Tackling underemployment of migrants in Scotland – Moving forward?

(CC) Image by Luke Hoersten on Flickr

In Scotland, qualified engineers working as kitchen helpers, fully trained nurses as care assistants, or post-graduate students as labourers at conveyer belts is not as uncommon a phenomenon as we might like to think. Instead, it seems to be an often frustrating experience shared by many people living in Scotland, who have gained their qualifications, skills and work experiences abroad.


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Hyo Eun Shin supports Migrants’ Rights Scotland and the Migrants’ Rights Hub Project as the Regional Coordinator for Scotland. Before moving to Scotland, she has been engaged in issues of migration and human rights through her involvement in various civil society organisations in Germany and South Korea. She holds a degree in Sociology with minor subjects European Ethnology and Political Science from Freie Universität Berlin, and a law degree from Humboldt Universität Berlin.
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While we are still faced with a lack of comprehensive and reliable data with regard to the labour market experiences of migrants across Scotland, a growing body of research suggests that migrants living in Scotland often work in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs for pay and conditions not attractive to the locals. It would be wrong, however, to assume that these migrants are unskilled or lack the qualifications needed for jobs at the higher end of the labour market.

On the contrary, the all-UK study published by ICAR in 2008, for example, notes that “many refugees with higher skills and/or professional qualifications are only able to find work at levels below their skills and are therefore underemployed.” And a regional study of migrant workers in Fife states that

over 70% make no use of their qualifications or skills in their current job… 45% said employers in this country did not recognise their qualifications at all.

This reality does not only lead to feelings of frustration and loss of self-confidence among affected migrants, but also feels like a waste of talent and skills. It also runs counter to the Scottish Government Economic Strategy published in 2007. In the strategy paper, migration is recognised as a vital part for developing a sustainable Scottish economy in the face of an ageing and, in the long-term, shrinking population. Diverging from the prevalent rhetoric of migration as a ‘threat’ to the UK, the Scottish Government has, in recent years, repeatedly voiced an interest in attracting and retaining migrants, as well as in facilitating and enhancing skills utilisation among Scotland’s migrant communities. However, the disparity between these political announcements and the above findings of widespread underemployment raises questions: How can this problem be tackled, what needs to be done?

Can the recently published final report of a Scoping Study on Support Mechanisms for the Recognition of the Skills, Learning and Qualifications of Migrant Workers and Refugees in Scotland provide (part of) the answer? The study, which was funded by the Scottish Government, aimed at considering “how best to facilitate the recognition of skills, learning and qualifications from overseas to assist migrants in accessing higher value employment and in continuing their skills development” in Scotland.

Anyone hoping for a comprehensive exploration of possibilities to further the wider (societal) recognition of migrants’ skills, learning and qualifications, or even a plan of action might feel disappointed when reading the report: From the outset, the study restricts itself to discussing “a possible recognition service for migrant workers and refugees legally entitled to work or study in Scotland”, and to propose recognition models to progress related debates. To this end, the researchers have engaged, over a period of 14 months, with stakeholders in the college, higher education (HE), information, advice and guidance (IAG) sector, as well as with various NGOs, employers and migrants.

The findings, however, are somewhat of a let-down: The report states that “there is no shortage of recognition-related activity in Scotland” both with regard to formal qualifications gained abroad and prior learning, skills and experience of people lacking formal qualifications documentation. A wide range of organisations are reported to be already active, for example, by providing advice and guidance, delivering English language courses, transferring overseas qualifications, or offering information as part of more holistic forms of support to migrants. The main issue is said to be their insufficient visibility, which could be overcome by developing a “common, easily recognisable brand identity or logo” in order to raise migrants’ awareness of services already on offer.

The establishment of an information and signposting service or centre directly targeting migrant workers and refugees is suggested as a “more ambitious” step forward. In order to warrant accessibility as well as face-to-face support to migrants across Scotland, an online service is proposed to complement a physical recognition service. Other suggestions range from employing multi-lingual staff to setting up an independent management board in order to ensure an effective and impartial service provision.

So what’s the let-down?

While the report mentions in its conclusions that stakeholders contributing to the study had to be reminded at times “to look beyond institutional and organisational provision and to more widely consider how the recognition needs of migrant workers and refugees in Scotland might be met”, the study’s scope and methods seem to fall short of that.

  • Instead of taking migrants’ experiences, aspirations, and needs with regard to their skills development as the starting point, and thus building a more in-depth understanding of the various factors resulting in their underemployment in Scotland, the perspectives of migrants were curtailed: Among the 160 contributors to the study only 17 were migrants, who participated in 3 separate focus groups only at the later stages of the research.
  • Also, with regard to existing services, the study relied on self-assessments of service providers instead of grounding it on migrants’ experiences with the services provided. Only the latter could have told us about the quality and usefulness of existing services to migrants in the pursuit of their aspirations.
  • While the report mentions that “the key overriding barriers to progression for migrant workers are language ability, transferability of skills and qualifications and employer attitudes”, the focus on institutional forms of recognition results in considering employers as a target group only in terms of actively informing them about qualifications frameworks and the benefits of recognitions services in Scotland, rather than as a target group for broader campaigns to challenge and change employers’ perceptions of migrants’ skills and work experiences gained overseas. The low participation rate of employers and the recruitment sector invited to the study signals a lack of interest, making such activities all the more important and urgent.

Certainly, on the positive side, the above study should be welcomed for at least evidencing a concern by Scottish governmental bodies and public service providers about the underemployment of migrants in Scotland. The establishment of a dedicated recognition service might be a step in the right direction, and even the need for ‘branding’ and ‘marketing’ such services cannot be denied straightaway (although concerns about merely ‘cosmetic’ changes are advisable).

But this is certainly not all that needs to be done? If the above concerns are to translate into real changes for migrants in Scotland, can we really do without questioning the reduction of migrants to a mere source of labour, a concept ingrained in the Scottish Government’s proclamations? Can the underemployment of migrants be tackled without fully recognizing migrants as constituents of communities across Scotland and as individuals with diverse motives, skills, and ambitions that include but also go well beyond the labour market? Addressing these questions, it seems to me, would be a truly “ambitious” step forward.