Book Review (Wills et al. 2009)

Global Cities at Work: New Migrant Divisions of Labour

Global Cities at Work: New Migrant Divisions of Labour

Jane Wills, Kavita Datta, Yara Evans, Joanna Herbert, Jon May and Cathy McIlwaine (2009)

Pluto Press. 288 pages. £60 hbk (0745327990), £22.99 pbk (0745327982)

Reviewed by David Manley, Centre for Housing Research, School of Geography and Geosciences, University of St Andrews (20 July 2010)

Global Cities at Work is a well timed volume. This book highlights the important role that migrant labour has in underpinning the growth and success of London and world cities in general. Numerous individual stories weave a narrative that explores how individual migrants work in low paid “invisible” occupations providing key services within the city structure. Migrants are employed to clean offices, maintain railway infrastructure and labour on building sites. Sometimes the migrants are working legally, and sometimes their employment is more precarious. The key contribution of the book to understanding the role that migrant workers play in the global city are the well written vignettes detailing the experiences of migrants working hospitality, cleaning, the construction industry, and providing care services. This book gives voices to the hidden workers of the global city – aptly referred to as “ghost workers”.

The book aims to provide an alternative view of the global city, moving beyond the notion of bright lights, escalator regions and success for all by using first hand ethnographic research with migrants on the fringes of the London economy. It does so with success, painting a rich picture of economic diversity that is frequently omitted from the discussions of migrant workers. They are not, as the term would suggest, a homogenous group of individuals. Within the group ‘migrant workers’ there are separate groups and distinct hierarchies, and these are described and played out in the transcripts of interviews included in the book. The book is well laid out, giving prominence to the voices from interviews.

There are eight chapters all of which are focused on a different aspect of the migrant community experience, and all are exceptionally well written and are recommended to any student of economic geography. The first and second chapters provide the historical, political and theoretical contexts for the book, and try to provide an understand of the pathways that have led the United Kingdom to the position it is into with regards to the current immigration debates. These chapters examine in detail how the labour market has shifted away from production and into service industries and the requirements for a new, insecure labour force to work within them. The following five chapters are themed around issues that are important in the context of migrant workers. However, a common aspect for all of the chapters is the relationship between the worker’s migrant status and their ability (or otherwise) to participate in the benefits of the state. In many ways, Global Cities at Work paints a picture of a dual society where individual contributing to the economy are excluded by their temporary status from gaining any of the benefits of state cover that non-migrants take for granted. The chapters deal with a descriptive introduction of low paid foreign born workers using evidence from the interviews and secondary quantitative data to compare London with the rest of the UK. The fourth chapter develops arguments relating to the reproduction of ethnic and gender roles with in the migrant work communities, highlighting the hierarchy that exists between different groups of workers, not only in the eyes of the workers but also in the eyes of the employees. It is stark to note how the roles assigned by the ‘native white’ working population to the new ethnic groups are also reproduced by some of the more established ethnic groups. The fifth chapter explores the survival strategies that the migrant workers adopt when faced with hardship in the working environment, financial hardships from low wages and a sense of exclusion from mainstream society. The sixth chapter explores how different groups of migrant workers related to each other both between and within groups. There is also a detailed discussion relating to the role that migrant workers play in the sending of remittances back to their places of origin. The final empirical chapter explores the how immigration and post-secular politics go together and through the use of first hand interview material explore the problems of representation that workers on the fringes of society have in terms of gaining or using rights. The book concludes by reviewing how the stories of the immigrant workers fit in with wider debates in the UK context. Crucially, the conclusion highlights that the roles that migrant workers are playing in London in 2010 are not new, and that the uneven development of the British capital has long been facilitated by an ability to attract low wage labour over long distances.

This volume is difficult to criticise because the breadth of coverage is not only ambitious but also achieved with clarity and depth. The one omission that appears is a lack of background information about the larger migrant communities. For instance, almost three pages are devoted to an exploration of the Brazilian community in London. I think it would add to the richness of the text to extend this to other communities and provide a space in which to explore the wider relevance of the people represented in the book. In sum, this volume is not just of relevance to students or academics in economic geography. The rich narrative and the placing of the migrant experience within the structures of contemporary society mean that researchers wishing to understand race, politics or the changing face of British society would be well placed to read the text.

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