Trade unions support social inclusion of immigrants

In 2002, Portuguese trade unions are increasingly focusing their attention on the issue of non-EU immigrant workers. As well as helping to legalise the situation of immigrants and participating in the legislative process and various public forums, the unions have also taken a number of initiatives to help improve social integration and assist immigrants. They are also calling for changes to immigration and integration policy.

According to data from the state Foreigners and Borders Department (Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras, SEF), there are currently about 389,000 legal immigrants from outside the EU in Portugal, representing about 3% of the Portuguese population (PT0006199F). There are three main types of immigrant workers in Portugal:

  • individual immigrants from Brazil and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa (Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa, PALOPs);
  • friends and relatives of immigrants already in Portugal, also mainly from Brazil and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa; and
  • immigrants from central and eastern European countries.

In sectoral terms, there is a concentration of immigrant workers from the Ukraine, Brazil, Moldavia and Cape Verde in the construction, commerce, hotels and catering and agricultural sectors.

Trade union initiatives

The Portuguese trade union movement has taken an active role in the promoting the integration of immigrants in work and employment, in the following main ways:

  • in campaigns connected with the special 'legalisation' processes for immigrant workers that have taken place in Portugal recently (PT0103138N);
  • through privileged participation, as a social partner, in the legislative process that culminated in the amendments of January 2001 (PT0101131F) to the law regulating the entry, departure and residence of foreign citizens;
  • in efforts to achieve equal opportunities and employment rights, which resulted in Law No.134/99 of 28 August 1999 – the 'labour law for foreigners'– which establishes wholly equal rights in work and employment between Portuguese and foreign nationals;
  • by supporting the social integration of immigrants;
  • through their presence in institutions with specific responsibilities for these issues, particularly the Consultative Board for Immigration Affairs (Conselho Consultivo para a Imigração, COCAI) and the Racial Equality and Anti-discrimination Commission (Comissão para a Igualdade Racial e Anti-discriminação), and also by maintaining the privileged relationship that the unions, as social partners, enjoy with public administrative bodies;
  • by links with trade union confederations in the immigrant workers' home countries; and
  • through initiatives such as the creation in May 2002 by the Civil Construction Workers' Union for the North and Viseu (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores da Construção Civil do Norte e Viseu) of a 'house of the immigrant worker' in Gaia, aimed at creating a space for socialising, leisure and learning Portuguese.

Legislative advances have contributed to the more effective protection of immigrant workers, although there are problems in the practical application of the legislation in force. According to the unions, this is due to problems of inspection, the ineffectiveness of the Portuguese system of sanctions for breaches of labour law, and the difficulty of applying the fines and penalties which are set out in law. It is also seen as a result of the lack of a system of responsibility and solidarity covering all employers in the subcontracting chain, and the sluggishness of litigation.

The unions claim that there are many employers and employers' associations that have supported the legalisation of immigrant workers, but also many others that have opposed it, as they do not want to relinquish situations of exploitation. This opposition allegedly includes a refusal to regularise employment contracts and threats that the pursuit of legalisation by an illegal immigrant could lead to expulsion from the country. Law 4/2001, the 2001 legislation that at present covers immigration, is seen as representing an important step towards more appropriate management of migratory movements.

Trade union demands

The General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) has been organising congresses and seminars (eg in 1999 and 2000) on Portuguese immigration policy, and has issued guides to supporting action by immigrant workers (as in 2001) and other types of publications for union officials, immigrant workers and the general public. It also calls for the unionisation of immigrants.

The priorities in this area of the General Workers' Union (União Geral dos Trabalhadores, UGT) are:

  • combating immigrant labour exploitation networks and resisting subcontractors which operate illegally, holding them responsible for their practices and forcing them to come forward and join the legal labour market;
  • establishing alternative channels for legal immigration, by means of a clear, participative immigration policy that promotes legal immigration, something which can only happen with the effective control of immigration flows. The immigration procedures in operation at present include simultaneously regularising the labour situation of immigrants and drafting an annual government report that makes an assessment of existing needs in the labour market. For the UGT, it is not immigration quotas that should be laid down, but rather overall needs, with the competent bodies being responsible for forward-looking national human resources management; and
  • further bilateral agreements between states, as part of a policy of cooperation and partnership. It should be noted that, though certain agreements between Portugal and other European countries – eg Romania and the Russian Federation – exist, they are not operating in practice.

According to the unions, Portugal should draw up:

  • an integration policy that includes the insertion of anti-discrimination clauses in collective agreements and the defence of workers' interests (in line with international cooperation agreements between trade union organisations);
  • a consistent immigration policy, which brings real access to basic services, such as immigrant housing (notably in run-down neighbourhoods in the fringe areas of Lisbon), health, education – in particular essential language teaching – and social protection. Family reunification, which represents one of the principal immigration routes and is a factor in integration, is guaranteed in Portuguese legislation, but it is seen as necessary to establish exact criteria for third-country nationals to be able to be reunited with members of their immediate family; and
  • development aid for developing countries and economic cooperation relationships should increasingly include an immigration policy with a human dimension that contributes to the development of the home countries.

Union action related to immigrant workers, whether on the part of the UGT or CGTP, has so far included support for both unionised and non-unionised workers in areas such as information, legal aid, vocational training and language learning, and social support.


Promoting the integration of immigrant workers is one of the new topics on the trade unions' agenda in Portugal. The immigration issue broadens the scope of their action beyond the company context. (Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)

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