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



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5.3. Attitudes and perceptions


There were certain expectations within the trade union movement, and voiced by many of the interviewees, of anti-migrant attitudes from union staff, particularly officials on the ground, but these were not evident to any great extent in this study. There was, certainly, some negative reaction but most interviewees would see this as relating to increased workload or demand for new approaches rather than anything specifically anti-migrant: “I don’t think we ever did descend to the levels of racism that maybe some other countries had. You know no political movements emerged and there were no significant splits between or within unions over migrant issues. So I think that was handled pretty well” (Interview, ICTU Officer, 2012). In the interviews conducted for this research no single trade union interviewee expressed any anti-migrant sentiment of any description. All saw labour migration as being positive and welcomed the cultural diversity that it brought and many also expressed the belief that the presence of these workers re-energised the union movement in many cases, particularly because so many of the workers were young. An INMO official was emphatic: “I have never witnessed or encountered any type of discrimination on the part of the trade union movement to provide a lesser service or to engage in behaviours such as ‘maybe people will put up with less’ or ‘we don’t have to give as good a service” (Interview, INMO Officer, 2013).
But there were pockets of resistance when unions were initially confronted with issues of migrant workers. That resistance manifested itself in different ways, with inertia being the primary one. A SIPTU activist gave an example of when the union first produced leaflets such as ‘Know your Rights’ in a number of languages. They were widely distributed to SIPTU offices throughout the country but sat in boxes in most of those offices and were never distributed to workplaces. A further example of that inertia and one of the most frequent criticisms from interviewees was of officials using inability to communicate and apparent lack of interest on the part of the migrant workers as a reason for not dealing with migrant issues. In many cases what was happening at branch level was that when officials were presented with issues relating to migrant workers they immediately referred them on to those few activists who were already identified with the issue or to MRCI or, in some cases to Citizens Advice Centres. “I found I was getting calls from all corners of the country, from organisers and branch secretaries and all who were basically passing on the problems rather than dealing with them themselves” (Interview, former SIPTU Executive Member, 2013). But there was also a recognition that the arrival of migrant workers and the issues they brought created new demands on union staff which, in many cases, were difficult to meet, “most trade union officials find it very hard to meet their week to week demands from paid up members so it’s hard to reach out beyond that” (Interview, Former SIPTU Regional Secretary, 2013).
We are fortunate, I think, that the impact of this transition (to being a country of immigration) was softened by two significant factors: a booming economy and an influx of people from Europe who were culturally similar to the indigenous population. Had these conditions not existed I doubt that such a rapid change could have been accommodated with so little social dislocation (Begg, 2007: 182).
While others within the trade union movement have echoed this view, both interviewees and survey respondents have identified racism and discrimination as issues in the workplace despite the existence, in most cases, of cultural similarities. The situation regarding activists at shop-floor level is significantly more complex than that of paid officials and all interviewees agreed that in cases where there is a racially mixed workforce, issues of racism and xenophobia can emerge and Irish shop stewards have been party to such. These situations are particularly challenging for union officials. One interviewee told of a meat factory in Cork where the Irish shop stewards and existing members didn’t even want their Brazilian colleagues in the union. They wanted them to remain unrepresented, to see them exploited and given all the dirty work and they had no compunction about articulating this to the union official. While the situation was negotiated, and the Brazilians joined, there were ongoing tensions. Another incident was recounted of a hotel in Killarney where the shop stewards and existing union members threatened to leave the union if their Polish colleagues were allowed join. In that case the union, SIPTU, took a firm stand and the protestors backed down. But this is a risky strategy for the union and can involve alienating the existing active union members without necessarily succeeding in recruiting the new ones. Ideally what is required in these situations is training and support both from the union and from the employer in order to break down prejudice and suspicion, but that is a process which requires time and a set of skills which the union official may not necessarily have. A SIPTU organiser gave an example of dealing with an older Irish woman who was a shop steward in the cleaning industry and didn’t like and didn’t want to represent migrant workers. This case exemplifies the fact that it’s overly simplistic to just dismiss someone like this as racist without duly recognising and acknowledging her situation and her feelings:
‘This particular inner-city Irish woman finds her community has changed completely, her workplace has changed completely and almost no-one she works with speaks English as their first language. You can’t work with her on the racist thing without acknowledging that. She’s in the eye of the storm of the migration trends that the rest of us talk and read about’ (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 1, 2012).

