Migrant workers are an important part of the labour force in many contemporary economies. In the UK, it is estimated that 15.2 percent of the labour force were foreign-born migrants in 2013.
Migrant workers in the UK are largely concentrated in low-skilled sectors that involve high levels of exploitation. They constitute the worker group who are in considerable need of collective representation. However, the industrial sectors where they are concentrated have low rates of unionisation.
Given these points, the potential for collective mobilisation among migrant workers in the UK is an issue of considerable importance.
Traditionally migrant workers are often assumed to be less likely to be organised due to several important barriers.
The first barrier relates to the structure of the employment conditions of many migrant workers at the bottom of the labour market. The current phase of migration, dated from around 1990, has occurred in a context of a move to neo-liberal policies in which a laissez-faire state offers little protection to workers, and in which there are weak unions, and fragmented labour markets that open the door for exploitative employment practices.
The second type of barrier relates to the subjectivities that migrant workers may hold. Migrant workers may tend to be more quiescent in accepting low-end of the labour market employment conditions because they compare themselves less with the participants in the UK labour market, and more with their counterparts in their country of origin.
Further, even if mobilization may emerge, there remains a significant barrier to the longer-term sustainability of such mobilization. All these barriers raise an important question: whether can migrant workers be successfully organised?
In a recently published study of a migrant domestic workers self-help group – Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW) – my co-author, Marek Korczynski, and I argue that organising migrant workers is possible, but requires a flat, associational model of organising that is based on participative democracy and collective leadership development, combined with autonomous links to more stable formal organisations.