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

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3.5. Conclusion

This chapter has deployed a comparative analytical framework to critically analyse the response of trade union movements across nine EU countries to labour migration. It has outlined the main influencing factors in operation in the individual countries, under the broad categories of character of the immigration, economic and labour market conditions, politico-legal context and industrial relations context. It has considered to what extent these factors may account for individual trade union movement responses to migration.
On the basis of the foregoing analysis it is possible to extrapolate that the Irish trade union response compares favourably with that of its European partners. Immigration came to Ireland much later than to the majority of the countries studied, and its long history of emigration meant its first experience of labour immigration differed fundamentally, both in nature and in timing, from that of the more traditional countries of immigration, particularly those with a colonial background. Nonetheless, the Irish trade union response to immigration shared many features with that of its European counterparts and it is apparent that the explanatory variables as set out in this chapter – character of the immigration, economic and labour market factors, politico-legal context, industrial relations context - were influential factors in that response. In that sense Ireland is very much part of the EU system of industrial relations.
The composition of labour immigration has usually been discounted as a significant factor in shaping trade union response generally (Penninx and Roosblad 2000). However, it would appear to have a bearing in the Irish case. The fact of certain cultural similarity between the majority of the migrants and the indigenous population was significant, particularly in the first instance. This combined with favourable economic and labour market conditions was certainly relevant in shaping the reaction to labour migration in Ireland. Irish trade unions, as those elsewhere, were not opposed to immigration at a time of economic growth and full employment. With regard to the politico-legal context, the lack of strong legislative controls on immigration and the absence of a significant anti-migrant discourse generally, allowed Irish unions more freedom to articulate a policy of openness and inclusion than might otherwise have been the case.
With regard to the industrial relations context, as a strongly institutionally embedded partner at the time of initial immigration, the Irish trade union movement co-operated in the main with the opening up of the labour market to immigrant labour. This reflected the behaviour of embedded union movements in other countries at an earlier time. Also, further reflecting that behaviour, they did not pro-actively organise those workers in the first instance. This fully reflected the thesis that where trade unions’ institutional position is strong, they focus on building institutional partnerships with less incentive to prove their strength through recruitment and mobilisation (Baccarro et al. 2003; Frege and Kelly 2003; Ebbinghaus and Visser 1999).
At the supra-national level of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) it is clear that despite its official position as a European level social partner, where it has some impact, its power to influence the policies and practices of trade unions in their individual national contexts is really quite limited. This extends to the area of clearly supra-national issues such as international labour migration. As is shown above, the Irish engagement with the ETUC has been largely at the national confederation level and while ETUC initiatives may have informed national policy to some extent, its influence more generally would appear to be negligible. While there have been some specific initiatives which have involved an Irish input, they have been primarily in the realm of information exchange and co-ordination (e.g. engagement in ETUC Migration sub-committees, participation in UnionMigrantNet, where SIPTU acts as the Irish contact point).

Having contextualised labour migration and trade union responses to it within a broad European framework, I will now move on in the following chapters to present the Irish case in detail. Based on my engagement with the literature, the code development as outlined in Chapter Two and the application of the original analytical framework in this chapter, the modified version of the framework, as it has developed, will now be applied to the analysis of the Irish data in the chapters to follow. In the first instance, Chapter Four will outline the history of labour migration to Ireland and present the defining characteristics of same. It will then critically evaluate the various explanatory factors as defined in this chapter and apply them in more detail to the Irish situation.


As previously stated, following on from the thematic analysis of the interview material, it became clear that the analytical framework devised from Penninx and Roosblad, and applied to the comparative analysis in Chapter Four was inadequate for the in-depth analysis of the Irish trade union response to labour migration. The rich detail of the response could not be fully reflected by a simple duality paradigm of A versus B, needing, rather, to allow for greater variation within the response. Thus it was necessary to modify the framework to better reflect the outcomes of the inductive coding process that had been engaged in with the interview material. The modified diagram, as below, takes the independent variable of inward migration; the possible explanatory factors of character of the immigration, economic and labour market conditions, politico-legal context and industrial relations context to analyse the Irish trade union response in terms of policies and rhetoric, attitudes and perceptions and organisation. The analysis reflects the themes that were drawn from the coding process as described in Chapter Three.
Figure 4: Analytical Framework, Ireland
The statistical material in this chapter is largely drawn from the Central Statistics Office, Quarterly National Household Survey (CSO, QNHS). However, as has been noted by many commentators, reliability is somewhat of an issue (Barrett and Kelly, 2008; Roche 2008; Barrett et al., 2005):
It has been known for some time that the QNHS significantly undercounts the immigrant population, by over 30 per cent. Given this undercount, a concern exists that the QNHS may not provide an accurate picture of Ireland’s immigrants in terms of socio-economic characteristics (Barrett and Kelly 2008).

Unite Officer, speaking of the difficulties in accurately monitoring labour migration levels in Ireland:

We don’t know the migration flows. You know our data lags very far behind the rest of Europe, there’s such a lack of detail. Other countries have so much detailed data on economic indicators to migration flows and all of that. And that’s historical hangover, the difficulty goes right back to the statistical information systems set up in the 1930s (Interview, 2013).

So, while the statistical information contained herein provides good indicators of labour migration levels, it would be inadvisable to presume on its absolute accuracy.

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