Rising to the Occasion? Trade Union Revitalisation and Migrant Workers in Ireland



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3.4. The Supra-national Dimension


As well as being a major issue that affects individual member states in the EU and one that is at the top of the political agenda at European level, labour migration has also been a key concern of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and its affiliates, and even more so now, as trade unions across the EU try to respond to new challenges in the protection of workers and social justice in a globalised world. Founded in 1973, the Brussels based ETUC is formally recognised by the 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. Among its affiliates are 82 national trade union confederations from 36 European countries and 12 European industry confederations. It is considered to be a politically pluralistic organisation, as in it does not maintain privileged relations with a specific political group at EU level, in contrast to many of its national affiliates. Instead, it co-ordinates its EU level lobbying activities through an intergroup of union-friendly members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from all political groups as well as union friendly Commission and Council officials and union friendly members of national delegations (Fulton 2011; Erne 2008).
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” (ETUC 2011: 7). It supports the general principles underlying the European Union in terms of the free movement and equal treatment of workers within the boundaries of the Union and the social and political integration of migrant and ethnic minority workers. However, it has voiced concerns and lobbied against many proposed EU directives in this regard as not offering the protections enshrined in the general principles, not least among them the Posting of Workers Directive (PWD) of 1996, the controversial Bolkestein Directive of 200410 and the European Pact on Migration and Asylum, 2008 (ETUC 2011; Kip 2011; Erne, 2008; Notes from meetings 2008)
Political lobbying and consultation, both formal and informal, through the diplomatic channels of the European institutions is central to the work of the ETUC. Dølvik & Visser see this as due to what they consider “… unions’ lack of clout and limited ability to muster industrial muscle, membership mobilisation or secure political influence through institutionalised representation” (2001: 27). Meanwhile, Waddington notes that the ETUC struggles to secure influence within the European polity while concurrently trade unionists across Europe remain embedded in national frameworks of union activity and the ‘logic of influence’ assumes priority over the ‘logic of membership’ (2005: 520). But the ETUC, as a strong proponent of the European Social Model defends its focus, seeing its role as a social partner - a co-regulator of European social policy - as its major strength, particularly following the institutionalisation of that position under the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 (Erne 2008; ETUC 2005).

The process of devising a common European policy on immigration goes back to the Amsterdam Treaty of May 1999 when the community institutions first claimed competence in the fields of immigration and asylum. Prior to that migration policy was seen as a core national policy area. Most migration flows either reflected traditional bilateral links, defined in part by geography, culture and politics11 or were a by-product of colonial relationships with countries in other regions of the world (Mac Éinrí 2008).

The ETUC initiated its first substantial engagement with the issue of migrant labour at its 1999 Helsinki Congress, following the European Council decision taken at Tampere in Finland for the development of a common EU policy on migration and asylum to cover areas such as a European asylum system, fair treatment of third country nationals and management of migration flows (European Parliament, 1999). At that Congress, the ETUC approved a resolution, Trade Unions without Borders, to develop mutual, cross-border support systems. It was a call for unions to act at the European level through the ETUC and other bodies and to develop cross-border solidarity so that the rights of workers in other jurisdictions would be guaranteed and defended irrespective of their national trade union affiliation. The delegates signed up to a resolution to provide for trade union members from one country working temporarily in another to avail of trade union support in that second country, a ‘European Membership Card’. Though this was agreed at the time, it appears never to have been implemented, “no steps on (sic) that direction have been reported at European level” (ETUC 2011: 32). In fact, this proposal re-emerged in 2010 (ETUC 2011).
While in 2003 the ETUC introduced its Action Plan on Migration, Integration and Combatting Discrimination, Racism and Xenophobia which included a commitment to work with its affiliated organisations to organise undocumented migrants (Visentini, 2011) it was really only from 2005 that it became pro-active in pursuit of what could be considered an international solidarity agenda in defence of the rights of migrant workers. A new Confederal Secretary, Catelene Passchier, had been elected in 2003 with responsibility for migration. She came from the Dutch trade union, FNV, had a legal background and had a particular interest in migration issues. Her presence was seen as being a significant factor in the pro-active approach of the ETUC on migration issues in the period from 2005 to 2010 when she left (Interview, Michelle Levoy, Director, PICUM, 2011).

It was in 2005 that the ETUC articulated a comprehensive policy on migration, Towards a Pro-active EU Policy on Migration and Integration, where it affirmed its commitment to fighting for a Europe characterised by openness, solidarity and responsibility and which formed the basis of the ETUC engagement with the issue of migration subsequently. It also called for ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO), UN and Council of Europe conventions on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and their families (ETUC 2005, 2011b). It committed itself to a broad range of actions to implement these policies but, as with much of its engagement with migration issues, many of these were dependant on the agency of others such as EU institutions, the Governments of Member States, employer bodies and national trade union movements. These ETUC ‘actions’ could, in fact, be seen more as immeasurable aspirations than real actions, using terms such as ‘monitor, promote, explore, contribute, call on’. This is indicative of the circumscription of the power and the limitations on the abilities of international trade union organisations to deliver on policies (Kip 2011; D’Art and Turner 2007; Dolvik, 2001; Hyman, 2001). The ETUC is not positioned, as national federations or sectoral associations are, to directly affect policy. Instead, it is dependent on its capacity to lobby in order to exert influence.

