Migration, labour market restructuring and the role of civil society in global governance

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Trade Unions and their Relationships with Migrant Workers
Mary Hyland

Centre for International Studies,

Dublin City University

Position paper to:



UNESCO-MOST CONFERENCE, NORRKÖPING, SWEDEN, MAY 30-JUNE 1, 2012Trade Unions and their Relationships with Migrant Workers

The purpose of this paper is to outline the background and development of the trade union relationship with migrant labour as it has evolved over the past century, and particularly in the recent past. The paper discusses the interactions between trade unions and migrants in the context of ever increasing globalisation. It outlines the research field and discusses the development of globalization and the growth in international labour migration. It examines the nature, characteristics and evolution of trade unionism and considers trade union identity and ideologies. It traces the trade union response to labour migration and discusses the theoretical perspectives and considers the particular challenges for trade unions in dealing with the issue. It considers the historical representations of unions as insider exclusionary organizations and discusses the documented changing of attitude. It posits the argument that unions have particular incentives to organise migrants rather than oppose them and considers the particular difficulties associated with organisation and representation of migrant workers. It considers the role of international union confederations and discusses the various organisational approaches of trade unions in dealing with atypical workers/workers in atypical situations. Finally, it discusses new approaches to unionism such as social movement and community unionism in relation to migrant workers and considers the trade union movement’s capacity to respond to these approaches.


The first research area of importance here is industrial relations and organisation of workers. For a long time, although with important exceptions, workers’ organisation within employment has been focused on the trade union structures which emerged as a response to Taylorism and transatlantic Fordism of the early to mid-20th century . Both political unionism, especially linked to its various versions in Western Europe (militant and corporative) and business unionism, often linked to the US, have in recent decades been analysed as being in crisis, and trade union movements have been looking to new ways of doing business with an increasing focus on combining political, workplace and community struggle - social movement unionism, community unionism. There are debates about how trade union renewal (see Fitzgerald and Stirling, 2004; Frege and Kelly, 2004; Milkman, 2006) has emerged as a strategy based on reconnecting with labour market constituencies and creating new modes of action.

