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In the EU-27, 23.7 million people, or 5.3% of the population, are non-EU citizens[1] with 13.5% of t the workforce in the pre-Brexit EU (2019) having a migrant background[2]. Historically, employment seeking is a key factor in the flow of peacetime migration, with labour demands for expanding national economies, income inequalities among countries, and processes of economic integration all contributory factors[3]. Globally, the International Labour Office estimates that there are 234 million migrants of working age and 164 million migrant workers worldwide[4].

This article will provide a brief overview on the migrant working population, before reviewing some of the pertinent physical and psychosocial risks faced by this group of workers. The article ends by reviewing some of the work-related health and accidents outcomes. Interventions and practice involving migrant workers are not addressed in this article as they are covered in the article Migrant workers.  

Definition of migrant workers

Eurostat defines migrants as people changing their residence to or from a given area (usually a country). Closely related to this definition or the terms of immigrant and emigrant. Immigrants take up residents in a given country while emigrants cease to have his or her usual residence in the country[5]. ILO statistics use the term international migrants which refers to persons who are foreign-born[4].

In terms of workers, according to the United Nation’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, "migrant worker" refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national [6]. The definition from the UN is widely used and is comprehensive since it also includes those migrant workers who may currently be out of work, but had been working earlier as well as self-employed workers[7]. Recent EU-OSHA publications on migrant workers  use a broad definition and define migrant workers as workers born abroad, in contrast to native-born workers (defined as workers born in the country in which they are living) [2] [8].

Therefore, migrant workers encompass a vast group of individuals that vary substantially in their skill, education and language levels, purpose for migration, industry, cultural norms and expectations, legality and employment status, long term plans, and access to employment [9] . Evaluating this particular group at risk, care needs to be taken to not treat migrant workers as a homogenous group, but to consider the different individual and contextual factors involved as well. 

Migrant worker background

Key statistics

Statistics show that the employment rate of working-age people born elsewhere in the EU was 80.0% in 2020, compared with 78.3% for the native-born population and 71.9% for those born outside the EU. These statistics reinforce the free movement of EU citizens across Member States to seek employment activity. In 2020, there was a marked decline in the employment rate by 1.5% both for persons born outside the EU and those born in another EU country. For the native-born population, the decline in the participation rate was considerably smaller (0.3%). This decline in 2020 reflects, at least partially, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labour market [10].

Sector breakdown

Certain sectors contain a higher proportion of migrants than others. Occupations and sectors related to high-skilled information technology and professional work often rely on skilled labour from abroad to make up labour shortages. At the lower end of the skilled labour market, migrant workers are concentrated in the jobs which have poor and difficult working conditions [3].

Migrant workers in the latter group, typically find themselves in the agriculturehotel and restaurants, transport, cleaning and manufacturing sectors. For example, it is estimated that up to 30% of cleaners in the EU are migrant workers, although even this figure is likely to be an underestimate[11]. Data from the 2018 European Labour Force Survey (EU LFS) reveal a higher proportion of migrant workers in the sectors activities of extraterritorial organisations and bodies (59%), activities of households as employers (56 %), accommodation and food service activities (26 %), administrative and support services (20 %), other services (15 %), construction (15 %) and, finally, human health and social work activities (13 %) [8].

In terms of occupations, EU LFS data from 2018 confirm that migrant workers, are more likely to be employed in low-skilled or unskilled jobs such as cleaners and helpers, agriculture, forestry and fishery labourers, labourers in mining, construction, manufacturing and transport, food preparation assistants, street and related sales and service workers, and refuse workers. Migrants are also employed, but less frequently, in a number of medium-skilled occupations, including personal service providers, personal care workers, construction workers and related occupations. The data show that migrant workers have a much smaller share in high-skilled jobs [8].

The reliance on migrant workers, particularly agriculture and hospitality workers is in part due to locals rejecting work in these sectors[12], creating a labour shortage. This is evident from a survey of 51 international hotel chains, where 87% of chains recruited migrant workers due to an absence of suitable skills in the local market, and 76% reported that locals were not interested in hotel work[12]

The division of top and bottom-end jobs amongst migrant workers is particular salient in the hotel industry, where migrant workers from developed countries typically occupying the high skilled and managerial positions, and those from poorer countries employed in low-skill positions[12]. Similar trends are observed in the agriculture and construction sectors, where unskilled labour is filled with migrant workers, who view these jobs as an entrance to paid labour[13].


