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



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5.5. Barriers to unionisation


It is clear that, in those early days of significant labour migration, Irish trade unions were ill prepared for the challenges it presented. Individuals within the movement were responding as best they could and largely without structured organisational support. But the situation of labour migration and unionisation suffers from greater complexity than simply being an issue of weak organisation on the part of the trade unions. Migrants are not a homogeneous group and come to their host countries with a variety of abilities, experiences, perspectives, fears and prejudices. In a series of studies in 2006 and 2007, Dundon et al. (2007) and Turner et al. (2008a; 2008b) identified a range of factors inhibiting unionisation of migrants in Ireland including employer exploitation and intimidation; social exclusion and a lack of knowledge and awareness about unions. Turner et al. (2008a) focus on the issue of union availability, with migrants more likely to work in low skilled jobs in the services sector and in smaller firms in the retail and construction sectors where union availability is lowest. This reflects the situation as outlined in the literature more generally whereby 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).
Issues such as language and communication generally, resistance to unionisation, nature of employment and union lack of resources were identified as factors contributing to difficulty in recruitment by both survey respondents and interviewees in the empirical research carried out for this thesis. There were however differences of emphasis. Survey respondents identified the nature of employment - whereby the majority of migrant workers are employed in small numbers in largely unorganised workplaces - and migrant resistance to unionisation as the major impediments. These were followed by lack of resources, both financial and human, with language barriers cited by only 21% as being a major difficulty. The INMO referred to the particular difficulty of recruiting within the private nursing home sector which is an area that employs significant numbers of migrant nurses. The picture was somewhat different when it came to interviews, with union officials in particular citing language issues as the major barrier to both recruitment and representation.

5.5.1. Employers


Hostility to trade unions

Employer hostility is seen as being a major factor in resistance to trade unionism among vulnerable workers. In some cases what is seen as resistance is further complicated by the fact that quite often that resistance is born out of fear where the employer is particularly hostile to the trade union. SIPTU Organiser: “I think, it is the key reason why workers don’t join unions in the private sector. People are afraid to join because of the possible implications for them with their employer”. This comes back to the issue of the nature of employments in which the majority of migrants are concentrated. They are generally smaller firms in the services, retail and construction sectors which have traditionally been unorganised and where employer hostility has been a feature (Turner et al. 2008a; Dundon et al. 2007).


I think the main inhibitor is the fact that they operate mainly in areas where there is no trade union and the reason there’s no trade union is because there has been hostility by the employer, either explicitly or implicitly, for years, which also acted as a barrier to Irish workers joining trade unions in the past (Interview, Former SIPTU Regional Secretary, 2013).
The issue of employer hostility is particularly striking in the case of the INMO where the majority of their constituency work in the public hospital sector where union availability and recognition are unquestioned but the situation is markedly different in the private nursing home sector where “there would generally be a hostile view of trade unions from the employer” (INMO Official). This is also the situation in a number of the private hospitals such as the Blackrock and the Beacon Clinics. In many cases the nurses will join the union but representation can only be provided on an individual basis.
Employer hostility was also raised in relation to the issue of those workers employed indirectly through employment agencies. Unite Official: “It is difficult to reach them because such workers feel vulnerable and afraid of victimisation by agencies if they approach unions”. Despite this SIPTU counselled against a practice of (unions) not recruiting agency or contract workers because of an apparent conflict of interest with permanent, non-contract employees (SIPTU 2006).
A SIPTU official considered the issue of employer hostility to be the single most frustrating one from his point of view and felt the only solution was legislative change around collective bargaining, though he wasn’t optimistic of it happening:
But it’s the key to everything. Without that, the employers can put two fingers up to the trade union movement - and they do - and all you’re reduced to is representing individual members. And if that individual stands up on an individual case, they’re leaving themselves open to intimidation and being let go. And we know it happens, we see it time and time again. And then also a case can take two years or more before a hearing which is not much use to a migrant worker who, in many cases, has returned to their home country (Interview, SIPTU Industrial Organiser 1, 2013).
While the issue of the right to collective bargaining is one that applies to workers other than migrant workers, it has particular application and the situation is particularly acute for migrant workers due to their concentration in unorganised employments.

