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

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The International Labour Organisation (ILO) sets minimum standards of basic labour rights through the adoption of conventions and non-binding recommendations. In 1998 the ILO adopted the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This declaration establishes that all member states, even if they have not ratified the ILO conventions, are nevertheless obliged through their membership of ILO to respect the basic labour rights contained within them, including freedom of association and collective bargaining; elimination or forced or compulsory labour; abolition of child labour and elimination of discrimination with regard to employment. It was the International Labour Organisation which in 1999 created a new paradigm through its overarching strategy to achieve 'decent work'. Decent work was conceived as the main underpinning for social and economic progress in the era of globalisation and the vehicle for delivering the aspirations of people in their working lives. The ILO for decades has deployed the category of ‘atypical work’ but there is a question as to what extent that category captures the new norm of contingent, precarious, and insecure work. It implies that if we struggle for ‘decent work’ somehow a pre-existing norm of typical work might be re-established complete with stable tripartite relations between unions, government and employers.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which was founded in 2006 works closely with the ILO, with a particular engagement on the ‘decent work’ agenda. It brings together the former affiliates of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), along with trade union organisations which previously had no global affiliation. The ICFTU and the WCL dissolved themselves on 31 October 2006, to pave the way for the creation of the ITUC. The ITUC represents 175 million workers in 153 countries and territories and has 308 national affiliates. It describes it’s primary mission as “the promotion and defence of workers’ rights and interests, through international cooperation between trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within the major global institutions” (ITUC, 2011).
Founded in 1973, the Brussels based European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is formally recognized by European Union, the Council of Europe and by the European Free Trade Association as a social partner, representing more than 60 million trade unionists throughout Europe. Its affiliates are 82 national trade union confederations from 36 European countries and 12 European industry confederations, in addition to other trade union structures and organizations (ETUI 2010). Among the main priorities of the ETUC is its involvement in the “European Social Dialogue” with European employers’ associations. The ETUC supports the general principles underlying the European Union in terms of the free movement of workers within the boundaries of the Union, equal treatment of all workers in EU territory, and social and political integration of migrant and ethnic minority workers.
While it is the most prominent organizational vehicle of the labour movement at the EU-level the power of the ETUC is strongly circumscribed by what national unions allow it to do. The organization therefore mirrors the low degree of political integration within the European Union and the continuation of the national as the predominant political arena. In this respect, the “Europeanization” of the trade union movement proceeds based on the consent of members, but hardly in a way that it might become so powerful as to turn against them (Kip 2011).
The ETUC describes itself as being faced with a manifold challenge: providing European citizens and workers (including its current immigrant and ethnic minority inhabitants) with the perspective of a sustainable social Europe, and contributing to a fairer globalisation process in which economic and social progress go hand-in-hand in all parts of the world. ETUC supports the adoption of a more pro-active EU policy on migration and integration in the interest of Europe’s current and future population, based on the recognition of fundamental social rights of both current citizens and newcomers and embedded in strong employment and development policies (ETUC 2011b).