In 2006 the ETUC established a ‘Migration and Inclusion Working Group’12 to consider issues around migration from a trade union perspective with a view to contributing to the development of both ETUC policy and that of its affiliate organisations. The group brought together trade unionists, policy makers and researchers from the European Union member countries. ‘Workplace Europe: Trade Unions Supporting Mobile and Migrant Workers’ was a specific, focused 12-month project of the working group which examined the experiences and practices of trade unions across Europe in dealing with migrant workers with a view to developing models of good practice and innovative ways of “… informing, supporting, protecting and organising migrant/mobile workers and their families” to be disseminated throughout Europe’ (ETUC 2009a:1). The working group completed its work in 2010 and issued a report in 2011, which contained recommendations for European unions and details of models of good practice, some of them major transnational projects such as the Baltic Sea Labour Network (BSLN)13 and the Inter-regional Trade Union Councils (IRTUCs)14. While some of these national and cross-border initiatives are replicable given similar structural configurations, policy environments and availability of funding, there was no clear pathway for the application of the learning from the trans-national level projects to be applied in national contexts (for example, information on these models was never communicated in any structured way to Irish unions).

There was also an increasing level of co-operation with NGOs working specifically in the area of irregular migration, particularly the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) and the European Network of Social Justice NGOs (SOLIDAR) with whom the ETUC adopted a joint policy position in 2007 that undocumented migrant workers should have the same labour rights as native born and documented migrant workers (ETUC 2009a). Arising out of that collaboration and also out of the ‘Workplace Europe’ project, the ETUC established a further project, ‘What Price the Tomatoes?’ in 2010 which focused specifically on undocumented workers and those working in irregular situations, and on the role of trade unions in protecting and supporting those workers.15 This concluded in 2011 with the publication of two reports (Merlino and Parkin 2011a; 2011b) There had been an increasing focus at national trade union level in the latter part of the decade on the growth in irregular migration and the concomitant increase in vulnerable workers employed in irregular situations.



During the period of existence of the Migration and Inclusion Working Group, the ETUC was consulted on and contributed to major EU directives on migration: the European Job Mobility Action Plan (2007); the EU Directive on Temporary Agency Work (2008); the Employers’ Sanctions Directive (2009) and the EU Directive on the conditions of entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purposes of highly qualified employment, EU Blue Card (2009). It had also made substantial, and effective, contributions on what became the Services Directive (2006) which set out to establish the ‘country of origin principle’ for workers within the EU. Its mobilisation and lobbying campaign is seen to have contributed to the substantial watering down of the original ‘Bolkestein Directive’ Also, and somewhat controversially, in its resolution ‘Towards Free Movement of Workers in an Enlarged European Union’ (December 2005) the ETUC opposed the transitional measures brought in by 12 of the original 15 EU members following the accession of new member states in 2004. This was despite the fact that some national trade union movements supported them, though Ireland did not.
The ETUC working groups and projects provided valuable opportunities for union representatives, policy makers and NGO representatives from across the European Union to discuss and exchange information on good practices and overcoming obstacles in the area of migration. They also provided unique networking opportunities for activists working specifically on migration agendas within their particular union confederations and individual unions, the value of which should not be underestimated in terms of facilitating exchanges of information and, most importantly, facilitating linkages between unions in sending and receiving countries. They informed ETUC policy and there is some evidence of direct input into policy from these projects, one of which is the UnionMigrantNet initiative which is an ETUC led portal - a social network of trade union contact points for migrants – which provides information and assistance to migrants and would be migrants that are in Europe or wish to come to Europe. It was established on a pilot basis in 2014 and describes itself as providing assistance for the integration of migrants. It has yet to be fully operationalised so it is too early to analyse its success or otherwise at this point.
The influence of the outcomes of these projects on union behaviour within national jurisdictions more generally is negligible. The reality is that the ETUC has little influence at national level. While it can contribute to the debate among national trade union movements and encourage greater co-operation between unions across borders, it has no power in this regard, particularly as it operates on the political premise of mutual non-interference in national trade union politics. A further issue in this is that of democratic legitimacy. The ETUC, as an over-arching body, has its relationship primarily with the national federations. So while it endeavours to promote cooperation among national unions, its structures make it difficult to develop channels at a trade union organisational level (Erne 2008).
Concomitantly, as Erne (2008) claims, it can be seen that through its lobbying approach and despite the lack of ties with a specific political group, the ETUC has political influence at EU level, largely because of the importance of trade union support for the development of the EU integration process. On the other hand, as Kip points out, though it is the most prominent organisational vehicle of the labour movement at EU level, its power is circumscribed by what national unions allow it to do. He sees this as mirroring the low degree of political integration within the EU and the continuation of the national as the predominant political arena (2011). Thus, the “Europeanisation” of the trade union movement can proceed only with the consent of member union confederations whose primary concerns will always tend towards their own national agendas (McGovern 2007; McShane 2004; Hyman 2001).

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