5.4. Initial Organisation


While the unions adopted an inclusive approach to migrant worker organisation from the outset, it was initially largely a passive welcoming approach - they were welcome to join if they wished but there was no specific coordinated mobilisation as evidenced in other countries (Gonzalez-Perez et al. 2009; Krings 2007). It was, as Dundon et al. describe it, a ‘soft organising’ approach involving awareness raising campaigns, anti-racist initiatives and information and literature distribution, as opposed to ‘hard organising’ which involves active mobilisation and direct union action such as demonstrations, marches and strikes (2007). Mandate organiser:
We didn’t have anything approaching a cohesive strategy to reach them. It’s a case of it’s there for them if they want it but there were barriers there – the structures within sections, not working to communicate in their languages, not understanding them culturally (Interview, Mandate Senior Organiser, 2013).
In general, as indicated in Chapter Four, Irish unions’ organising attempts have been seen as secondary to traditional union concerns, such as protecting wages and working conditions and particularly during the era of social partnership, it was not a priority, despite the political commitments. The arrival of migrant workers did little to divert this focus in the first instance. While there were concerns around possible exploitation and undermining of pay and conditions, active organisation of these workers, was not seen as a particular priority, and the view was that a clear and publically articulated pro-migrant policy position combined with negotiated strong legislative protection and enforcement was enough. This was not a view shared by all, however, as those officials and activists who were engaging directly with migrant workers could see that the existing industrial relations and legal framework was insufficient and that there was a need for more active recruitment and organisation. A SIPTU activist felt that a much more strategic approach should have been taken by the unions:
We should have been there at the start. We should have taken it sector by sector instead of this haphazard way we did it. At that time we were spending our time crucifying employers whose employments were organised but we were totally ignoring those employments where we were needed. There was a time where 34,000 and 36,000 permits were being issued and, over those years, we only got a small fraction of membership out of that. These people were coming into employments that weren’t traditionally organised so the attitude seemed to be ‘why should we be putting energies into those areas’ (Interview, SIPTU Former National Executive Member, 2013).
This view was indicative of a more widely held belief that, while ICTU and its member unions adopted positive policy positions, there was no plan. A SIPTU organiser: “I think a practical guide would have been more effective as opposed to a policy. That did not exist”. A senior ICTU official who had responsibility for migration issues within ICTU recognised the organisational deficit but viewed it more sympathetically: “I don’t think unions were equipped to organise them. They were simply overwhelmed by numbers in many cases and also they had never organised such a diverse workforce before either so there were challenges presented by that”. It would seem that the issue was not just one of migrant worker organisation but one of organisation more generally, and the fact that migrant workers were largely concentrated in previously non-organised sectors contributed to the focus on them as a vulnerable unorganised constituency. A former MRCI staff member says: “It wasn’t just the migrants that weren’t being addressed, no one was being addressed. The restaurant sector only had unionisation rates of eight or nine per cent. So whether they were Irish or not, they weren’t organised” (Interview, MRCI Officer 2, 2013).
In essence the issue comes back to the inherent conflict between a service model of trade unionism, primarily committed to servicing existing constituencies, and the needs of vulnerable groups of workers, located outside the traditionally organised sectors. SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor:
I don’t think that it’s entirely possible to separate the question of our response to inward migration from the other question around the kind of character of the trade union movement in the country because it had become by the late ’90s, and had been for a long time much more in the nature of a kind of a number of institutions which provided services, more than institutions which organised workers, or saw themselves as instruments for social change. Labour migration presented itself to a movement that, to a very large extent, was not focused on organising workers anyway and the response to the issue of inward migration was characterised by the nature of the trade union movement as it had become (Interview, 2012).