There is a growing body of research dealing with issues of migration. The area of study has increased in scope substantially during the past couple of decades although there has been relatively little research done comparing distinctly different migration regimes, breaking the dominant understanding of migration as a (mainly) South to North phenomenon. While the interaction between labour markets and immigration has been considerably researched and theorized, particularly in more recent times, it has been argued that much research has tended to focus on migratory processes on the one hand and ‘illegality’ (informality) on the other (Anderson, 2010, 312). A further factor is one pointed to by Munck (2011) who maintains that the explicit dualism of the formal/informal distinction suffers from severe analytical weaknesses. It posits two hermetically sealed sectors which simply cannot be distinguished in practice, and it is unable to see intermediate or hybrid employment categories.
Informalisation of economies and labour is an important research area when considering the trade union relationship with migrant labour. With its classical start in Third World studies, informalisation has become a broad concept applied to understandings such as the post-communist transformation of Eastern Europe, the expansion of the European Union and the increased labour migration which followed it (Munck 2011).
Meanwhile, specific literature on the relationship between trade unions and migrant labour is relatively scarce though there has been some seminal work in the area in a number of publications concerned with post-World War Two labour migration to Western Europe. Among them are Castles and Kosack (1973), Castles and Miller (1993) and, most significantly, a comparative study by Penninx and Roosblad (2000) that analyses and compares trade union responses towards immigrants in seven Western European case countries from 1960-1993. In recent times there has been an increase in both national and international research in the area, primarily, but not exclusively, in the context of the globalization debate and emanating more from industrial relations studies than from migration studies (see Milkman 2000, 2006; Haus 2002; Wrench, 2000, 2004; Munck 2004; Krings 2007, 2009 and Turner et al, 2008). These studies have problematised the role of trade unions, pointing to the dilemmas they face and the possible strategies and choices that are open to them. Also there has been a growth in research into alternative ways of organizing and representing migrant and minority ethnic workers (see Fine, 2005, 2006; Wills,2001, 2002, 2006; Tait, 2005; Holgate, 2009; Martinez Lucio and Perrett, 2009).
The historic failure of trade unions to represent the broad canvas of groups that constitute migrants is a common theme in the literature. Key aspects of the literature have frequently pointed up the role of organized labour in processes of exclusion and segregation. Ambivalent and racist attitudes towards ethnic minorities have been a common feature of trade union attitudes and activities through the decades (see Bhavnani and Bhavnani, 1985; Kirton and Greene, 2002; Mayhew and Addison, 1983) and an area of much academic study. During the 20th century, trade unions developed a politics of solidarity that was often constrained by an established and nationally bound set of interests of the workforce that supported organized workers vis-a-vis both employers and ‘outsiders’.
In many cases research into the relationship of immigrants and ethnic minorities to industrial relations and trade union strategy has been presented as a matter of institutional realignment. The language is frequently that of ‘organizing’ the ‘unorganized’, hence assuming a lack of organizational capacity on the part of ethnic minorities (see, for example, Bronfenbrenner et al., 1998). There is also a tendency to see the question of race and unions as one of new constituencies, trade union growth, realignment of members’ needs and union strategies, in effect as the needs of the institution being the primary focus.
Meanwhile globalisation has generated a whole range of innovative responses as well as a steadily increasing flow of critical analysis (see Munck 2002; Harrod and O’Brien eds, 2002, Silver, 2003, Phelan, 2006; Broffenbrenner, 2007; Stevis and Boswell, 2008; Webster, Lambert and Bezuidenhout, 2008; Bieler, Lindberg and Pillay, 2008 and Huws, 2008). What so much of the work in this area indicates is that there is no one best way (as Taylorism claimed to be in the past) for labour responses to globalisation where flexibility is the only given. What research indicates as being needed are a range of innovative trade union strategies with an orientation towards social justice and collaborative practice.

Recent decades have seen new transitional migration systems across the globe. Inter-and intra-regional migrations have been propelled by the political and economic changes in Eastern Europe, the massive growth of industrial and service economies such as China and India, and increasing conflict and climate driven refugee movements. These new migration systems are accompanied by an unprecedented mobility of capital, restructuring of national and regional economies and the flexibilisation of labour markets. Hence the new political economy of migration is linked to profound changes in contemporary working life.

The flipside of flexibility and a globalised ‘network economy’ is informalisation and precarisation of work through offshoring, outsourcing, sub-contracting, and an overall diminution in working conditions. Labour market flexibilisation is re-enforced and perpetuates ethnic, racial and gender segmentations. While workers everywhere are caught up in these changes, migrants, by virtue largely of their lack of societal connectedness, often experience a particular deterioration of conditions and social rights.
In 2004 the International Labour Organisation carried out a world global study of economic security and found that three quarters of the world’s population lived in circumstances of economic insecurity (ILO 2004). The term ‘precariat’ – an amalgam of the classic notion of proletariat with the adjective of precarisation, which is creating a more precarious life—is essentially designed to capture the growing norm of insecure work. There is little security in terms of job tenure, working conditions, labour rights and indeed, life itself for increasing numbers of the world’s workers. Today, as the impact of the current recession becomes clearer, we see that we can expect the precariat and labour insecurity to grow; to quote Peter Hall-Jones, “the precariat is becoming the rule, not the exception” (Hall-Jones, 2009).
The global economic crisis is having a major effect on the movement of workers across national frontiers. In the past the recruitment of migrant workers has been highly susceptible to the economic cycle. And, yes, there is some evidence of that being the case now in that since 2008 we have seen a decrease in irregular migration particularly, and a sharp decline in economic remittances and industries where migrants predominated, such as construction and services, have been particularly vulnerable to the economic recession. However, it now seems clear that we cannot draw simple parallels with the depression of the 1930’s or even the western capitalist crisis of 1973 in terms of their impact on migrant workers. This is not least because the world now is much more integrated than it was previously, thus the economic recession is more global with no obvious safe haven for migrants to return to.
Globalisation has created an economically, socially and spatially much more integrated world. Labour diasporas have formed dense social networks intimately integrated into the spatial expansion of global capitalism. It is through these networks as David Harvey puts it that “we now see the effects of the financial crash spreading into almost every nook and cranny of rural Africa or peasant India” (Harvey 2010:147). As Castles and Vezzoli put it we might see “ new patterns of migration, new sending and receiving countries and the rise of a new migration order” ( 2009: 74). Whatever the variants that emerge it is at least certain now that migration is not a flow that can be turned on or off by a policy tap.
At the moment the movement of people seems unlikely to be subject to the regulation which, for example, the World Trade Organisation seeks to impose on trade. However, according to Natasha David “in response to economic globalisation, trade unions are organising the globalisation of solidarity in defence of migrants” (David 2002:74). This is happening unevenly across the globe. South African’s trade unions reacted decisively against the persecution of migrants in 2008 but, on the other hand, French and Austrian trade unions have sometimes been at the forefront of attacks on migrants. But there is no escaping the fact of labour migration and it is increasingly difficult to conceive of a coherent trade union and democratic renewal strategy which will not take migrant workers into account.