5.5.2 Unions


Union structures

As outlined in Chapter Four Irish trade unions have, for some time, operated a servicing model of trade unionism. Operating a service model calls for bureaucratic and hierarchical structures to support delivery of a range of professional services to a geographically widespread and, frequently, diverse, membership within existing constituencies. It is hugely demanding on paid officials and targets financial resources into maintenance of services. It’s a hierarchical structure that “isn’t fit for purpose, doesn’t connect with the community and voluntary sector or with communities themselves, that isn’t viewed by communities as having anything to do with them” (Mandate Organiser). As migrant workers arrived in ever increasing numbers into the labour force Irish trade unions were not structured, nor did they have the resources, either financial or human, in place, to adopt any kind of strategic organisational approach. So for any Irish union to change direction and incorporate active organising into its approach was not something that could be done overnight. Jack O’Connor:


Unions are highly, democratic bureaucratic structures where, unlike activist NGOs which can respond quickly to circumstances, attempting to change direction is comparable to trying to turn the Queen Mary in the Grand Canal. But some unions, including our own, did try to address the issue but rather haphazardly (Interview, 2012).
One SIPTU organiser agreed on the haphazard nature of the approach and pointed out that even if SIPTU had a plan in place in relation to dealing with migrant workers, it’s hard to see how effective it could have been, given the structures under which people were operating, where they “were fire-fighting constantly and servicing within an inch of their lives. Some of us went out and did it ourselves on a wing and a prayer and hoped for the best” (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 2, 2012)
It was also the case that prior to the mid ‘2000s there was little or no collaboration between trade unions or with NGOs. Jack O’Connor described the situation prior to that as a “culture of considerable aggravation, even to the point of animosity, around competition for members who were already organised, not even competition for new ones”. There was a view expressed by interviewees that ICTU should have played a greater role in fostering co-operation and greater co-ordination between unions on migration issues at that stage in terms of shared recruitment drives, lobbying on legislation and fostering integration. SIPTU activist: “They should have been bringing in the leaders of all the unions and saying we have a new challenge here and we have a vast membership. Let’s plan for it. That didn’t happen”.
As already indicated there was some informal collaboration between individuals within unions and NGOs. A number of SIPTU individuals began to work with the MRCI and Citizen Information Centres and also formed relationships with the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE). They set up the SIPTU Anti-Racist Group (SARG).
Access to unions

A critical factor in determining union density levels identified by Turner et al. (2008b) and alluded to above, appears to be that of union availability and in that employment in the public or private sector assumes greater importance than nationality in determining union membership. That view was supported by this research where nature of employment, as in, if the employment had a union presence or not, was identified as being a major factor. In 2007, immigrants employed in the public sector had a unionisation rate of 36.6 per cent – close to three times the overall unionisation rate of immigrants generally and comparable to the unionisation rate of Irish workers. The single most important factor determining the probability of being a union member is “whether or not an individual is employed in a workplace with a recognised union” (Bryson and Gomez 2005: 87). Turner et al, in their studies on migrant workers in Ireland and union membership, largely supported this view. They found that the chief determinants of union availability in Ireland are union recognition, management strategies and, to a lesser extent structural factors such as establishment size and industrial sector. They point to the fact that union availability is extensive in the public sector where unions are accorded a high level of legitimacy and opposition is negligible; more extensive in industry than services and more often in large firms than small firms. Migrants are more likely to work in low skilled jobs in the services sector and in smaller firms in the retail and construction sectors. Consequently, they are less likely than Irish nationals to work in organisations with a union presence and hence, union availability is likely to be lower for immigrant workers than for Irish nationals (Turner et al., 2008a; 2008b).


