Trade union strategies to recruit new groups of workers – Cyprus

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Social partners,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Published on: 13 May 2010

Eva Soumeli

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

Although Cyprus has seen a steady decrease in trade union density since 1990, the issue of trade union membership among new categories of workers does not appear to be an immediate priority for the trade union movement, at least not in the form of a concerted and coordinated effort. The consensus is that it is difficult for the trade union movement to organise either specific sectors of economic activity or specific categories of workers.

1. Trade union membership and density rates: data and research

1.1 Please provide trade union membership and union density rates since 1990 (1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2007).

Although in Cyprus the rate of trade union density remains at relatively high levels compared to European averages, since 1990 there has been a gradual decline of over 18 percentage points: specifically, the rate of union density fell from 76.16% in 1990 to 58.06% in 2006. Based on the available statistics (Tables 1 and 2) provided by the Trade Union Registrar at the Department of Labour Relations (Τμήμα Εργασιακών Σχέσεων) in the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance (Υπουργείου Εργασίας και Κοινωνικών Ασφαλίσεων, MLSI), the decrease in the rate of union density is a result of the large increase in the number of non-union members in relation to the number of union members. In the same period, the total number of trade union members showed a steady and substantial increase of around 35%; however, the increase in non-union members was around 350%. It should be noted that these data refer exclusively to paid employment and do not take into account other categories of workers such as self-employed persons.

Table 1: Trade Union Registrar data

Employees registered with Social Insurance Fund (TKA)

Change in absolute numbers

Annual rate of change

Union members

Change in absolute numbers

Annual rate of change

% registered with TKA who are union members

Non-union members

Annual rate of change



















































Source: MLSI

Table 2: Number of trade union members
  1990 1995 2000 2005 2006


















Note: See below for the full names of the three trade union organisations under study.

Source: MLSI

1.2 Please indicate the presence and content of recent studies (since 2000) on trade union membership of particular groups of workers, such as women, young people, migrants, white-collar workers, service workers, workers with ‘atypical’ contractual arrangements, and/or other groups of workers which are relatively less represented in trade union membership in your country.

The steadily declining rate of trade union density is largely due to a decrease in employment in sectors of the economy with a long tradition of union membership, and a corresponding increase in employment in sectors where workers are traditionally not organised in unions. Nevertheless, the issue of trade union membership among new categories of workers has not been the subject of a systematic study. As a result, a significant knowledge gap has been identified, both with regard to the characteristics of non-union members or groups with lower rates of union membership and also with regard to the reasons why specific categories of workers either choose not to join a union or cannot join for objective reasons. In this context, the matter has been dealt with only as far as a first reading and processing of the available statistics internally at each separate trade union organisation, for the purpose of identifying categories that could serve as a basic pole of attraction for each organisation.

The only study dealing exclusively with the matter refers to the category of migrants and is entitled Terms and conditions of employment of migrant workers and the role of the trade union movement in the protection of workers’ rights and their integration in the Cypriot labour movement. This study was carried out by the Cyprus Labour Institute (Ινστιτούτο Εργασίας Κύπρου, INEK) in the period from February 2003 until June 2005, with funding from the Research Promotion Foundation (Ίδρυμα Προώθησης Έρευνας, IPE). As regards the content of the study, it first analyses the framework of employment and labour of migrant workers in Cyprus for the purpose of investigating the possibility of their trade union membership and their participation and acceptance in the Cypriot labour movement, as a basic element of their integration and acceptance in society. More broadly, it also investigates the institutional, legal and social framework, as well as policies that tend to marginalise migrant workers, for the purpose of drawing conclusions in order to develop remedial policies for their acceptance and integration on an equal basis in the labour market and more broadly in society.

In relation to trade union membership among migrants, according to the main conclusions of the study, in theory all trade unions agree that membership and representation of migrant workers in the trade union movement is a basic precondition for preventing employers from using them as cheap labour. In practice, however, trade union initiatives to increase union membership among migrants and to further their effective and active participation in the trade union movement are rather limited. In this context, union density among migrant workers – with the exception of specific sectors of economic activity such as the construction industry – is estimated at less than 5%. At the same time, it is apparent that the different approaches of each organisation, mainly difficulties of an ideological nature, make it difficult to undertake joint initiatives.

