as the German health sec-
tor (Neuner, pp. 213 ff.) or child-day-centres (Kutlu, pp. 226
ff.). In most European countries, the private services sector is
notorious for being difficult to organise.
One contribution (Scholz, pp. 199 ff.) deals with construction
trades (Handwerk), that is the small-enterprise sector. For a
long time IG Metall has neglected the trade sector (plumbing,
electrical, heating and ventilating engineering) resulting in
rapidly declining membership rates in the past 10 years. For
the construction Union (IG BAU) the slump was equally evi-
dent, most pronounced in the trades, in which the member-
ship rate was no more than 18% in 2009. Ten years earlier it
had been about 60%! The decline is also recognisable among
painters and roofers, though less pronounced. This weakening
in the trades is also a reason for the drastic membership de-
cline of IG BAU, which from 2000 to 2011 across all sectors of
organisation lost almost every second member. IG BAU ap-
plied the organising approach for the first time during a coun-
try-wide wage dispute of the cleaning sector in 2009. Though
in this sector a collective agreement existed, the trade union
had no roots in the companies and only very few organised
employees. Due to the organising approach focussed on the
Berlin region, it was possible to organise a 19-day strike and
to achieve essential improvements in the collective agree-
ment. In addition, there was success, just in the Berlin region,
in gaining 900 members for the sector and getting a foothold
in some important companies.
In the present collection there is no contribution about Swit-
zerland. That is a shame because here for some years the larg-
est trade union UNIA has already gathered experience in or-
ganising projects in the sectors of health, retail, gardening,
industry, and construction2.
The view beyond Europe conveys examples of labour conflicts
and trade union renewal from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Review essay
CLR News 2/2014
56
With regard to the international division of labour and loca-
tion competition, the contribution about China is particularly
interesting (Butollo/Lüthje, pp. 276 ff). It provides an overview
of production regimes and industrial relations in this country
and describes the most important industrial conflicts since
2010, displaying the common feature of relatively spontane-
ous labour conflicts associated with a lack of organisational
trade union power.
Using the Jena Power Resource Approach, the book tries to
draw a balance sheet of the diverse reform projects in many
countries. This is difficult, however, because not only the pre-
conditions but also the reform approaches in the diverse
countries are very different. Some refer to SMU experiences
and some do not. It becomes clear that the partly entirely dif-
ferent conditions and trade union cultures do not allow the
same reform approach to operate and that the respective or-
ganising projects have to be tailored according to national
and local conditions. An important conclusion for me is also:
even where the institutional power of trade unions is still in
place (e.g. through works councils, codetermination or tripar-
tite structures), if organisational resources decline and conflict
capability becomes questionable, sooner or later the institu-
tional power of trade unions can be disposed of. Therefore,
fundamental reforms are at any rate indispensable for the
survival or comeback of the trade unions.
Review essay
—————
2. These projects are documented in: Patrick Angele, Adrian Durtschi, Tanja
Walliser, 2011: Organizing in der Schweiz. In Widerspuch 61, Zürich sowie
in: Jörn Boewe, 2013: Das Kräfteverhältnis ändern. In: Detlef Wetzel (Hg):
Organizing. Die Veränderung der gewerkschaftlichen Praxis durch das
Prinzip der Beteiligung. Hamburg.
CLR News 2/2014 57
Frank Manzo, Robert Bruno (2014), Labour Market Institu-
tions Reduce Income Inequality. Research Report. Illi-
nois Economic Policy Institute/University of Illinois
This study analyses the effects that labour market institutions
have on income inequality in the construction industry in the
US. The subjects researched include unionisation, prevailing
wage laws (PWL) and right to work laws (RTW). Prevailing
wage laws, as implemented in some US states, establish mini-
mum standards in labour markets for publicly-financed pro-
jects. This is similar to what we would call a social clause for
public procurement, guaranteeing a minimum standard for
wages and social conditions for construction workers, em-
ployed on public projects. Right to work laws are restrictions
for collective bargaining, prohibiting agreements between
labour unions and employers like, for instance, exclusive
rights for union members, demanding a fee from non-union
members or extending the collective agreement to all em-
ployees in the company.
The report begins by giving arguments as to why we should
care about rising inequality in our societies: redistribution to
the wealthy may reduce aggregate demand in the economy,
poorer people have fewer resources to invest in their own
education and this may increase the probability of financial
crises and criminal activity. Then the report shows the im-
portance of the construction industry for the US economy,
employing 8.9 million American residents and with good eco-
nomic forecasts until 2022.
