Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New World Economy

Author:   Shelley, Toby
Publisher:   Zed Books
Reviewer:   Naziya Naweed

Shelley, Toby. 2007. Exploited: Migrant Labour in the New World Economy. London: Zed Books, ISBN-978 1 84277 851 7 (Hb), pp. 183

Migration is a global phenomenon; its linkages with growth and development for the country of origin and the country of destination have been established in the migration discourse. However, there are many issues and challenges related to the current migration pattern; that range from abuse and exploitation of the migrant labour, the problem of irregular migration, in particular human trafficking and smuggling, the brain drain of skilled human resource to racism and xenophobia. Therefore, if anyone interested in knowing the shallow lanes of the glittering opportunity that awaits in the other part of the globe, then the book by Toby Shelley is the must-read. The author is a journalist with the financial times. In his two decades of journalistic effort, the author has reported extensively from the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and the sub-Saharan Africa region. 

The focus of the book goes beyond the migrant labours "the fortunate few" that can accompany their family to new territory and convert their migration status from temporary to permanent. In its place, the purpose is to look deep inside the intricacies of the structure of the economy (capitalist system) that perpetuates migrant exploitation. The book offers a comprehensive account that the migrant "abuse is not only widespread but is part of the structure of key industries in the Global North" (p. 6). It is the central line of argument that runs throughout the book. Although, the author main focus centres on the migrant labours in the UK but has taken inferences from other sectors in countries like Italy, Spain, Oslo, and the USA, employed as domestic labours, sex workers and as agriculturalists, making it cross-sectional study. For instance, in the introductory part itself, the author set the stage for further inquiry into how the Migrant workers that surround us, "doing jobs we shy away from, providing skills we no longer have, working hours we prefer to spend at home". These words are powerful enough to grasp the kinds of menial jobs they are employed into that tied them to exploitation and abuse at the hand of the employer. As Shelley puts in ‘the political and economic changes have widened the prospects for labour and capital to ''meet on a global marketplace'' but for millions of potential migrant workers, what brings them into the workforce is more convincing and stressful than what persuades an employer to take on a batch of foreign employees’ (p. 2).

The sequence of the book is clear-cut. This book has four chapters with a separate chapter on the introduction and conclusion. The first chapter "Migration in Context" glance at the increase in the rate of migration through the prism of historical perspective. It highlights the push and pull factors of migration as a basis of peoples mobility while laying equal emphasis on the various migratory tide. However, the chapter is also credited with providing a critical take to the "victim-villain dichotomy" of the undocumented migrant workers in Britain, in the domain of migrant trafficking (p. 25). Shelly also pictured how the government through inhibiting the movement of the labour have created two classes of criminals- the workers (who want a job) and the smuggler (who smuggle goods and the migrant workers).

The second chapter "Migrant Labour" documents the migrant exploitation and abuse in the seven sectors; food industry, the cleaning industry, construction, transport sector (land, seas and Airports), hospitality, domestic labour, and the sex industry. The nature of the exploitation ranges from long and tedious working hours, lower wages, poor housing conditions, language barriers and abolishment of contracts, deceit and enslavement. In the subsections, the author tries to establish a relationship between economic necessity and the use of migrant labour in achieving the objective. Shelley's study is based on data gathered from different secondary sources, journals and scholarly work. As an empirically sound chapter, the author has substantiated his arguments with drawing valid inferences from international laws, reports on Slavery Convention and International labour organisation convention concerning forced or compulsory labour, to name a few. 

The third chapter "Impacts" discusses the impact of migrant labour on the economy as well as the society of the host country. It is an undeniable fact that migrant labour brings benefits for the host country, such as boosting the “national income” and “soaking up inflationary pressures”. For instance, the author quotes officials statistics generated by ITEM Club economists and argued that in Britain in the year 1997 to 2005, the net inward migration added 0.4 per cent a year to the growth rate. It further argued that without such migration, the potential growth rate would have been just 0.1 per cent. Shelley further remarked; the effect of migrant labour on the developing country's population is more nuanced. It may be “negative if employers are able to use migrants to price locals out of jobs or to worsen the conditions of those jobs” (P. 10). 

The fourth chapter "Government Response and Responsibilities" examines three strands of government policy responses towards migrant's labours– determination of job allocation based on race, its enforcement, and policing of migrant employment- giving low priority to migrant's rights. Based on the shreds of evidence gathered, Shelley remarked: "in all three policy strands the British government is at best inept and at worst wilfully negligent of the welfare of migrant workers, documented and undocumented" (p. 153). 

There are some crucial points that the book offers. Firstly, the author undertook the task of explaining the categories/ variables used in the study to reach out to the maximum readers. For example, he makes a distinction between migrant and immigrant, but beware that "some of the sources quoted do not make the distinction" (p. 5). He further proceeds by defining what abuse is. He described abuse as an "exploitation over and above the norm imposed on indigenous workers" (p. 6). Shelley has further linked the increase in the productivity of the worker, to an enlarged level of exploitation. Secondly, Shelley argues that the dependence of primary industries on the migrant labours has increased significantly in the countries of the global North due to changes in the pattern of demography that has resulted into forced labours, ‘modern-day slavery for modern-day economies’.

The real breakthrough of the book is going beyond documenting the exploitation of the migrant workers to include modest proposals for improving their conditions globally and with the hope for a shift in the trajectory of migrant labour policy soon; regularising the status of migrants; to ensure health and safety measures are adequately available with inspectors charged with their duties; granting legal status to forced migrant labourers; opposition to the radicalisation of entry to low skilled work in Britain; allocation of taxes made by migrant labours for the locals levels; curtailing the poaching of professional staff hailing from the developed world; enlarging the ambit of the labour movement to proffer assistance to migrant workers. Shelley proposals back on the principles laid down for organised labour requirement. The author further shares his optimism that these principles can provide a starting point for a discussion on the labour migration corridor that network with the capitalist system of exploitation across the global North.

In totality, this book is brilliantly plotted with a straightforward narrative structure that makes it an easy read. It is a perfect study for anyone interested in seeking insights into the migrant exploitation in the global North (economically developed nations). It will be informative to readers who wish to understand how the Britain government treats migrant workers as a factor of production without placing their rights high on their agenda. Instead, they left it to the labour movement, community workers and non-governmental organisations to defend the migrant workers. However, there are some limitations to work, as well. The author misses out on full chapter on what happens when the migrant's workers return to the country of origin and the effect it left on the economic structure of the host society, its addition could have broadened the ambit of the study. However, at the methodological level shortcomings, in chapter 3, the author has relied on macroeconomics studies to substantiate his argument; some readers might find it challenging to comprehend. All-inclusive, this book would be helpful for scholars studying migration, labour laws and human rights abuse who are looking for a comprehensive work with elaborate use of global data.



1.     Wickramasekara, P. (2008). Globalisation, international labour migration and the rights of migrant workers. Third World Quarterly, 29(7), 1248.

2.     Toby Shelley. Frenwood Publishing. Retrieved from https://fernwoodpublishing.ca/authors/view/toby-shelley


Naziya Naweed, Research Scholar, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

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