When considering the trade union dilemma in relation to immigration, it is important to note the connection of the modern trade union movement to the homogenous nation state which, as it has developed since the eighteenth century, is premised on the idea of cultural as well as political unity. In many countries, ethnic homogeneity, defined in terms of common language, culture, traditions and history, has been seen as the basis of the nation-state. Hyman and others have shown that the modern organized trade union movement did not start with industrialization itself, but with the gradual growth of the nation state. At the end of the 19th century an imagined community within a national territory became the dominant framework for the organization of workers and employers alike and citizenship became an important distinction against ‘aliens’. Industrialization, urbanization and unionization all went hand-in-hand. And it all happened within the clear parameters of an existing nation-state or one in formation. In the original industrialized countries the formation of a labour movement was inseparable from the national and social integration of the working people (Penninx and Roosblad 2000; Hyman 2001, Munck 2004). This then was the position from which trade unions engaged with the concept and reality of migrant labour. The presence of aliens within the borders of the nation state became an anomaly and so too, by implication, did the position of the immigrant alien worker in the organization of labour become anomalous. More so when such immigrants were regarded both as alien and temporary by both state authorities and unions as has been the case in most Western European countries since the end of the Second World War. (Penninx and Roosblad 2000).

However, Munck would argue that we also need to understand that trade unions did not come into being fully formed complete with national headquarters and bureaucratic structures. From the very start the international dimension was crucial and migrant workers were central. Free migration across borders was considered natural and xenophobia was rare; internationalism in its economic and political senses was thus not forced. This early internationalism was, however, to be short-lived as state formation began to lead to the national integration of the European working classes in particular. By the time the First World War erupted in 1914 this national integration led to the almost complete collapse of labour and socialist internationalism in Europe. From then on, national organisations and the pursuit of social betterment though the national state, became the dominant modality of trade unionism. Internationalism became relegated to ritual incantations at trade union congresses. Denis McShane remarks:
While the rhetoric of internationalism has always been part of the trade union narrative, the actual trade union form has remained profoundly national. They are embedded in specific national contexts and thus primarily represent the interests of their existing national membership (2004, pviii).
The earliest unions were composed predominantly of skilled male workers. With the growth of large-scale mass-production industries, core groups of workers (typically male, white, full-time, permanent) tended to dominate the processes of internal union democracy. As a corollary, those in lower-skilled jobs with insecure labour market positions – notably, women and migrant workers and those from ethnic minorities – were in most countries, and for much of the time, marginalised within trade unionism: their interests neglected. In general where unions have claimed to represent the interests of the working class, what they have represented have been primarily the interests of relatively protected sections. Perry Anderson wrote “trade unions are essentially a de facto representation of the working class at its workplace” (Anderson 1977:335).
Hyman uses a threefold typology in his discussion of trade union forms, each associated with a distinctive ideological orientation - unions as ‘schools of war’ in a struggle between labour and capital; unions as vehicles for raising workers’ status in society more generally and hence advancing social justice; and interest organisations with predominantly labour market functions (Hyman 1994, 2001).
The debates of the early 1900s became associated with this triple polarization of trade union identities where one model sought to develop unionism as a form of anti-capitalist opposition. The mission of trade unionism, in this configuration, was to advance class interests, largely through militancy and socio-political mobilization
A second model evolved in part as a rival to the first: trade unionism as a vehicle for social integration. It grew out of a Catholic, social justice base and counterposed a more functionalist vision of society to the socialist conception of class antagonism. Over time social democratic and Christian democratic unionism came to share significant common ideological attributes: a priority for gradual improvement in social welfare and social cohesion, and hence a self-image as representative of social interests.
A third model, not always clearly demarcated in practice from the second is business unionism. Predominantly associated with US unions, but with variants in most English speaking countries, economism is central to its approach. Its central theme is the priority of collective bargaining.
