Night Workers: London’s Unseen Migrants Workforce

In order for London to have a 24 hour society, many people staff the restaurants, hotels, shops, shipping, and factories that run around-the-clock. The mini cab and bus drivers, market traders, night staff in hospitals or cafes, city traders, firemen, and night cleaners work long nights in London and can be seen on every street corner and building. London’s night workers are by enlarge migrants who to take up unsociable hours, low paid jobs, and sometimes dangerous working conditions.

In this blog series, I will explore the lives of night workers in London. Over the last year, I have conducted fieldwork by following, observing, and interviewing workers at night. In the last three months, I have observed night workers in fruit, vegetable and fish markets, rickshaw drivers, and Chefs in Chinatown.  I hope to shine a light on the often unseen lives of night workers.

[h3]What is night work?[/h3]

Nearly one million and a half of permanent night workers in the UK are on various nightshift patterns. The Labour Force Survey classifies night work as follows:

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  • Three-shift working: one week working in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the night
  • Continental shifts: 3 mornings, followed by 2 afternoons and then 2 nights with a break between shift changes
  • Sometimes nights/days: alternate between night and day shifts
  • Permanent night shifts: between 18:00 – 06:00


[h3]Who are London’s night workers?[/h3]

The same statistics cited above show that UK’s night workforce is mostly male due to the types of work at night (construction workers, security). For example, almost 85% of continental shift workers are males and only 15% are females. Another trend is that the majority of night workers in low skilled and poorly paid jobs (cleaning and security) are migrants from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Majority of night workers in professions like the police, ambulance service or drivers and construction on the Underground are white.

Nearly half of the UK’s migrants live in London. Many migrants balance night shifts with work or studies during the day, in addition to family commitments. I found that those up and working the graveyard shift are unseen and vulnerable because of the nature of their work.

During my research, I observed that the managers were white British whilst the Asian or Eastern European migrants were using forklifts or packing in the back of the stands. I also spent one night riding along with rickshaw drivers. The 200 rickshaw drivers in London are mostly Bangladeshi men. They had chosen rickshaw driving because of lack of better paid jobs in the day. Rickshaw driving at night is risky and very demanding physically.

Migrant night workers reported problems with isolation, vulnerability, de-skilling, and risk of being attacked while at work more than they would during the day. They become vulnerable due to long night shifts and risk being injured or cause accidents on the way home because of tiredness. Some night workers, such as the night mini-cab drivers have been victims of robbery or abuse.

[h3]Why is night work dangerous?[/h3]

Research by the Institute of Race Relations on race violence and the night-economy documented fifty-five media race-related reports of abuse and physical violence linked to night-time economy between 2010 and 2011. No study however, reports hate crimes against migrants working in London’s night economy. This area needs a comprehensive study to determine the scale of this phenomenon.

Through my research, I found that migrant night workers are vulnerable and predisposed to neglect and abuse because they work in poor and dangerous conditions, and long shifts of 12-13 hours. In addition, the UKBA enforces work restrictions for A2 nationals (from Bulgaria and Romania), which forces these migrants to work nights in unseen and underground sectors (markets, rickshaw drivers). They work undocumented and therefore suffer abuse from employers and sometimes customers.

Some types of night work, such as taxi driving, are more dangerous at night than in the day because they work on their own, which puts them in a vulnerable position when they pick up new customers.  A taxi driver from north London told me that he was robbed at night a dozen of times in the space of three months when he worked nights with his mini-cab.

For this blog series, I selected interviews with night workers in order to highlight their experiences of working in London’s night economy that tell their stories. I will introduce the subject of night workers in London by sharing three case studies of night workers and then examining the key issues related to night work, such as low wage, risk for their own safety, isolation, neglect and abuse.

[h3]Where do they come from? Why do they work at night? And how is night work impacting on their social and family lives?[/h3]

Please join us as we look deeper at this important topic: migrant night workers in London.

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