A second study concerns the category of young workers and is entitled Unemployment, underemployment and flexible employment: a survey on job uncertainty and insecurity of young people in Cyprus. The study, which was completed in October 2004, was conducted by INEK on behalf of the Youth Board of Cyprus. However, with regard to the content of the study, the investigation of the relationship between this specific age/social group and the trade union movement as well as the placement of the problem in the framework of labour relations in Cyprus are regional in nature; as a result, no conclusions can be drawn on the trade union membership of young people.

It should be noted that due to the lack of available information on the matter, this questionnaire was translated into Greek and sent to the organisational secretaries of the three most representative trade union organisations in the private sector – namely, the Democratic Labour Federation of Cyprus (Δημοκρατική Εργατική Ομοσπονδία, DEOK), the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (Παγκύπρια Εργατική Ομοσπονδία, PEO) and the Cyprus Employees Confederation (Συνομοσπονδία Εργαζομένων Κύπρου, SEK) – for an initial processing of the questions. Individual semi-structured interviews were then carried out separately with each organisational secretary, based on the relevant questionnaire. Due to notable differences between the private and public sector in terms of representation, all trade unions that organise public sector entities only – that is, public administration and other government services – were excluded from consideration.

2. Trade union membership: national debates

2.1 Please indicate whether in your country there are ongoing national debates on trade union representation and membership and their recent developments. In particular, you should indicate whether existing discussions address the following topics and illustrate the main actors and positions in such debates, reserving special attention for the views of the trade unions which have engaged in specific organising efforts.

a) Declining trade union membership and/or density

b) Inclusion of women

c) Inclusion of young people

d) Inclusion of migrants

e) Inclusion of workers in specific professional groups

f) Inclusion of workers with particular contractual arrangements, such as part-time workers, temporary agency workers, self-employed people or freelancers

g) Differences across sectors (manufacturing and services, private sector and public sector, large and small enterprises)

h) Differences across regions

i) Any other dimensions (to be specified) which are relevant in your country

The issue of trade union membership, mainly among new categories of workers, has not yet been the subject of public debate at any level, with the exception of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The latter sometimes pose the question of the membership and representation of specific categories of workers in the trade union movement as a basic precondition for improving their terms and conditions of employment, as well as improving their position in society at large. One characteristic example is the NGO Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism (Κίνηση για Ισότητα, Στήριξη, Αντιρατσισμό, KISA), which defends the rights of political refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants.

As regards the dialogue developing within the trade union movement, the discussion almost exclusively refers to trade union membership among migrants, in order to prevent employers from using them as cheap labour. This question is either posed indirectly, for example as part of the discussion being carried out at national level regarding the modernisation of the system of labour relations (CY0602104F, CY0607019I), or directly, as in the case of the hotel industry (CY0704079I, CY0609019I). In relation to this matter, introversion is the main characteristic of the trade union movement, and as a result any discussions and considerations are dealt with inside each separate trade union organisation.

However, as indicated by the answers given by the organisational secretaries of the three trade unions, to a greater or lesser degree a fundamental subject for debate for all three unions is the steadily declining rate of union density, in conjunction with the unions’ inability either to organise specific sectors of economic activity (for example, wholesale and retail trade) or specific categories of workers (for instance, new labour market entrants). In this context – in theory at least – all three organisations focus their interest on the categories of young workers, women and migrants; regarding particularities in the national environment, the category of Turkish Cypriots is also a common focus.

On the jobs front, DEOK and SEK have both posed the question of the alienation of young people from trade unions, as well as the need to find new means and new products to attract new members. In the same context, SEK is of the opinion that the trade union movement’s credibility is going through a period of crisis, largely due to the unions’ inability to focus on questions of a social nature. SEK believes that there is also a need for restructuring the trade union movement itself – through the involvement of women in higher positions, for instance.

3. Trade union initiatives to recruit new groups of workers

3.1 Please provide information on any major organising actions and campaigns (at least three) started by trade unions in your countries, since 2000, either aimed at the general workforce or at specific groups of workers (please include at least two examples of this latter type), such as: women; young workers; migrants; workers in particular sectors; workers in specific professional groups; workers with certain contractual arrangements, such as part-time workers, temporary agency workers, self-employed people or freelancers.