The authors show that decreasing unionisation is one im-
portant reason for income inequality and that Right-to-work
laws decrease unionisation by between 5 and 8 percentage
points. In the construction industry right-to-work laws de-
creased worker incomes by 13.5 percent. On the other hand,
in states with collective agreements and prevailing wage laws,
incomes are higher and more equal. The effect of the differ-
ent labour market regimes on income inequality seems very
Review
Hans Baumann
obvious: For the median worker, employment in a collective-
bargaining state yielded a 26.7 percent total income benefit
compared to his or her equivalent in a right-to-work state.
And Prevailing wage laws reduce inequality between the
highest earners and the lowest earners by 45.1 percent. La-
bour unions are the most effective institution to reduce in-
come inequality: a state union membership rate that was 10
percentage points higher reduced income inequality by be-
tween 4.7 and 14.5 percent.
The authors of the report draw very clear conclusions: Unioni-
sations and prevailing wage laws strongly reduce income ine-
quality in the construction industry, while right-to-work laws
tend to intensify the problem. They recommend the states
therefore not to repeal prevailing wage laws but to strength-
en them. Construction Unionisation should be encouraged
since unionised workers are more productive and earn higher
incomes. Right-to-work laws on the other hand should be re-
pealed to raise workers’ incomes and productivity.
The findings of this report cannot automatically be trans-
ferred into the European reality as conditions in the US are
too different. In most European countries there are, for in-
stance, no restrictions like a right-to-work law. But there is
also a strong tendency in the European Union to restrict col-
lective bargaining or to challenge minimum social standards
in public procurement (see the decisions of the European
Court). The report’s findings underline the benefits of a pro-
unionisation and pro-collective bargaining policy for the la-
bour market in construction industry.
Review
CLR News 2/2014
58
Editor
Jan Cremers
Phone: +31/20/5257216
Or +31/6/53 43 86 79
clr@mjcpro.nl
Review editor
Jörn Janssen
Phone: +44/207/7007821
joern.janssen@btinternet.com
Layout and Production
Frank Leus
Phone: +32/2/2271041
fleus@efbh.be
Contact and Orders
CLR-News
c/o Frank Leus
EFBWW
Rue de l’hôpital 31, (boîte1)
B - 1000 Brussels
Phone: +32/2/2271040
Fax: +32/2/2198228
CLR News 2/2014 ISSN 1997-1745
... [12] A conceptual model that shows how the PRF domains influence poor mental health was proposed based on the identified relationships ( Figure 3). Fifteen propositions were derived based on the conceptual framework viz.: literature, young construction workers with Global South backgrounds constitute an under-researched population who are experiencing impediments to their mental wellbeing because of their socio-cultural background [68,69]. While recommendations from existing research can inform the development of mental health interventions, taken alone, the current body of literature is less than fit for the purpose for addressing the needs of young construction workers with Global South backgrounds. ...
... The greater percentage of the evidence base for the PRF domains and themes that have emerged out of this review are studies which have focused on the Global North context, mostly the Australian construction industry. This indicates that within the extant literature, young construction workers with Global South backgrounds constitute an under-researched population who are experiencing impediments to their mental wellbeing because of their socio-cultural background [68,69]. While recommendations from existing research can inform the development of mental health interventions, taken alone, the current body of literature is less than fit for the purpose for addressing the needs of young construction workers with Global South backgrounds. ...
Article
Full-text available
Despite being a key provider of employment, construction work significantly contributes to poor mental health among young construction workers worldwide. Although there are studies on the psychosocial risk factors (PRFs) that make young construction workers susceptible to poor mental health, the literature is fragmented. This has obscured a deeper understanding of PRFs and the direction for future research, thus making it challenging to develop appropriate interventions. To address this challenge, we systematically reviewed the literature on young construction workers’ PRFs using meta-aggregation, guided by the PICo, PEO, and PRISMA frameworks. We sought to synthesize the domains of PRFs that affect young construction workers’ mental health, and to determine the relationships between the PRF domains, psychological distress, and poor mental health. A total of 235 studies were retrieved and 31 studies published between 1993 and 2020 met the inclusion criteria. We identified 30 PRFs and categorized them into ten domains, which were further classified into personal, socio-economic, and organizational/industrial factors. The findings of this review contribute to achieving an in-depth understanding of young construction workers’ PRF domains and their patterns of interaction. The findings are also useful to researchers and policymakers for identifying PRFs that are in critical need of attention.
