Chapter 4: Employment and livelihoods


Among many young undocumented migrants, especially those from Brazil, China and Ukraine, working and saving money was the main motivation for migration, as Chapter 2 showed. It is possible to earn much more money in the UK, even as an undocumented migrant, than in their country of origin. As one young Brazilian woman, who had a number of cleaning jobs, noted:

Most of the people who come here from Brazil… are coming to buy a house for their mother, a piece of land for their father, a car… You work, work, work. What I earn in 25 days there in Brazil, I make here, if I work without taking a day off, I make here in a week.

– Custódia, 25, F, Brazilian

Without access to welfare support, employment is crucial to survival for most young undocumented migrants, regardless of their motivation for migration. This chapter explores the working lives of young undocumented migrants, the impact of being undocumented on employment and the ways in which people find work without documents or valid documents, and survival strategies during periods of unemployment. Finally, the chapter considers people’s spending and obligations to pay back debts or send remittances, and the impact of this on their lives.

Experiences of employment1

At the time of the interviews, 20 young undocumented migrants were not working at all and an additional four were working very occasionally, as Tables 9 to 13 in Appendix 3 show. Among those not working or in occasional work, 16 were women, of which six had young children and three were pregnant. Table 1 shows the main characteristics of those working at the time of interviews.

Young people from Zimbabwe were least likely to be working, while Brazilians and Ukrainians were most likely to be working. More people in the West Midlands were out of work than elsewhere and a greater proportion of young people who had been in the UK for less than three years were working than those who had been in the UK for longer. Whether someone had a partner in the UK or not did not affect their propensity to be working, although, as we shall see later, these relationships provided invaluable support for those not working.

In terms of current and previous employment, there was clear evidence of sectoral clustering and little progression or change in terms of sectors and levels of employment among young people. Among Kurdish and Chinese interviewees, there was a strong propensity to work in co-ethnic businesses. Kurdish people worked in food outlets (kebab or restaurants), off licences or supermarkets. One example is Firat, a 30-year-old Kurdish man, who had been undocumented for three years once his asylum case was finally refused. Firat had been working in a Kurdish–owned supermarket for a year. He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week for a fixed wage of £200 a week. Before working in the supermarket, he had also worked in a kebab shop, earning £280 a week for six days work, but left as the Home Office had been carrying out raids in the area and he was scared. Firat had also worked in another Kurdish owned supermarket previously.

Chinese young people worked almost exclusively in co-ethnic businesses, the majority of which were catering businesses. Most worked as kitchen porters, cleaning, washing up and chopping. Fei Lin, for example, had been in the UK for two years and 10 months. He spent the first year in Leeds washing dishes in a restaurant, but when the Home Office started carrying out raids he left and moved to London where he knew there were more Chinese people, and therefore more chances of finding somewhere to stay and work. At the time of his interview, he was working as a kitchen porter, cleaning and washing up in a Chinese restaurant but, unlike the other young people in the study who were working 12 or more hours a day, he was working eight hours as business had declined and there was little demand.

Brazilians tended to work in cleaning, bars and shops and a few of the men had worked in construction. Carol, a 24-year-old woman who had been in the UK for one year and four months, worked three-to-four hours a day as a cleaner in a school. She had recently stopped working in a pub as a glass collector, where she had been employed for a year and two months, alongside her partner who was still working at the pub. There was also a tendency for Brazilians to have more than one job. Daniel, for example, worked in a pub restaurant and had a cleaning job.

Ukrainians were most likely to be working in construction or cleaning. There was a strong gender employment profile among Ukrainians, with men working in construction and on building sites, while women worked as cleaners, in restaurants, factories, hotels, in the care industry and as hairdressers. Fedia, a 20-year-old man living in Manchester, who had been in the UK for two years, was working on a construction site at the time of his interview. He worked for eight hours a day at an hourly rate of £10. Previously, he had worked on another construction site and in building restoration. Zimbabweans showed more variation in terms of their employment sectors, with English language fluency being a key factor in this diversity. Jobs included cleaning, care work, warehouses and factories, a call centre, administration, a car mechanic, child minding and sales. For example, Sandra, who was 31 at the time of the interview, and had been in the UK for five and a half years, had young children and did the occasional cleaning job for £5 an hour, though she had previously done care work.