The ETUC established a ‘Migration and Inclusion Working Group’ in 2006 which operated until 2011. The group brought together trade unionists, policy makers and researchers from the European Union member countries to consider issues around migration from a trade union perspective with a view to contributing to the development of ETUC and to policy of its affiliate organisations. The organisation has undertaken a number of projects based around the issue of migrant and mobile workers in recent years. ‘Workplace Europe: Trade Unions Supporting Mobile and Migrant Workers’ examined the experiences and practices of trade unions across Europe in dealing with migrant workers with a view to developing models of good practice that can be disseminated throughout Europe. It reported in 2011. Another project, ‘What Price the Tomatoes’ focused specifically on the controversial issue of irregular migration and the role of trade unions in protecting and supporting those in irregular situations. That Project also reported in 2011 with the publication of a very substantial report, ‘First and Foremost Workers’.
ETUC has co-operated with a number of NGOs over the years. For instance there is some evidence of the solidarity mechanism at work in the joint statement of 2007 between ETUC, SOLIDAR and PICUM. The statement articulated a clear joint position when it said “All individuals residing on the European Union territory, regardless of their legal status, are human beings and as such are the subjects of fundamental human rights. When they are performing work, they are subjects of fundamental rights at work, as acknowledged in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and in other international instruments. Any instrument aiming at reducing irregular migration must recognize and promote these rights.” Despite this and other evidence of collaboration, ETUC also appears to suffer from the superiority complex identified by Hyman (2001) and consider itself as the true representative of civil society, in areas that have direct implications for workers. The organisation states in the Introduction to the Workplace Europe report that “it is well recognised that NGOs do a good job assisting migrants in difficult situations; irregulars, the homeless, etc., but when it comes to job-related issues, trade unions are in a better place to help migrants and are effectively doing so” (p6). This attitude is obviously not conducive to productive partnerships.
Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum, The European Migrant Workers Union (EMWU) was founded with the support of 1.5 million Euros from the German construction trade union, IGBAU. Although it is not an officially recognized trade union, the EMWU was established with the goal of developing a transnational organizational structure for migrant workers in the construction sector. It has an outlook towards becoming a bargaining collective possibly in the future. Offices have been established in Poland, Germany and outreach has been done to Romania. The EMWU has staff fluent in German, Polish and Romanian. This organizational effort offers primarily legal advice and support to migrant workers in Germany who have been cheated wages or have suffered workplace accidents due to substandard health and safety standards. The main task of this organization is to protect migrant workers, but the hope is that it builds a network of members in which members eventually will foster collaboration among migrant workers but also to resident workers. It seeks to raise awareness of labour standards and to show ways to combat them. After its first years, the EMWU received a substantial amount of attention by labour activists and academics (see e.g. Lillie & Greer 2007; Kahmann 2006) EMWU’s initial goal was to organize 10,000 – mostly eastern European - workers within two years from 2004-2006. That goal, however, was missed. The organization only counted 2,000 members after this period. It also sought to expand the EMWU into other EU countries which, however, was unsuccessful, mostly due to the national trade unions scepticism towards creating parallel organizations for migrant workers, rather than organizing migrant workers in the already existing structures (Kip 2011).
Hyman (2001) observed that “to be effective at international level, above all else trade unionism must draw on the experiences at national level of efforts to reconstitute unions as bodies which foster interactive internal relationships and serve more as networks than as hierarchies.” This remains an ongoing challenge for the trade union movement.


