Labour migration, precarious work and liminality

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  • 1 University of Gloucestershire, UK
  • | 2 Norwegian Labour Inspectorate, Norway
  • | 3 NTNU University, Norway
  • | 4 UC Davis, USA
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Liminality, as originally conceived by anthropologists, is a temporary ‘in-between’ state that acts as a bridge, connecting old roles to new roles, and resulting in a desired new state. The article applies this concept to precarious migrant work. We argue, specifically, that migrants in low-wage and insecure work occupy four main liminal realms following their cross-border mobility: the temporal, the financial, the social and the legal. We explore these four realms using qualitative interview evidence (36 interviews) from comparative research with migrant workers, migrant employers and community stakeholders in Norway and the UK. The article then reflects on the balance between liminality (as a positive, temporary and in-between state) and limbo (as a negative, long-term state). We argue that migrants doing precarious work avoid limbo, but at the same time do not experience liminality as originally conceived. Instead, they experience what we term ‘ambiguous liminality’: where precarious work is encountered as liminal, but where the exact mechanisms and pathways leading to a desired new state are multiple, uncertain and incremental. Liminality, however ambiguous, is a vital expression of migrant agency; but it also serves the interests of capital too: masking the negatives associated with precarious work and helping to underpin precarious migrants’ work ethic.

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  • 1 University of Gloucestershire, UK
  • | 2 Norwegian Labour Inspectorate, Norway
  • | 3 NTNU University, Norway
  • | 4 UC Davis, USA

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