The importance of English in terms of employment diversity was evident and also meant that Zimbabweans were not dependent in the same way as others on either co-ethnic employers or jobs where there is no premium on English, such as cleaning. Andrea, who was pregnant, but had worked previously as a cleaner notes:

Speaking English you can get a better job. Otherwise, that’s it, it’s cleaning, it’s washing up, this type of things.

– Andrea, 20, F, Brazilian

 A young Brazilian woman, Alice, who was working in a shopping-centre restaurant and as a cleaner, describes the impact of English language on earning potential:

I know so many illegal [people] here who earn so well… Everything because they speak English well and get jobs that pay well.

– Alice, 27, F, Brazilian

One Chinese young person, who was not working when interviewed but had previously worked as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, talks about how a lack of English affected her opportunities:

Apart from having no residential status, we don’t speak English well, and we don’t have any particular skills. That’s why there’s nothing we may do except restaurant jobs.

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

The experience of working in businesses owned by people from the same country of origin was often not a positive one. The following quotes, the first from a Kurdish man working in an off licence, the second from a Chinese man working as a kitchen assistant and the third from a Kurdish man working in a co-ethnically owned supermarket, describe the disempowerment and exploitation that can arise from not having documents:

The boss knows that you are undocumented and need to work, therefore he gets you to work more hours for less money. You cannot say anything because you have to work.

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

Work starts from 10.30am in the morning and finishes after 12pm midnight. Sometimes we finish work at 1 o’clock. You work non-stop. If you pause, he’d say that you’re lazy; he shouts at you every day… he’d say that he pays you to work, and you’re not doing the work for him! He’d then shout you. He’d say things like that, ‘people like you who have no status… not many people, not many restaurants out there would dare to hire you; now that I hire you to work here, has meant that I’d already given you lots of respect. You should work harder and do a bit more for me.’

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

You work 12 hours a day because you are undocumented and you have no voice. You cannot say anything. There a lot of unfairness but you cannot do anything about it. You cannot raise your voice against it. They crush you. I don’t get paid based on number of hours I work but I get wages. I work six days a week 12 hours per day and get £200 per week. That’s it… I feel like repressed. Then you say it will pass away. But it did not pass away for 3 years now. I feel like second-class citizen. Not even second, tenth maybe. I feel like slave once black people felt. We are contemporary slaves for example. We are the slaves of this age and illegal. We are like illegal slaves.

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

Young people describe how they lack choice, live in fear, are insecure, and vulnerable to sacking and other forms of exploitation, such as not being paid for work that had been carried out, or co-ethnic middle people taking a cut of wages. The following quotes illustrate these experiences:

You sort of have to just take what you get and be content with it.

– Jamie, 30, M, Zimbabwean

I work in a kebab shop for night shift… Because I cannot find work for morning shift. Nobody wants to give job to illegal immigrant for day shifts.

– Rojhan, 27, M, Kurd from Turkey

Since the police raids, businesses in the restaurants have slumped. When business is poor, salaries will be low, too… Free meals are provided.

– Fei Lin, 20, M, Chinese

 … you work with constant fear that your work place might get raided… Even when you put the goods on shelf you just check around as you fear they may raid the shop. This is huge psychological pressure.

– Serhado, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

… [if] they want to sack you, they just sack you. The boss just says to you that you will work till the end of the week and that’s it.

– Wendy Wang, 24, F, Chinese

We never feel secure. We may work today, but we won’t know what will happen to us tomorrow.

– Lin Fei, 20, M, Chinese

I’ve fallen a few times… this same guy offered me a job again. I asked for my money and he said ‘Look, that money I didn’t receive so I can’t pay you’… we cannot complain, we have to accept it in silence.

– Carol, 24, F, Brazilian

The foreman will take some money from what you get. Say if you get £245, he will take £35. This means that even though the boss is a British man, there is a Chinese person who is there to oversee the workers; this person will take some money from what you get.