Migrant women attempting to enter the workforce face two disadvantages: migrant status and gender. Statistics from 2020 confirm that not only do women in the EU-27 have lower economic activity than men, but that this gap is even more evident in migrant women[10]. In terms of gender, approximately 62.1% of female migrants are in work, which is 20.2 percentage points lower than their male counterparts (82.3 %). This gap varies between Member States, with the largest gender gap observed in Italy (32.5 points) and Slovakia (30.1 points) [10].

Work-related risk and migrant workers

Migrant workers are considered to be one of the occupational groups facing increased exposure to occupational safety and health risks [14] [15]. Work-related risks particularly relevant to migrant workers, both physical and psychosocial, are reviewed below. 

Precarious employment

Migrant work has long been characterised as low paid and in precarious work relationships, with workers reporting higher job insecurity and fewer entitlements than their native counterparts. The ILO states that most migrants are employed in the three “D” jobs: dirty, dangerous and demeaning in often informal or poorly regulated sectors with little respect for labour and other protections[16]

Surveys of Polish workers in Nordic cities (the Polonia Surveys) reveal that depending on the city, between 27% and 34% of Polish migrant workers in Scandinavia, claim to have been cheated on their pay, either on their current or previous job[17]. In addition to the negative health effects associated with precarious employment, there is further evidence that migrant workers in precarious work tend to be tasked with the more difficult and unwanted jobs which native-workers do not want [3] [18]

Precarious work and poor working conditions have been attributed to some employers taking advantage of migrant workers’ low understanding of employment rights, being employed on on-standard contract (such as temporary or agency work), and low trade union participation [19]. In 2020, in the EU temporary employment is higher for employees born in another EU Member State (13.8 %) and for employees born outside the EU (20.3 %) compared to native workers (11.8%) [10]. Between 2010 and 2020, the share of temporary work for migrant workers decreased noticeably. Compared to 2010, the share in 2020 was 4.1 points lower for employees born in another EU Member State and 2.2 points lower for employees born outside the EU and only 1.6 percentage points lower for native-born employees [10].
Migrants from outside the European Union are not only more likely to be in temporary employment, they also earn lower wages and tend to have jobs that are less amenable to teleworking. This made them more vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic than native-born workers[20][21] [2].

Harassment and discrimination

The Sixth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) underlines the fact that a higher proportion of migrant workers experience discrimination compared to local workers. Overall, only few workers (2%) report discrimination linked to race, ethnic background or colour, but the share of workers with a foreign background reporting it is much higher, at 10% for first-generation workers and 5% for the second generation [22]. A systematic review of working conditions and occupational health among immigrants in Europe and Canada [23] also concluded that the prevalence of perceived discrimination or bullying was consistently higher among migrant workers than among native-born workers. However, the researchers emphasised that the different definitions of bullying and discrimination used in scientific studies make it difficult to compare prevalence estimates[23].

Not only are sexual harassment, bullying and violence associated with various health and performance outcomes, but discrimination towards migrant workers have implications for those attempting to enter or climb the labour ladder. A study on discrimination among job-seekers in France found that workers with native sounding names were five times more likely to be called for job interview than those with North African sounding names, despite having equivalent qualifications and experience[24]. Similar studies in Italy[25] and Sweden[26] revealed comparable results, suggesting that minority candidates had to make three to five times more attempts before receiving a favourable response to an employment application. Moving away from experimental studies, examination of transition from vocational training to employment in Germany found that foreigners had a higher probability of being unemployed or experiencing occupational or skill mismatch than native workers, even when demographic details (e.g. gender, education, occupation) were controlled for[27]. These findings are confirmed by Eurostat data indicating that in the EU, foreign citizens are more likely than nationals to be over-qualified. The over-qualification rate in 2020 for nationals was 20.8 % compared with 32.3 % for citizens of other EU Member States and 41.4 % for non-EU citizens[28]. Research shows that lack of language skills and lack of recognition of qualifications are among the main obstacles for migrants to find jobs that match their qualifications [22] [8].

Psychosocial working conditions

Exposure to poor working conditions has been observed to have detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of workers, including migrant workers. Migrant workers are also more likely to report mental health problems. Mucci et al. (2020) [29]carried out a systematic literature review on migrant workers' mental health and found that migrant workers are particularly affected by depressive syndromes (poor concentration at work, feeling down, or anger and somatisation), anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse, and poor sleep quality, which in turn result in in low life conditions. These results are confirmed by data from the sixth EWCS (2015), which show that about 30 % of first- and second-generation migrant workers experience stress at work always or most of the time. Among native-born workers this percentage is 27% [8].