At a simplistic level business unions focus on the market; integrative unions on society; radical oppositional unions on class. But while Hyman’s typology is useful he acknowledges that, in most cases, all trade unions have some elements of all three models. Pure business unionism has rarely, if ever, existed. Even if primary attention is devoted to the labour market, unions cannot altogether neglect the broader social and political context in which they function. Unions as vehicles of social integration have still to recognise that they have a membership with economic interests which may conflict with those of other sections of society. Equally, those unions focused on class opposition must, nevertheless, function within the existing social order, and again must reflect the fact that their members have short-term economic interests which they wish to have represented.
Social democratic trade unionism has, for some time, been the dominant organizational form of Western European unionism. A synthesis between pragmatic collective bargaining and a politics of state directed social reform and economic management, at its core was a term previously referred to as ‘political economism’ (Hyman 1994: 113 -115). In this model unions were focused primarily on collective bargaining while recognising that success in collective bargaining was shaped by the macro-economic and social context and by the legislative regulation of employment rights. From the late 1960s political economism was considered to be both a pragmatic and progressive approach in that, in a favourable economic environment, unions could satisfy the material self-interest of their membership while addressing broader issues of social solidarity.
What began to occur in the last quarter of the twentieth century was the break up of the dominant nation-state-based economic model as the modern phenomenon of globalisation began to emerge. The context had altered radically. Economic expansion in most developed countries slowed, turning into stagnation and recession. International product market competition intensified, partly because of the emergence of new industrial economies and partly through the rise of multinational corporations as key economic actors who could not easily be cast as social partners in any specific national system. The new economic orthodoxy rejected Keynesian demand management, insisting that governments should have little influence over employment and that labour market flexibility was what was needed. The trade unions, oriented toward the nation-state, found that the centre of gravity had shifted and the realisation began to grow within the labour movement that the old corporatist arrangements and partnerships with employers were likely to be undermined and no longer likely to be the viable mechanism to defend the interests of workers that they had been. What we begin to see from 2000 onwards is a clear recognition from the international trade union movement that globalisation was a new paradigm which demanded new strategies, tactics and organizational modalities (Munck 2002).
With diminished capacity to mobilise traditional forms of economic and political pressure, unions were ill placed to respond to a far less sympathetic environment. There was a need to develop alternative means to exert influence. Civil society was increasingly seen as an area of trade union engagement. In some cases unions began to function more as social movements challenging key principles of the prevailing social and economic order. Yet in their efforts to recapture the role of a social movement and to engage as actors in civil society they still had to grapple with the long-standing dilemma of the contradiction between ideals and organisational interests, Flanders two faces of trade unionism, “sword of justice and vested interest” (1970). The dilemma manifests itself in three particular ways:
First is the difficulty of the relationship between external and internal influences. It is only to the extent that unions can move their own members to action, that they can exert force in their external relationships but their demonstrated ability to make an impact in the wider world is likely to influence their constituents’ ‘willingness to act’.
Second, if unions are to redefine their role as actors in civil society, there is a tension between the position of ‘social partner’ involved in institutionalised dialogue with those wielding economic and political power, and that of campaigning organisation endeavouring to shape beliefs and values in a wider society.
Third, is the complexity of the relationship of trade unions with other social movement organisations. In very many cases and also at an international level, unions have proved reluctant to collaborate with such bodies and often consider themselves as the true representatives of civil society, particularly in areas that have direct implications for workers. Tarrow (1998) has argued that ‘coalitions of organisations’ can exert influence far greater than the sum of their parts but, says Hyman, in the main, it is only when unions have been forced to come to terms with the decline in their autonomous influence that they have contemplated broader alliances of this kind (Hyman 2001).

