The nature of the UK workforce is changing significantly And Mark Humphreys says that these changes in the composition and character of the labour market have considerable ramifications for employers'

Historically, Britain has consistently taken migratory workers into its labour force. The Irish, who were the major immigrants until the 1950s, were supplemented by New Commonwealth immigration then and throughout the 1960s - including those from Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities.

Most recently, the newly acceded countries of Eastern Europe have provided labour for the UK. This was enabled by the process which made enlargement of the European Union possible, formally launched in March 1998. From May 2004, people from ten of the east European accession states have been able to register with the Home Office and work in the UK.

At present, around 1.4m foreign nationals work in Britain, making up about 5% of the UK workforce, with anticipated increases of 5,000 to 13,000 per annum(1). And while there has been considerable focus on the wider impacts on society, the risk and insurance implications have been less visible.

Migrant worker involvement has centred on UK industries with labour shortages - notably construction, agriculture and the hospitality business.

Often, these industries have the reputation of being labour-intensive, low-skilled areas of the economy. However, such generalisations mask a more complex picture. For example, a significant percentages of workers in the National Health Service (31% of doctors and 25% of health workers) originate from overseas, and are recognised as being highly qualified and highly skilled.

In addition, the geographical picture is changing. Migrant workers used to be concentrated in regions such as the south of England, which have suffered serious labour shortages. However, recent work commissioned by the TUC (2) shows that there is now a significant distribution of migrant workers from the Highlands of Scotland to the eastern counties of England and the outer boroughs of London - with hot spots in places like Cambridge, Luton, Peterborough and Norfolk. Migrant worker involvement in the economy is clearly geographically wider and industrially deeper than many observers have thought.

Exposure to risk

The changing nature of migrant workers in the UK has led the Work and Pensions Committee to signal its concern at the level of risk to which such workers are exposed, calling for an 'increased understanding of the occupational health and safety risks faced by migrant workers, so that a targeted strategy to manage those risks for this particularly vulnerable group can be effectively implemented as soon as possible'. This need is supported by our own experience.

Media reports on agencies and gang-masters have heightened awareness of employers' liability risks. Constant references to poor health and safety standards, low pay, no training and lack of communication between employers and migrant workers have, from a business perspective, been mitigated by a traditional reluctance to claim amongst this group. The factors influencing this are numerous. They include cultural and linguistic differences, different understandings of industrial processes and a lack of understanding of employment law protection in the UK. In some cases, this is exacerbated by individuals' limited education.

As a result, complaints from individuals and the recording of accidents have historically been limited, with few employers' liability claims being made. However, employers must act, and act fast, if they are going to avoid the risks inherent in what is a growing area of concern. Given the correlation between accident frequencies, claims frequencies and profitability, insurers who understand the composition of their clients' workforces and correctly assess under-reporting will almost certainly benefit. Those that are unable, or unwilling, to engage their clients in these often difficult conversations may well rue their lack of knowledge as time progresses.

What you should ask

In this changing social environment, there are some significant questions which risk professionals should be asking themselves.

- Are there migrant workers within the organisation, and what mechanisms are there for knowing whether there are or not?
- Is the organisation legitimately using migrant labour, and has it adopted the necessary protocols to ensure that it is doing so correctly?
- Has the organisation engaged all interested internal departments in the subject (for example, human resources, health and safety, insurance, operations)?
- Have the particular issues that migrant workers face been identified, and through what mechanisms?
- How do you ensure effective communication over health and safety issues with migrant workers, and in particular with those people who do not have English as a first language?
- Are there strategies for managing migrant workers in the workplace, and establishing some level of auditing of the supply chain? Does this include other appropriate parties (for example, trade unions)? How are these communicated to stakeholders such as insurers?
- Do other organisational policies which could be involved (for example, bullying and harassment policies) adequately reflect the issues which are faced by migrant workers?
- Have contractual frameworks with any temporary worker agencies used been put in place? Do you provide information to the agency relating to your expectations? Do you have provisions for auditing and checking agency insurances?

Engaging in this type of dialogue ensures that there will be no surprises which could negatively impact claims experience, and that the correct guidance is available.

(1) Home Office statistics, 2003

(2) TUC: 'Propping up rural and small town Britain: migrant workers from the New Europe'

- Mark Humphreys is manager of the liability risk management team at QBE, Tel: 020 7456 0000, E-mail:

Information from QBE's seminar on migrant workers is available by e-mailing