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Language research

Research suggests that migrant workers are probably not at any greater risk than other workers doing the same job. Before migrant workers are taken on and set to work, employers need to consider whether their migrant status presents additional risks which need to be taken into account. These may include in particular language and communication barriers.

Communicating necessary health and safety information and training where there is no common language is a challenge for employers. Some have developed ways of conveying information non-verbally. Visual aids are popular with overseas workers, as they overcome many of the limitations of poor English language skills. However, the greater the range of methods used to communicate, the more successful workers perceived them to be. Any single method, used by itself, is unlikely to deliver a comprehensive message, understood by all workers.

Only half of the workers interviewed had good or fluent English. Many workers claimed that their inability to speak English was the reason why they were working below their qualifications or skills. Many admitted to pretending to understand English in case it stopped them getting work, or of losing their jobs if their lack of English became known. But this has serious implications, particularly in relation to health and safety training, where some admitted they had not been able to follow and understand the training they were given.

Although employers interviewed said that knowledge of English was not an essential requirement for work, lack of or poor English among migrant workers made supervision more difficult. In many cases, employers preferred that supervision should be carried out in English, except where the employer shared a common language with the workers.

Using interpreters was also seen as a problem, because the employer did not know if instructions were being translated accurately or correctly. Also it was not easy to move workers to different jobs if their translators did not accompany them.

Even employees who do not speak English may need to understand a few simple key words and phrases relating to health and safety that others around them might use - obvious examples are "Fire!" and "Stop!"