European Migrant Workers Union founded

In September 2004, Germany's Trade Union for Building, Forestry, Agriculture and the Environment (IG BAU) announced the foundation of a European Migrant Workers Union. The new union addresses posted and seasonal workers in all industries, but in the initial phase will concentrate on migrant workers in construction and agriculture who work for a limited period of time in one or several EU Member States. The aim is to provide those workers with legal assistance and advice, support them in the event of sickness or accident, help them to receive correct payment for work done and promote the provision of better accommodation. The European Migrant Workers Union is thought to be the first such organisation to be formed within the European trade union movement.

On 4 September 2004, Germany's Trade Union for Building, Forestry, Agriculture and the Environment (Industriegewerkschaft Bauen-Agar-Umwelt, IG BAU) announced the foundation of a European Migrant Workers Union (Europäischer Verband der Wanderarbeiter). The aim is to organise migrant workers of all nationalities who work for a limited period of time in one or several Member States of the European Union (other than their own), especially in industries such as construction or agriculture. The European Migrant Workers Union was initiated by IG BAU, which is supporting the new organisation and providing a loan of EUR 1.5 million to cover the costs of the start-up and consolidation period, which is planned to be completed by the end of 2006, when the new union hopes to have organised at least 10,000 migrant workers.

Aims and structure

In the start-up period, the new organisation will concentrate its activities on migrant workers from Poland, who are the largest group amongst the 50,000 or so posted workers and estimated 200,000 seasonal workers from eastern Europe who work with a legal permit for a limited time in Germany (TN0303105S). The European Migrant Workers Union aims to set up offices in all the countries of origin of migrant workers, and the first will be opened in Poland. As most migrant workers are not fluent in German, the trade union aims to address them in their own languages.

The new union provides:

  • legal help and advice in various languages;
  • support in the event of sickness or accident;
  • support to ensure correct levels of pay - ie for workers to receive at least the German collectively agreed minimum wages, as required under the Posted Workers Act (DE0306207T) and to be paid for all hours worked;
  • collective bargaining in order to improve pay and conditions for migrant workers;
  • help to get in contact with German colleagues (language courses);
  • help in finding better accommodation;
  • lobbying in favour of migrant workers; and
  • support for undocumented workers (ie workers without an official work permit and residence status) so that they are able to organise themselves in the trade union's structure.

The new organisation is a registered association under German law. Currently, it must be considered as 'a trade union under construction'.

Although the European Migrant Workers Union is formally independent from IG BAU, during the start-up and consolidation period its executive council is composed of members of the IG BAU executive. The chair of the new union is Klaus Wiesehügel, who also chairs IG BAU. The members of the executive are unsalaried. The union will initially have two full-time staff: a general secretary and an assistant. The first general secretary will be Matthias Kirchner, a former full-time area official of IG BAU, and the organisation assistant will be Agnes Jarzyna. The staff is planned to be increased as the union grows.

The internal structure of the new union differs in many respects from traditional trade union rules and reflects the specific situation of a 'union under construction'. Its rule book distinguishes between:

  • full membership (with entitlement to vote);
  • associated organisations; and
  • non-voting members (Fördermitglieder).

During the start-up phase of the union, full membership (ie including the entitlement to vote) is limited to the founding members who legally set up the union. All are leading officials of IG BAU. Only these founding members decide who will be admitted to full membership. Only those who have proven in the past that they actively support the aims of the union can apply for such membership. The founding members of the union also decide on applications for association by other organisations.

Associated organisations may be trade unions or other organisations that support migrant workers. They may be based in Germany or in other countries. These associated organisations pay a membership fee according to their membership size and will be granted a certain number of votes in the organisation. The first organisation to be associated is IG BAU.

Finally, 'non-voting' membership is open to anyone who supports the aims of the union. Such members have the right to submit proposals and are entitled to be informed about the union's activities and expenditures. Those who are migrant workers are entitled to the services of the new union. Becoming a non-voting member will be the most common way for migrant workers to join the union. They will have to pay an entry fee of EUR 15 and then a monthly contribution of EUR 12.

This closed structure for the European Migrant Workers Union, which deviates from the common standards of trade union democracy, was deliberately chosen to allow for controlled construction and consolidation of the new organisation. However, the current organisational structure is meant to be transitional and it is planned that IG BAU officials will subsequently withdraw from the executive as the new union progresses in building up broader support and membership.

Besides the two full-time officials, the new union is to be assisted by area organisers from IG BAU, who will help to promote the trade union when visiting construction sites. Furthermore, it will seek voluntary assistance, in particular from bilingual IG BAU members. Cooperations with other institutions and organisations that address migrant workers are planned.


The foundation of the European Migrant Workers Union does not result from an initiative by migrant workers but is the outcome of a discussion process within IG BAU. This discussion process has been influenced both by a campaign conducted by the trade union, entitled 'There must be rules' (Ohne Regeln geht es nicht), and by a survey among migrant workers in the construction industry.

Controversial campaign

The IG BAU campaign 'There must be rules' is aimed at the enforcement of collectively agreed pay rates in the construction industry, and also targets undeclared work . In 2004, IG BAU intensified the campaign and set up a telephone and e-mail hotline to enable the public to report any undeclared work observed on construction sites (DE0406201T). Any relevant tip-offs were to be passed on to the prosecuting authorities. This hotline attracted some criticism from outside and within the union. Internal critics argued not only that this initiative would be rather ineffective because employers that exploit workers by not paying proper wage rates and not paying tax or making social security contributions are rarely prosecuted, but also that it would hit undocumented workers - already the most vulnerable group in the labour market - hardest and that the hotline would encourage denunciations and foster racist resentment. Despite this criticism the campaign, which is regarded by the union as a defence of collectively agreed and legal minimum standards, will continue. However, with the foundation of the European Migrant Workers Union, IG BAU is underlining that it aims to tackle employers and not employees.