Unions everywhere have faced a series of dilemmas as to how to respond to inward labour migration. Penninx and Roosblad outlined those dilemmas in their 2000 study of trade unions and immigration. They are (1) whether to co-operate with or resist authorities and employers in the employment of migrant workers in the first instance; (2) how to respond once migrant workers arrive – whether to include them fully in the ranks or exclude them as a special category; (3) if following a line of inclusion, whether to advocate and implement special measures for them or to pursue an absolute equality agenda of general, equal treatment for all workers?

Kahmann (2006) points to what he considers to be the ‘ambiguous relationship’ that trade unions in the western world have with migrant labour, one that can be situated ‘on a continuum ranging from exclusion to inclusion’. Historically, trade unions saw their interests as being best served by restrictions on immigrant labour because, as indicated previously, a surplus of workers on which employers can draw tends to have a depressing effect on wages and weaken the position of trade unions (Castles and Kosack, 1973). They identified the challenge as the ‘potential contradiction between trade union policies towards immigration on the one hand and policies towards the workers once they are in the country on the other’. It is the tension between defending the rights of trade union members against all else and thus resisting immigration absolutely versus the moral imperative of trade unionism to defend and vindicate the rights of all workers for the greater good whatever their trade unions status. However, by calling for restrictions on the flow of immigrants, unions are, in effect, seeking to preserve the position of one section of the working class at the expense of another. Such actions contradict notions of international solidarity that are historically such a fundamental part of union ideology, and rhetoric. As representative bodies, trade unions are contending with the tension between their tradition of international solidarity and their role within individual national and economic contexts which demands that they represent the interests of their members, even if they are in conflict with the greater good (McGovern 2007).
In the history of European labour migration; there have been many cases of trade unions erecting barriers against migration. Austrian trade unions have been consistently resistant to immigration while French trade unions were still asking for migration controls around 1970 as were the Dutch trade unions (Castles and Kosack 1973). More recently during the negotiations on EU enlargement in 2004, we saw some Western European trade unions, particularly the German and Austrian ones, support national calls for transitional measures to protect host country labour markets (Donaghey and Teague 2006, Meardi 2007). However, Piore (1979) noted that unions are not permanently against migrants, and that migrants are not permanently excluded from trade unions. In the USA, as far back as the 1930s, second-generation migrants, who were being assimilated, joined unions in large numbers (Milkman 2000) and we have seen the growth of social movement unionism in recent decades. However, the reality is that unions are still operating largely as insider organizations, primarily working to represent their members and fearful of mass migration contributing to trade union weakening. Despite this, it is increasingly the case that unions no longer believe that restrictive immigration policies are in their best interests (Haus, 1999). Such policies, it is feared, could have the unintended consequence of fuelling the informal economy with potentially negative effects on labour standards but opening up to this potential new membership remains structurally difficult. Castles and Kosack would argue that once immigrant workers are present in a country it is essential for trade unions to organise them as failure to do so will, ultimately, lead to a division in the working class and a weakening of the trade union movement (1973).
The dilemma faced by the trade union movement in dealing with migrant labour replicates to some extent the dilemmas faced by labour organisations through the centuries with the tension between protectionism on the one hand and defence of the working class on the other. The inherent tensions go right back to the guilds and beyond. As the primary organisation of the working class, trade unions are a mixture of bureaucratic organisation and social movements. As such they function in two arenas, as representatives of members’ interests in the workplace, bargaining for wages and working conditions and as representatives of the working class in the larger political process, in the process of policy and law making (Heisler, 2000).