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International migrant and refugee numbers are at record levels and continue to grow. The construction industry is a major source of potential employment for migrants and refugees and emerging social and sustainable procurement policies in many parts of the world are also requiring construction supply chains to employ refugees and migrants as a condition of public sector contracts. However, there is virtually no research into the barriers that refugees and migrants face in seeking decent employment in the construction sector. Addressing this important gap in knowledge an exploratory survey of refugees' and migrants' job-seeking experiences in the Australian construction industry is presented. Results show that by far the greatest barrier to employment is lack of construction industry experience, followed by poor recognition of previous skills and experience. Recent migrants and refugees and those with the greatest previous experience of working in construction face the greatest barriers in finding decent work. Men from an Arabic background also experience greater difficulties than other cultural groups. It is recommended that policy-makers develop more initiatives to provide work experience and engage with construction employers about the challenges which refugees and migrants face in finding work in construction.
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We investigate migrant construction workers’ experiences in the Former Soviet Union, examining their attitudes to other ethno‐national groups, unions and collective action. Industrial relations and migration studies view migrant workers’ hypermobility and diversity, under conditions of low union coverage and rising nationalism, as potentially obstructing consciousness‐raising and mobilizing. Workers in our study faced union indifference, ethno‐national segregation and discrimination. However, managerial abuses, informality and contestation from below led to spontaneous mobilization. Lack of institutional channels to solve these disputes drove workers’ further mobility. Complex mobility trajectories and collective action translated into increased awareness of collective interests and rejection of nationalist ideologies. The outcome is ‘multinational workers’ potentially resistant to nation‐state politics and capital's logics but also aware of the value and usefulness of collective solidarities. Thus, previous arguments solely associating exit with individualistic attitudes, and post‐socialist legacies with workers’ quiescence present only partial pictures.
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In this study, job mobility refers to situations wherein Chinese migrant construction workers frequently change employers, plausibly a principal cause of quality defects, work-safety hazards and poor performance, within the construction-business reality. The study examines job mobility in terms of migrant construction worker willingness to change employers. Gleaned from a field survey and by using a logistic-regression model, a total of 531 questionnaires are assessed, revealing how work tenure, education, daily wages, job-hunting channels, number of workmates, and employment contracts might relate to construction worker alacrity to change jobs. Daily wages and work tenure appear to make the greatest contribution to migrant worker willingness to change jobs, while the effects of employment contract and education seem to be minimal. Despite its limitations, the study offers future research directions and policymaking recommendations toward relieving the informal termination of migrant construction workers in China.
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Purpose This paper aims to identify the role of informal economic relations in the day-to-day working of organizations, thereby opening a way to theorizing and informed practice. We will present and discuss about the manifestation of informality in ‘everyday’ reality of Soviet and transformation economies. Informed by Cultural Theory and in particular the work of Gerald Mars, we are taking account ontologically and methodologically of Labor Process theory Design/methodology/approach Through presentation of ethnographic data of detailed accounts and case vignettes in production and retail in the Soviet period of the late 1970s and 1980s and from the construction sector in contemporary Russia, with a focus on the labor process, we inform and discuss key processes in the informal working of organizations. Findings In the Soviet system the informal economy co-existed in symbiosis with the formal command economy, implicitly adopting a ‘live and let live’ attitude. In addition, informal relations were essential to the working of work organizations, sustaining workers’ ‘negative control’ and bargaining power. Contemporary Russian capitalism, while embracing informal economic activities, a legacy of the Soviet period, advocates an ‘each to his own’ approach which retains the flexibility but not the bargaining space for employees. That facilitates exploitation, particularly of the most vulnerable workers, with dire consequences for the work process. Research limitations/implications The paper provides a platform for theorizing about the role and place of informal economic relations in organizations. Of importance to managerial practice, the paper informs on those aspects of the work routine that remain hidden from view and are often excluded from academic discourse. The social implications are profound, shedding light on central issues such as recruitment, income distribution, health & safety and ’deregulated forms of employment. Originality/value The paper examines economic behavior under different economic-political regimes demonstrating continuities and changes during a fundamental social-economic reorientation of an important regional economy, through close observation at the micro and meso-level of, respectively, the workplace, organizations and industry, outlining theoretical, practical and social implications.
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