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Immigration & business“Migrant work ethic” exists, at least in the short term

Published 30 May 2017

The received wisdom that migrant workers have a stronger “work ethic” than U.K.-born workers is proven for the first time. New research shows that migrant workers are over three times less likely to be absent from work than native U.K. workers, a measure which economists equate with work ethic.

Migrant workers at field work // Source: theconversation.com

The received wisdom that migrant workers have a stronger “work ethic” than U.K.-born workers is proven for the first time, in a new study of Central and East European migrants, from the University of Bath’s School of Management. The research shows that migrant workers are over three times less likely to be absent from work than native U.K. workers, a measure which economists equate with work ethic.

A short-term effect
The enhanced migrant work effort was found to be a temporary phenomenon lasting for approximately two years from their arrival in the United Kingdom, after which migrant workers’ absence converged with levels recorded by native U.K. workers.

Bath notes that awide body of existing research evidence suggests that employers in the United Kingdom will often recruit workers on the basis of their nationality, especially in lower-skilled roles where employers tend to value a ‘good work ethic’ above anything else.

While the perception of the migrant work ethic persists, U.K. native workers may in some cases be missing out on jobs simply because their nationality is not synonymous with hard work.

Working harder to signal “value”
The researchers suggest that by putting in extra effort at work, new migrant workers are trying to signal their worth to employers, compensating for limited English language skills and to overcome a lack of understanding from their new employers about the qualifications and skills they have gained in their home country. In fact, migrants have on average two years more of education than their U.K. counterparts.

Additionally, migrant workers from low income countries initially perceive their U.K. salary to be relatively high and respond with increased effort.

As migrants spend longer in the United Kingdom, their language skills improve, they become more knowledgeable about the U.K. job market and they take on better paid roles. They no longer have to rely on working extra hard to prove their worth and they quickly assimilate into U.K. working culture.

The study, carried out by the universities of Bath, Southampton, and Leicester, is published in the journal Work, Employment and Society.

The research used large scale data from the Office for National Statistics U.K. Labor Force Survey (2005 to 2012) to study the absence rates of migrant workers from the eight nations of Central and Eastern Europe (known as the A8) when they joined the EU in 2004.

First “concrete evidence”
Lead researcher Dr. Chris Dawson, Senior Lecturer in Business Economics, said: “This is the first study with concrete evidence on the existence of the migrant work ethic. It backs up managers’ perceptions that Polish and other Central and Eastern European migrants are harder working than U.K. employees, but importantly only for around two years from their arrival in the U.K.

“The study shows that the common view that U.K. workers are lazy compared to migrant workers is misconceived: in fact migrants are temporarily working extra hard to offset the challenges they face when they first enter the U.K. job market.

“We clearly see in the research that migrants new to the United Kingdom put in a couple of years of hard work, before a better understanding of our culture and job market means they adopt the same work ethic as native workers.”

From 2004 to 2007 over 600,000 workers from these new EU nations registered for work in the United Kingdom; shattering the projected figures of around 13,000 additional workers migrating to the United Kingdom.

Dr. Benjamin Hopkins, Lecturer in Work and Employment at the University of Leicester, said: “When the Central and Eastern European nations became part of the EU in 2004 the numbers of migrants registering to work in the United Kingdom was far beyond any projected figures. There was very little planning around information for employers about qualifications in these countries and how they relate to the U.K. system. This lack of understanding exacerbated the need for migrants to demonstrate their value to employers in a very practical way: by recording lower levels of absence than their colleagues from the United Kingdom.”

— Read more Chris Dawson et al., “Understanding the perception of the ‘migrant work ethic’,” Work, Employment and Society (24 May 2017) (DOI: 10.1177/0950017017706306)