Integrating immigrants into labour market

A qualitative study undertaken by the National Institute of Social Research examines the impact of working conditions on the labour market integration of immigrants. Results of the study indicate that lack of role clarity, sense of community and harassment from clients/customers may contain ethnicity-specific dimensions. These factors all seem to evolve around communication difficulties in terms of divergent expectations in the Danish labour market, Danish language abilities and, in part, cultural/ethnic boundaries.


In the report Fremtidens arbejdsmiljø (Working environment of the future) (DK0601NU05), the Danish Working Environment Authority (Arbejdstilsynet, WEA) highlighted the main trends for different occupational categories. Among the specific groups identified were immigrants as it is assumed that this category will make up a higher proportion of employees in the labour market in the future. Against this background, WEA requested the National Institute of Social Research (Socialforskningsinstituttet, SFI) to investigate the influence of the working environment on the integration of immigrants into the Danish labour market. The resulting SFI study is based on the qualitative data from 10 interviews and two focus group interviews. The study’s findings are published in the report ‘Arbejdsmiljø og indvandrere’ (Working environment and immigrants), which is available online (in Danish, 446Kb PDF).

Communication gaps

The employment and working conditions issues that particularly affect immigrants feature gaps in communication as the main point of reference. This not only implies potential difficulties among immigrants in speaking and/or understanding the Danish language, but also includes divergent social expectations and culture.

Lack of awareness regarding customary practices

Traditional enterprise recruiting procedures, such as written applications or job interviews, are reported to pose a barrier for immigrants in being hired in the first place. Moreover, the lack of insight into the expected behaviour of employees and the workplace-level regulatory framework present obstacles to the integration of immigrants in the workplace. Knowledge of whom to direct requests to and the role of the workplace trade union representative, for example, may be regarded as prerequisites for staying in the job.

For immigrants, lack of awareness is reported as presenting a risk of exploitation, but it may also lead to conflicts: the need to report sickness absence or the reason for not being granted six adjoining weeks of holiday leave may not be obvious for immigrants in their initial encounter with the labour market. Conversely, such tensions also reflect a lack of insight among employers and managers of the need to communicate knowledge to foreign workers that is often tacit by nature.

Management–employee dialogue

The lack of awareness of the need to communicate more with immigrants, combined with the reticence often displayed by immigrants, may lead to accumulating frustration among immigrant employees; this sense of frustration, in turn, may eventually find expression in an inappropriate manner, or may lead to increased sickness absence. This problem transcends language barriers and relates to divergent expectations and a lack of role clarity in the workplace.

Social relations in the workplace

The SFI study does not touch upon discriminatory practices as reported in previous EWCO news updates from Sweden (SE0505NU03) and Austria (AT0510NU03). Instead, it focuses on employee relations and employee–client relations. The study concludes that the hiring of immigrant workers may lead to some suspicion among employees at first. However, this reaction usually dissipates once the immigrant or immigrants become involved in the workplace. Nevertheless, lack of language skills is reported to hinder immigrants in becoming fully integrated in the workplace, as humour and everyday language are core elements in a sense of community among colleagues.

Moreover, at times, discriminatory or even racist remarks directed at immigrants from clients and customers may occur. It seems that the more impersonal the relation to clients and customers is, the more common the exposure to discriminatory or racist remarks.

Gender perspectives

In the report, the gender dimension appears somewhat blurred by the fact that it often refers to immigrants in a general manner without specifying particular nationalities; different countries of origin may imply very different traditions in relation to men and women. Nevertheless, the following issues seem to pertain to the sex of the individual, although they may not apply for all different nationalities of female or male immigrants.

  • If the job is the second income of the family, female immigrants might be less likely to pursue professional development and further education.
  • Being colleagues and working together with men might present an obstacle for some female immigrants.
  • Likewise, being subordinate to a female manager might present a problem for some male immigrants.
  • The level of sickness absence may be higher for female immigrants, as they might face more family obligations.

It should be emphasised, however, that the study results are qualitative, and are not yet supported by more quantitative statistical evidence.

Rune Holm Christiansen and Henrik Stener Pedersen, Oxford Research

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