For each initiative, please clearly indicate the:

a) trade union organisations involved

b) reasons which have led to these actions and campaigns

c) target groups (all employees, only certain groups, such as those just mentioned above or others to be specified)

d) strategies used (for instance, direct campaigns and contacts with workers at workplaces, widespread public communication and information campaigns, and web campaigns)

e) focus of such strategies (basically either collective bargaining and interest representation or service provision)

f) level at which they take place (national, local, company)

g) evaluations of the relevant trade unions on: i) the effectiveness of the specific strategies used; and ii) the outcomes in terms of increased membership, cooperation between trade unions, relations across trade unions, and relations with employers, both in the short and in the long term

h) presence and outcomes of official/independent assessments, if present

In the case of all three trade union organisations covered by this questionnaire, specifically DEOK, PEO and SEK, the selection of the initiatives presented here was made by the organisations themselves, guided by the importance that they attach to each one. However, it should be noted that in no case was there an abundance of initiatives, and in some cases all of the actions implemented were included in one initiative. It is also noteworthy that no initiatives involved joint action by more than one trade union organisation at national level. Thus, the initiatives for each trade union organisation will be described separately.


New union in hotels industry

At organisational level, the most important change according to DEOK was the establishment of the Hotels and Tourism Employees Union in 2000, which filled a serious gap in one of the oldest and most important sectors of economic activity in Cyprus, where DEOK had no representation before that time.

Equality and

In order to better represent the interests of women and provide extended services to its female members, as well as to attract new female members, DEOK has operated an Equality and Equal Treatment Department since 2000. The department is administered by a six-member committee consisting of three women and three men. In the framework of its competencies, the Equality and Equal Treatment Department:

  • monitors the implementation of legislation on equality issues and makes complaints to the competent government departments and bodies, or even to European services, in cases of non-compliance. It also investigates complaints involving discrimination, which it forwards to the competent bodies for resolution;
  • introduces measures and implements programmes to promote gender equality, and provides guidance to workers on matters of equal opportunities and discrimination;
  • organises information and training seminars and meetings on matters of equality and equal treatment;
  • publishes and distributes informative literature on matters of equality, equal treatment and non-discrimination.

One particularly important action of the Equality and Equal Treatment Department is the establishment of the Cyprus Gender Equality Observatory in 2003, for which the department has assumed a supervisory role.

With regard to the area of publications in particular, the following are notable.

  • In March 2003, a guide to the new laws was published, in conformity with the European Union acquis communautaire or body of law, including the new legislation on family law. A special brochure regarding women’s rights at work was also published.
  • In February 2004, a guide to equal pay at international as well as national level was published, to serve as a manual for trade union training functionaries and staff of trade union organisations.
  • In March 2007, a special guide to sexual harassment was published, aiming to provide guidance and training for staff of enterprises and trade union organisations as well as functionaries of competent government departments. DEOK also published a special brochure regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment in workplaces.

Attracting foreign nationals

The third and final highlighted DEOK initiative concerns a range of small, isolated actions aiming to attract new members from countries other than Cyprus. A special guide was drawn up and published in seven different languages, outlining the services that DEOK provides to its members and giving information on a range of basic employment rights. A poster about World Day for Decent Work on 7 October 2008 was also printed in English. Regarding the category of Turkish Cypriots in particular, the sectoral collective agreement for the construction industry (CY0807039I) was translated into Turkish, and multiple copies were distributed in workplaces.

None of the above actions has been evaluated for their effectiveness.


New union of service workers

The first organisational change by PEO aiming to attract new categories of workers and integrate them as new members in the trade union movement relates to the creation of the Pancyprian Union of Services Workers (Παγκύπρια Συντεχνία Εργαζομένων στις Υπηρεσίες, PASEY). PASEY was established on 10 December 2002 by unanimous decision of its founding congress so that PEO would be in a position to better meet the new needs of the Cypriot economy following the country’s accession to the EU in 2004, as well as changes in relation to production, mainly the growing number of workers in the technology and services sectors. In this context, it was deemed necessary for the more effective operation of PEO as a whole to transfer to the new union particular sectors represented until then by the Cyprus Union of Workers in Industry, Trade, Press and Printing and General Services (Συντεχνία Εργατοϋπαλλήλων Βιομηχανίας, Εμπορίου, Τύπου-Τυπογραφείων και Γενικών Υπηρεσιών Κύπρου, SEVETTYK). More specifically, the following fields of economic activity came under the new trade union: cooperative credit, tourism and shipping, insurance, private third-level education, popular media, organisations and services, and some individual enterprises which may later constitute the basis for the establishment of a sector.

