TITLE: CROSS BORDER TRADE UNION COLLABORATION AND POLISH MIGRANT WORKERS IN BRITAIN
Context and Relevance
Since the enlargement of the EU on 1 May 2004 there has been extensive interest in the arrival of migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe (known as the A8 countries) in the UK. The number of workers arriving has been severely underestimated and it is believed that there are now at least 500,000 Poles working in a variety of sectors and geographically dispersed throughout the UK. It is widely accepted that many A8 migrant workers, although now working legally, have been subject to exploitative conditions in the workplace; employed in the worst paid and most poorly organised sectors of the economy. Legitimising access to jobs should remove some of these disadvantages, however, there is evidence that the low level of labour regulation in the UK is leaving migrant workers open to exploitation in low paid jobs without security or access to trade union rights.
This paper will report the initial findings of an ESRC project1 beginning in January 2007 which investigates collaboration between British and Polish trade unions in organising across national boundaries. The research offers a new perspective by examining the role of cross border collaboration and cooperation of Polish and British trade unions at national, regional and sectoral level in addressing issues and implementing policies related to migrant workers. It will explore how British and Polish trade unions have established structures and policies to raise awareness among potential migrants from Poland and to organise these workers once in the UK.
Contrary to approaches which assume hostility to migration, trade unions have specified their interest in a way that takes account of the global labour market by demonstrating increased solidarity with migrant workers rather than narrow national interests. Therefore the erosion of national boundaries and regional integration processes create new spaces and terrains on which to organise and mobilise action. Further, the activities of trade unions have to be understood at different scalar levels. Therefore our emphasis is not only on the rhetoric of cooperation but how far this has translated into discursive and material practises at different levels of organisation and activity. The research reported raises key questions about industrial relations in the economies of Poland and the UK, both of which have undergone deep restructuring. Since the early 1980s the UK has faced a sharp decline in manufacturing and a shift towards the service sector, but with labour shortages in low paid sectors of the economy market. In Poland, transformation according to neoliberal principles has profoundly changed the labour market. This has resulted in high unemployment, an impetus to migrate and a severe decline in trade union membership. From the late 1990s a sea change is possible to discern with a rejuvenation of Polish unions. This is manifest in the way in which since the late 1990s Solidarity has attempted to organise in new sectors of the economy and across national boundaries. Cooperation between unions and collaboration across boundaries may provide the political and economic circumstances which allow the possibility of the renewal of labour organisations and reinvigoration of trade unions.
This paper would be highly relevant to both the Regulating employment: towards multi levelgovernance and the Voice at work: new challenges, new forms themes.
Substantive content and research method The paper will report the findings of three sets of interviews. The first round of interviews will be carried out with the British TUC and the three main Polish union federations: Solidarity, OPZZ and the smaller Forum ZZ to gauge the scope and depth of collaboration between British and Polish trade union federations at a national level regarding Polish migrant workers in the UK. We will also investigate the different strategies pursued by the three Polish trade union federations. Second, we will examine how far national collaboration is reflected in the practices of trade unions in UK and Polish regions and the extent to which these national policies have been replaced or supplemented by local initiatives. Third, the paper will report the differing strategies used by three UK trade unions (T&G, USDAW and BFAWU) in organising and recruiting Polish workers, focusing on the extent of cooperation with Polish unions and their specific interventions in their own sectors.
As we will be reporting research that is planned for the first five months of 2007 we do not want to prejudge our findings or conclusions. At a general level the empirical material will contribute to various academic debates about the role of trade unions and migrant workers in general, and particularly in the context of A8 economies. Theoretically the paper enriches debates regarding transnational labour organisations, industrial relations in the UK and Poland and the remaking of labour geographies.
1 We would like to thank the ESRC for their support for this work. ESRC Small Grant ‘Cross border trade union collaboration and Polish migrant workers in Britain’ grant No. RES-000-22-2034.