While there was general support for this perspective, some felt that is somewhat simplistic and implies veracity in the axiom that the reason people aren’t in unions is because they were never asked, creating a sense that all that is needed is a good old fashioned recruitment campaign, delivered in a number of languages. All the evidence points to the fact that the issue of availability is a great deal more complex than that, and that the range of barriers to unionisation, as detailed here, are actually inter-linked with union availability being dependant on union structures, on employer attitudes, on the personal circumstances of the individuals and on how the message of unionisation is communicated to them and how they, in turn, hear it.

5.5.3. Workforce


Language and communication

Language issues were identified by almost all interviewees as the single greatest obstacle to recruitment, organising and representing migrant workers. A SIPTU official said: “The main difficulty I personally have with the whole thing is the communication issue around language. It’s a huge barrier”. Also, a Mandate official: “There’s still a significant language barrier so maybe communication with our migrant workers is not as good as it should be”. People speak of 'language' but what they mean in most cases is, more broadly, 'communication' which is not just an issue of the facility to speak English but also an issue of modes of communication, the use of trade union rhetoric and historical references and the need to address the issues of the particular group of workers. A SIPTU organiser spoke of her belief that the message of trade unionism, of collectivism and fairness and justice at work is so compelling, that if one can find the language to communicate it effectively, people get it:


Maybe we just need to change how we communicate it and the images we communicate it with. So this image that SIPTU holds very dear of Larkin’s outstretched hands meaning to convey solidarity and our glorious past and worker power, doesn’t convey anything to someone from the Philippines or to a young middle-class Irish woman either (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 1, 2013).
The point being made here and also by others who were critical of the use of language barriers as a reason for not engaging, was that unions cannot resort to traditional forms of communication and iconography when trying to appeal to new constituencies. The argument made is that the right of all workers to be treated fairly and the strength of workers unity are fundamental messages that have been tried and tested and carry across all cultures when communicated in a manner focused on the interests and needs of the audience. In the case of migrant workers very many of them were working on minimum wage at best and often working more than one job in order to feed their families and possibly send some money home so trade union messages around permanency, pension, and sick pay became irrelevant,
But it is not possible to completely dismiss the issue of language as a difficulty as both the literature and the evidence indicates that it has an impact not only on union joining outcomes but on employment and employment progression also. A major issue is that of the isolation caused by the lack of the language. Interviewees described some of the situations they had come across where vulnerability to exploitation was increased due to lack of English. One SIPTU official described the situation in a meat factory in the midlands where the workers, all of whom were from outside the EU, worked long hours, lived together in housing close to the meat factory and did not encounter Irish people in their day to day lives other than the employer, the senior management, the drivers and, perhaps, the local supermarket staff. While these workers were not subject to especially exploitative practices they were very much dependant on, and under the control of, their employer as the interpreter of their rights and entitlements. Another described a situation on a mushroom farm in the North West where the workforce was equally isolated and where members of the all-female Latvian mushroom pickers approached the employer about parental leave, to be told that parental leave didn’t apply to the pickers; it only applied to the other workers on the farm.
‘And you see without a common language and without a knowledge of the circumstances of the people you’re dealing with, we in the union can just miss that because they may take what the employer said as fact and never come to us about it. This was in a company which recognises SIPTU and is a prominent member of the JIC35 but it’s still the case that if they can get away with it, they will’ (Interview, SIPTU Industrial Organiser 2, 2013).
As well as difficulty in direct communication there is also the issue of interpretation and misinterpretation. An INMO official gave an example of meeting with a group of Filipino nurses shortly after their arrival in Dublin. They told him that they thought they weren’t eligible to join the ‘Irish Nurses and Midwives’ Organisation’ as it was a union for ‘Irish’ nurses and midwives as opposed to being one for nurses and midwives of all nationalities.
What is clear is that language can be an issue but it is only part of the broader communication problem. This was something recognised by the majority of interviewees, many of whom agreed that it took some time for them to understand that there were cultural and communication differences as well as language differences and that even in cases where migrant workers were in a union, routine meetings with them in workplace settings were not enough. “They nodded their heads and told us everything was rosy but of course we knew after the fact that it wasn’t” (Interview, SIPTU Industrial Organiser 2, 2013).
Resistance to unionisation

