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Migrant Labour in the Contemporary City

The article introduces the issue of migrant labour in contemporary cities and its influence upon the rise of increasingly globalized urban economies.

As we have already discussed in week 1, migrants are typically attracted to cities by opportunities for employment. Co-ethnic networks and migrant support organisations also usually abound in large cities and can assist newcomers with finding accommodation and jobs. But how, are migrants integrated into the economic fabric of the city? What sorts of jobs do they do? These are some of the questions that we will seek to answer here and in the following steps of this week.

Migrant labour is seen as part and parcel of the emergence of contemporary urban economies. Starting with the pioneering work of the North American sociologist Saskia Sassen, published in the early 1990s, the argument has been made that a small number of big cities emerge as important players in the capitalist world economy as global financial and business centres.

While these cities attract highly skilled workers from across the world who populate their rising finance and business sectors, they also attract less skilled migrants who service these expanding managerial and professional classes. These migrant workers occupy low prestige and low paid jobs in services such as cleaning, catering and caring. The occupational structure of global cities is such that they become a powerful magnet for migrant workers at the highest and lowest end of the employment scale.

While the main tenets of this “global city” thesis remain true, the argument has been refined in several respects. Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Çaglar have proposed a more nuanced understanding of the interaction between cities and migrant employment. They have argued that we need to think more broadly about the spatial dimension of global economic restructuring and at the position of cities and migrants within this wider framework. They pointed to the fact that global economic restructuring not only affects the major metropolises of the Global North, such as London, Paris, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles that have been studied within the ‘global city’ paradigm. Rather, it impacts all cities, including those in the Global South, such as Hong Kong, Johannesburg and São Paulo, but also medium-sized cities with a population between half a million and three million people that have emerged as regional or global poles of economic activity, such as Amsterdam or Milan.

Global economic restructuring invites a ‘scalar’ approach that considers how different sized cities interact with the state level, but also among each other both within and beyond state borders. Cities compete with each other for state subsidies but also for their position as transport or trade hubs, as well as for their role as poles of attraction for culture and tourism.

Migrants come to be integrated into this dynamic socio-economic and political context of cities. While migrant employment patterns are largely characterised by the polarised occupational integration analysed by Saskia Sassen in the early 1990s, new features are also emerging today. Thus, for example, migrants become an important pole of attraction because of the emergence of ethnic neighbourhoods with their particular shops and restaurants. Such neighbourhoods attract tourism but are also considered as factors for a city’s ‘quality of life’ and thus may attract both native and foreign highly skilled managerial classes. Migrants may also bring new skills in sectors like construction because they master some special traditional craft, or in sectors like industrial or fashion design precisely because their diversified cultural background may contribute to innovation. Migrants have important transnational links, they can thus boost trade activities between their place of origin and their city of settlement.

In the new globalised economy migrant employment in cities serves different dynamics. On the one hand it captures the socioeconomic polarisation outlined in the global city paradigm, according to which migrants come to occupy both top end managerial positions and the lower end menial jobs. This entails also issues of competition with the local labour force and in general with the local resident population as migrants can put a strain on the provision of public services and goods (see step 2.8). On the other hand, migrants also become factors of social and economic innovation for cities and can represent a lever for further growth.

© European University Institute
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Migration and Cities

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