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UK report on the economic struggles of young mothers and migrant domestic workers

Research output: Working paperWorking paper and Preprints

Original languageEnglish
DatePublished - 1 Feb 2018


This report examines how the 2008 financial crisis and the agenda of austerity and Brexit have affected young mothers, migrant domestic workers and other precarious workers in the United Kingdom, and how political actors have mobilised for economic justice in this context. In addition to identifying explicit legal restrictions that have excluded workers from employment protection, we examine the gaps between labour law in the books and in practice, highlighting structural factors that have impeded the effective exercise of statutory rights. Our methods include legal analysis based on primary and secondary sources, a review of policy reports and academic publications on labour market trends, and semi-structured interviews with 11 workers, activists, trade unionists and think tank advisors.

The first part of the report, which focuses on law in the books, offers an overview of the creation and enforcement of labour rights through consultative bodies, Employment Tribunals and administrative agencies falling within the remit of a newly appointed Director of Labour Market Enforcement. It also describes the content of key UK labour rights in the light of minimal standards set out in EU directives, tracing their evolution since the 1990s. The second part problematises these provisions by looking at their implementation and impact from the perspective of workers themselves. We explore five structural sources of rights violations: 1) the subordination of subsistence to paid work created by welfare conditionality; 2) the subordination of legal residency to paid work; 3) the difficulty of claiming employment rights in court due to the casualisation of employment relations and rising judicial costs; 4) the underenforcement of worker-protective standards by administrative agencies; and 5) the decline of union membership. Subsequently, we address the formulation of justice claims around economic relations, international migration and childcare. Starting from interviewees’ recollections and interpretations of concrete injustices, we outline their underlying ideals of justice, mobilisation strategies, mutual perceptions and expectations for a post-Brexit future.

Results suggest that the evolution of economic conditions during the last decade has exacerbated and exposed deep tensions between economic justice and the ideal of the worker citizen, the person who proves their citizenship through labour. While all interviewees adhered to a version of this ideal, notably by expressing reservations toward universal basic income, they also criticised its contribution to current material and symbolic exclusions. For an increasing proportion of workers on non-standard contracts, the worker citizen’s promise of decent pay and positive identity has been replaced by low wages, short termism and unpredictability of hours. This has made it difficult for them to plan their personal and family life, enforce their rights in court and participate in political struggles. Official exhortations to take up paid employment under threat of benefit sanctions have reminded young mothers that family-provided childcare was not considered worthy of legal protection and financial compensation, but also that most jobs did not pay enough to turn its commodification into a plausible alternative. Migrant domestic workers lost their right to renew their visas and therefore the capacity to effectively enforce all employment-related rights. Trades unions have adapted their structure and tactics to deal with these challenges, but economic struggles have also been waged in other sites such as informal grassroots organisations, political parties and think tanks. The remedies advanced to tackle economic injustice have included minimum wage enforcement, stronger legal underpinnings for trade unions activities, state-funded vocational training, public awareness campaigns, guaranteed means of subsistence for carers and long-term residence rights. For most respondents, Brexit raised the prospect of further deregulation and tighter migration control.

    Structured keywords

  • Migration Mobilities Bristol
  • Perspectives on Work



  • Economic struggles

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