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Identities in the margins: An ethnographic study of migrant agency workers

Tarrabain, C



Migrant workers have long constituted a fundamental part of the hospitality sector in the UK. Taking up jobs such as housekeeping, kitchen portering and plate waiting, these workers have formed an essential yet undervalued role in the service economy. Typically insecure and low paid; such work is normally secured through a third party agency presenting a complex employment relationship between the worker, agency and organisational setting. It is this relationship that forms the focus of this PhD research, which aims to understand the daily experiences of migrant workers focusing on the dynamic relationship between power, discourse, subjectivity and work processes and the performing of identities in specific socio-cultural settings. The study draws on data gathered from a twelve-month full-participant ethnography in a hospitality employment agency to provide insights into the ways through which agencies seek to control workers remotely to craft migrant agency workers as compliant subjects. The research considers how contracting organisations use both regulatory and disciplinary practices to construct migrant agency as organisational non-members in order to sustain transactional impersonal relationships with them. Finally, the study explores the ways in which migrant agency workers negotiate their identities, drawing on a range of national, cultural, religious and moralistic discourses to craft acceptable versions of the self. The study suggests that the subject positions crafted from the discourses of the employment agency, contracting organisations as well as migrant workers own identity discourses often work in tandem to sustain and reproduce agency work and agency workers. This thesis offers three contributions which provide greater insights to the current understandings of identities, migrant labour and temporary employment. Firstly through taking an identities lens, the thesis has provided new insights into the control and regulation of migrant agency workers. Secondly, this thesis contributes to a more nuanced depiction of migrant agency workers’ identity work. Thirdly, the thesis sheds new light on how experiences of stigma and liminality are constituted and contested at the level of identity.


Tarrabain, C. Identities in the margins: An ethnographic study of migrant agency workers. (Thesis). Cardiff University. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Keywords migrant workers, temporary workers, agency work, identities
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