– Meixin He, 24, M, Chinese

The disparity in terms of pay between documented and undocumented workers was especially evident in co-ethnic businesses, as the following quotes by a Chinese man working in a takeaway and a Kurdish man who was working in sales for a supermarket illustrate:

I think for this kind of job in a takeaway shop, normally it should be paid £280, £290 or even up to £300 [a week]. Instead I got £210. He paid less because he said I had no residential status

– Gao Zeng, 24, M, Chinese

I know some people undocumented only getting £170 per week but another person with document gets £500–550 per week. There is huge gap as you can see but they can’t do anything as they have no documents C

– Ciwan, 28, M, Kurd from Turkey

The strain on young people is evident in their descriptions of fear and living a lie. One young Zimbabwean, Ray, who was working in corporate sales describes his experiences:

There’s always a fear, I’m always watching over my shoulder as to could I get caught working here? There’s always a fear, could a phone call come through, could I get called to the office anytime now as to ‘We’ve found something out’. ‘You are not legitimate’… It puts a strain on the job and it doesn’t necessarily become the platform that it is really and that is the platform to earn a lot of money and be successful because that’s hindered by the fact that I’m always watching over my shoulder… I have to assume the ‘ultra ego’. You are this new character; you’ve got to have a story behind you as to why and how you ended up there, you can trip yourself up.

– Ray, 21, M, Zimbabwean

Finding jobs

The main strategies for finding work were social networks from the same country of origin and buying jobs. Not having papers impacts on job search strategies, limiting most people to the informal economy or, for some, the use of fake documents. Social networks, especially ‘word of mouth’ about job vacancies, were particularly important. The following quotes – from Fedia, a young Ukrainian who was working in construction; Victoria, a Ukrainian who was working as a chef; Carol, a Brazilian who was working as a cleaner in a school; and Wendy Wang, who was not working at the time of her interview but had worked in four different restaurants, even though she had been in the UK for less than two years – show the importance of social networks in job seeking and employment:

My child’s godfather found this job. He works on this job. Well. How do we look for jobs? Through people you know… other Ukrainians

– Fedia, 29, M, Ukrainian

Word for word, word for word, friend calls a friend. For example, if my friends know that there is a job somewhere they tell me, I try to tell someone else, call my mates and ask them if anyone is interested in that job. And that is how it spreads around. In that way you can practically end up helping people that you don’t even know. Sometimes, you can find a person from another part of Ukraine that you would never in your life imagine meeting. And that’s how it works

– Victoria, 24, F, Ukrainian

That was through a friend of someone who was my flatmate, then she was already a cleaner there. They needed more people; she asked me if I was interested, I said I was (Carol, 24, F, Brazilian). Most of us rely on friends to find work. Say if someone sees a job advert somewhere, they’d tell a friend about it. Sometimes friends would tell you if they know of a vacancy somewhere. Or sometimes if someone leaves a job they have been doing, they’d ask their friend’s friend to fill the vacancy. So it normally works like this

– Wendy Wang, 24, F, Chinese

Knowledge of the local community networks and symbols are also important, as Amed describes:

We are a feudal society. We go through these contacts. When you go somewhere you see sign like best kebab. We understand the place belong to the Kurds. We know what Indian, Pakistani or Chinese shops through their signs. We understand the Kurdish places through shop signs. We go inside and ask for job. If they don’t have they may recommend some people. It goes like that.

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

There is also evidence of people paying ‘deposits’ or buying jobs, as the following quotes from Augusto, who had bought a job in cleaning, and Victoria, who paid for a job in a hotel, illustrate:

Well, my first job was that construction job and I didn’t need to pay for it. But when this job finished and I went to London, I did buy a job. I did cleaning from 6–8 and I paid for it, you know. In this case, the deposit was kept by the guy and one more week, so two weeks altogether. I started earning money in the third week.

– Augusto, 26, M, Brazilian

I worked once in a hotel, I had to pay for the job. I worked for a month and I practically didn’t earn anything at all because for two weeks I was working for ‘deposit’, and they paid fortnightly.

