Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Wildcat strikes: some gathered thoughts and opinions

As part of my ongoing research I've been asking "migrant workers" that I know what they think about the current wave of wildcat strikes. There are one and a half million migrant workers in the UK from the EU alone, plus something like a million more from further afield, and I think it's worth considering what they might have to say about these events.

Now, whilst I think what they had to say was interesting I'm not drawing general conclusions out of it because a) they're my friends which basically skews the sample towards cool, right on dudes and b) the sample is pretty small, although it spans four mighty continents and, accidentally, is a sample of three men and four women.

I've tried to give a representative sample of what was said and was careful when collecting this small sample of opinions not to argue with, correct or guide what they were saying - at least until they'd expressed themselves properly. There's a lot of good stuff in here I think and it's also clear they all had different approaches and thoughts about the actions. For the purposes of this exercise I'm removing names and identifying features.

Person A:

It is a legitimate protest under the grounds of discrimination, I don't like the slogan "British jobs for British workers", I saw some slogans saying that it is a case of discrimination, if we leave aside their nationalities a group of people had been sacked to give those jobs to other group. Why? Probably are cheaper? Can you imagine if the Italian workers joining to the strike? That would be wonderful. Also the strike is against the wishes of the trade union officials, that is something, is it not?
Person B:
I think it's a question of unorganised migrant workers vs organised migrant workers.

By and large, what the UK experienced, after Poland/Latvia/Lithuania et. al joined the EU was a mass migration of unorganised migrant workers trying to "live the dream" in the UK. Temp agencies (legal gangmasters) tried to cope as the intermediaries between them and light assembly factory work/agricultural work. Criminal gangs (illegal gangmasters) took advantage of the more illegal shades of migrant workers, leading to things like Morecambe Bay.

What's going on with the Total/Lincolnshire situation is a multinational company giving work to organised migrant workers (the Italians/Portuguese living on this barge).

The key European Court judgements (Laval, Rüffert, Luxembourg, and Viking) were in December 2007 and April 2008. Laval and Viking, for example, stem from corporate actions as far back as 2003 and 2004.

In 2003, Viking, which is a Finnish company that runs ferries, employed an Estonian crew and cut its wages by 60%. Laval, which is Latvian, sent workers to Sweden to build schools in 2004. A Swedish construction union asked Laval to honour the existing collective agreement for the building sector. Laval refused, keeping to Latvian pay conditions that undercut the Swedish workers.

In both of these cases, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of Viking and Laval. The court "effectively outlawed industrial action where unions are trying to win equal pay for migrant workers and banned public bodies from requiring foreign contractors to pay such workers local rates."

Has Labour been lobbying Europe on this since then? No. Is Mandelson already standing up for Total? Yes. Over the last 10 years, we haven't heard Labour talk about union conditions coming second to a more corporate vision of Europe.

We haven't heard about the negative aspects of an economy dependent on more agency work, on an increase in short-term contracts, subcontracting, and the corporate sector using more people who are "self-employed". That's because Labour were fine with it.

80% of new jobs (from 1997 to 2007) went to immigrants, both EU and non-EU. This, combined with answers to Tory written questions on youth who are not in education, employment or training, paints a picture of an entire generation who didn't benefit from the economic "boom". Labour has been very complacent about all of these trends, not just relatively obscure European Court judgements. This generation of youth will now pay a high price during a steep economic downturn ... and will be rather susceptible to this kind of nationalistic sloganeering.

As Jon Cruddas pointed out in the Guardian on the weekend:

"Exploitation, precarious jobs and exploitative levels of pay could be offset by cheap credit and then hidden behind the sparkle of consumerism. Those times are over. With social insurance in short supply, people's key source of economic security was the rising asset value of their homes. That's gone. There is no cheap credit to make up for falling or stagnant wages."
Person C:
I like both migrant workers and wildcat strikes. Mandy's in favour of open Europe for free market purposes, I'm in favour of it because people should work where they can, and want to, weighing up survival with the fact that Italians probably don't prefer to live in the UK.
Person D:
I don't have a hard and fast position on this but I'm nervous about some of the rhetoric. In the circumstances I can see why people are upset, but Italians are in the same general category as British workers so I'm not sure about issues around disparity or undercutting conditions in this case.

