Worker arranging shelves in store
‘Organising after the Brexit vote’ event calls for solidarity to fight insecurity at work
Building solidarity between workers, no matter what passport or contract they hold, is a trade union priority after the Brexit vote.
That was the message of the TUC event on ‘Organising migrant and other insecure workers after the Brexit vote’ held at Congress House last week.
The event was held as part of the TUC’s ‘Rethinking Organising’ series that is looking into how unions should adapt to new challenges in the workplace to increase membership and bargaining power.
TUC research published this week revealed that 3.2 million workers, one in ten of those working today, now face significant insecurity at work.
Migrant workers are often employed on insecure contracts because of their relative lack of power to demand better conditions at work. This insecurity has increased for EU migrants following the Brexit vote who have not been given assurances about whether they will have the right to remain in the country – something the TUC is campaigning for.
However migrants are by no means the only vulnerable group with young people, BME workers and those with caring responsibilities more likely to be subject to insecure conditions at work.
At the event, Guardian journalist Felicity Lawrence spoke about the business models that favour a flexible workforce that have driven these insecurities. She spoke about on her investigations of the food industry in East Anglia where she found supermarkets demanding round-the-clock deliveries of fresh goods at low prices. This was pushing suppliers to keep workers’ wages low and for them to put workers on precarious contracts so they could be hired and fired to meet demand.
Felicity also spoke about the insecurity entailed in new forms of employment associated with phone apps and other new technology – this is also discussed in the TUC’s report Living on the edge.
Felicity noted the important work by trade unions to organise workers in these sectors, highlighting the campaigning by GMB with Uber drivers that resulted in the landmark ruling that gave them worker status.
Unison organiser Katia Widlack spoke at the event about the work by her union to organise in sectors where insecure work was prevalent. Through long campaigns in some instances, organisers had successfully got employers to agree to recognise the union and to improve conditions and pay.
She showed a short film Unison has made about their migrant worker networks which provide migrant workers with support and develop their confidence to take leadership positions in the union. She said this is critical to ensuring the union is responsive to their concerns.
I spoke at the event to highlight the resources the TUC has developed to support organising in workplaces with migrant workers. These include the ‘Working in the UK’ guide to workplace rights in 21 languages and an online educational course (that anyone can access for free here) to encourage trade union reps to understand the importance of organising migrant workers together with other workers.
Felicity Lawrence also spoke about the concerns of residents in East Anglia that had been caused by the use of migrant workers to do low paid insecure agricultural jobs. She said that in areas like Wisbech ‘migration is being used as a wages policy.’
These concerns can only be addressed by stronger employment protections and collective agreements to ensure all workers are treated decently, as we showed in the film ‘Fairness at Work’ (online here) which the TUC made with with trade unions and community groups in Corby.
Participants of the event called for more case studies of effective trade union organising of migrants and workers from the local area together.
This is the positive message we can send to show that trade union solidarity can win all workers better treatment, whereas divisions between workers (whether based on nationality, race or type of contract you hold) only play into the hands of bad employers, allowing them to keep workers insecure.