– Victoria, 24, F, Ukrainian

Guo Ming and Yan Jing had both worked in the restaurant sector and they describe the process and financial exchanges that can take place. The quote from Guo Ming also illustrates the importance of social networks among Chinese people, and reflects that the UK is a desirable migration destination among Chinese young people because of networks and job opportunities:

Normally you don’t have to pay if they are a close friend. But if they are just an ordinary friend, you may have to give them the first two weeks’ wage as the fee for helping you find the job.

– Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese

Most Chinese just ask friends to find work. In the restaurants, it’s the head-chef who decides who to hire. They will tell the workers that he is looking for someone, and these workers will tell their friends about the job and recommend them to the chef. When a person is hired, he will normally have to give the head-chef his first week’s wage, which is normally one-hundred-and-something pounds.

– Yan Jing, 24, M, Chinese

Impact of not having papers on work and job search

Not having papers affects both employment options and job search strategies. In terms of employment options, young people talk about the limited sectors of employment. This is evident in terms of the sectoral clustering among the young undocumented migrants interviewed, the ways in which the system creates exploitation including low pay, their lack of choice and being unable to use skills and fulfil potential. The following quotes illustrate the impact of not having papers on employment and demonstrate the dependency on co-ethnic employers for work. Moreover, Tatiana who was working as a cleaner alludes to the way in which being undocumented has a levelling affect, making pre-migration careers and education irrelevant in the undocumented context:

The jobs which don’t require documents are the ones where you work for Brazilians. I’ve had this experience, they pay you very low wages, they exploit you and fire you with no notice.

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

As an undocumented, you directly turn to the Turkish markets, Kurdish markets or restaurants. There is nothing else. There is nothing else that you can do. There are various places to work in, but you are excluded from all of them because you are undocumented. You can do nothing.

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

There is a great effect. We cannot work legally. It also restricts us in terms of job opportunities because we are undocumented. In fact it does destroy our opportunities rather than restrict. Therefore it may force you to do wrong things. It forces you to work illegally.

– Necirwan, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

People come here illegally. Regardless of what professions they had [back] home, solicitor or what, and, they come here, they have no documents so they clean toilets too. Just like people who had no education [back] home. They clean the same toilets. Here, I don’t know. People without documents simply can’t have other jobs here.

– Tatiana, 22, F, Ukrainian

There is some variation by country of origin and gender. One Kurdish woman describes how it is harder for women than men from her community:

Men can find work when they want even if it is illegal. I believe they are more free when compared to women. Women are not that free. If there is also a child, they are not free at all.

– Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

Chinese people talk about gender roles in restaurants and takeaway shops, as the following quote from Zhu Chen, who was not working at the time of the interview but had worked previously as a waitress, illustrates:

There’s nothing else to do, apart from waiting at the table or working in the kitchen. But then they don’t like hiring female workers to work in the kitchen.

– Zhu Chen, 25, F, Chinese

Using ‘fake’ documents or allowing others to make assumptions is a strategy used by some young people. For example, Ukrainians were able to use Polish documents, or pretend they were Polish, as the following quote from a young man working on a building site illustrates:

Well, at my work, they don’t know that I’m undocumented. Everyone is thinking that I’m European [EU] just like everyone.

– Pawlo, 22, M, Ukrainian

Colin, a young Zimbabwean who came to the UK as a teenager, was working as a finance assistant in an accounts department. After his ‘A’ levels, he had wanted to go to university and study pharmacy, and had even been offered a place at university, but was unable to take up the offer as he did not have the necessary documents. He is reasonably content and challenged in his job and the company he works for is even paying for him to study accountancy, though all this has been achieved by using fake documents.

… they are unaware that I don’t have any documentation because I produced fake documentation to get the job, so they are unaware that I am not allowed to work.

– Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwean

Among young Zimbabweans who had come to the UK as children or teenagers, and were undocumented due to their parent or parents’ status, the realisation that they were unable to get on with their lives in the way they had expected has had a severe impact on some. Natasha, who came to the UK aged 10, and Ray, who arrived aged 13, describe this experience:

When I turned 16 and I wanted to get a job that’s when I realised… I don’t have an ID.