5.4.1. Role of the individual activist


“The transformation of a set of individuals into a collective actor is normally the work of a small but critical mass of activists whose role in industrial relations has been seriously understated” (Kelly, 1998: 127).
A particular finding of this research has been the critical role played by individual activists during the first wave of labour migration in providing support to migrant workers; getting migrant specific issues on the agendas of their individual unions and bringing the issues of migrant worker exploitation to public attention. Hickey et al. interrogated the perspective of those who, in emphasising the critical role of rank-and-file activism in union renewal efforts, suggest that a major barrier to these efforts can be “the bureaucratic inertia of entrenched union officials” (2010: 2). They found that, in fact, the support and expertise of union staff were explicitly critical for ensuring success in the majority of organising campaigns which they examined. Moody (1997) emphasises the transformative power of the rank-and-file in terms of union renewal but as Schiavone (2007) suggests, he downplays and frequently ignores the contribution of the professional organiser as highlighted by others (Findlay and McKinley 2003; Kelly 1998). McBride and Greenwood (2009) too see the presence of the assiduous union activist as being key to any organising success and observe that activists can be both lay and professional, the distinguishing characteristic being a belief in the cause and a wish to effect change. Doherty (2007) in his research on trade union membership in Ireland during partnership found the role of the local representative (shop steward and/or local official) critical.
Irish trade union involvement with issues arising from migration operated very much on an ad hoc basis at the very early stages in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the level of actual engagement, particularly in cases of non-unionised workplaces, was largely dependent on individual trade unionists’ interest and commitment. The role of the individual (both professional and lay) has been highlighted again and again throughout the empirical research process for this thesis - in interviews, in reports, in meetings and in the literature. It was primarily SIPTU representatives who were in the vanguard in terms of this type of engagement and the fact that it was a large, general, geographically widely spread and well-resourced union was a significant factor in this regard. Unite too was involved, but primarily with migrant workers in Northern Ireland and in the border counties. The INMO was actively involved at a very early stage with migrant workers but this was in a much more structured way in that nurses were being recruited in the main, though not exclusively, into the public service which was already highly unionised. BATU also encountered migrant workers at a very early stage but as a small and powerful craft union, this did not cause any particular issues as union membership was an agreed condition of employment.
The reality for union officials generally was that to attempt to respond to and organise new constituencies spread across many unorganised sectors such as migrants was something that had to be done largely outside of ‘the day job’. And this is what was happening as, at a local level, individual union officials and activists were coming across serious issues of exploitation in areas of the economy such as horticulture, construction and hospitality as well as domestic service (MRCI 2006a, 2006b; 2007; Hyland 2005; ICTU 2005). These issues were coming to union attention generally informally, through one-to-one contacts with individual officials and activists who were becoming identified as knowledgeable in the area. Jack O’Connor confirmed that within SIPTU it was “all down to a number of individuals within the organisation as far back as the late 1990s who had been championing the issue of migrants”, not specifically in terms of organising at that stage but more responding to what they saw as an evident need (Interview, 2012).
It takes an individual or a group of individuals, especially within a large organisation, to pursue something like this. The duty of the organisation is to provide the challenger with the space and the resources to go out and try out their idea and sometimes it fails but that’s alright (Interview, Unite Officer, 2013)
Whether SIPTU provided the space and resources needed at that point is somewhat contested. Some would say that neither the issue nor the work of the individuals was acknowledged, “It wasn’t discussed around the table at any level within SIPTU. It wasn’t featuring at all” (Interview, National Executive Member, 2013). It does appear to be the case that issues relating to migrant workers were not featuring to any great extent on SIPTU’s National Executive agenda, certainly not in relation to resourcing active engagement. But some interviewees maintain that there was support at management level for the work that was happening:

There was never any reluctance to take out the chequebook. Now we didn’t want major resources but in terms of redeployment of staff and staff participating in committees and printing of materials – none of that was a problem. Leaflets, materials and paying translators to translate union leaflets into other languages, eight originally and I think 13 subsequently – none of that was ever an issue. We were never asked what’s this costing or where’s the cost benefit? (Interview, Former SIPTU Regional Secretary, 2013)


A striking feature of the individual engagement with migrant worker exploitation is the speed with which these individuals became identified with the issue, thus leading to further referral of and engagement with such cases. SIPTU activist and Former National Executive member, Anton McCabe encountered his first report of migrant exploitation in 1998 when a young Latvian man walked into his office in Navan and recounted the abuse he and his colleagues were being subjected to on a mushroom farm in the Midlands. McCabe dealt with that case and that was the beginning of the snowball effect: “I didn’t realise that night the domino effect that encounter was going to have”. Within weeks he was handling two or three cases per week and was being contacted by migrant workers, SIPTU union officials, officials from other unions, Community Information Centres, NGOs and concerned members of the public from all over the country. McCabe tells of meeting terrified migrant workers at all hours of the day and night in a variety of locations, including car parks, river banks, cemeteries and cafes but never workplaces.
Mike Jennings, Ex SIPTU Regional Secretary tells of a similar phenomenon as he recounts the story of how he first became involved:
‘It was around 2000. I got a phone call from one of the branch secretaries in my region, Seamus McNamee. He had arranged for the meat factory in Roosky to put up safety notices in Hungarian because there were a significant number of Hungarian workers working in the meat plant and I thought that was a fantastic initiative. So we issued a press statement and it must have been a slow news day as the press statement got picked up pretty widely and, from that point onwards, anytime there was an issue about migrant workers, the first person people contacted was Mike Jennings, the view being he knows about that and so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It started out as a media thing but then spread to people within SIPTU and within the wider trade union movement (Interview, 2013).
These individuals, and a few others within SIPTU who took up the cause of migrant workers, formed relationships with individuals within NGOs, particularly with the Director and a number of other staff of the MRCI. They also developed relationships with individuals within the agencies that had responsibility in the area. These included the head of the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) and some senior staff within the Work Permit section of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE):

We built a good relationship with the head of the GNIB at the time who was a good man and very sympathetic to our position. We also managed to get some changes in the work permit system. Any changes to the work permit system were achieved by a handful of people such as Kevin Glackin, Mike Jennings, Christy McQuillan, myself and MRCI people (Interview, Former National Executive Member, 2013).


