From the TUC

Tackling precarious work & addressing migration concerns

16 Jan 2017, by in International

Last week I spoke at a conference organised by the TUC and Exeter University on ‘Confronting change: Globalization, Migration and Precarious Labour in the Age of Brexit.’ This is a summary of my speech.

As conditions have become more insecure for workers since 2006 – a recent TUC report showed 1 in 10 workers are now in some form of precarious employment – we have also seen concern about migration grow.

TUC research conducted in 2014 revealed one of the key drivers of concern about migration was linked with undercutting and lowering terms and conditions at work. Unions also frequently heard this concern from workers on the campaign trail in the run up to the EU referendum last year.

This concern reflects the fact conditions have got worse for a significant number of workers and we hear – often multiple times a day from media and politicians – that migrants are to blame.

The cause of precarious conditions is not migrants, however. It is primarily the government’s failure to adequately regulate the labour market and exploitative employers that have resulted in more people facing insecurity at work.


The UK has one of the lowest levels of legal protections for workers in the developed world.

We have expressed concern that a number of employers are taking advantage of this environment by employing people on precarious contracts where workers have no certainty about their hours or income.

We know some bad employers have used the lack of regulation to use vulnerable workers to undercut other workers.

Loopholes in agency regulations mean employers can pay them less than other workers and fire them without any notice period. Self-employed workers, meanwhile, have no rights to a minimum wage, holiday or sick pay.

The legal protections workers do have, meanwhile, are often weakly enforced. To take one example, there are just 67 inspectors working for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority to cover all parts of the economy in all parts of the country.

Not just migrants being exploited

Although we know that migrants are particularly vulnerable to being exploited and used by bad employers to undercut other workers, they are by no means the only group being used in this way.

A number of groups of other workers’ circumstances mean they are more likely to be employed on precarious contracts where they are at a higher risk of exploitation – such as workers with caring responsibilities who are more likely to only be able to work certain hours.

Even without migrants, in an environment where regulations are low and workers lack power, exploitation will continue.

Trade union approaches to migration

Trade unions stand to represent and defend workers from all countries and backgrounds.

Unless workers stand together in unions to demand decent treatment, they can be divided by employers which only makes conditions worse for all.

The TUC released a report last summer putting forward proposals on migration that call for stronger regulations to prevent precarious employment and undercutting.

In forthcoming Brexit negotiations, the TUC is calling for the government to not make workers more vulnerable by ensuring the UK applies both present and future EU laws that protect workers.

We are calling  for the government to provide considerably more funding for adult education and training so all workers have the opportunities to gain skills to progress at work. We also need increased funding for public services which includes an expanded Migration Impacts Fund.

And it is critical that employers negotiate with trade unions to provide decent conditions for all workers.

Building workplace power

Only 16% of the private sector is covered by collective agreements in contrast to over 60% of the public sector.

This is why a key focus of the TUC’s work on migration has involved developing resources to support trade unions to organise local and migrant workers together and demand employers negotiate with them for better conditions.

To support union organisers, the TUC has developed the ‘Working in the UK’ guide to employment rights and how to join a union in 21 languages.

We have also developed an online educational resource for trade union members who have concerns about migration.

This resource features examples of successful trade union campaigns that have involved migrant and local workers, such as Unison’s campaign for the living wage at a London university.

This shows that migrant workers are not a threat but are often among the leading trade union activists challenging exploitation – understandable as they are frequently on the sharp end of it.  This has been true throughout trade union history. Just think of 19th century Irish dockers striking against poverty pay and precarious work or the South Asian women striking against exploitation at Grunwick photo processing plant in the 70s.

Influencing public debate

Highlighting examples of trade union activism that have brought migrant and local workers together to combat exploitation is important for building public support for our campaigns.

Anti-migration narratives have become normalised and popular because they are forcefully and emotionally expressed frequently in the media and political speech.

In response to messages of fear and division, our campaigns are hopefuly promoting decent work for all and solidarity. To have an impact we need to communicate these messages with similar frequency and on multiple levels: in the workplace, in the community with partner organisations in the voluntary sector, regionally and nationally.

This builds pressure on employers and government to act to provide workers with a say over their treatment and pay and rights at work.  Such actions are needed to address concerns about precarious work and migration.