– Natasha, 18, F, Zimbabwean

Got to 16… er… I think that was the first wake-up call. All the kids were talking about, ‘Oh! I just got me NI card in the post’. Why didn’t my NI card come through the post? … because obviously I’m not in the system… and then since then it’s just really unravelled. Really… er… ok this is the status! [you] need this thing called status. While before I was just living, going to school. I’m a young lad, I’m a young boy, I’m just going to school and doing what I’m doing. I never needed to know whether or not I had status. Then all of a sudden people were receiving their NI cards and I didn’t receive mine.

– Ray, 21, M, Zimbabwean

The raids on businesses employing undocumented migrants by UK Border Agency over the last few years have created an environment of fear among young people and greater opportunities for exploitation, due to the risks employers are taking. This has also resulted in less employment opportunities, reflected on in the following experiences:

Because you have no status, you can only get such a low wage. Most people don’t want to take the risk to hire people who have no status; so you have to take it whenever there is a job; you have no choice

– Huadi Zhang, 29, M, Chinese

They are also afraid of employing the undocumented now. Because the police might pop in to control. Even they are afraid. It officially excludes you.

– Welat, 23, M, Kurd from Turkey

 It’s difficult for a worker, you are scared, you know, you have customers, but you get scared, who is those people? It could be immigration officer, a police, this is very difficult, and this is a problem.

– Kawa, 25, M, Kurd from Turkey

It is a problem because many people don’t take you on because have already had visits from immigration, then they have to pay a fine and fire people.

– Diana, 28, F, Brazilian

Some people have opted not to work because of their fear of being caught. Most of those who work were in jobs where papers were not asked for and there was movement out of jobs as soon as papers were requested. Theo, a young Zimbabwean who arrived in the UK aged 12, describes this fear, while the other examples describe the pattern of moving out of jobs when documents are requested, which in the case of Berenice meant losing money:

I am scared. I can’t take the risk of getting caught and the risk of them asking me where my papers… It’s affected my life… It’s affected everything, I can’t do anything, I just sit and rot.

– Theo, 19, M, Zimbabwean

Many times I went to work as a cleaner in companies to clean offices in the morning. I’d work for two weeks then after two weeks; they would tell me that the payment was done every two weeks. Then in two weeks they’d ask me for documents, then I wouldn’t take any, then I’d lose, lose the two weeks of work

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

In Southend I did work as a care assistant, but then I left because my status was getting questioned and I found that I could not produce what was being requested

– Sipiwe, 30, F, Zimbabwean

I’ve worked in a call centre before, it was down in the city centre, but I only worked it for a short while, because… er… eventually they were asking for my identity and immigration papers

– Taffi, 27, M, Zimbabwean

 Job search strategies and employment reflect the undocumented status of young people. For example, some take jobs where they know no questions will be asked, many rely on their social and community networks (as shown earlier) while others use false documents or other people’s documents.

Nowadays I clean houses… they don’t ask for documents in the houses

– Berenice, 23, F, Brazilian

If you go for the manual jobs, they are not really strict. So I’ve noticed that over the years I’ve actually had to lower my ambition on what jobs I can get, and it seems to be worsening all the time

– Taffi, 27, M, Zimbabwean

I work in a pub. I basically work officially but under someone else’s documents

– Sergiy, 27, M, Ukrainian

I am here as a Pole. I have Polish documents and that’s all. Since Poland is in the EU – no problem. I simply have good documents, made professionally

– Dmytro, 22, M, Ukrainian

Around a third of the migrants interviewed were not working or working very occasionally at the time of the fieldwork. Although there is a great deal of labour market mobility, young undocumented migrants need to survive during periods of unemployment, which the next section examines.

