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As part of our project to understand how young people cope with making a living, we have also explored how to uncover those people who are hidden from society. Migrant night workers are one of the invisible groups of people who make a living while most of us are asleep or partying.

Through our interview with Iulius-Cezar Macarie from the Night Laboratory , we dive into the nooks and crannies late-time economy and the people that make it work (or keep it going?)

Tell me about the different types of night work?

According to the Labour Force Survey, there are three types of night work: “three shift workers” who rotate working a morning, an afternoon and a night shift, “continental shift workers” who work two mornings, three afternoons and two nights. Both of these are rotational shifts where you have a little break in between the shifts. Then you have “permanent night shift workers” where you start your shift at six in the evening and finish at six in the morning – a 12 hour shift.

This is where the problems start. If you look at the UK & EU working time legislation, they stipulate that night workers shouldn’t do more than eight hours shifts. Let’s take police officers as an example. They are outraged at the fact that the police changed their shift pattern to a 12 hour shift at the weekend – when it’s the busiest. How it impacts on their life is that they have Sunday to recover which they will spend sleeping. Then, they start their day shifts on Monday. They have been very dissatisfied with this but they are powerless. That’s an example of permanent night work.

Talking about migrant night workers in London, since I started looking at nightwork in 2011, I’ve found that the majority are on low paid jobs. Also, when I was in Sozopol in Bulgaria, the majority of night workers were migrants who lived in one part of Bulgaria but traveled to the coast, working throughout the night doing all sorts of work, like selling food or working in hotels and bars. You wouldn’t find many locals from Sozopol doing low-paid night work.

Is it because there are people that would rather do less well-paid jobs but during the day than doing night work? Is it because people doing night work are more resilient than others to cope with these conditions?

It’s more a matter of networking. Migrants from the eight Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 arrived in the UK through friends or family ties. Often it happens that whatever those friends or families are doing, the night workers will end up doing the same job, because they have those connections.  They say, “You know, I have this friend, he would like to do this kind of work”.

For Bulgarians and Romanians, it’s more of an issue of accessibility – work restrictions still exist against these nationals until December 2013. I know qualified Romanian doctors who have to work here as nannies. You get a specific situation where migrants from those countries will go wherever they can work.

I spoke to a young man working nights doing quite hard labour – packaging vegetables, starting at 10 at night and finishing the next morning at 11 am, six nights a week. What he told me is that it pays good money. “I don’t pay taxes, so I make more money. Besides that, if I could I would leave this work and go and work during the day”.

Then you’ve got rickshaw drivers in London. One of them will say: 

“I’m doing an MBA course at LSE during the day. At night, I’m a rickshaw driver. The reason why I’m doing this work is that employers will not class me as capable or dedicated as English people. They would not give me a job, so I had to be a rickshaw driver. It was also because I wouldn’t be able to find a daytime job that would make me enough money to pay the rent and bills. So I’m doing something that’s flexible with my studies. On top of that, I’m getting help from my family.”

So there are types of night workers where’s a night time bonus in terms of the salary?

I didn’t find that. I mentioned earlier people working in the professions, such as the police. These are organisations that by law have to give a bonus for people working night shifts. But for other professions, that’s not necessarily the case.

I spoke to a cleaner who had to start a shift from two till nine in the morning. I asked him if you got any extra allowance for working nights. He said “No, I work on a minimum wage”. So, he is not even on a London ‘living wage’ (£8.55), but on a national minimum wage (£6.19). I find this obscene.

You were talking about families and friends providing a source of support – psychological, not necessarily financial. It’s interesting you talk about the living wage, because there have been targeted campaigns raising awareness about particular types of workers to secure the living wage for them.

The campaigns revolve around a relationship with either the customer – like with HSBC when they told customers “Do you want the cleaners of your bank to earn a decent wage” or with fellow workers with their cleaners. They see them during the day, so they have that relationship, but obviously if you’re a cleaner working at night, you don’t have that exposure to other people, let alone the media. How aware are the media or charities of the conditions that night workers face?

Night time workers are unseen. Why are they unseen? You won’t find in the media articles about the life of a night worker. I’ve only come across one article by a Guardian journalist alluding to the film the “Dirty Pretty Things” which is about how migrant workers experience their lives working undocumented and at night.

Through my own research, I spoke to a Romanian taxi driver who has come here through family ties. He lives with his family, has a girlfriend and yet after three months of working nights, he said “I had to change, because I became like a zombie”. For him, night work is not normal so I asked him what was normal. He said “Normal work is where people wake up or start work at seven in the morning and finish at seven in the evening. That’s normal”. For him to work nights was unbearable, because it was so hard.

Another aspect of night work is isolation. I got to speak to a Romanian hotel worker. He told me “I feel so isolated because I can hardly see my colleagues during the day. I can’t get to Christmas parties or drinks with friends because they’re in the evening when I’m on my shift". So they can’t socialise, leave alone the fact that night work is not seen as important, because most of the business decisions are taken during the day. He found he wasn’t valued as much as his day time colleagues.