As Hyman said, ‘it seems clear that in many countries, unions have come to be widely perceived as conservative institutions, primarily concerned to defend the relative advantages of a minority of the working population. (2004, p19) Highlighting this conservatism, McGovern (2007) observes that the traditional trade union perspective on immigration is one where migrants are viewed as homo economicus personified. Not only are they perceived as being motivated by money, and willing to accept low wages, they are also deemed to be highly individualistic, which makes them difficult to unionize. Unions, therefore, fear that admitting large numbers of migrants will exert a downward pressure on wages, undermine their bargaining power and divide the working class. McGovern maintains that despite the reputation for being ‘unorganizable’, there is little empirical support for the idea that immigrants, including those from ethnic minorities, are inimical to trade unionism. While this may be so, there is substantial evidence to indicate that the level of unionisation among immigrants is generally significantly lower than that of the indigenous population. (Roosblad 2000; Fulton 2003; Barrett et al 2005). This fact does not necessarily contradict McGovern’s thesis that the problem of immigration and trade unionism is not one of immigrants being difficult to organize but one of trade unions not adopting appropriate organizing models or not being sufficiently pro-active in recruiting and supporting immigrant workers (2007).
This is borne out by a number of studies which indicate that migrants’ characteristics (such as language, educational level, country of origin, previous experience in unions) have little influence on union inclusion outcomes (Penninx and Roosblad, 2000; Turner et al 2008a, 2008b). At the same time, studies have dismissed the complementary idea that migrants are not prone to unionise and have found that, given the appropriate circumstances, their unionization propensity can actually be high. Where union density among migrants is low, it is seen to be as an effect of occupational segregation and the difficulty migrants have in getting jobs in unionised workplaces (Milkman 2000; Penninx & Roosblad 2000; Turner et al 2008b). Overall, empirical evidence suggests that, in general, it is industrial relations institutions, and union attitudes and practices, rather than subjective factors related to migrant workers, that are the most important factors in the determination of union-migrant relations (Wrench 2004; Geary 2007). Turner’s study of Polish workers in Ireland, in particular, contradicts the frequently posited theory that one of the reasons for low unionization among migrant workers from former Eastern Bloc countries is a perception of unions as an arm of the state and thus to be feared (Donaghey & Teague, 2006). He found that a majority of the immigrants surveyed believe that unions are good for workers, can improve wages and conditions, and can protect workers from being exploited (2008a, p124).
However, there are, nonetheless, particular difficulties for unions in organising migrant workers in a globalised society. As stated earlier, contemporary forms of labour migration exhibit some novel features, including increased East-West migration, a more temporary character of migratory movements and an increase in precarious work situations (Krings 2009). This and the macro factors arising from it such as the weakening of organised labour, the deregulation of national labour markets and the informalization of employment relations exemplified by such as the spread of agency labour, posted workers and an informal economy pose challenges. Other difficulties are that migrants are over-represented in sectors of the economy where union support is traditionally weak, such as hospitality and agriculture; their stay is frequently only temporary; subcontracting is common; and many migrants work in irregular situations (Wills 2006). Also, while there may not be issues regarding their propensity to organise, practical difficulties such as language barriers and workplace access are factors in making organisation difficult.

National (even nationalist) trade unionism took on a different complexion in the global South. There, particularly after the Second World War, the trade unions became in many cases vital components of the national liberation movements in Africa and Asia, while in Latin America they were drivers of national economic development. Given the asymmetric nature of the world system—colonialism, imperialism, globalisation—this contradiction is hardly surprising and we need always keep the North/South divide to the fore even if we are moving beyond it in terms of analytical categories and strategies.

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