Unions must help migrant workers organise

Submitted by AWL on 12 February, 2009 - 7:24

Alan Fraser is a GMB union official involved in helping migrant workers organise. He spoke to Solidarity.

Recent events — and not just recent events, the last few years — demonstrate that we need stronger links with European unions and other unions internationally. We need an international union card that is transferrable and can be used wherever you are working.

As regards the “Posted Workers' Directive”, I understand that some of the union leaders made some quite serious points about it around the Warwick Agreement [of 2004, between the union leaders and the Labour Party leaders]. But the unions need to put much more pressure on the Government than they have been doing with regard to codifying and clarifying what we actually want on the Posted Workers’ Directive.

Studying the union material, I've seen a lot about what's wrong with the Posted Workers’ Directive, but not much about what the unions are demanding. And we need a concerted campaign by unions across Europe on the issue.

There are an enormous number of positives that come out of the recent construction workers’ strikes, at the same time as we have to be very sober about some of the slogans.

With the slogans, there were probably xenophobic comments being made. There was also a group of workers taking on the anti-union laws, a group of workers taking rank-and-file action and trying to control their own strike through their own strike committee. Both migrant and indigenous workers can draw the conclusion that if they do unite, then they have possibilities of taking on the employers.

We need much more progressive migrant-worker strategies within the unions, more discussion in the unions about how to address the organising of migrant workers and how to link them with indigenous workers. That needs structure, it needs resources, it needs a set of policies which are not prevalent enough in the unions.

We have to get across the fact that there is no such thing as “British Jobs For British Workers”. That slogan, launched by Gordon Brown, does strike a chord with some workers who may think that migrant workers in Britain are “taking the jobs” of British workers and if you take those workers out, then you get jobs for “British” workers.

That doesn’t stack up. Migrant workers have taken on millions of jobs which are the “three Ds” — difficult, dirty, and dangerous. It’s our jobs as socialists and trade unionists to link up with those migrant workers and put demands for government investment into jobs, not just investment into banks to reflate capitalism.

We should be talking about a workers’ plan for jobs for both migrant and indigenous workers.

There is nothing new about migrant workers coming to Britain or leaving Britain. The reality is that there are millions of migrant workers here and our job is to help them organise. There have been reports of large numbers of migrant workers already returning to Eastern Europe, in particular, but I don’t really buy that.

One Polish trade unionist described to me the atmosphere in Poland now as reminiscent of what he has been told Britain was like in the 1980s under Thatcherism. The idea that lots of Polish workers will choose to go back to that doesn’t really stack up. Economic conditions are as bleak in Poland than here, in fact bleaker.

In the GMB we have adopted a self-organising approach with migrant workers. We have used training and education around the English classes to help support migrant workers. Once we’ve established relations with those migrant workers, we have tracked them to particular workplaces. We’ve set up meetings with groups of migrant workers in order to collectivise their issues and their problems.

A key ingredient has been the employment by the union of migrant workers as project organisers. You must have migrant workers working for the union, recruiting, organising, and campaigning.

We have also created an internal structure so that we have the possibility of a coordinated migrant worker strategy in our region.

We’ve had situations where there has been, maybe, a 60/40 split in a workplace between migrant workers and indigenous workers, and the employers have tried to split off the indigenous workers from the migrant workers. We have been able to talk to both groups of workers, ensure that the issues are collectivised, encourage migrant workers to become activists.

On “undocumented” workers, our union’s position is clear: all workers deserve to be supported by the union. If we can’t reach undocumented workers, then the employers will use those undocumented workers to undermine union organisation.

Undocumented workers need proper rights from day one —­ rights to stay, and the social rights that go with that.

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