Research Findings

Between a promise and a salary: unpaid labor among student-migrant-workers


July 7, 2020

It has been argued that ‘capital’s lifeblood is unpaid work’. Scholars have examined unpaid work in sectors such as care work, creative industries, and voluntary work.

In a recent article, I demonstrate that many non-EU student-migrants perform unpaid work in an effort to build a successful future while inhabiting a legally insecure migration status. The students perform unpaid work in temporary and platform jobs to secure a renewed temporary student residence permit, as well as in unpaid internships with the hope of getting access to future highly skilled employment.

The legal status of non-EU citizens—compared to Finnish and EU citizens—creates a marked difference between students. Non-EU student-migrants often need to work in unstable employment relationships to make a living and to meet residence permit qualifications, while citizen-students more often work with the objective of gaining both experience and an income through more stable forms of employment.

I argue that the imposition of scattered hours of unpaid labor in the lives of student-migrant-workers is part of the global development of capitalism, which strives to extract value from activities not configured—or remunerated—as productive labor.

Salaries or promises?

I conducted in-depth interviews with holders of a temporary one-year student permits who were working and studying in Finland. Being granted a student permit is dependent on the applicant’s ability to procure proof of sufficient economic funds (6720 euros/year in 2020), private health insurance, and progression in studies. Holders of a student permit have the right to work 25 hours a week. Non-EU students are however excluded from national welfare.

The student-migrant-workers’ heterogeneous work experiences range from cleaning, news delivery, food delivery, sales, and engineering. But, across these diverse jobs, the migrant student-workers I interviewed identified similar concerns: scattered unpaid work hours performed in between and after shifts, or explicitly as part of the contract.

This experience of performing unpaid work alongside paid work is most common in three types of work arrangements.

First, student-migrant-workers work in knowledge-intensive start-ups to gain work experience in their own field of interest. However, the work is often partly or completely remunerated not by wages but by promises of a successful future.

Second, many undertake work through staffing agencies that issue zero-hour contracts. Here unpaid work is a direct result of the work contract, which squeezes workers’ labor by not paying for travel time and waiting time between shifts. However, student-migrant-workers also consciously undertake unpaid work hours. To secure further shifts and, therefore, secure their student permits, some of them claim fewer hours than they have actually performed in order to be seen as efficient workers as well as to avoid breaching the 25-hour limit on work.

Third, the platform economy has increasingly become an arena of precarious labor, where many migrant student-workers find employment. Platform-mediated work usually takes the contractual form of a service agreement in which the worker is considered a self-employed entrepreneur. Similar to those employed on zero-hour contracts, the work performed by the self-employed is structured by unpaid gaps between orders and shifts.

Although these work sectors are common for students and precarious workers in general, student-migrant-workers are more prone to undertake unpaid work because of their insecure legal status and insecure future prospects in the labor market.

Non-remunerated production and desired futures

These student-migrant-workers’ experiences reveal the various forms of unpaid work which capital exploits—exploitation which exacerbates existing social inequalities. Because, for these workers, it is not just their legal status, but also their socioeconomic status, social networks, race, and gender that shape their experiences of precarity, as demonstrated in earlier research.

In conclusion, the student-migrant-worker embodies the hope of achieving a desired future, which includes finding work corresponding to one’s education and staying in the EU. Although unpaid or semi-free internships and start-up jobs play a role in realizing such desired futures, they also constitute the basis of non-remunerated production.

Thus I argue that temporary student residence permits—indeed, the overarching border regime—facilitate the creation of an exploitable labor force of student-migrant-workers. When viewed in this light, student-migrants appear not solely as subjects on a path towards highly skilled work, but rather as subjects engaged in hybrid forms of work that cut across paid and unpaid labor.

Read More

Olivia Maury. “Between a Promise and a Salary: Student-Migrant-Workers’ Experiences of Precarious Labour Markets.” Work, Employment and Society 2019.

Image: James Diewald via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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