Few aspects of modern life remain untouched by the presence of a subcontract. This is not only a key employment relationship for many migrant workers but, more broadly, an indication of the way we live now. Think of the food that is produced and packaged before ending up on supermarket shelves, the hotel chamber maid, the now ubiquitous coffee shop, the construction site, call centres, the hospitality business or IT services. In all, we encounter people employed by agencies that are subcontracted to provide workers. These workers may be migrants and, very often, they are temporarily employed.

Any grand economic scheme or ambition for reasons of both speed and efficiency is likely to depend on some kind of subcontract. Indirect employment via a subcontract can also support direct employment. Take the case of the quest for the high skilled migrant, such as those in working in financial services in the City of London. These people are unlikely to be subcontracted workers, but who cleans their offices? Banks may well directly employ their traders, but it’s likely that their offices will be cleaned by indirectly employed, subcontracted workers who are often migrants.

The issue here is not that migration somehow causes this subcontracting. Rather, the recruitment of subcontracted migrant workers fits with the intensified use of such contracts in liberalised, deregulated labour markets. This is a general trend, but, as is so often the case when we look more closely at some facet of modern life, within a general trend we can also see some specific effects of migration and on migrants. It is this specificity that is often lost in discussions of ‘immigration’. While migrants are often seen and understood as moving into countries, the reality, of course, is that migrants move to specific places and into specific types of employment. To understand and ‘see’ migration we need to understand this specificity. The subcontract helps us to do this.

The point is to know where to look. We are accustomed to thinking that the place where international migration becomes visible as a social and political issue is the border – the land, air or sea port. This is, of course, the point at which the would-be migrant can make a claim for admission for some purpose and for some period of time. However, the subcontract and, more generally, the ways in which labour markets are organised, show us that there are other places where international migration becomes visible as a social and political issue.

International migration and migrants are present in the most mundane aspects of our daily lives. Think of the regular visit to the supermarket and the welcome convenience of washed and packaged vegetables. Think then about the production networks and subcontracting chains that involve the picking, packaging and delivery of these products as they make their way from field or farm to supermarket shelf. At each stage may well be migrant workers.

The convenience that we experience when we shop is not a result of migration, but of long-standing tendencies towards use of causal and temporary labour with workers often mobilised by temporary labour providers, or gangmasters as they are sometimes known. In the 19th century, women and children worked in gangs to pick crops. Later, students often undertook such work.

The little bag of washed salad suddenly attains a broader significance. It can signify the presence of migration and migrant workers in our experience of shopping, and, beyond this quotidian reality, we can also see and understand the ways in which migration and migrants support and sustain aspects of modern life. For the migrant worker in agriculture or food processing, the labour they perform is distant both metaphorically and literally from the ‘end user’ consuming the product and the ‘real employer’, often one of the major supermarket chains.

The supermarket is also a key feature of modern life with effects that extend far beyond migration and migrants. Supermarkets both satisfy and create demands that exert significant pressure ‘down’ production networks to keep prices as low as possible. This then feeds into the recruitment practices of employers who are seeking to shift produce from fields and farms to shelves at the lowest cost. Subcontracted workers employed through agencies allow employers to differentiate pay, working hours and conditions.

How does this work? A temporary labour provider may be a multinational company; but may also be a lone gangmaster with a mobile phone and white van picking workers up in the early morning at a street corner. A gangmaster may also provide accommodation and deduct money from pay for this service. It is, of course, perfectly legal to provide temporary labour, particularly for types of employment that have long relied upon such workers. However, they often work in sectors that are difficult to regulate, and migrant workers may thus be more vulnerable to exploitation. This was brought into stark focus in February 2004 when at least 21 people from China lost their lives while picking cockles on the treacherous waters of Morecambe Bay. They were subcontracted and their death did lead to efforts to better regulate gangmasters.

The subcontract helps us to see and understand how the way we live and the choices that we make all possess a broader significance. Even in the mundane act of shopping we can encounter the presence of migration and migrants. We know that salad is good for us and that we should eat it. But the little bag of washed salad also tells us something about the organisation of labour markets and about the ethical and normative issues that flow from the choices that we make or that are made on our behalf.

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