It is noteworthy that, while there is a growing body of research which indicates that there is little evidence that migrants are particularly resistant to unionisation, the majority of survey respondents for this thesis saw resistance to unionisation as being one of the two main barriers to recruitment of migrant workers (nature of employment being the other). However, interviewees did not report this to be the case, although a certain reluctance was identified within particular national groups. These findings would largely support the findings of Turner et al. in their study on Polish workers in Ireland which found there to be a largely positive attitude toward unions among the workers surveyed. A majority of them reported believing that unions are good for workers, can improve wages and conditions, and can protect workers from being exploited (2008a). This contradicts the frequently argued theory that one of the reasons for low unionisation among migrant workers from former Soviet countries is a perception of unions as an arm of the state and thus to be feared (Donaghey & Teague, 2006; Penninx and Roosblad, 2000).


The criticism of migrants in relation to their propensity to join and become active in trade unions might suggest that Irish workers are very positively disposed and eager to participate. Interviewees again contradicted this and observed that in the majority of cases Irish workers are no more or less eager to join unions. SIPTU Organiser: “Yes migrant workers bring all sorts of baggage to the notion of joining a union but then Irish people do too, middle class Irish people have a different view to working class Irish people, men have a different view to women, younger people to older people”.
There was quite a deal of agreement on the nationalities considered to be difficult to organise. They were Chinese in the first instance, followed by Asians more generally. Interviewees’ general view was that the situation with the Chinese related to a cultural gap and perhaps the nature of the labour movement in China and the fact that it is state controlled. One interviewee also suggested that perhaps many of them are here on student visas, connected to language schools, and are working illegally and therefore apprehensive about attracting attention. The situation is seen as more nuanced when considering Asian migrants more generally. The issue of finance is seen to be the main barrier, the motivation is to save every penny in order to make remittances to family back home. This also applies in the case of Filipinos, who are not seen to be resistant for any cultural or political reasons and indeed many, particularly in the INMO, are quite active. But there is a level of resistance. INMO Official: “I don’t think it’s a fear of any sort of joining a union. It’s the cost. They would prioritise that €30036 per year in a different way”. The interviewee points out that he has frequently been approached by Filipino nurses who want to know if there’s any way they can avoid paying superannuation. The issue of finance was also seen to be a barrier for Mandate, whose constituency would be largely made up of low paid retail workers. Mandate Senior Organiser:
‘We get a lot of questions from migrant workers about the value of union membership. One conversation I had was about how €3.80 would buy a bag of rice or could feed a family for a day’ (Interview, 2013).
While Eastern Europeans were not identified as being particularly resistant to trade unions, there was a general belief that peoples’ experience or view of trade unions prior to coming to Ireland has an impact on their willingness to get involved in collective action. The Polish and Russians were seen as being reasonably open to unionisation while the Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Romanians much less so. They were perceived to be much more sceptical about the concept, more individualistic and concerned about what they personally would get for their money. If these responses are considered in the context of the more legalistic industrial relations framework that applies in these countries, then the response is more understandable. The expectation is that there should be a law to cover everything and that if one has a legal entitlement to something, one should get it automatically.
The issue of union resistance was one that, more than others, showed up the still quite powerful position of the closed craft union. The response of BATU General Secretary, Brendan O’Sullivan, to the question of any resistance to unionisation was simply “it doesn’t really arise in BATU, it’s a case of no union card, no job” (Interview, 2013).
Workplace racism

While there are many cases of Irish workers displaying racist attitudes as outlined earlier, what was identified as a greater issue was that of ‘inter-minority’ racism in the workplace whereby there are inter-racial tensions and cultural conflict between groups of migrant workers e.g. Poles vs Romanians, Latvians vs Lithuanians, Brazilians vs Poles etc. and a tendency to operate along country of origin lines. This feature has also been identified in previous research (see Güell and Jubany 2012):