Dangerous substances and work practices

Research and guidelines[30][31] have identified a number of issues on the usage of dangerous substances in the workplace which are specifically applicable to migrant workers.

These include:

  • Tendency to work in high risk sectors such as farming and, which by their nature increase exposure to dangerous substances, such as pesticides or silica dust.
  • Language barriers, which hamper communication of written and verbal OSH information, as well as technical information.
  • Long working hours and overtime work, which is increases exposure time to the ‘dose’ of the substance received. That safe work exposure limits on substances are usually based on exposure on an 8-hour workday, regular long working hours undermines existing safety protocols.
  • Cultural issues, where workers from less developed countries are accustomed to different, and even lower, OSH standards and practices.
  • Transient nature of migrant workers in some sectors, facilitating precarious work, and allowing little time for inductions or other safety interventions.

Migrant workers receiving either no personal protective equipmentequipment of poorer quality, or an inability to use such equipment effectively.

Migrant worker health

Considering their greater exposure to physical and psychological risk, it is not surprising that there is tentative evidence revealing migrant workers having poorer health outcomes than native workers [3].

The EU-OSHA report on Workforce diversity and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) (2020) [8] includes a review of the scientific literature on OSH and migrant workers. The review found that migrant workers

  • report, on average, poorer health and more work-related health problems than native workers;
  • are at greater risk of developing infectious diseases and metabolic cardiovascular diseases;
  • are at greater risk of workplace accidents;
  • reported a higher prevalence of MSDs;
  • are more frequently exposed to physical risk factors such as vibrations, painful positions, carrying heavy loads, standing and walking;
  • are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards at the workplace such as toxins, extreme temperatures, pesticides and chemicals.

Despite the observations outlined above, the literature on migrant worker health has not been consistent, with some studies revealing migrant workers to be healthier than native workers [32][33][34]. This has been attributed to the “healthy migrant hypothesis” [35]which postulates that migrant workers tend to be younger and healthier when migrating to a new country and that over time, with exposure to poor living and working conditions, these effects will diminish [36]. An alternate explanation for better migrant health could be due to underreporting, lack of awareness and help seeking, or the desire to appear healthy in order to remain economically valuable to an employer [32] [36] .


Migrant workers form a significant minority of the working population across Europe. As an employment group, their increased exposure to psychosocial and physical risks, including, precarious work, psychosocial risks, harassment and discrimination, and dangerous substances, makes them more susceptible to some forms of occupational disease, work-related health issuesaccidents, and even deaths. Although beyond the scope of this article, it is also important to acknowledge undocumented, or undeclared, migrants is a related aspect of migrant workers 3. Lack of statistics and information about this group makes it difficult to understand their working conditions and health outcomes. Looking ahead, considering the working conditions of migrant workers, appropriate measures need to be taken to improve them for migrant workers, through proper risk assessments and intervention designs.


[1] Eurostat, Migration and migrant population statistics. Statistics explained, 2021. Available at:

[2] 2EU-OSHA. COVID-19 and musculoskeletal disorders: a double burden of risk for migrant workers in Europe? Discussion paper, 2021. Available at:

[3] EWCO – European Working Conditions Observatory, Employment and working conditions of migrant workers, 2007. Available at:

[4] ILO Global Estimates on International Migrant Workers – Results and Methodology. 2nd ed. International Labour Office, Geneva: ILO, 2018. Available at:

[5] Eurostat; Glossary: Migration. Available at:              

[6] United Nations. International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Available at:

[7] EU Commission. Migration and Home Affairs. Glossary: Migrant workers. Available at:

[8] EU-OSHA. Preventing musculoskeletal disorders in a diverse workforce: risk factors for women, migrants and LGBTI workers. Report, 2020. Available at:              

[9] EU-OSHA. Literature study on migrant workers. Report, 2007. Available at:

[10] Eurostat, Migrant integration statistics – labour market indicators. Statistics explained, 2021. Available at:–_labour_market_indicators        

[11] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, ‘New risks and trends in the safety and health of women at work’, European Risk Observatory Literature Review, 2013. Available at:

[12] Baum, T., ‘Migrant workers in the international hotel industry’, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2012. Available at:

[13] EU-OSHA. Diverse cultures at work: ensuring safety and health through leadership and participation. Report, 2013. Available at:

[14] Berlin, A., Zamparutti,T., Tull, K., Hernandez, G., & Graveling, R., ‘Occupational health and safety risks for the most vulnerable workers’, European Parliament, 2011. Available at:

[15] EU-OSHA. Info sheet: vulnerable workers and dangerous substances. Available at:

