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Migrant workers tend to cluster in particular industries, occupations and geographical areas and to experience disadvantageous working conditions. This article discusses the role of migrants as social actors in the labour market by looking at how and to what extent they are able to actually influence the conditions of their working lives. I use quantitative data collected in four European destination countries (Portugal, United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Norway) complemented with qualitative data collected through interviews in the same countries. The analysis of this data indicates that despite the heterogeneity in the groups analysed and their globally intermediate-high level of qualification, migration leads to high levels of clustering in the low and unskilled segments of the labour market followed by limited progression thereafter. Involvement in classical collective labour movements is low but other daily strategies are employed to navigate the labour market mostly involving individual agency. Recognising these processes of mostly individual agency targeting self-improvement has implications for understanding the limits and potential of wider labour struggles seeking to tackle structural exploitation of migrant labour within destination labour markets. In addition, looking at distinct migration corridors, linking different origin and destination countries, also puts in evidence the specific contextual frameworks that shape migrants’ agency in particular labour markets.



Working paper


International Migration Institute

Publication Date




Total pages



migrant workers, labour agency, migration, labour geography, labour struggles, exploitation