Modernization theories argue that the transition from an industrial to a service economy erodes the basis for union organization. The major structural changes that, in previous decades, worked in favour of trade unions — the decline of agriculture and traditional household services; expanding public employment; and increased bureaucratization in industry and services — are now reversed, given current trends of privatization, down-sizing, and outsourcing (Ebbinghaus and Visser, 1999). Writing in 1996, Castells predicted that “torn by internationalism of finance and production, unable to adapt to networking of firms and individualisation of work and challenged by the engendering of employment, the labour movement fades away as a major source of social cohesion and workers’ representation” (1996: 354).

Today, after 25 years of globalisation, we can consider whether trade unions and the labour movement are as obsolete as Castells feared. The number of workers has increased exponentially in this dynamic phase of capitalist growth from around 1.8 billion in 1980 to an estimated 3.6 billion in 2020 (ILO: LABORSTA). And while national trade unions have declined in membership in most countries, international trade unionism is more united politically than at any time since its origins. Munck’s analysis (2010, 2011) echoes Peter Evans who has recently argued that we are seeing “an ascendant arc of transnational mobilization rather than the sort of precipitous decline predicted in the nemesis thesis” (Evans 2010:367). That there has been a time lag of 25 years between the emergence of globalisation and labour’s re-composition is not surprising and fits the pattern of 19th and 20th Century waves of labour re-composition (see Arrighi 1996: 348).
As trade unions move, in theory, from a class-based perspective with its emphasis on an antagonistic approach towards employers and the state towards one based on a more social and broader approach to their identity (Hyman, 2001) that includes a more comprehensive vision of society – such as the role of migrants and women – then we need to consider how this social agenda is operationalized. Unions are increasingly adopting new roles, new social functions and new interventions vis-a-vis the workforce (in this case migrants and ethnic minorities). While the response of the trade unions has been slow we can now note a concerted attempt at reaching out beyond the bastions of formal employment. Thus in many countries we see unions organising freelance workers (e.g. Canada’s main media unions), agency workers (most Scandinavian countries), the self employed (Netherlands), self employed women (SEWA in India), migrant workers (Spain, Italy, Ireland and the UK) and, of course, the growing army of the unemployed (many countries). We do see at least the possibility of moving beyond a bureaucratic mainstream and dispersed and powerless labour movement.