Jennings, McCabe and other interviewees made the point repeatedly that much of their efforts were directed towards people who were not members of the union and unlikely to become members of the union. But they perceived it as an ethical trade union position and one of a duty to defend and protect the oppressed. They suggest that there was sympathy and outrage among their colleagues too about what was going on, that they made connections with the Irish history of immigration and the experiences of ‘the Irish navvy’ in the UK. But, despite this there was also a very strong tendency to pass the problem on to those they now identified as being the experts in the field.
These two accounts are indicative of the critical role of the individual activist in the early stages of migration and also of the role of the individual in driving an agenda. The individual initiatives gave the bureaucratic organisation time to catch up. Another factor that may apply in the way particular individuals were identified with migrant worker issues could be connected to the nature of Ireland as a small, very interconnected society where there aren’t even ‘six degrees of separation’. The situation began to change from circa 2002, and even more so following accession in 2004 and the opening up of the labour market when Irish trade unions began to take a much more pro-active and strategic position in their approach to migrant workers.

5.4.2. Migrant worker unionisation


The trade union bargaining position is inevitably undermined when any section of the workforce remains outside of its remit and, despite the policy positions articulated by the trade union movement in relation to migrant workers, the majority of migrant workers did not join unions on taking up employment in Ireland. Nor did the efforts of individual activists, as described above, result in any significant increase in membership. The ad hoc and ‘firefighting’ nature of it could never contribute in any substantial way to recruitment.
In 2004, when the information was first collected, the rate of unionisation among migrant workers was 15%, compared to a density rate for Irish workers of 36% (Barrett et al. 2005) and, as can be seen, it had minor fluctuations, moving between 13% and 15% over the period 2004-2009, standing at 14% versus 37% for Irish workers in 2009, when collection of the information ceased33. Irish nationals are more than twice as likely as their non-Irish counterparts to be union members, although it is necessary to bear in mind that migrants generally work in the least unionised sectors of the economy and that the most highly unionised sector is the public service sector, where negligible numbers of migrant workers are employed. Between 1995 and 2007, union membership grew by 11% but union density actually declined by 40%. This apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that the employed labour force increased by 77% with much of the growth concentrated in the private sector, particularly in the construction and services areas, where the decline in union membership was sharpest and the presence of migrant workers was highest.
Figure 9: Irish trade union density, Irish nationals & non-Irish nationals,

2005-2009 (in percentages)


The survey of Irish trade unions conducted for this thesis in 2010, found that only 10 per cent of Irish unions collect specific, detailed information on members’ nationality. While 42 per cent of unions hold some information, it is poorly collected and frequently completely unanalysed34. SIPTU’s non-Irish national membership had dropped from 10 per cent in 2007 to eight per cent in 2010, but the proportion of migrants in the workforce had also dropped (from 15 per cent to 13 per cent). Among the other unions that collect information, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) had a non-Irish national membership of 20 per cent; Mandate had levels between 11 and 15 per cent; the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) had 10 per cent; and Unison and the Guinness Staff Union had levels below five per cent. In 2007 officials from two other unions, ATGWU (the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union which joined with Amicus in 2008 to become Unite) and the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU) estimated that they had about 1,000 members each while officials from Mandate estimated ‘a few thousand’ (Krings 2007). BATU’s migrant worker membership peaked at about 25 per cent at the height of the boom according to General Secretary, Brendan O’Sullivan. It dropped back to around 10 per cent with the onset of the recession and, as O’Sullivan pointed out that is 10 per cent of a much smaller total as overall BATU membership had dropped from 10,000 to 2,000.
It is evident that while these figures provide an indication of the level of unionisation of non-Irish nationals in the Irish workforce, there are unusual discrepancies in that the survey information indicates a lower level of migrant worker membership than does the CSO data. So, in examining both sets of data, all we can extrapolate with certainty is that migrant worker unionisation rates are on a spectrum of between 10 and 14 per cent.



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