Apart from the above fields of activity, PASEY is interested in organising and resolving the problems of people working in the various services sectors. The trade union’s statutes provide and guarantee the possibility of including occupational groups or workers’ associations or works councils as entities. The goal is for the occupational sectors represented by PASEY to be upgraded and function as entities within the organisation – that is, PASEY’s members should retain a strong element of their occupational sector of origin, with their own bodies and organisations, and elect their own sectoral secretary and committees.

According to data at PEO’s disposal, a significant number of workers are employed in the various services sectors, and they require and desire trade union representation. In this context, PASEY is called on to meet their organisational need and to serve as the link connecting them with the trade union movement as a whole. Such fields of activity include information technology, research and technology services, accounting and auditing, various associations for occupations providing services and help, various occupational groups providing services to social institutions, those working in cultural activities and employees in broadcasting and electronic media.

With regard to the evaluation of this initiative, PEO believes that the establishment of the new services union has had a multiplier effect on the inflow of new members. Specifically, from 68,123 members in 2002, the total number of members increased to 74,646 in 2003, and –according to the latest available data – by 2006, the total number of members had risen to 81,473 persons. It should be noted that PEO has traditionally been predominant in certain areas of the manufacturing sector – for example, textiles and clothing, and footwear – where employment has declined by almost 80% since 1990. In this context, given the high rate of female employment in these specific subsectors, PEO reports one positive effect to be the increase in the proportion of its female members from 30% in 2004 to 33% in 2008.

Migrant Workers Bureau

The second organisational change was the establishment and operation of the Migrant Workers Bureau in 2002, whose basic objective is to increase trade union membership among migrants and further their effective and active participation in the trade union movement. Since the Migrant Workers Bureau has undertaken a large number of actions between 2002 and 2008, these cannot be presented in detail. To give some indication, the following initiatives may be cited:

  • the first Migrant Workers Conference was held in October 2003;
  • INEK received a proposal to carry out a specialised study on migrants’ terms and conditions of employment (see above);
  • the texts of collective agreements in selected sectors of economic activity (for example, construction) have been translated into various languages;
  • specialised meetings were held in which migrants took part, and coordinating bodies were elected for each thematic action;
  • training seminars were organised.

Overall, the establishment of the Migrant Workers Bureau was evaluated as positive in terms of the increased membership in selected sectors of economic activity (for example, construction) and the improvement in the quality of the services provided to migrants. Nevertheless, at the 25th Congress of PEO held on 20–22 November 2008, it was noted that there is a need to upgrade the bureau and intensify efforts to increase union membership among migrants.

Bureau for Turkish Cypriot workers

The third highlighted PEO organisational action involves the establishment and operation of a special bureau for Turkish Cypriot workers employed in the free areas of Cyprus. This initiative is part of a broader action aiming to safeguard the unity of the working class in Cyprus, through PEO’s systematic efforts to broaden its relations with Turkish Cypriot workers and their trade union organisations – the Turkish Cypriot Revolutionary Trade Unions Federation (DEV-IS), the Cyprus Turkish Teachers’ Union (KTOS) and Turkish Cypriot Secondary School Teachers (KTOEOS). In terms of individual actions, the Turkish Cypriot workers bureau focuses on resolving specific problems faced by Turkish Cypriots in workplaces in the free areas, either at individual or collective level, and on promoting solutions with regard to pension rights or other benefits from the Social Insurance Fund.


Turkish Cypriot bureau

Solely on the organisational level, SEK reports the creation of structures for rapprochement between Turkish Cypriots and EU workers. Specifically, since 2006 a special bureau has been operating to deal with the problems faced by Turkish Cypriots employed in free areas, mainly in the construction sector, of which Turkish Cypriot workers help to form the backbone. Since 2007, a similar structure has been in place to address the problems of EU workers, mainly from Bulgaria and Romania. Evaluation aims to monitor the number of members on an annual basis in order to reach the annual target for attracting new members; however, no data are yet available.

Targeting young workers

The second initiative involves a general campaign held in 2004–2005 targeting young workers on the basis of two needs: to approach young workers in order to identify the problems and particular concerns that they face in the labour market and in society as a whole, and to disseminate information prior to membership. The campaign, which was carried out at national level, with the cooperation of the youth organisation of the Greek General Confederation of Labour (Γενική Συνομοσπονδία Εργατών Ελλάδος, GSEE) and the General Workers Union (GWU) from Malta, aimed to provide information, address concerns and create a positive attitude towards trade unionism, with the ultimate objective of increasing membership in this age category. Towards this end, the following actions were implemented:

  • information visits to workplaces in all sectors of economic activity, both in the private and in the broader public sector;
  • distribution of a questionnaire for the collection of data regarding young people’s priorities and problems;
  • a working seminar for SEK members in this age group for the processing and dissemination of the questionnaire findings;
  • organisation of an open seminar, with the participation of the social partners and other involved parties, on the subject of presenting the findings of the questionnaires;
  • a special publication to be circulated in workplaces at sectoral and company levels.