It's not something that cries out to me as terribly wrong although there should always be jobs available in your area. It's not the same as when British companies operate in Nigeria.

I feel strongly that people should be able to live where they want to live and work where they want to work.
Person E:
I was tempted to give you a one-line answer to this along the lines of "protect the pay and working conditions not the individual people", but that's a bit glib.

If you take localism to where many take it, you should have small, immovable communities, people staying in the same place with local jobs, and the mess of London today, with so many commuters unable to make it [JJ: due to snow], shows some of the advantages.

But as someone who has worked on three continents and has absolutely no desire at all to go back to where she came from, I'm very uncomfortable with that - can't see how you don't very quickly end up in a stolid, stultifying, unchanging medieval village.

Movement, change, variety is good - what you've got to do perhaps is ensure that so far as is possible, everyone has the same opportunity to move (education, languages, sufficient initial financial resources etc).

But what you do with the people who were born in [some village], population 1,000, and who wants to stay there all of their lives, I really don't know. (After a few drinks I'd suggest it should be compulsory to move....)
Person F:
This does feel a bit too much like the German antagonism to Turkish migrant workers which distressed me a lot when we lived there. And with an [African] background, I'm not too keen on nationalism of any sort, or any kind of us and them. Rather like the idea that we're all Europeans and ought to be able to move/ live/ work freely anywhere in Europe. But if the migrants are undercutting the minimum wage or working under different T&Cs then that's a problem. (Except I'd rather that was established first, before anyone starts shouting 'foreigners out'.)
Person G:
I think it all depends on what are the reasons why they are out on strike. If we're to believe the media, it seems that they are demanding British jobs for British workers. However I had the opportunity to read about their demands and if all true they have a pledge that is not racist or nationalist but reasonable.

Also there are other points to consider and the media hasn't asked at all: Are the Italian workers unionised? What does the Italian Union think? How would Italian workers feel if it was the other way round?

It seems that the construction sector is highly vulnerable and workers who try to organize face blacklists and workers can easily be replaced.

As an immigrant worker myself and trying to organize among immigrants the biggest obstacle we find is distaste, resistance and rejection from bosses, regardless their nationality or ethnicity, the bosses attitude is the same even if you change their nationality: South American, African or European (Managers in London). The second biggest problem is language. Many times workers are saying exactly the same thing but cannot explain this to their co worker. In other words trying to unite and overcome the bosses tactics is difficult and takes most of our energy and time.

I hope the LOR can make their demands clear, so more workers can come out in their support. For immigrants it is important to send the message to bosses that no matter our nationalities or ethnicity we will unite and support each other, so we can put an end being used as pawns.
More thoughts from what we're supposed to call migrant workers are more than welcome.


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Robert said...

This is not about immigrant workers is it, this is about employers employing people from another country to do a whole contract, and lets be honest you have to ask your self how the hell can this happen. when I worked away from home I was paid almost double I had traveling time, I had to have my hotel or B&B paid , I had a long week end every three weeks, so how come it's cheaper to employ people from Italy are the Italians working better do they know the job better I doubt it so it has to be something. Is the Italian government involved by perhaps paying money to the sub contractor to take some people from unemployment , I do not know but something stinks.

as for New Labour , what can you say, you have a leader who will steal policies steal words, perhaps it's time for him to spend some time on the dole.

Jim Jay said...

a. what's wrong with asking migrant workers what they think about a strike that has used the slogan 'British jobs for British workers' (and similar) throughout what they think? My friends seemed to have something to say to me.

b. It isn't cheaper. The company didn't win the contract simply on the basis of how cheap they were. These workers are part of the existing workforce of the company.

c. Gordon Brown is not my leader.

ModernityBlog said...

indeed Jim,

what if it were in Milan and they started saying to "Italian jobs for Italian workers"?

I'd like to hear from the Italian and Portuguese workers, they seem to have been ignored in this dispute and that's wrong