We now see evidence of movements towards union revitalization more or less across the world. There is a clear understanding that globalization and its impacts are the key issue of trade unions everywhere. The growing academic literature on trade union revitalization has found advances in the strategic areas of organising new sectors, greater political actions, reform of trade union structures, coalition building and last but not least international solidarity (Frege and Kelly 2004). Much as the New Unionism of the late 19th Century which reached out to unskilled and semi-skilled workers rather than the skilled elite, women workers and not just men today’s new unionism is reconstructing itself to save itself from obsolesence. There is growing evidence of trade unions taking up a social movement orientation and not only in the global South. There are signs that trade unions are looking towards the new social movements for alliances and maybe as source of renewal and revitalization.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the concept of ‘community unionism’ as a new approach (Fine, 2005, 2006; Wills, 2001, 2002; Tait, 2005; Holgate, 2009). Practitioners and academics have been grappling with the problems faced by organised labour and the increasing disengagement of people from civil society. It is argued that a re-focusing of union organisation is needed, moving from the sole focus of the workplace as the place to organise to a much broader geographical community focus, involving both living and working spaces (Wills 2001). The shift towards more precarious and insecure employment, involving atypical workers has presented unions with a number of challenges to the way they organise and represent members. Heery & Salmon (2000, p156) have noted that a defining characteristic of worker insecurity and atypical work is that employees become detached from particular places of work, which, in turn requires a ‘shift in locus of union representation beyond the workplace’ (Holgate, 2009).
The foundation of modern community unionism is linked to Saul Alinsky and the founding of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in Chicago in the 1940s. The Foundation brought together poor ethnic groups as part pressure group and part self-help organisation, which helped establish credit unions, provided houses and developed social services. Key to its success was it’s training of local leaders to take up issues in their communities. The organisation has grown from the 1960s and now has affiliates all over the US as well as in Canada, Germany and Telco/London Citizens in the UK (Holgate, 2009)
Social movement unionism was a strategy driven by mainly Southern trade unions in the 1980’s. Whereas economic unionism focused on workers as sellers of labour power and political unionism focused on the nation-state to advance labour’s cause, social unionism recognised that workers were part of society and had to organise beyond the workplace. In South Africa under apartheid and in Brazil under a military dictatorship the new social unionism flourished most clearly. In the 1980’s, trade unions sought alliances within the wider community, with church based groups and with single-issue campaigns. By the late 1990’s some analysts were calling for a ‘global social movement unionism’ (Moody 1997). In a different context it appeared that this Southern led initiative was heading towards being ‘mainstreamed’ and adopted by once conservative trade union movements.
One of the most spectacular forms of union revitalization has occurred in the United States, once the epitome of business unionism. The 1995 victory of the New Voice slate of John Sweeney marked a decisive turning point in US labour politics and opened up the doors for new thinking. It was in relation to community unionism – focused on migrant workers in particular – that the revival of the US labour movement found many of its clearest expressions (see Ness 2005). Community unions in the US context seem to be small scale bridging or mediating institutions based in specific communities rather than the workplace. They are thus not trade unions in the traditional sense but spring from solidarity movements, faith-based movements and legal or social services groups. Janice Fine, (2005) former union organiser and expert on workers’ centres, says that in community unions ‘forms of identity such as race, ethnicity and gender stand in for craft or industry as the principal means of recruitment and strongest bonds between workers.’ In these cases the community becomes an essential place to organise as well as the workplace. Mindful of the overwhelming importance of legal status for migrant workers they are, as Fine puts it “as likely to focus as much attention on organising to change immigration policy as they do on labour market issues” (Fine 2005:154).
As Dan Clawson shows, in the United States, “labor's links with other [social movement] groups are denser and stronger than they have been for half a century ...” (2003: 205), and this interaction has led to new, more progressive policies for example, in relation to undocumented immigrants. Thus in the very heartland of capitalism the business unionism model has been challenged increasingly by a social movement model well described by Vanessa Tait. The increasing weight of the informal economy more or less forced US trade unions to take up a broader orientation and they thus began to take ‘the form of a multifaceted political movement not limited to issues such as wages and benefits ‘ (Tait 2005: 8). Those in the informal sector were poor but they were also workers albeit often of a contingent status that deemed them ‘hard to organise’. But as workers of colour and women workers had in the past they organized themselves and often forced mainstream trade unions to organize in these sectors. These movements often showed great degrees of inventiveness in periods when the official labour movement was reeling from the organisational and ideological impact of neo-liberalism. They helped put the movement aspect back into the broader labour movement and broadened the trade union agenda to take up housing and health care issues and to create an understanding that fair pay was as important as more pay. There are indications that the fusion of labour and the new social movements will continue and ‘the next upsurge’ as Dan Clawson calls it will see “a combination of trade unions’ commitment and democratic representativity with the imagination and energy of the new social movements” (Clawson 2003:196).
Recent work on the community-based workers’ centres in the USA has shown how migrant workers are becoming integral to their development; the argument is that we need to rethink the way we view these relations in more dynamic ways (Fine, 2006). This builds on Tilly’s (1978) notion of labour repertoires and the possibility of alternative developments and choices. Heery (1998) outlines the role of coalition building in the logic of trade union renewal in recent years. For example, developments in the past five years regarding the living wage campaign in London have been strongly influenced by religious organizations. This dimension has also been seen in East London, where campaigns among, and with, black and minority ethnic (BME) communities both socially and collectively have raised the wage levels in such areas as office cleaning (see Evans et al., 2005; Wills, 2001).