‘There’s a lot of inter-nationality racism going around, not just Irish people. There are a number of different Eastern European nationalities that have very strong views of each other. In the early days we started out thinking we needed to beat racism out of Irish workers. I think we’re now a lot more nuanced in our approach’ (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 1, 2013).
She went on to describe a situation where an Eastern European cleaner approached a union official and told him that he would “join the union but only if the niggers didn’t join”. Difficulty around workers communicating in their native languages is a complex one for trade union representatives. There is the straightforward issue of Irish workers objecting to their colleagues speaking Polish, for example, on the basis that they might be talking about them. Some interviewees considered this to be a non-issue and a case of blatant racism and that people should be free to speak in whatever language they wished. Others considered it to be a workplace issue but one that should be managed by the employer through a diversity policy. The issue becomes more complex where there is a workplace with a number of nationalities, dividing into their national and language groups:
They tend to stay within their groups – the Brazilians stick together, the Ukrainians likewise. So, in the companies you’ll have Lithuanian groups, Latvian groups, Czech etc. so they work together, they live together, they socialise together. They don’t integrate to the level that they need to. They all come from different cultures and are different nationalities. Not only have they to integrate with the Irish, they also have to integrate with the others (Interview, SIPTU Industrial Organiser 2, 2013).
A number of interviewees described a phenomenon whereby employers exploit racial division for their own ends. A SIPTU organiser describing the situation in the meat industry explained that, in her experience, there is animosity, the Polish don’t like the Brazilians and Brazilians don’t like the Slovaks and there is a hierarchy in all of this. Management trade on this and create pockets of power e.g. they will appoint a supervisor of a particular nationality and then top-load that line with another nationality and that supervisor will then harangue and bully those workers under him, frequently using racist language and stereotyping. This approach was confirmed by the UCD academic who witnessed incidents in meat factories during her research. She described how the supervisors frequently drive production to the point of danger, one example was where workers have been injured by being kicked by cattle that weren’t properly sedated. The workers blame the supervisor rather than the manager (Interview, 2013). It’s a sophisticated way of fostering racial division to increase productivity. Another SIPTU official also commented on the meat industry:
There’s huge animosity between Eastern Europeans and Brazilians in the red meat industry and the employers tend to play one against the other. I don’t know the source of it; maybe it’s just a cultural thing. One thing I do know is that the employers do certainly exploit it’ (Interview, SIPTU Industrial Organiser 1, 2013).
Another case, involving similar issues, was that of workers employed on a cleaning contract in a university where there were five different nationalities employed. The supervisor was Brazilian so when it came to selecting workers for preferred shifts or overtime she always selected Brazilians and, in turn, gave the worst shifts to the Romanians because she didn’t like them. However, an ex MRCI member argued that it is more complex than just race: “There are those kinds of tensions but it’s not as clear as one might think. There’s messiness around race. It’s not always about racism, it’s a lot about friends and family and connections. So, I don’t see straight racism all that much” (Interview, MRCI Officer 2, 2013).
There is also the issue of what one interviewee described as “colour coding of the labour force” whereby a restaurant will have a mixture of staff but the Asian workers are in the kitchens on washing-up, the young Eastern European women are waiting tables and the Irish are the managers and the Front of House staff. So while there are a number of nationalities employed, they are segregated. Nor is this just a feature of the hospitality industry. In the mushroom industry the pickers will be from a range of Eastern European countries while the office staff and the drivers will be Irish. SIPTU activist and former mushroom picker: “I never met an Irish mushroom picker in all of my time and I have been involved for more than eight years now” (Interview, SIPTU Shop Steward, 2013).
Despite the very evident issues, BATU's Brendan O’Sullivan placed it in what he saw as its historical context: “There were kind of different tensions, not racism, with the people who came and communication was the problem. But I think I heard more back in the '70s and '80s about ‘culchies’37 and people from the North than I’ve ever heard about migrants” (Interview, 2013).

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