frontline volume 2, issue 5

The Migration Challenge for Labour Unions - Organising a Mongrel Nation

Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire and chair of the Edinburgh North SSP branch and the SSP Lothians Regional Council looks at the challenges posed to the labour movement by growing immigration.

Britain and its constituent nations have always been, and continue to be, mongrel nations, rather than pure breeds. Waves of migration have come before from Ireland, central eastern Europe, the Caribbean and many African and Asian countries that were formerly part of the British empire. Now they are being added to by swathes of new arrivals from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as from countries further afield that were not formally subject to British imperialism like the southern fringes of continental Europe.

Whether migrants become settled citizens of ‘their’ new nation-state depends on a number of factors, not least the intention that the migrants came with and their experience of their new homeland. So, some migrate intending to return later at some point to their original homeland. This may or may not happen, depending on the political, economic and social conditions in their original homeland. Other migrants come with an intention never to return. Again this may or may not turn out to be the case.

Consequently, whether by intention or not, some migrants do not stay ‘migrants’ forever and so the earlier waves of migrants are now longstanding citizens within what we now know as modern day Britain and Scotland. The same can be anticipated of some of the new migrants from eastern Europe. Of course, migrants often form their own quasi-distinct communities to maintain their own identities and to act as a bridge between the old and new homelands.

But that does not mean to say that migrants cease to experience racism, prejudice and discrimination when they become longstanding citizens. Other than those white people from other Anglo-Saxon countries, migrants, because of colour of skin, nationality, religious beliefs and the like are subject to the prejudice of difference and the vulnerabilities to exploitation and oppression that this opens them up to.

Sometimes this is of a direct and obvious nature like being turned down for work or promotion at work. In other instances, migrant workers are predominantly forced into working in the more precarious and lower paid sectors of employment like agriculture, food processing, cleaning and catering. Put another way, here their experience of wage exploitation is coloured, structured and added to by indirect racism, prejudice and discrimination

The social processes by which migrants are denigrated as workers and their choices are restricted are similar to those that see many women forced into low paid sectors of work like cleaning, catering, retail, childcare and the like.

Union Organising and Mobilising – the issues

The preceding discussion of the degree and nature of attachment of migrants to their new homeland has a salience for union organising and mobilising of migrant workers in as much as the degree of attachment has some bearing on migrant workers’ propensity to join and be active in labour unions. For argument’s sake, and other things being equal, those migrants that intend to be, or end up being, long-term or permanent citizens are more likely to join and be active than those that do not. The reason is not merely the transitory position nature that migrants feel under but crucially how this feeds their senses of vulnerability and insecurity and their attitude of accepting what they’re offered and taking what they can get. Of course, this is not the only influence on their propensity to join and be active. Other influences are previous experiences of labour unions in the country of origin, their political views, if their workplaces are unionised or not and the like, of which more later.

With this in mind, mass migration has always presented two major challenges for labour unions (1). The first is to prevent migrants being used by employers to undermine already present workers’ terms and conditions of employment. Unfamiliar with wage rates and employment law, desperate for work and in a far more insecure position, newly arrived workers often take what they are given because it seems at first sight far better than the situation they have come from. In time, as they become settled, this may change as their expectations and sense of belonging develop.

Nonetheless, migrant they are then preyed upon by the capricious employers. The outcome of this can be seen in Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts of last year about the Morecambe bay disaster in which a gang of Chinese cockle-pickers died, the BBC Ten o’clock News special investigation in April this year on bonded gang labour in Britain, and the expose by BBC2’s Newsnight of Domino Pizzas in Derby forced indebtness of foreign workers in late July this year. More recently, the Ken Loach film It’s a Free World (broadcast on Channel 4 on 24 September) highlighted the issues involved and the Guardian newspaper’s investigation of the same day highlighted the extent of the use of migrant agency workers to undermine the jobs and conditions of existing, better paid workers.

And just to make sure that these should not be viewed as unrepresentative or isolated examples, in a recent (summer 2007) TUC report called Migrant labour: organising the unorganised, a quarter of the migrant workers surveyed reported having no written contract – a figure that rose to nearly a third among agency workers. Over a quarter had also faced problems with payment – including not being paid for hours worked, discrepancies between pay and payslips, unauthorised deductions and errors in pay calculation. The study also found that ten times as many migrant workers as non-migrant workers were paid less than the minimum wage. The TUC report also showed that nearly a third of workers were living in accommodation rented from their employers and described excessive hours – due to their employment being linked to where they lived – and poor living conditions.

The second challenge is try to mould together the multi-national, multi-ethnic workforce into a single, common unionised workforce in order to not only gain better terms and conditions of employment but gain some co-determination of the employment relationship. Creating a common identity from different ethnic and religious groups is not easy because these workers can carry with them suspicion, prejudice and ignorance about each other, often aided by employers. On the basis that a divided workforce is a weakened workforce, the struggle has been to speak to workers from the different backgrounds as workers and to forge a common, unifying identity out of this. In other words, it has been to say to migrants that while at work, and no matter what other cleavages, the most important interests and identity they have is with one another against the employer.

