Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poles flock to join UK Trade Unions

Duncan Campbell in the Guardian:

More than 200,000 Poles have registered to work in Britain since the EU expanded, and the actual number now working here is thought to be much higher. Many have found that employers try to pay them lower wages than British workers and take advantage of their ignorance of employment laws. Now unions, particularly those that recruit from the catering, security and building trades, are reporting a sudden growth in membership and involvement.

"This is very significant for the trade-union movement," says Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary. "It's not enough any more to think only about traditional workplace organising. We have to see what unions can do to reach out to vulnerable workers and find out how well they get their rights enforced."

............"People have a feeling of being lost when they arrive," said Paulina Tomasik, the 24-year-old secretary of the new Polish-speaking GMB branch in Southampton. Ms Tomasik, who moved to Britain from Radom, sees the union as playing a crucial role in helping Poles adjust to life in Britain: "It's not easy when you don't have a place to live and you don't speak the language very well. Some agency workers are paid £120 a week and then told they have to pay £80 in rent. When one person objected to this he was sacked by text message."

Many Polish workers in the catering trade are also realising that they can easily be taken advantage of. One Polish waiter in Southampton recounted how his management took a percentage from all the tips paid by credit card and were refusing to pay them extra for working Christmas Day or bank holidays.

Ross Murdoch, a GMB project coordinator, said that when a public meeting for Polish workers was held a few weeks ago in Southampton, "we were expecting around 20 to come and were amazed when 130 arrived". The Polish branch was swiftly formed and similar projects are planned for Swindon, Slough and Brighton, where there are large pockets of Polish workers.

The experience has been mirrored around Britain. Groups in Bristol, London and East Anglia have contacted unions for advice and help. In Glasgow the Transport and General Workers' Union set up a Polish branch after holding a meeting attended by 150 Polish workers. "We have recruited several thousand into the union nationally," said Andrew Brady of the T&G in Glasgow. He described the influx of Poles into the union movement as "a shot in the arm".

Links have also been established with Polish unions, and the North West TUC brought over a national organiser from Solidarnosc to give advice on employment rights. The TUC now attends job fairs in Warsaw, and many unions have Polish-language websites and application forms. Discussions are also under way about whether to allow Poles to join unions before they arrive in Britain and pay dues when they have started work.

This is a very welcome development - it should end exploitation. Solidarity between indigenous workers and Poles will make the work playing field level. I hope these Poles will vote Labour too in local and EU elections (they arn't eligible to vote in general elections) - after all they owe the Labour government a debt of gratitude for letting them in, in the teeth of prejudice from the opposition.


Anonymous said...

Cheap labour from Eastern Europe is one of the key things underpinning Brown's "economic miracle" (the others are the sound finances he inherited, cheap goods from China and good luck generally) of low consumer price inflation and rampant house/land price inflation.

If the report is true, the first wave of cheap labour won't be cheap much longer (and why should it be? a fair's work for a fair day's pay and all that) so if this trick is to be sustained, the borders of the EU wil have to be rolled back as far as the Urals over the next ten years or so.

Danivon said...

Yeah, good luck tends to last 10 years in politics doesn't it?

People were clearly so happy about the state of the economy in 1997 that they decided to reward the sitting government? No? Wonder why? Perhaps it was something to do with the years 1989 - 1993, when things were far from rosy, and it took longer just to recover.

Of course, the cheap Polish labour only arrived in the last couple of years, so what hocus pocus was Brown up to for the preceding 8 years?

Anonymous said...

Danivon, the first four years Brown had inherited a reasonably sound economy (already four years into an upturn by your own admission), stuck to Tory tax and spending plans (which Ken Clarke later admitted he would not have taken seriously) and made good inroads into paying off National Debt. Brown was enthusiastically re-elected in 2001 by e.g. yours truly.

The next four years he was coasting and fiddling and yours truly decided never to vote for him again.

His number will be up sooner or later. And we'll all foot the bill.

Anonymous said...

As Mark says when the Poles are unionised, raise their demands they will become less attractive to tightfisted employers. This is a shortcut for skilling our own British workforce and investing in decent apprenticeships and training. When the Poles go, we'll be left with an ailing British labour force.

I'm all for unionising migrant workers, but let us not pretend that what's happening is sustainable both politically and economically.