Surviving without work

Young undocumented migrants without work are without any source of income. The importance of friends and family in the UK, but also outside the UK, are vital for survival in-between jobs. Young people from all five groups relied on social and family networks for support while Ukrainians, Brazilians, Kurdish and a few Chinese people also used savings during periods of unemployment. Zimbabweans also obtained support and help from the church and church contacts, and reference was made to charities and community organisations. The pressure on young people, both to remain in work but also to live a very frugal life, is evident in the migrant narratives:

Some friends were giving me £30–40 per month… I paid them back when I found job. I had to reduce my spending to pay them back. That’s why I don’t want to leave this job. It’s really difficult for undocumented person to be jobless

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

We buy bread and make very cheap easy food. Or sometimes rice. If we cook rice there is no need for bread even. Bread gets expensive

– Botan, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

Well, basically, now I have some savings. Put aside just in case. It can happen. No one is insured against it. Will there be job or won’t

– Fedia, 29, M, Ukrainian

Wendy Wang, a young Chinese woman, had lost her job as a waitress in a restaurant, as business was bad. In the following quote, she describes the role of social networks in the job-search process, but also her survival strategies which again depend on these networks:

I’m asking my friends to help me look for work. You have to take things step by step. They will help to ask around… Something may come up anytime. There are friends around. Whoever has got some news will pass it on to me. I then pay a visit to the restaurant. If both sides agree on the terms, I will start work… No work no income. You must borrow money from friends to keep things going… Normally I’d borrow an amount that allows me to clear the month’s rent… I sometimes borrow some money from my friends to send home

– Wendy Wang, 24, F, Chinese

As the quote from Wendy shows, some young people face the additional pressure of supporting family members in the country of origin or paying off debts to smugglers who brought them to the UK in the first place. Gao Zeng, who sells illegal DVDs on the street, also expresses his anxieties around work and dependency:

I would panic if I had no work and stay idle. Because my family back home is dependent on me

– Gao Zeng, 24, M, Chinese

The next section explores the spending of young people, as well as their transnational obligations and the impact of these on their spending and everyday lives.

Spending and remittances

Two themes to emerge from the interviews are that young people are mostly spending their money on basics – rent, food, travel – rather than other items; and for some, very hard choices have to be made about spending:

[I spend money on] my rent, my transport and my food, although sometimes I would really want to do shopping for myself. It was really difficult, but whenever I could, I would spare something like £20 and go to the cheapest shop

 – Kirsty, 22, F, Zimbabwean

We cut down on eating and drinking so that we could pay our rent

– Jiyan, 23, F, Kurd from Turkey

We don’t have luxury life. What we do for example. We reduce our spending for food. Normally people would eat 3 times a day and go to pub but we don’t do this. You eat once a day for example… How can you survive with £200 a week? But I am not documented and I had to survive with this money

– Firat, 30, M, Kurd from Turkey

Chinese and Kurdish young people working in take-away shops or restaurants ate at work and, for many, the long hours of work also made it difficult to find the time to spend money. As one interviewee noted, ‘… you can’t spend the money that you earn when you are working’ (Welat, 23, M). Some Chinese young people also received clothes from their family in China, as it is cheaper than buying them in the UK. The following quotes illustrate these experiences:

We usually eat at the places we work. We can’t go out to eat. We want to eat out but we can’t afford

– Amed, 29, M, Kurd from Turkey

They give you free meals and accommodation… We can save a bit of money out of this. Normally we don’t need to buy a lot of things. In this way we can save a bit of money; and we don’t go out much, which can help save money, too… Often we get things sent from home… because you’ll get some of the things a lot cheaper in China than the UK

– Fu Chenming, 22, M, Chinese

You work seven days a week, you hardly have time to go out. Most of my clothes I wear are sent from China by my mother

– Yao Xiaomin, 25, F, Chinese

 Some of those with children spend their money on basics, but also on necessities and activities for their children. Among a small minority, there is an element of the young person wanting to go out and look good:

Most of it is spent on going out and trying to look good, keep up with the trend. You know, you try and want to buy the clothes that make you look as good as everyone else. At my age you don’t want to be the one left out in looking good… You want to look good because I think with looking good it also helps with confidence sometimes, it builds. You know it’s easier when you look good to make friends than when you are uncomfortable and just thinking do I look good? … er… when you look good you don’t have to look around and think… ‘Oh do I fit in?’