[16] ILO. Safety and Health at the Future of Work: Building on 100 years of experience. Report for the World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2019. Available at:

[17] Friberg, J.H., & Eldring, L., Labour migrants from Central and Eastern Europe in the Nordic countries: Patterns of migration, working conditions and recruitment practices, Copenhagen, Nordic Council of Minister, 2013. Available at:

[18] Cremers, J. Invisible but not unlimited – migrant workers and their working and living conditions. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, 2022, 28(2), 285–289. Available at:    

[19] European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies of the Union, Broughton, A., Eichhorst, W., Precarious employment in Europe: patterns, trends and policy strategies, European Parliament, 2017. Available at:

[20] European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies of the Union, Moulac, M., Pavlou, P., Vona, L., Occupational safety and health: adjusting provisions in the light of COVID-19, European Parliament, 2022. Available at:

[21] Reid, A, Ronda-Perez, ER, Schenker, MB. Migrant workers, essential work, and COVID-19. Am J Ind Med. 2021; 64: 73- 77. Available at:

[22] Eurofound. How your birthplace affects your workplace. Policy brief, 2019. Available at:

[23] Sterud, T., Tynes, T., Mehlum, I.S. et al. A systematic review of working conditions and occupational health among immigrants in Europe and Canada. BMC Public Health 18, 770 (2018). Available at:

[24] Cediey, E., & Foroni, F. Les Discriminations à raison de ’l’origine’ dans les embauches en France – Une enquête nationale par tests de discrimination selon la méthode du BIT, Geneva, International Labour Office, 2007.            

[25] Allasino, E., Reyneri, E., Venturini, A. ,& Zincone, G., Labour Market Discrimination against Migrant Workers in Italy, Geneva, International Labour Office, 2004.

[26] Attström, K., Discrimination against Native Swedes of Immigrant Origin in Access to Employment, Geneva, International Labour Office, 2008.

[27] Burkert, C., & Seibert, H., Labour market outcomes after vocational training in German: Equal opportunities for migrants and natives? IAB Discussion Paper No. 31/2007, 2007. Available at:               

[29] Mucci, N., Traversini, V., Giorgi, G., Tommasi, E., De Sio, S., & Arcangeli, G. Migrant workers and psychological health: A systematic review. Sustainability, 2019, 12(1), 120. Available at:

[30] Guldenmund, F., Cleal, B., & Mearns, K., ‘An exploratory study of migrant workers and safety in three European countries’, Safety Science, 52, 2013, pp. 92-99.

[31] ILO - International Labour Conference, Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy, 92nd Session, Report VI., Geneva, 2004. Available at:

[32] Arndt, V., Rothenbacher, D., Daniel, U., Zschenderlein, B., Schuberth, S., & Brenner, H., Construction work and risk of occupational disability: A ten year follow up of 14 474 male workers, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 62, 2005, pp. 559-566.  

[33] Razum, O., Zeeb, H., & Rohrmann, S., ‘The healthy migrant effect’–not merely a fallacy of inaccurate denominator figures, International Journal of Epidemiology, 21, 2000, pp. 199-200.

[34] Tomita, S., Arphorn, S., Muto, T., Koetklai, K., Naing, S.S., & Chaikittiporn, C., Prevalence and risk factors of low back pain among Thai and Myanmar migrant seafood processing factory workers in Samut Sakorn Province, Thailand’, Industrial Health, 48, 2010, pp. 283–291.

[35] Palloni, A., & Morenoff, J.D., Interpreting the paradoxical in the Hispanic paradox: Demographic and epidemiologic approaches, Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 954, 1, 2001, pp. 140-174.

[36] Yao, L., Test of the ‘healthy migrant hypothesis’: A longitudinal analysis of health selectivity of internal migration in Indonesia, Social Science and Medicine, 67, 8, 2008, pp. 1331-1339.

Further reading

EU-OSHA. COVID-19 and musculoskeletal disorders: a double burden of risk for migrant workers in Europe? Discussion paper, 2021. Available at:

EU-OSHA. Preventing musculoskeletal disorders in a diverse workforce: risk factors for women, migrants and LGBTI workers. Report, 2020. Available at:

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Diverse cultures at work: ensuring safety and health through leadership and participation. Report, 2013. Available at:

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Literature study on migrant workers. Report, 2007. Available at:

Eurofound. Migration and mobility

Eurostat. Migrant integration statistics. Statistics explained. Available at:

ELA, European Labour Authority.

EU Commission. Migration and Home affairs

ILO – International Labour Organisation. Labour migration


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Juliet Hassard

Karla Van den Broek

Prevent, Belgium