The punitive trap: Punishment and labour market controls for migrants

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In this paper I argue that the transitional controls placed upon access to the UK labour market for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals from 2007 to 2014 should be understood not only as a form of everyday bordering (Yuval-Davis et al, 2017), but also as leading migrants into a ‘punitive trap’. I argue that such punitive labour market controls form part of a wider regime of using labour as a site of inclusion and exclusion, in which some (e.g. prisoners, the unemployed) may find themselves forced to labour in order to ‘reintegrate’ them into social norms, which deem productive labour to be part of wider citizenship duties, whilst others (e.g. asylum seekers and other migrants) are denied the right to labour completely or to labour on an equal footing with citizens and other migrants. Here I explore specifically how this use of labour as a site of exclusion was negotiated and understood by Romanian migrant workers in South London with whom I carried out ethnographic research from 2009 to 2013. I suggest that the ‘punitive trap’ arose from their exclusion from the labour market as they were forced into bogus self-employment and became dependent on employment agency owners to access paid work. Being bogusly self-employed and unfamiliar with local regulations, they found it difficult to avoid other potential punishments and fines from UK authorities for minor infringements such as failing to submit tax returns. However, the ‘hyperprecarity’ (Lewis et al, 2015) of their position meant that they were not only open to further potential state-sponsored punishment, but were punished by a range of other actors. Agency owners, landlords and those offering support services, such as so-called ‘accountants’ and ‘lawyers’, would often also informally punish certain migrants for not complying to their demands to work long hours or pay excessive costs by withdrawing access to employment, accommodation and the other help and support they needed. In this way, many Romanian migrant workers found themselves trapped in low-paid (and even unpaid), precarious employment and poor living conditions, which they were unable to escape because of the multi-scalar and multi-agentic punishments to which they could potentially be subjected.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018
EventPunishment: Negotiating Society - Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, Germany
Duration: 14 Feb 201816 Feb 2018


ConferencePunishment: Negotiating Society


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