From a labour union perspective, one can additionally understand the focus on migrant workers as ‘enlightened self-interest’ of recruiting workers in order to grow and rebuild leverage. And while this is true, labour unions have also striven to treat new migrants as human beings and with dignity and respect because they are often some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in Britain. Hand-in-hand with this, at a political and industrial level, labour unions have sought to integrate migrants into the union family without asking them to leave their own customs and traditions at the entrance door.

Union Organising and Mobilising – the practice

One possible response for labour unions to the recent mass migration, of something like 500,000 workers from eastern Europe alone in the last few years, would be to demand restrictions on entry to these shores as well as pushing for ‘British jobs for British workers’, as some union bodies and workers had done in the 1960s and 1970s like the London dockers. But because of existence of the free movement of labour throughout the European Union region, one could more likely envisage labour unions arguing for workforce quotas on migrant workers at individual employers, because in a now weakened state and overwhelmed by the results of deregulation brought about by neo-liberalism, labour unions would move to reactionary positions.

It is then instructive to know that the call for ‘British jobs for British workers’ has not come from labour unions but in an updated and mooted form from the current ‘new’ Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown. At the Trades Union Congress annual conference in September 2007, he announced plans to introduce a language threshold test for migrant workers in order to increase number of jobs for home workers by 500,000. This is likely to be linked in his mind to his assertion of the right-wing ideas of ‘Britishness’ and an integrated, cohesive society based on Anglo-Saxon values.

But, on the other hand, Brown, as the architect of the economics of ‘new’ Labour neo-liberalism, has made this agenda of social inclusion a rather less pressing priority than that of labour market flexibility. The blocking of any moves from the European Union Commission towards a social agenda, for example, has been evident in his drive to create the conducive conditions for increasing the profitability of capital in Britain. And under the conditions of a tight labour market in Britain, a large incoming stream of migrant workers is essential for this project.

Again, instructive was the response from the union movement to Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ initiative. For example, Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of the biggest union Unite (the result of the merger of the TGWU and Amicus labour unions), panned the proposals, saying the important issue was establishing and enforcing minimum standards for all workers, regardless of their origin. The thinking behind this position was two-fold. Firstly, all workers are entitled to decent terms and conditions of employment. Secondly, the establishment of a floor of minimum rights offers the possibility of stopping the ‘race to the bottom’ whereby pressures of competitive advantage compel many employers to attempt to undercut each other through wage competition. Taking wages (and conditions) out of competition by making all employers work on the same minimum basis would compel them to compete on the basis of productivity and other issues like quality of service and product.

To back this up at the level of rhetoric at any rate, Woodley called for drastic reform to strengthen the enforcement powers of the statutory Gangmaster Licensing Authority. (Of note here is that earlier this year, former FBU official and still ‘new’ Labour Under Secretary for State for employment relations, Jim Fitzpatrick, talked out a union backed private members’ bill in Parliament to do just this). And so labour unions condemned the mere tinkering with the Gangmaster Licensing Authority announced by ‘new’ Labour Trade and Industry Secretary, John Hutton, a few weeks ago. One final mention of Woodley here - he went as far as saying that ‘The plight of agency workers is the single biggest employment issue in our country today’ (Guardian Online ‘Comment is free’ 25 September 2007).

So it would be hard to conclude that a number of the leading lights and leading bodies within the labour union movement have not woken up and recognised the scale and importance of the issue of migrant labour, particularly where it is posed most acutely in the form of agency or gang labour. But, of course, whether effective action follows from this is another, albeit related, question.

Before examining this, it is worth noting two points. First, it is worth asking the counter-factual question – what would the labour union response be to migration if the economy in Britain had not been growing at the rate it has (with low, and in some places, nearly zero unemployment)? It would take a very bold and certain person to say that the response would have been exactly the same as it has been under the quite different present circumstances. One could speculate that there might be a push to protectionism and nationalism as has been the case with some labour unions in the United States in recent years. A similar counter-factual question could be asked if migrant workers were coming to Britain and being ‘given’/‘taking’ skilled, well-paid jobs. Again, one could anticipate a rather different response than the one we have seen so far.

Second, labour unions in Britain have de facto acknowledged that they are presently too weak and the difficulties too great to try to challenge the use of migrant labour without using the resources and power of the state. But most labour unions have still not resolved the quandary they find themselves in – not only affiliated to Labour but without influence over Labour but also Labour behaving in an antithetical manner to their politics. While this is obviously a wider political issue for the left, for a government wholly committed to labour market flexibility, neo-liberalism and its attendant version of globalisation, the issue of migrant workers and agency workers is the cutting edge of this dilemma.

