Occupational mobility of immigrant workers

Research into the occupational mobility of immigrant workers reveals that the growth of the foreign resident population has had significant impacts on the Portuguese labour market. The immigrant population has a substantially higher economic activity rate than the total population. Immigrants come mainly from eastern Europe, Africa and Brazil, and are generally hired in the construction and hotels and restaurants sectors. More than one third of companies surveyed stated that they would like to hire more immigrant workers.

During the late 1990s and beginning of the twenty-first century, Portugal has seen a significant increase in the immigrant working population. In 2004, the General Directorate of Studies, Statistics and Planning (Direcção-Geral de Estudos, Estatística e Planeamento, DGEEP) initiated a study to assess the labour market entry and occupational pathways of the immigrant working population through an analysis of the different parameters of their mobility. The study made use of the most recent official statistical data, as well as international and national research published on the subject. The study also included a survey of immigrant workers in Portugal and interviews with a panel of human resource (HR) managers.

Profile of immigrant labour force

In Europe, Portugal is one of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries with the highest growth in the proportion of immigrant workers as part of the total working population between 1995 and 2000: during this period, the proportion of immigrant workers increased from 0.5% to 2.2% of the total resident population. In 2004, the estimated immigrant population in Portugal amounted to 302,000 individuals, corresponding to around 3.5% of the total resident population. Some 68% of the immigrant population are men and more than two thirds are aged between 25 and 50 years old, according to data from Lists of Personnel in 2002.

In 2001, the immigrant population in Portugal registered an activity rate of 77%, which is significantly higher than the equivalent rate for the total resident population, standing at 51.7% in the same year. The employed immigrant population, which in 2004 represented approximately 223,000 individuals, was mostly composed of people coming from eastern Europe, accounting for about 38% of the total immigrant population; the workers mainly came from Ukraine (22.1% of the overall immigrant population). The second largest population group came from African Portuguese-speaking countries, corresponding to about 32% of the immigrant population – mainly from Angola, accounting for 12% of the total immigrant population, and Cape Verde, representing 11.7% of the total.

The unemployment rate registered among the immigrant population by the Employment and Occupational Training Institute (Instituto do Emprego e Formação Profissional) was approximately 4% in 2004.

Sectoral breakdown

Immigrant workers are mainly hired in the following sectors: construction (around 15% of workers), hotels and restaurants (about 12% of workers), real estate, renting and business activities, and consultancy. Moreover, these sectors are the most important in terms of integration, retention and absorption of immigrant workers. Brazilian workers move predominantly to the services sector, the African Portuguese-speakers work mainly in the construction sector and eastern European workers are generally hired in manufacturing.

Occupational path

Most of the immigrant workers can be found in one of three occupations: elementary occupations, plant and machine operators and assemblers, and service and retail trade workers. This also tends to vary according to the workers’ origin: individuals coming from other countries of the European Union are concentrated in the higher qualification occupations, while the eastern European and African Portuguese-speaking workers predominate in the occupations with lower qualification requirements.

In terms of occupational paths, the three occupational categories cited above – which require fewer qualifications – are those with the highest proportion of immigrant workers. Workers coming from Portuguese-speaking African countries and Brazil have a higher tendency to move to less qualified occupations. However, in general terms, the study identified an upward trend in the average qualification levels of immigrant workers.

Regarding work contracts, in 2004, most immigrant workers had fixed-term employment contracts (66%). Permanent contracts only represented 4.5% of the total. According to the survey among immigrant workers, job security has slightly improved for workers, who experienced changes in occupational terms, namely with an increase in the proportion of permanent contracts.

Difficulties in hiring immigrants

According to the results of the questionnaire to the employers’ panel, in the second quarter of 2004, more than one third of HR managers stated that they would like to hire more immigrant workers during 2005, with average increases of between 30% and 200% in the representation of immigrant workers in their companies. However, the lack of renewal of the immigrant population in the past two years (2004 and 2005) has become a key problem for enterprises. Companies that are more sensitive to labour market swings are also more critical regarding the effect of immigration policies in constraining the labour market. This is due to three main factors:

  • the return to the origin country of some good quality workers who attained their temporary migration objectives;
  • the perception of a decreasing skills base among the remaining unemployed immigrant labour force;
  • the slow response of the public employment services, mainly due to the volume of vacancies.

Mismatch between jobs and qualifications

In general, an overall mobility of 66% was recorded, which represents the proportion of immigrant workers who have moved between more than two jobs since their arrival in Portugal. The occupational paths of these workers reveal that, after an occupational downgrading in the transition from the last job in the home country to the first job in Portugal, a progressive upgrading in subsequent jobs occurs.

However, a mismatch persists between the jobs obtained and the workers’ qualifications, indicating that the upward movement is still incomplete and in progress. This gradual adjustment has a different incidence according to the workers’ country of origin: for example, workers coming from eastern Europe and China are quicker to reach their proper skills level in their occupation.

About the study

The survey of the immigrant population (18 years old or older) was carried out between December 2004 and January 2005 in 55 sampling areas corresponding to parishes (the smallest administrative unit in Portugal). The questionnaire was applied face to face and some 1,588 valid questionnaires were collected. The data gathering was also complemented by a questionnaire addressed to a panel of 117 HR managers from companies employing immigrant workers, in order to learn about their strategies and management practices in respect of immigrant workers. Random telephone interviews were carried out, covering the hotel and restaurants, construction and cleaning services sectors throughout Portugal.


Carneiro, R. (coord.), A Mobilidade Ocupacional do Trabalhador Imigrante em Portugal, [Occupational Mobility of the Immigrant Worker in Portugal], Cogitum Collection, No. 20, Direcção-Geral de Estudos, Estatística e Planeamento (DGEEP), Lisbon, 2006.

Jorge Cabrita, CESIS

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