April 17, 2018, by James Pattison

Systemic Violence and the ‘Wanted Unwanted’: Migrant Workers in the Urban Night

Following the press coverage of a take-away owner who was murdered in my home town, a curiosity in seeking to learn more about the lifeworld of the migrant night worker has led to some initial reflections that I feel compelled to share with you as part of my doctoral research project.

We all have some experience of the UK night-time economy (NTE) in one way or another.  It might be that we go out for the odd meal or order a take-away on occasion.

We may even drink regularly in bars and clubs or use a taxi on our journey home.  Despite this, I am struck by the seeming invisibility of the army of migrant workers who support this £66 billion p/a (www.ntia.co.uk) sector of our economy.  Contrasted against the bright lights and playful vibrancy of nocturnal consumerism, how often do we really ask ourselves about the experiences of those working in what can often be an extremely challenging social environment tethered to the base of the service industry?

The NTE has undergone huge swathes of deregulation as local authorities have courted private enterprise to press on with their transformative urban strategies, under the auspices of breathing new life into our dying high streets and city centres.  But the watercourse of commercial freedom also carries with it some turbulent channels of exclusion and control.  This is a site of total conflict where it seems that a steady supply of migrant workers forms the lifeblood of the NTE, sustaining and boosting its huge revenues.  Certainly the structure of immigration control seems to reflect this, in that it can be turned on and off like a tap, in addition to its ability to shape the labour market in such a way that migrants are restricted and clustered in particular occupations. But at the same time, these denizens are often constructed as a thorn in the side of a healthy functioning labour market because they are often presented to us in the mainstream media and in government rhetoric as thieves of opportunity and defrauders of our immigration system.
When we come to consider what it means to occupy this no-man’s-land, the commodification of the migrant worker as a pawn for both state control and labour exploitation must be seen within the wider context of what Slavoj Žižek refers to as systemic violence.    He describes this violence as an embodiment of ‘the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’ (Žižek, 2008: 1).  To expand upon this, the interpersonal (or subjective) violence – murder, assault etc. – that criminology has sought to explain since its inception, is only a small part of the overall picture.  The bulk of systemic violence is largely hidden beneath the waterline and functions very much behind a façade of normality; fuelling the streamlined operation of the capitalist system.  Its presence is regularly ignored, disavowed, or seen simply as a form of collateral damage that is acceptable in the never-ending quest for profit and gain.  Nevertheless, the impact that this ‘business-as-usual’ brand of violence has on migrant workers at the coalface, is deeply harmful in terms of its impact on physical and mental health, social relationships, and human rights.

My particular interest in migrant workers stems from a belief – formed through speaking to those who service the urban night – that they may have an increased vulnerability to many forms of harm, as well as the overt threat of racist violence. The stifling of collective action against mercenary employment practices by pitting workers against one another, the hiring and firing of agency workers as the vagaries of the market dictates and exploitation of the migrant worker’s precarity to squeeze longer shifts from them, are just several examples of these harms.

Systemic violence is such a deeply-rooted problem across Western societies that it is difficult to consider how we might begin to address the problem, without a fundamental shift in the balance between the importance of capital and that of human worth.  Perhaps we can start by thinking differently about violence?  More specifically we need to reconstruct our understanding outside of the confines of illegality and criminality.  Government seems exclusively preoccupied with the extremes of abuse against migrants in the labour market, particularly around criminal enterprise (human trafficking and modern slavery) and offer regular commitments to stamping the scourge of these out.   I am not seeking to downplay the importance of the most serious criminal infringements, but their perpetual presence at the centre of debate ensures that the more ‘routine’ and often perfectly legal forms of exploitation continue to occupy a backseat.  They have become so embedded into the fabric of late capitalism, that they now exist as an accepted part of working life in today’s service industry.  Only by challenging this acceptance and expanding the remit of our discussion around the outcomes of systemic violence in the UK labour market – together with the political and economic currents that drive them – can we have the faintest hope of averting what is becoming a tragic predicament.


Žižek, S. (2008) Violence. London: Profile Books


Mark Bushell is a PhD researcher at Teesside University




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