Promoting workers’ rights and solidarity in the debate on EU migration
Last month the TUC was involved in a roundtable organised by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung London office which discussed how to promote workers’ rights in the debate on EU migration. The event drew on the experiences of British and German unions, think tanks and community groups.
In opening the event, Silke Breimaier, Project Manager at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung London office, said that this was a key issue as much of the concern raised in the debate around EU migration, both in Germany and the UK, was voiced by those who were not able to enforce their rights at work. To address these concerns it is important to raise awareness of the work of unions to combat exploitation at work, and community groups to tackle poverty and social tensions.
At the roundtable, Dessie Henderson, Director of Organising at Unite gave an account of the union’s work to organise in sectors where vulnerable employment is rife, such as cleaning, meat and food processing. He said the union set out with the objective of organising not just migrant workers but all workers to win employment rights for all. He emphasised that unions needed to build collective structures rather than expectations that unions will provide only individual support, so that workers develop ways to tackle problems in the workplace themselves.
Meanwhile, Bojidar Beremski, advisor at the German union federation DGB, who works at one of the seven offices of the ‘Fair Mobility’ initiative, spoke about his work providing support and advice to migrant workers. The offices connect migrant workers from EU countries with unions in their sectors so they can develop campaigns against problems affecting all workers in the sectors. Bojidar described how this has helped to build campaigns against low rates in the meat sector, tackle wage dumping under service contracts in the construction industry and put these topics on the political agenda.
It is crucial that unions not only win better conditions for members but promote this work to their members that may have concerns about migration to show that only better rights for all will combat exploitation and insecurity at work.
I spoke at the roundtable about the range of resources the TUC has produced for unions and activists on ways to promote workers’ rights messages on migration, including the ‘Working in the UK’ guide which provides information on employment rights in 17 languages. The TUC’s education arm Unionlearn also provides local and migrant workers with skills in literacy, numeracy and other workplace skills which helps integration in the workplace, prevents employers exploiting one group due to their lack of language skills, and enables people to progress in their jobs.
A major initiative the TUC undertook between 2014 – 2015 was the ‘Migration Messaging’ project which worked with community groups and unions in three areas – Corby, Manchester and Southampton – to connect messages based on solidarity and workers’ rights with people’s everyday lives.
At the roundtable, Southampton Councillor Satvir Kaur spoke about her involvement in the TUC’s Satvir was involved in the Southampton group’s campaign against the proposed Channel 4 documentary ‘Immigration Street’.
While the documentary looked set to divide the community into those considered ‘migrants’ and ‘local’, the community refused such division and the scapegoating of migrants for problems the local areas was facing with low wages and cuts to services. Satvir described how this campaign helped bring together people who cared about workplace and social problems in Southampton, and fed into the development of Southampton Council’s Fairness Commission. The Commission called for employers to work with local authorities and the community to provide good quality, Living Wage jobs as well as investing in skills.
Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future noted that the work by trade unions and those in the community to tackle exploitation and promote fairness for all suggested practical solutions to the concerns often raised by voters around migration. Messages that promote rights for all could help people to identify with a unified ‘us’ rather than being an ‘us’ against a ‘them’ (whoever that might be – the migrant, the low paid worker, the person that might not look or sound ‘from here’).
Participants concluded that it was important to raise awareness of examples of solidarity such as those discussed at the roundtable and to keep developing ways to affirm ourselves as workers and a collective in order to challenge rhetoric that seeks to divide us.