UK and Portugal: Trade union confederations sign agreement on migrant workers

In August 2014, the British and Portuguese trade union confederations, the TUC and CGTP-IN, signed a cooperation protocol to ensure that Portuguese and Portuguese-speaking migrant workers in the UK can join unions and enforce their rights at work. The new agreement is intended to prevent exploitation of migrants and undercutting of existing workers’ wages.

On 28 August 2014, the general secretaries of the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers (CGTP-IN ) signed a cooperation protocol (243 MB PDF) to ensure that Portuguese and Portuguese-speaking migrant workers in the UK can join unions and enforce their rights at work. The protocol reaffirms the commitment of unions in the UK and Portugal to work together, in association with the Portuguese-speaking community in the UK, to organise migrant workers and prevent their exploitation and the undercutting of existing workers’ wages. The new protocol covers both migrants from Portugal and Portuguese speakers from non-European countries, such as Angola and Brazil, who are working in the UK.

Background

According to CGTP-IN, nearly 300,000 workers emigrated from Portugal in the three years to 2014, mainly because of high unemployment and lack of job opportunities. Many came to the UK and particularly to London where there is a large Portuguese community. According to the Centre for Emigration, around 30,000 Portuguese workers emigrated from Portugal to the UK in 2014 alone (in Portuguese). UK census data cited by the TUC indicates that the number of Portuguese-born people living in the UK has more than doubled during the past decade to over 88,000.

The UK's Portuguese communities are mostly concentrated in London, the east of England (particularly Norfolk), the south coast and the Channel Islands, but communities are growing in other parts of the country. According to the two union confederations, the majority work in hotels, catering, restaurants, hospitals, cleaning services, bakeries, agriculture and food processing. However, in recent years, as a result of austerity and high unemployment in Portugal, thousands of skilled and highly skilled Portuguese workers have also migrated to the UK, especially nurses, doctors and other professionals. A growing number of immigrants are going to the UK from other Portuguese-speaking countries like Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique.

The protocol emphasises that CGTP-IN has a long tradition of supporting Portuguese migrant workers’ communities throughout the world, particularly in Europe. CGTP-IN is in favour of Portuguese workers joining host country trade unions and has already signed similar protocols with national trade union centres and unions from Angola, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland.

For its part, the TUC believes that:

workers without rights, in a precarious situation [and] who are not members of a trade union are vulnerable to exploitation and being used to undermine existing terms and conditions . . . it is important for vulnerable workers to be part of the trade union movement which campaigns to defend the rights of all workers.

The protocol also seeks to counter the spread of ‘racist and xenophobic messages [aimed at] dividing communities by encouraging discrimination against migrant workers and ethnic minorities’. The two signatory organisations state that:

It is therefore very timely to fight both against those worrying developments occurring in our democratic societies and to help integrate harmoniously the migrant workers and ethnic minorities into our societies while encouraging diversity.

Main provisions of the joint agreement

In the protocol, CGTP-IN and the TUC state that, as fellow members of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), they will develop their cooperation in a number of key areas.

In terms of supporting Portuguese-speaking workers in the UK, the two organisations committed themselves to:

  • encouraging union membership and organisation among Portuguese-speaking workers; 
  • providing trade union information and training to Portuguese nationals and nationals from other Portuguese-speaking countries in the UK, particularly by informing them of their rights, and the importance of having proper employment status and of joining a union.

The information and training work will be developed by representatives from UK union organisations in consultation with CGTP-IN and representatives from the Portuguese-speaking communities and associations in the UK.

Materials will be produced in Portuguese and English on issues such as employment rights in the UK, the role of and importance of joining unions, and social welfare provision. CGTP-IN will translate these materials into Portuguese free of charge, including any union-specific recruitment material. An example of this is the translation into Portuguese of the TUC's online guide, 'Working in UK: a guide to your rights' as Trabalhar no Reino Unido: um guia para os seus direitos. This provides information about labour rights and employment status, pay, hours of work and holidays, rights for expecting and new parents, health and safety at work, dealing with grievances and problems at work, agency work and how to join unions.

The protocol also covers the position of UK trade unionists working in Portugal. It provides that CGTP-IN and its affiliates will ensure trade union support is provided to UK workers in Portugal who are members of TUC-affiliated unions.

CGTP-IN and TUC are to assess and monitor the implementation of this protocol on an annual basis.

Reaction to the agreement

Commenting on the joint agreement, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

This new cooperation between unions across borders will benefit everyone except bad employers and lousy landlords. It will help protect Portuguese arrivals from mistreatment, and make it difficult for employers who rely upon individuals’ lack of experience to pay them less than the rate for the job.

CGTP-IN General Secretary Arménio Carlos said:

The neo-liberal policies of the EU and most of its governments are causing a severe recession in Portugal and provoking mass unemployment. As a result the country is experiencing massive emigration – nearly 300,000 workers have left in the last three years alone. We are now talking of a very different type of immigrant – young and highly skilled. However they are still, in most cases, doing low-paid jobs in the UK and other countries. We hope that this protocol will help Portuguese migrants to understand their rights so that they do not fall to prey to exploitative employers trying to employ them on exploitative terms and poverty pay.

According to Fernando Mauricio of the international department of CGTP-IN, the new elements of the agreement, compared with previous versions, are the extension of the agreement to cover Portuguese speakers from non-European countries and the recognition of the recent significant increases in the number of Portuguese migrant workers in the UK, including highly skilled workers.

Commentary

Cooperation between UK and Portuguese unions to assist Portuguese migrant workers in the UK is long-standing. The earliest such agreement between the TUC and CGTP-IN dates from 2001. This paved the way for activities in the UK such as:

  • advice surgeries;
  • leaflets in Portuguese on labour and social rights in the UK, on the role of unions and the importance union membership;
  • cultural events for Portuguese workers.

The recent increases in the number of Portuguese migrant workers in the UK, driven by austerity, unemployment and the degradation of labour conditions in Portugal, together with the increase of migration from other Portuguese-speaking countries, has increased the need for the sort of steps outlined by the latest protocol. The aim is for UK unions to recruit and represent Portuguese-speaking migrant workers, advise them on their employment status and statutory rights, prevent their exploitation and, in doing so, protect established wages and conditions from being undercut.

The TUC and CGTP-IN held a meeting in London on 17 March 2015 with the main TUC-affiliated unions that organise the sectors and occupations in which most Portuguese speaking-migrants work. The meeting was part of preparations for a conference, supported by the two trade union confederations, to promote the protocol, enhance existing links between Portuguese (and Spanish) speaking workers and trade unions, support new organising efforts, and raise awareness of the TUC’s online guidance for migrant workers and their rights at work.

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