Whilst labour unions have conducted a propaganda war against migrant super-exploitation2, some of them have begun to make significant headway in organising and mobilising migrant workers. The main unions involved here are probably the GMB general union, the TGWU section of Unite and UCATT, the construction and building workers’ union as a result of their specific targeting of migrant workers. At the moment, for example, the TGWU section estimates that it has some 15,000 Polish members, accounting for some 2% of its membership, while it probably has around about more African and Asian migrant workers members in ‘sweated trades’ like cleaning, catering and the like in major business and urban centres like Canary Wharf in London.

Across Britain, such unions have set up information and advice points such as union-sponsored meetings in areas of concentrations of migrant workers like certain urban or rural areas or focused on particular employers as the first step to building a relationship with migrant workers. The role that labour unions have performed here is essentially to provide information in a way that the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, with issues and rights explained in migrant workers’ mother tongues. However, this has been carried in a targeted, collective way, where the follow-on has been recruitment and organising once trust and familiarity are established. Moving on from this, many unions have launched a number of migrant work branches, and concomitant begun to provide English language training through the union learning reps system.

In the process, some issues have arisen, the main one concerning the practicalities of migrant workers being part of existing branches or separate branches. The fault lines have been language difficulties between ‘home’ and migrant workers (although putting migrant workers together should not presume they all speak the same language) and the concentration of migrant or non-migrant issues. In the background has been another tension over integrated versus autonomous groups. Depending on the different types of union organising and internal cultures that different labour unions have, the tensions here can be more or less forceful.

Moving on from this, in the last few years there have been some notable successes in unionising migrant workforces and gaining union recognition where they work. The latest examples have been the GMB’s victory in gaining recognition at National Car Parks in Enfield, north London, for parking attendants and for processing workers at World Flowers, a flowers cutting and packaging factory in the south of England. The NCP workforce was mainly north African while the World Flowers workers were mainly east European.

As alluded to earlier, it is not just the GMB but also the TGWU, UCATT and even the USDAW retail and distribution workers’ union which are turning their attention to organising eastern European, and in particular Polish, workers in construction, distribution and food processing. Poles are the biggest single group of the latest wave of mass migrants into Britain. The TGWU has had success in organising and gaining recognition for workers in the food processing and agriculture sectors. One notable example was the strawberry picker and processor, S&A Produce in Herefordshire, despite its blatant use of anti-union tactics.

Polish Workers

At first sight, concentrating on organising Polish workers may seem a bridge too far for the weakened labour unions in Britain, given that labour unions are having difficulties recruiting other groups of ‘indigenous’ or ‘home’ workers. On top of this, not all Poles are intent upon staying long-term, most are young, many moved to get away from the last vestiges of what they knew as ‘communism’, many are seeking wealth and opportunities under free market capitalism and, finally, the Solidarity political movement that helped usher in regime change back home has squandered its progressive potential. But it is the material experience that Polish workers experience in Britain, along with some remnants of social democractic and collectivist thinking, that has made many Poles receptive to the labour union message.

The TGWU in Glasgow, the GMB in Southampton, UCATT in north-west England and USDAW in Scotland have spoken to Poles in their own tongue, contacted them through Polish émigré organisations, the Catholic church and Polish shops and, in some cases, created specific union branches for them. In speaking to Polish workers, it has become clear that the way to try to win them to labour unionism is not just to approach them at the workplace. Community organisations away from the workplace are also extremely useful. This can serve as an important pointer for labour unions in recruiting and organising other groups of ethnic and migrant workers.

So labour unions are making themselves relevant to the needs of our new citizens and, in doing this, they are making much more, progress in reducing social and economic exclusion than the pious raft of attempts by the ‘new Labour governments. But, and there always is a ‘but’ in making score card reports, the labour union movement could do more. It could be more imaginative, and most importantly, put more human and financial resources into organising migrant (and non-migrant) workers. Of all the labour unions, only the TGWU/TGWU section of Unite seems to be putting really serious money into ‘union organising’ and thus some serious money into organising migrant labour. Only if other labour unions spent at this level, could there then be a possibility of achieving a virtuous circle of increasing both membership and leverage, which in turn, would make labour unions a more inviting prospective for others because they have manifest influence and power, whether they be migrant or non-migrant workers.


  1. The term ‘labour’ unions is used in recognition of the reality that most unions are no longer ‘trade’ unions but general unions where many trades and none are submerged within a general union or where trades no longer have such significance in either qualitative or quantitative terms.
  2. It is worth remembering for a moment that labour unions in Britain (as elsewhere) do not oppose the exploitation of labour, migrant or otherwise, for the raison d’etre is the betterment of the terms for labour in the wage-effort bargain. Here, the liberal notion of ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair days’ work’ masks the underlying dynamics of exploitation under capitalism even though raising it as a demand for some workers like migrants is still a useful tactical device.