Key Problems with Nightwork

Feature image courtesy of familymwr’s photostream

Migrant Observatory reports that in 2011, 6 million or 14.4% of the workforce in the UK were foreign-born people. In the same year, nearly half of UK’s migrants lived in London, and were concentrated in low-skilled sectors (food manufacturing, industrial/commercial cleaning, domestic work).

Throughout the research I carried out during the past year it became evident that the majority of London’s night workers are migrants who have a black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Yet, their problems and night workers themselves are invisible in mainstream society. Here are the urgent problems that I found during my research:

[ul style=”arrow”]

  • Exploitation & Forced labour
  • Health problems
  • Debt bondage
  • Poverty Pay
  • Risks to Personal Safety [/ul]

[h3]Exploitation & Forced Labour[/h3]

While most night workers are legal, nightwork is rife with exploitation and forced labour. Nightwork often is low-paid, demanding work, with ultra-flexible hours and expendability due to no contracts. Industry practices such as ties-in erode individuals’ position to negotiate their work contracts, and inevitably are coerced into forced labour.

[h3]Health Problems[/h3]

Chefs, market traders, paramedics and policemen work between 2-6 nights a week and up to 13 hours nightshifts. Policemen complain that they have to change from a two-night shift pattern (Friday, Saturday) to a Monday day shift, spending Sunday to recover. Research in British Medical Journal shows the risk of stroke is 5% higher in night workers. Added to that, Dr Dan Hackman says that:

“Night shift workers are up all the time and they don’t have a defined rest period. They are in a state of perpetual nervous system activation which is bad for things like obesity and cholesterol.”

[h3]Debt Bondage[/h3]

Debt bondage is defined by the UN as a ‘practice similar to slavery’, although it is not actual slavery. Debt bondage or bonded debt is when employers charge their employees a large amount of interests and require it be paid by extracting the amount from the working hours. This practice becomes similar to slavery because the debt cannot be paid in a reasonable amount of time.  . In many cases, other expenses such as food and accommodation are added and the debt grows exponentially. The debt becomes impossible to be paid off because some employers deduct less value from the debt than what the employee should be paid. For example, if an employee is owed one workday/night’s value of £40, the employer often deducts only £20 against the person’s debt. In extreme cases, if the person dies, the debt continues with the employee’s children. Because in many parts of the world debt bondage is still a common practice, many migrants accept it, but it is illegal. Migrant sex workers, for example, are a category of day/night workers where debt bondage is common.

[h3]Poverty Pay[/h3]

Poverty pay is when a worker is paid the legal minimum wage but is still living below the poverty line. An example of poverty pay is when a server in a diner gets paid $6-$7 an hour, and makes $1,000 per month, but cannot afford to pay for her basic living expenses. In London, someone who is paid the national minimum wage (£6.19), which is below London’s living wage (£8.55), is deemed to live in working poverty. Night workers, like the cleaner in the fruit and vegetable market I spoke to, are often paid the national minimum wage and cannot survive unless they get two or three jobs.

[h3]Personal Safety[/h3]

Night workers are at greater risk of harm and their personal safety is often threatened because of the nature of their work. Some studies have shown how taxi drivers working nightshifts in New York and Dublin have learnt to assess their customers’ trustworthiness in order to prevent being robbed, beaten or killed on duty. A taxi driver in London told me that he has been robbed a dozen times in just three months and knew of one colleague who was tied to a tree and robbed. Rickshaw drivers in London face similar danger as they battle with unruly customers, a largely unregulated trade, and the anger from minicab associations who despise the rickshaws.

The examples given above illustrate that employers across the UK take advantage of night workers as a vulnerable demographic. Migrant night workers are at risk of poor working conditions, additional health problems, risk of personal safety and forced labour. Often times employers know that migrants will accept these poor conditions and personal risks because of their precarious immigration status or because of blatant discrimination in the mainstream workforce.

Those who can leave nightwork often do as soon as possible, but there are many who don’t find other options. These migrant night workers need the protection of the UK government and the support of employers to make a positive change. Follow us for the concluding blog with recommendations.


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