Despite the fact that this initiative was not finally evaluated with regard to the inflow of new members, it was given a positive evaluation in terms of the degree of acceptance by young workers. In SEK’s opinion, this highlights the need to provide young people with more information.

Targeting working women

The third initiative involves a general campaign by SEK, which began in 2006 and ended in 2007, targeting working women in order to identify the problems that they face in the workplace which make their jobs and social position more difficult. By highlighting the different challenges faced by women, the ultimate goal is to promote specific actions and incorporate the appropriate provisions in collective agreements as a supplementary tool to eliminate stereotypes and discriminatory views. To this end, the following actions were implemented:

  • a record of the conditions prevailing in Cypriot society with regard to gender equality, vocational rehabilitation and career advancement for women, along with prospects for work–family reconciliation;
  • promotion by various means of the data recorded – for example, through the media or press conferences;
  • publication of a guidebook and its distribution in workplaces;
  • relevant seminars in each district and visits to workplaces;
  • social dialogue, with the participation of officials from SEK and the Employers and Industrialists Federation (Ομοσπονδία Εργοδοτών και Βιομηχάνων, OEV), ending in a joint memorandum in November 2008, for the purpose of promoting family–work reconciliation for both genders. This was submitted to the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance, Soteroula Charalambous, to be used in the context of a broader social dialogue, and provision has been made for its further processing by SEK in order to include the provisions of the memorandum in collective agreements.

In SEK’s view, it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the initiative in relation to the response that it had from the target population; nonetheless, the result is deemed to be particularly positive in terms of making the problems publicly known.

3.2 Please indicate whether organising initiatives in general (i.e. beyond the specific instances illustrated above) are ‘concentrated’ or ‘diffused’, in terms of trade unions involved (only certain trade union organisations are active or there are no significant variations) and of target groups (they focus only on certain groups of workers or they are part of more general approaches to organising).

Bearing in mind the comparative disadvantage of the trade union movement in the services sector, all three organisations – DEOK, PEO and SEK – note the need to undertake joint actions in this sector, with an emphasis on individual areas such as wholesale and retail trade because it absorbs most new jobs and is largely unorganised in terms of representation. However, with regard to specific categories of workers, such as migrants, it is clear that the different approaches of each organisation make it difficult to undertake joint initiatives.

3.3 Please indicate the role of ‘new trade unions’ and of ‘grassroots movements’ in organising initiatives in general (i.e. beyond the specific instances illustrated above) compared with the role played by long-established trade unions and, if relevant, whether cooperation or competition emerged between these types of actors.

As regards the presence and role of new trade unions – an unusual feature of Cypriot industrial relations – all three organisations, DEOK, PEO and SEK, appear to argue in one way or another that trade union fragmentation reduces the possibility for effective and successful intervention. In this context, they believe that any specific categories – for example, long-term unemployed people – should be included in existing structures in order to make their demands more attainable.

In terms of the relationship of trade unions in Cyprus with grassroot movements, a joint action by PEO and KISA is the only example.

4. Commentary

4.1 Please provide your own comments on the present state and recent trends in trade union representation and membership, as well as on the ongoing debates in your country and on future prospects.

As trade union density rates reveal, since 1990 there has been a gradual decline of over 18 percentage points, reducing the rate of union density from 76.16% in 1990 to 58.06% in 2006. However, despite this trend, trade unions so far have not shown a particular interest in organising members among new categories of workers. At the same time, trade unions find it difficult to organise either specific sectors of economic activity or specific categories of workers, a difficulty that is likely to continue in the future. Apart from the main reasons for the steady decline in trade union density, such as decreasing employment in sectors that were traditionally unionised together with a constant and steadily disproportionate increase in numbers of non-union members, the trade union movement has to surmount internal obstacles. These include the lack of coordination across all of the trade unions in organising sectors in the ‘new economy’ and the difficulty for trade union organisations to pursue joint actions in order to organise specific categories of workers, due to ideological differences.

Eva Soumeli, Cyprus Institute of Labour (INEK/PEO)

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