#InternationalMigrantsDay 2016: Solidarity with Undocumented Workers
Tanya Warlock is a Policy & Campaigns Support Officer in the TUC’s European Union & International Relations Department. Before that she was the Project Worker for the TUC’s Local Migration Messaging Project, working in Corby, Manchester and Southampton, campaigning to convey positive messages around migration in the lead up the General Election.
All too often undocumented workers suffer the humiliating and degrading experience of being excluded from society, on top of inhumane working conditions because the law doesn’t provide protections for their rights at work. The truth is, all workers have rights, including undocumented migrant workers because workers’ rights are human rights. Trade unions here in the UK and across Europe are fighting for these rights to be enforceable.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has launched a report highlighting the urgent need for action by governments and the EU to protect workers’ rights regardless of workers’ status. This is needed to combat issues restrictive and discriminatory policies that the more than 3 million undocumented workers in Europe face, whilst ensuring undocumented workers are afforded the same fundamental rights as all EU nationals.
The report stresses the importance of trade union collective organising as one of the main ways to empower undocumented workers and prevent exploitation, along with the establishment of effective complaints mechanisms and regulations to ensure labour rights are upheld for everyone. It includes campaigns and activities by trade unions across Europe.
For example, in Ireland the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and its biggest affiliate SIPTU supports the Justice for Undocumented campaign. SIPTU has been working with the Migrant Rights Centre in Ireland, which aims to advance the rights of all migrant workers and their families.
Jayson Montenegro from the Philippines said in the report that he found support from Irish trade unions:
“At the moment I am one of the founder leaders in the campaign for Justice for undocumented Ireland. We started with six people, and now we have 1,500 members and 50 allies including great support from the trade union SIPTU. It makes a big difference to the group, and gives us courage to stand up and continue to fight for the rights of others. Our group believes that SIPTU is good, and that you can depend on trade unions for workers’ rights.”
In the UK undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable as they have almost no ability to claim rights at work as they have no legal status in the country. The 2015 Immigration Act made increased their vulnerability by making undocumented working a criminal offence. This has driven undercutting, as bad employers are able to force undocumented workers to accept lower pay and worse conditions than other workers by threatening to report them to the border authorities if they complain. This was what happened in the case of Byron Burgers earlier this year.
A report by the Equality Human Rights Commission on employment practices in the UK’s cleaning sector says that insecure immigration status is being used by employers to force migrants to accept exploitative conditions. It is estimated that there is a higher proportion of workers paid the minimum wage in tourism, hospitality and leisure than in any other sector. Many of these workers are bullied or discriminated against, experience problems getting paid, have excessive workloads, and are not treated with dignity or respect.
Trade unions are working to organise undocumented workers into unions so that they can stand up with workers that have regular status and demand better treatment. For example, when Byron Burgers aided UKBA’s swoop on their workplace to target undocumented migrants – some of whom had been union members involved in campaigns for better conditions at work - Unite the Union brought undocumented workers together with those with legal status to demand better treatment.
Preventing bad employers from using undocumented workers to undercut other workers is necessary to ensure all workers are decently treated. Together with our sister unions in Europe, the TUC and our affiliated unions will continue to find ways to organise migrant workers in order to tackle the exploitation these groups disproportionately face at work while calling for governments to recognise and enforce all workers’ fundamental rights at work.