Guest post by Anastasia Tataryn, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Warwick Law School. Anastasia's work is focused on transnational labour migration: immigration law, labour and employment law, particularly with regards to precarious work in the UK. Her PhD thesis questions how and why political reactions and media attention to immigration obscures realities and induces fears about work and employment. 

Over recent months, debates over immigration in the United Kingdom reveal a new phase of politics for the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition and the opposition Labour party. The current vehemence about the presence of foreigners is commonly attributed to the rise in popularity and prominence of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP’s anti-Europe and anti-immigrant stance depends on popular scare-mongering that disproportionately blames non-British workers and racially-identified populations for everything from shifting labour market demands to National Health Service (NHS) wait times and motor vehicle traffic. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage represents a wave of populism and protectionism that's common not only in the United Kingdom but throughout Europe as well as North America. However, the UK political parties (Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour) have seized UKIP’s bait and political debates are largely driven by the UKIP agenda. Consequently, the ‘immigration debate’ is not a true debate at all. ‘Immigration’ is a flame that's being fanned on a daily basis through the sensationalized, hyperbolized, and reactionary political discussions featured in British media.

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Some argue that the reactions to immigration are unrelated to real economic fears, but rather spring from anxieties about cultural change. Economic data from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at the University College London published on 4 November 2014, for instance, demonstrate that immigrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) have continuously made a positive fiscal contribution to the British economy (see coverage in the Telegraph versus the Guardian). Nevertheless, political discussions and media remain focused on racially/ethnically defined foreigners—for instance, Eastern European workers, but without specifying who's from with the EEA and who's outside the EEA—as if they were firstly, taking British jobs away from British workers, and secondly, taking advantage of the social welfare system and draining the NHS budget.

The label ‘migrant’ suggests not only a temporary status. These individuals are also often believed to consent to work in low-waged, low-skilled, and precarious work because they're usually from less developed countries. Thus, their exploitable and degraded status is justified in relation to what conditions they might have been facing in employment in their countries of origin.

In my PhD work, I began thinking about immigration and migrant labour in the UK through concerns about the label ‘irregular migrant labour’ (IML). IML was used in policy reports, international labour and migration information, and EU policy discussions on border control. The term ‘irregular migrant’ gained popularity, although IML remains an ambiguous term that is not clearly defined. It suggests a demographic of workers who are not-regular and non-citizens, yet the people referred to through this label are not clearly undocumented (‘illegal’). The label exemplifies the precarious situation of persons who are not included as regular workers or employees in a standard employment relationship in the labour market, but who are not nationals in their country of work. These persons are considered to be ‘migrant,’ which in spite of holding a valid work permit or having the right to free movement of labour within the EU, can mean that they're racially and ethnically singled out as being ‘non-British’ foreigners.

Identifying how and why this label was used, it became evident that the situation of IML, while commonly addressed in immigration discussions, isn't simply a consequence of immigration law and policy. Rather, the demand for low-waged, bottom-end (exploitable) workers in precarious employment conditions was driving a labour force from across Europe and within the UK into ‘irregular’ labour. Furthermore, both immigration and labour/employment laws, permit IML to persist. The label of ‘irregular’ points to these persons existing in legal grey areas. These legal grey areas are the shadows, the gaps, in the law, where immigration and labour/employment laws are built on predetermined categories that identify how persons are included and excluded as they live, work, and participate in an economy.

However, as Bridget Anderson suggests in her 2013 book Us & Them, this inclusion and exclusion is based on individuals’ conformity with socially and morally established behaviours enshrined in the nation-state. The nation-state, as a governing structure and bureaucracy, doesn't determine the limits of acceptable behaviour. Rather, social, historical, and economic market (ideological) values have developed into a regulatory ‘community of value’ that elusively regulate membership based on ideal conditions of desirability.

A political-juridical-ecotechnical approach to immigration and labour draws on Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophy as a fundamental ontological questioning. Nancy’s work disrupts traditional Western philosophical thinking and offers an alternative thinking that exposes the intersection of immigration concerns, labour market demands, cultural fears and ideas of citizenship, and economic participation.

This approach critiques the order and system of governance that has created, and depends on, a politically identified category of workers as irregular, migrant, labourers. Notions of who is regular and who is irregular are based on historically specific power hierarchies that are reliant on a particular understanding of being from a nexus of citizenship/subject/community/sovereignty. Through the elusive category of IML, the excess of nation-state-centred categories are written into the dominant ideology. Yet IML is only included as excluded. The regular citizen labourer, the reverse of IML, is based on points of reference that have been made to seem as if they were necessary and natural. However, they are the product of historically specific ideologies, namely the nation-state and market economic system. For instance, the ideology of the globalized market economy is seen to be the only possibility of economic growth.

My methodology is, firstly, political, in the sense of considering the political discourses that identify immigration as a problem affecting labour market participation. I map these discourses onto questions about the meaning and significance of citizenship. I engage with scholarship and critical theory in order to think of migration and labour from the point of view of ‘radical change.’

Secondly, my methodology is juridical, when I question the application of legal rights frameworks for IML. Furthermore, law, as a practice and as an idea supports identity as a legal subjectivity. I explore law through Nancy’s work, where law is both juridical and existential. Law is instrumentalised as a tool of the nation-state, embedded in a market economic ideology, where law maintains persons in legal grey areas (as irregular). Immigration law and labour law enact both juridical and existential law.

Finally, my approach is eco-technical. Eco-technics, in Nancy’s work, links the eco, home, household (from οίκος, meaning ‘house’), with technē (from τέχνη, meaning ‘craft’ or ‘art’). The technical structure that orders and ‘makes sense of’ the interruptive, incoherent, and incommensurable (often ‘law’ refers to this technical practice, technique of order). Eco-technics assumes both nature and technology when it refers to the capital circulation in the world that effects the circulation of sense in the world.

A political-juridical-ecotechnical approach to IML involves thinking of (a) the technical circulation of capital and exchange known through the market economy, and (b) the intersections of beings—people, bodies, interacting and forming labour or community relationships—beyond technical, predetermined, categories. The need to engage in such a ‘fundamental ontological questioning’ comes from the need to think differently in order to address the current experiences of vulnerability and marginalisation in work and citizenship and to bring sense to the hyperbolised, sensationalized and reactionary discussions currently dominating immigration and labour debates in the UK.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Tataryn A. (2015). Transnational Labour Migration: A True Debate? Available at: (Accessed [date]).