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Migrant Workers

The Health and Safety Executive describes a migrant worker as one who has come to the UK within the past 5 years in order to find or to take up a specific post. Workers from other countries have long been a used by UK industry and indeed they are vital for some industries. Seasonal workers have been used in the agricultural sector for many, many years. However, the growth of the European Community has increased the number of persons interested in working abroad and this, coupled with a lack of interest among British workers to undertake the more demanding or menial work, has resulted in rapid growth in the numbers of foreign workers in the UK. Between December 2003 and December 2010 the Polish-born population of the UK increased from 75,000 to 532,000. There is concern that migrant workers may:

  • End up doing more hazardous work 
  • Not receive adequate or sufficient information and instruction 
  • May, as a result of their status, be more vulnerable to exploitation 


Foreign and migrant workers are employed in many sectors of UK industry. Traditionally they would have been found in the hospitality and leisure sector, in agriculture, in construction and healthcare. More recently they have been employed in occupations as diverse as security and accountancy. It is difficult to determine exactly how many migrant and foreign workers there are in the UK. Each year the agricultural sector employs around 20,000 workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme. There is a scheme for holidaymakers who wish to work - estimated at around 40,000 each year. And within the European Community the freedom to travel, to trade and work wherever one wishes within the EC boundaries is increasing the number of foreign workers in the UK. It is not unexpected that workers from poorer, less prosperous countries are interested in working in the UK. The influx of foreign workers may have been overstated by the popular Press but is certainly large. The number of working-age foreign-born people in the UK increased from 2.9 million in 1993 to nearly 6 million in 2011.

Employers should try to ensure that they employ bona fide foreign workers and not "illegals" e.g. those without a work permit, illegal immigrants etc. The employment of foreign workers is not something to be undertaken without full consideration of the possible additional risks involved. There is also public concern about the possibility exploitation of foreign workers as seems to have been the case with the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers.

Legal Requirements:

Foreign workers employed in the UK enjoy the same protection as UK workers and have the same rights and responsibilities. When UK employers undertake risk assessments they must take into account any additional risks arising from differing cultural backgrounds or a limited command of English - either written or spoken and take appropriate control actions.

The tragic death of 20 Chinese cockle pickers has resulted in the passing of the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 which attempts to control the activities of gangmasters and reduce exploitation and unsafe working practices.


Foreign workers will face the same risks as any other worker but for them there are additional problems, namely that they may not have a clear grasp of the risks or understand the control actions required.

Foreign workers with a limited command of spoken English may not fully understand safety briefings or training. Those with a limited understanding of written English may not be able to understand the signs and instruction on machines. It would not be sensible or reasonable to assume that they can operate plant and equipment or that they have experience of such equipment from working in their own country.

Control Measures:

  • Training: It is unlikely that currently employed methods of induction training and more specific job/task specific training will be effective. Lectures, videos, computer based training and similar are unlikely to be effective with foreign workers who may have limited command of English. "Simultaneous" translation using a worker who can speak English or by use of an interpreter may be possible but may not work well in practice. If significant numbers of foreign workers are expected then the preparation of material in the appropriate language is preferred.
  • Signs and Leaflets: Whilst many pictograms are "universal" e.g. fire exit signs, many have supplementary text messages. For example, the labels and signs on electrical equipment that show the next inspection date or signs that state the equipment should not be used after a certain date are also unlikely to be understood. Ideally signs in the workers own language should be installed. 
  • Written Material: It may be necessary to have critical documents such as risk assessments, operating instructions and working procedures translated into the appropriate language(s). The same applies to formal, documented procedures such as permit to work systems. The safety of other workers should not be compromised due to the inability of foreign workers to understand a permit or follow a safe system of work. The HSE and TUC have both prepared material in a number of foreign languages. However, it is generally at a high level and may not be sufficiently specific for every workplace. Consideration should be given to preparation of task/industry specific material in the appropriate language(s). 
  • Interpreters: Where possible there should be facilities for conversations to be carried out through the medium of an interpreter. Ideally one of the workers should have sufficient command of English to take on this task. If this is not possible the employer should arrange for there to be access to an interpreter when required e.g. during training sessions. *It should be noted that use of a fellow foreign worker as interpreter may not prove satisfactory in circumstances where formal warnings need to be given e.g. for safety infringements. 
  • Language Training: The lack of understanding of English may be the most significant barrier to safe working so the most significant control opportunity available to employers may be language training. Unfortunately it is unlikely that many employers will be prepared to invest in language training despite the obvious benefits. But it should be considered where the foreign workers are expected to remain employed for an extended period.

Further Information

Border Agency - guidance on sponsoring workers

HSE - guidance on employing migrant workers

Next Steps

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Please Note
This document contains general information and guidance and is not and should not be relied on as specific advice. The document may not cover every risk, exposure or hazard that may arise and Aviva recommend that you obtain specific advice relevant to the circumstances. AVIVA accepts no responsibility or liability towards any person who may rely upon this document.

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