– Colin, 23, M, Zimbabwean

Spending is affected by a number of factors and obligations including remittances and paying back debts, but also personal aspirations, such as saving money to buy property or land. Those with children back home send money to support them. There is variation between groups in terms of transnational obligations and activities. Young Brazilian migrants – with the exception of three, who send money to support children – send money to Brazil to save and plan for their own futures. This includes saving to study, to buy land or a house. As Beatriz (24, F) states, ‘I’ve bought a piece of land… and I’m paying for my [beautician] course’. Ukrainians also save money to invest in land and property in Ukraine. One young man explains that he sent 75% of his income to Ukraine to build a house and he feels no hardship:

 … it does not limit me even a bit because this is my aim. That is why I came here. I wish to finish quickly that house and simply earn some money and go back home… No one, parents or anybody forces me or says ‘Oh, send the money we need to build the house’

– Dmytro, 22 M, Ukrainian

Fedia (29, M, Ukrainian) explains how he sends money home because he is undocumented noting that, ‘If we were here legally we would probably do something here with the money… we would think of our own place here’. Instead, he has bought a flat in Ukraine. Some Ukrainians also send remittances to support family members, and this is also a pattern among Zimbabweans and Chinese young people. Zimbabweans send money to family members for basics – fuel, food, medicine and school fees. This creates an element of both obligation and hardship for some in terms of their daily lives in the UK:

I feel responsible, because if I had been there I would be looking after them. The inflation is such that their pensions are eroded, whatever they had laid aside is worthless now… I feel quite bad to eat a lot and to think that my folks don’t have any food… I’ve learnt to go to Tesco’s, for instance, at a certain time and check out the reductions, or go to places where they sell meat for cheap, or I eat a lot of veggies, beans, [that are] cheap to buy, so I skimp on myself and put a little on the side for them.

– Sipiwe, 30, F, Zimbabwe

It does affect me because sometimes at the end of the month, I would not remain with money for my daily living expenses because [I] will have sent money home, but at the same [I] don’t have choice, because they will also be expecting [me] to send money because they are not working and things like that.

– Pat, 27, F, Zimbabwe

Some Chinese young people are not only supported family members, but are also paying back debts to the smuggling gangs, as Guo Ming describes:

We spent lots of money for leaving the country to go abroad. Now we should do our best to send some money home to support the family… Each of us, for leaving the country, at least paid roughly 300,000 RMB [roughly £20,000]

– Guo Ming, 30, M, Chinese

However low the wage may be, since I have arrived in a new place, I must face it. I have to eat, pay rents; and back home, my family may need my support. I need to send money home to support them… My wage is £180 a week. There are four weeks in a month so I get over £700 a month. I will send £700, and keep £50

– Fang Ping, 22, F, Chinese

Among Kurdish young people, there tends to more informal and irregular remittance activity, with people sending money occasionally, or when it is asked for rather than routinely.


This chapter shows the limited sectors of employment, low pay and exploitation experienced by young undocumented migrants in the labour market. Many young people convey the sense of fear and uncertainty derived from their status and resultant vulnerability. The role of social networks both in terms of job-search strategies and support during periods of unemployment is an inevitable consequence of their status as undocumented migrants, who have no other means of survival. Transnational obligations vary between groups. For some, the pressure to work and send money affects their everyday lives, while for others it is part of their own personal migration objective, with migration seen as a short-term way of making better money before returning home. Lack of choice and uncertainty, however, run though all the interviews and testimonies.

Although not a dominant theme in the narratives on employment, the issue of racism emerges in a few of the interviews. This is summed up by Theo, who simply states that, ‘If you are black, it’s very hard to find a job’ (19, M). Racism also emerges as an area affecting people’s social and community networks, which will be discussed in the next chapter.


  • 1 Tables 9 –13 in Appendix 3 show the current employment of young undocumented migrants in the UK and their jobs prior to leaving their country of origin