skip to primary navigationskip to content

Biographical experiences of Spanish labour migrants living in the UK and Germany

last modified Mar 30, 2016 11:44 AM
Biographical experiences of Spanish labour migrants living in the UK and Germany

Mê-Linh Riemann

Mê-Linh Riemann is a first year PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Under the supervision of Dr Anna Bagnoli, she is currently conducting a qualitative study on the (biographical) experiences of Spanish labour migrants living in the United Kingdom and Germany – as well as of those who have returned to Spain. Mê-Linh’s PhD project is based on her exploratory MPhil research, which she completed in the summer of 2014.

For her MPhil dissertation, Mê-Linh conducted twelve life-history interviews with Spanish people who had moved to the UK in the context of the ongoing economic crisis in Southern Europe (She conducted the interviews in Spanish). Work focused on the long-term processes in interviewees’ lives, raising questions such as how the economic crisis unfolded in the biographies of individuals, how the decision to leave Spain came about, and the experiences of new migrants in the receiving society. Using narrative analysis and Grounded Theory, Mê-Linh produced several case studies, which were the basis for developing a sequential model of the migration experience.

While the economic crisis in Spain affected each of the interviewees and was one important reason underlying their migration, there were important differences in what its ‘aftermath’ entailed – varying by age, gender, qualifications and personal circumstances. For many of the younger participants, migration was a way of overcoming a ‘prolonged dependency’ on their families after graduating from university, which was often experienced as an extremely frustrating period of ‘waithood’. Others had entered the labour market before the outbreak of the economic crisis, but then suffered from deteriorating working conditions - that were at odds with their increasing work experience.

The MPhil study also shed light on the experience of working in the UK, distinguishing between preparatory activities (such as au pair work), un-skilled and skilled labour. The popularity of au pair work among university graduates was unexpected as it is traditionally associated with something young women do after graduating from high school. In the discussion of unskilled labour it became clear that many Spanish migrants experience forms of social degradation as they work in jobs unrelated to their academic training. The data suggests that some people continue to experience their working conditions as unfair, as they work within so-called ‘zero-hour contracts’. In contrast, the interviewees who succeeded in finding work in their field reported to be very satisfied as the quality of their jobs compared favourably to what they were offered in Spain.

Using her exploratory MPhil research as a basis for her PhD, Mê-Linh is now looking at the phenomenon at hand on a larger scale: along with the UK, Germany has become one of the most popular destinations of these new Spanish migrants. While the topic of EU migrants in Germany appears to be somehow overshadowed by the current refugee crisis, the number of new arrivals from Spain (and other Southern European countries) has increased quite significantly since 2008. Mê-Linh is therefore also planning to conduct fieldwork in Germany (which also happens to be her home country), to gain a deeper understanding of the migration experience. The idea behind this is that by studying the narratives of these labour migrants, one can also learn a lot about the respective receiving societies. That said, it will be interesting to see if and how the experiences of migrants living in Germany differ from those who have chosen the UK as their destination. The third group of interviewees Mê-Linh will be focusing on are returnees: including the perspectives of not only those individuals who have returned to Spain for good, but also of people who have developed ‘new’ forms of cyclical or transmigration, will hopefully allow for a deeper understanding of the migration experience.

You can contact Mê-Linh about her research by emailing