Where do illegal migrants work?

OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

David Rooney

In which sectors are most illegal immigrants employed?

While it is difficult to compile a precise list of all the different occupations practised by unauthorised migrants, information from regularisation procedures shows a far wider range of sectors than perhaps many would expect. A study of six OECD countries – France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United States – has shown that undocumented migrants are fairly young on the whole.

In France, Italy and Spain, three-quarters of those regularised are under 40 years of age. Furthermore, it is possible to identify certain core sectors that favour foreign labour, both authorised and unauthorised. These are agriculture, building and civil engineering, small-scale industry, tourism, hotels and catering, and services to households and to businesses, including computer services.

There are several reasons why those sectors tend to employ immigrant labour. First and foremost, it brings greater flexibility to production work. The seasonal nature of farming activities, for example, is such that farmers are constantly looking for workers prepared to perform arduous and intensive work. The foreign presence in these sectors can also be explained by the constant endeavour to minimise costs and enhance labour flexibility, especially in Europe and the United States.

By contrast with agriculture and industry, whose share in gross domestic product is declining in most of the industrialised countries, illegal immigrants are very much involved in the services sector where their presence has coincided with a rise in employment. In some countries, they are increasingly present in activities now shunned by nationals: sanitation, cleaning and school education. In countries like France and Italy, undocumented skilled foreigners find work in science and language teaching, as well as in hospital services, though usually at much lower rates of pay than nationals. Seasonal tourism, retail trading and catering, where long hours have to be worked, are other sources of employment. The growth of services to businesses, such as equipment maintenance and servicing, caretaking, and households – child minding and other domestic services – has also been favourable to unauthorised workers.

The growth in outsourcing in most OECD countries is another recent trend which has favoured the recruitment of undocumented immigrants. It has enabled firms in several sectors to reduce their welfare costs and evade the constraints imposed by labour legislation. The textile/clothing and building/civil engineering industries often use outsourcing, as do services (see earlier article). The practice has led to what might be termed “false” dependent employment, whereby employees of an outsourcing firm are effectively self-employed freelancers. However, in most cases they work solely for the subcontractor, who, though often receiving equipment and other help from the outsourcing company, is free to employ whomever he or she wishes. Which often means recruiting illegal foreign workers to minimise costs. The outsourcing firm is indirectly responsible for this, but in many OECD countries has until now been absolved of any legal responsibility as far as recruitment is concerned. That might be about to change. France, for example, would like to see more responsibility being placed on outsourcing firms for the recruitment practices of their subcontractors.

Illegal employment reflects to some degree the rigidities in the labour market, notably in terms of flexibility and adjustment of production patterns. It also reflects the problems of dealing with the underground economy. Most of all, it underlines the fact that resolving the problem of the undeclared worker requires more than just policies to control migration flows. END


Ź “Some lessons drawn from recent regularisations of undocumented foreigners” in Combating the Employment of Illegal Immigrant Workers, OECD, FORTHCOMING March 2000.

©OECD Observer No 219, December 1999

Economic data


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