The belief within unions in such new strategies is growing, although many unions in the UK are still more engaged in discourse on the subject of organizing and new forms of unionization than in the practice. And, in many cases, where they do open to new innovative organizational strategies they are often inclined to rely on long established cultural and institutional practices (leaflets, meetings and officer-led initiatives) without always considering constituencies to who they’re appealing. But there have been some interesting moves towards community unionism where the emphasis has been placed on securing new members and using new organizational methods. Reaching beyond the workplace and the traditional collective bargaining mechanisms, some unions have begun to reach out to migrant unorganized workers, in particular. The London minimum wage campaign launched in 2001 saw intense work at grassroots level and within trade unions to create a ‘ community unionism’ supportive of the mainly migrant low-paid workers in the city. As Jane Willis puts it this new community unionism in the UK is incipient but it is allowing unions to find common cause with groups cemented around, religious, ethnic or other affiliations, effectively “linking the struggle for redistribution with that and recognition, the universal with the particular, the economic with the cultural”(Wills 2001:469).

Meanwhile the Dutch trade unions have also argued for innovative trade union strategies involving “organising new groups hitherto under-represented in the movement, local and transnational actions, a clear orientation towards social justice and coalitions with community groups and, last but not least, a vigorous engagement in the battle of ideas in terms of a vision for an alternative social order”(Kloosterboer, 2007: 2-13).
Spanish unions remain underdeveloped in relation to new approaches to organizing as a new form of recruitment and empowerment, even compared to their neighbouring countries, France and Italy. While appropriate to the Spanish labour environment, which is now characterized by micro-enterprises and very fragmented workforces, the ‘organizing’ experience is not yet a feature of Spanish trade unionism (see Bronfenbrenner, 2007; Milkman and Voss, 2004). This despite a growing need for new approaches as numbers working in domestic services and cleaning (mainly immigrant women), security, construction, transport and other private services increase (Kohler and Calleja Jiménez, 2010).
While the concept of community unionism specifically is not on the agenda of Irish unions, many have begun to move towards a more pro-active organizing approach that has, in some cases, involved creating links (or building upon established links) with community groups and NGOs. The recruitment of migrants as organizers has become a feature of many unions who operate in sectors where migrants are strongly represented such as agriculture, meat processing, hospitality and nursing. Wrench and Virdee (1996) refer to this as ‘like for like’ recruitment or recruitment through shared identities. It involves using an organizer with similar characteristics to those he or she is trying to recruit in terms of, for example, ethnicity, languages spoken, religion, social class (or caste), age, gender or sexual orientation. This, it is argued, is likely to have a positive effect on membership because the union may be perceived as understanding, and better able to represent, their specific interests.
In South Africa the Self Employed Women’s Union (SEWU) has argued forcefully that South African unions need to face the challenge of industrial restructuring and declining membership by reaching out to the vast layers of ‘non-traditional’ workers to create a new social movement orientated unionism. A sober appraisal would, however, point to the very limited ability shown to date to meet that challenge.


The conference programme poses the questions: Can migrants relate to the trade union movement positively and vice versa? Is a new form of community or social movement unionism emerging where trade unions and migrant communities intersect? Can trade unions find an opportunity in the global restructuring of the labour market and increased labour mobility to rethink their mission and re-invigorate their strategies? The material presented in this paper will, hopefully, provide some pointers towards an answer to these questions.

The evidence presented would indicate that trade unions today are open to new ways of organizing and to engaging in partnership, coalition building and collaborative practices at local, national and international level. The trade union movement is in crisis and it knows it and there is a broad recognition that the traditional service model of trade unionism is no longer fit for purpose, that it can’t just be ‘business as usual’. Agnes Jongerius, President, Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV), as she launched a major report on Dutch trade union revival, said “These are not easy times for the trade union movement. We cannot just sit back and blame globalisation, or structural economic changes, or hostile governments… We must focus on what we can do to adapt our organisations to the changing circumstances” (Kloosterboer, 2007). In that same report, Kloosterboer quotes John Monks of the ETUC, “The ETUC is working with its European member unions to build a new strategy. It is unlikely that we will go to the lengths of some of the Americans and see organising as practically the only union strategy for growth. But that will clearly be an important part of our broader strategy”. Overall we note a recognition by the trade union leadership that some form of renewal is essential if trade unions are to remain relevant to their members.
However, while there may be a general belief that new approaches are necessary, as they have evolved the majority of trade unions in the developed world are still large bureaucratic, highly democratized structures where decision making is a complex and drawn out process. Once decisions are agreed upon, it is difficult for trade unions to change course quickly, even if they should be inclined to do so. This goes to the heart of the debate around servicing and organising unionism and the allocation of resources as unions struggle to organise new members and develop new strategies while at the same time providing representation for existing members. There are also inevitable tensions to be overcome in any type of partnership initiatives involving large bureaucratic, socially embedded membership organisations such as unions on the one hand and small flexible NGOs, community groups, faith based organisations who can take a much more direct approach to organising and campaigning on the other. Also, in many cases trade unions, who have, in theory, accepted the need to organise their way out of decline, are still primarily concerned with recruitment as opposed to member-led, branch-based organising which is about building power in the workplace.
Nissen and Grenier (2001, based on the US experience but with more broad relevance, have argued that trade unions respond differently to new approaches according to a series of characteristics. The more closed the union structure and the more dependent on the hiring hall approach and ‘country club’ approach, the more closed they are to representing migrants in terms of their strategies and form of organization. It is clear that there is a range of models and possible approaches in relation to the question of representing ethnic minorities and migrants when it comes to trade union strategies. There is no single model. Instead, there is a variety of approaches and politics, just as there are with a ‘traditionally established workforce’ (Martinez Lucio and Perrett, 2009). Thus we would argue that the trade union relationship to migrants is highly contingent and depends on a range of historical, organizational and cultural factors. Ultimately it is also a political choice and this will reflect the internal political struggles within the broad labour movement.

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