Relationship between ICT workers and trade unions

Even in sectors with a strong trade union presence, such as financial services, telecommunications and retail trade, most workers dealing with information and communication technologies (ICT) in Portugal – such as clerks and call centre operators – are not or have no desire to be union members. This is a finding of research into such workers, which argues that new and all-inclusive collective bargaining practices covering all types of employment contracts would be desirable for these workers.

One of the most important challenges for trade unions today is, arguably, the growth of several different forms of flexible and precarious employment within the context of the growing spread of information and communication technologies (ICT).

A survey carried out between 2000 and 2004 in the financial services, telecommunications and retail trade sectors examined the relationship between workers dealing with ICT and trade unions, as well as examining matters such as work-life balance (on this issue, see also PT0601NU04).

Profile of survey respondents

The characteristics of most ICT employees in finance, telecommunications and retail trade are far from the characteristics of those who originally started the trade union movement, who were typically male employees in large companies with open-ended employment contracts. In fact, only 36.6% of the surveyed workers had open-ended employment contracts, while 32.5% had fixed-term contracts and 8.9% worked for temporary work agencies. Most of the workers surveyed were women (61.4%) and worked as clerks in the retail trade sector (37.6%) or in call centres in the financial services and telecommunications sectors (25.6%). In terms of education, 48.4% of these workers had a higher education, 37% had a secondary education and 9.8% had only completed compulsory education – lasting nine years – or less. Most of the respondents worked full time (78.9%), with 14.2% of them working part time.

Priority issues for trade unions

In terms of workers’ attitudes towards their present job, the survey found that insecurity was mentioned by almost one third of the respondents (32.9%), who stated that they were afraid of losing their present job. Only 15% of respondents expected that they would remain with their present employer for at least the next three years. Nevertheless, when respondents were asked to identify and rank a number of possible priorities for trade union action, an improvement in job quality or combating precariousness came only in fourth place in the ranking of priorities – although in third place in terms of the number of respondents identifying it as a priority (see Table).

Priority issues for trade union action identified by survey respondents
Priorities 1st (3 points) 2nd (2 points) 3rd (1 point) Total no. of answers Mean value weighted on a scale from 1 to 3
Pay increases 69 43 38 150 2.21
Job creation 49 40 30 19 2.16
Equal opportunities for men and women 21 19 14 54 2.13
Job quality improvement 49 38 42 129 2.05
Work–life balance 33 20 35 88 1.98
Maintenance of existing jobs 15 15 19 49 1.92
Working conditions improvement 34 50 49 133 1.89
Working time reduction 14 29 25 68 1.84
Training opportunities 22 19 36 77 1.82

Source: Cerdeira, 2005

According to the workers surveyed, pay rises, job creation and equal opportunities for men and women are the three most important priorities that should concern trade unions.

Low membership of trade unions

Trade unions did not feature in the working life of the vast majority of survey respondents. Only 6.9% of the workers were members of a trade union and a further 7.3% wanted to be a member. These figures assume even more importance, if one takes into account that the sectors examined have a strong tradition of trade union intervention. According to trade unions, union density is on average 90% in the financial services sector and about 70% in the telecommunications sector.

According to the author of the research, even in sectors in which trade unions have a strong presence – such as financial services and telecommunications – the unions have difficulties in recruiting workers in ‘precarious’ job situations. Collective bargaining at the level of groups of companies, which occurs in the banking sector, seems to offer more potential in terms of a wider coverage of different types of jobs. Nevertheless, temporary agency workers often seem to be left out. Therefore, it is argued that, the establishment of new and all-inclusive collective bargaining practices, covering all workers in subordinate employment situations, regardless of their type of employment contract, could be particularly important for these workers.


Cerdeira, M.C., ‘Estratégias Sindicais e precariedade do emprego’ [Trade unions strategies and employment precariousness], in Kovács, I. (ed.), Flexibilidade de Emprego – Riscos e oportunidades [Employment flexibility – Risks and opportunities], Oeiras, Celta Editora, 2005.

Jorge Cabrita, CESIS

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