Restrictions do not halt flow of undocumented workers

EU Member States are trying to restrict undocumented economic migration by means including quotas, restrictions on access to welfare rights such as healthcare and tightening controls on family reunion, according to recent research. However despite these measures, undocumented migration continues and workers without papers are driven to take the most marginal and dangerous jobs.

A research project called Undocumented Worker Transitions (UWT) was carried out by a consortium involving seven EU Member States – the UK, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy and Spain - and aimed to understand the factors that underlie flows of migrants, and both legal and illegal pathways that they followed into work. The findings were based on testimonies from 200 workers who were or had been undocumented, and on interviews with EU and national experts on migration.

Policies in all the countries studied were aimed at restricting undocumented migration and limiting the numbers of documented migrants. However, they did not eliminate undocumented work, but rather pushed workers into informal sectors of the economy such as cleaning, caring for the elderly, food preparation and construction. Some groups of migrants were found to have been displaced by later groups and there was a significant shift of undocumented migrant workers into self-employment. Undocumented workers were found to earn less than documented workers, were forced to accept low-skilled jobs, were more vulnerable to exploitation and experienced poorer working conditions.

The existence of a pool of undocumented workers provides employers with an opportunity to circumvent existing laws, recognising that these workers are unable to enforce employment rights. In all seven countries the researchers observed growing restrictions in relation to welfare rights, with increasing emphasis on the denial of basic rights, including healthcare. Female migration, even more than male migration, was found to be caused by extreme economic necessity.

The project defined undocumented workers as foreign citizens present on the territory of a state in violation of the regulations of entry and residence, who had either crossed the border illicitly, who had overstayed their visa or work permit, or who were failed asylum seekers. Exact numbers of undocumented migrants based on this definition were difficult to calculate, and there was a lack of internationally comparable data on undocumented migration.

The researchers point out that a worker’s legal status is not fixed or clearly established, but can change over time. Few of the people they interviewed started their migration journey with a particular status - either documented or undocumented - and maintained this status consistently. For example in the UK, expiry of visas or changes to migration laws meant that some currently undocumented migrants had arrived as documented migrants. In contrast, in Spain, most of those interviewed had arrived as undocumented workers but many had managed to regularise their position, either through state regularisation programmes, obtaining work permits or by marriage.

They conclude that despite the tightening regime of immigration controls, the high numbers of undocumented workers in some of the countries examined is a consequence of poor conditions of life in their countries of origin and occurs regardless of the immigration regime in the destination country. The research recommends the separation of migration and employment regulations to allow all workers, regardless of migration status, to benefit from the protection that labour laws are set up to provide. This would also mean that the economic advantages to employers of using undocumented labour might disappear. In particular, they recommend:

  • A sustainable regularisation process to enable undocumented workers to gain regular status, through a ‘pathway to citizenship’.
  • Cooperation between trade unions in the host country and unions in the home country of undocumented migrants.
  • Greater efforts to specifically target women migrants working in private homes or in more ‘hidden’ conditions.
  • Better relations between state institutions and migrant networks.
  • Extension of ‘labour search permits’ (as used to a limited extent in Spain) to allow migrants a three-month period of seeking employment.
  • Improved healthcare and education for migrants and their partners/families.
  • Improved access to information on services, such as welfare and health services, emergency accommodation, language courses, civic engagement and creation of support networks.
  • Ratification of the convention on migrant rights.
  • Since immigration controls are shown to be ineffective in preventing undocumented migration, destination countries need to increase their support to the economies in countries of origin.

UWT - Undocumented Worker Transitions: Compiling evidence concerning the boundaries and processes of change in the status and work of undocumented workers in Europe (duration: 1/1/2007 – 31/12/2008) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 8 – Scientific support to policies.


Contact: Sonia McKay,