Survey among migrant workers

In February and March 2004, a polling institute was commissioned by IG BAU to contact more than 50 construction sites in the Rhine-Main area. Interviewers conducted about 150 interviews with posted workers from Poland, the former Yugoslavia and Romania.

Only a small minority of the interviewed workers were familiar with IG BAU. The tasks and services of German trade unions were completely unknown. Only 10% of respondents were or had been members of a trade union within the last five years in their country of origin.

More than two-thirds of the interviewees were aged between 30 and 50, and 80% were married. Some 77% were skilled workers with an occupation related to the construction industry. Around 32% of respondents had worked for less than three months in Germany, 32% for between three and 12 months and 31% for one year or more. Many of the interviewed workers indicated that they had previously worked in Germany, as well as in other countries.

The average effective working time of respondents was 190 hours a month. Some 18% of respondents said that they were not paid for all hours worked and a further 9% did not know if this was the case. Levels of pay varied considerably - see table 1 below - but were far above the average income that construction workers receive in eastern European countries. According to IG BAU estimates, the average monthly pay of a construction worker is about EUR 200 in Poland or Croatia and about EUR 100 in Romania and Serbia.

Table 1. Posted workers' reported monthly income after deductions, at current workplace
below EUR 1,000 13%
EUR 1,000-1,400 33%
EUR 1,400-1,800 30%
EUR 1,800 and more 20%
No answer 5%

Source: IG BAU/Polis, Werkvertragsarbeitnehmer in Deutschland. Ergebnisse einer empirischen Studie im Auftrag der IG BAU, Munich 16 April 2004.

The interviewees were asked what they expected from an organisation that looked after migrant workers with a temporary job abroad - see table 2 below for the responses.

Table 2. Posted workers' expectations of an organisation that looks after workers with a temporary job abroad (%)
Task Agree Disagree No answer
It should be committed to my rights 82% 9% 10%
It should represent my interests 79% 9% 13%
It should fight for higher wages 78% 13% 9%
It should ensure more safety at work 74% 15% 12%
It should ensure better working conditions 70% 18% 12%
It should be committed to more justice 69% 21% 10%

Source: IG BAU/Polis, Werkvertragsarbeitnehmer in Deutschland. Ergebnisse einer empirischen Studie im Auftrag der IG BAU, Munich 16 April 2004.

Furthermore, respondents were asked how important they would consider a number of services that a migrant workers' union might provide - see table 3 below for their responses.

Table 3. Importance attached by posted workers to services that might be provided by an organisation for workers with a temporary job abroad (%)
Services Important Not important No answer
Assistance in the event of sickness 85% 13% 1%
Insurance at reasonable prices 79% 18% 3%
Advice in the event of conflicts at work 78% 20% 2%
Legal help 76% 21% 3%
Information on my rights and working conditions in my language 75% 23% 2%
Enforcing payment for all my hours worked 75% 25% 1%
Providing a telephone link to a contact person in my home country 68% 30% 3%
Advice in advance of concluding a work contract 68% 30% 3%
Achieving a general minimum wage for construction workers 66% 32% 2%
Achieving better working conditions 66% 32% 2%
Offering language courses 66% 34% 1%
Improvement of health and safety on the building site 64% 33% 3%
Establishing better contacts with German colleagues 64% 33% 3%
Achieving better standards of accommodation 62% 36% 1%
Strike pay in the event of industrial action 51% 46% 3%
Assemblies on the building site conducted in my language 48% 49% 3%
Organising information exchange between posted workers of different nationalities 46% 49% 5%

Note: percentages may add up to more than 100% due to rounding.

Source: IG BAU/Polis, Werkvertragsarbeitnehmer in Deutschland. Ergebnisse einer empirischen Studie im Auftrag der IG BAU, Munich 16 April 2004.

Asked whether they could imagine becoming a member of an organisation that would take up those issues they had identified as being important (see table 3), 54% of those interviewed replied in the affirmative, 17% said that they would not join and 29% did not know. This finding encouraged IG BAU to think about a new organisation for migrant workers.

The gender aspect

As the new trade union primarily targets the construction sector during its start-up phase, the workers addressed are expected to be mostly men. However, if the European Migrant Workers Union proves to be a success and manages, as it is intended, to expand to other sectors such as agriculture and hotels/catering, a more female workforce will be addressed. Other sectors in which many migrant women are to be found are cleaning services and healthcare. However, as the latter sectors are often connected with domestic services and workers in these sectors are often employed on a private basis, it may be more difficult for a migrant workers' union to reach them.


The foundation of the European Migrant Workers Union is a first for the German trade union movement, and indeed within the European trade union movement. For the first time, a German union is seeking to build up a trade union that is designed specifically to address migrant workers. Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable in the labour market and often know neither their rights nor the proper rates of pay to which they are entitled. Their situation is further complicated by the fact that they often do not speak the language of the country where they work.

Especially complicated is the situation for migrant workers in construction. Here the relationship between German workers and migrant workers is far from being relaxed, as quite a few German construction workers regard their migrant colleagues as competitors who are employed to undercut the existing rates of pay and ultimately threaten their jobs in the industry. The foundation of the European Migrant Workers Union will certainly not remove all these existing tensions but must be regarded as a genuine trade union means of approaching both the situation of migrant workers and tackling the competition between different groups of workers.

Whether the new union will be a success remains to be seen, but IG BAU has made a very remarkable first move that may set an example for other European trade unions to follow, or lead to them becoming cooperating partners or even associated members of the European Migrant Workers Union. (Heiner Dribbusch, Institute for Economic and Social Research, WSI)

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