Collective institutions are vital in securing workers' labour market rights. However, many migrant workers have individualistic labour market strategies due to employers' strategies of e.g. segregating migrant workers from native workers, but also because of the migrant workers’ different expectations towards working conditions. This project examines when and how migrant workers come to define their interest in a collectivistic as opposed to individualistic frame. A theoretical framework for migrant workers’ collectivism is developed and utilised in sectorbased comparative case studies in Germany, Denmark and the UK. The project further investigates how the political and economic context along with institutions and actors like unions can enhance or hinder the inclusion of migrant workers in collective labour market solutions and how migrant characteristics (e.g. type and length of stay, nationality, gender etc.) contribute to explain migrant workers' orientation towards collectivism.
Labour migration, in particular the intra-European mobility of workers, is increasing across Europe. This challenges labour market institutions that remain rooted in national systems, and many migrant workers face precarious working conditions, unequal treatment and labour market segregation. Labour migration has therefore become a highly salient political topic, with Europe-wide discussions over social dumping, the failure of the free movement of EU workers and discrimination and unequal treatment of EU workers. These issues are often explained by employers’ use of segregation and low-wage strategies, but also by migrant workers’ lower expectations as to wages and working conditions, which along with migrant workers’ weak labour market position, constrains the functioning of inclusive labour market institutions such as collective agreements or legal rights. Moreover, it results in migrants often opting for individualistic labour market strategies, above all individual mobility, instead of traditional forms of collective resistance. Overall, this challenges efficient labour market regulation and led to unequal treatment of the migrant workers.
The overall question the project thus seeks to answer is: When and under what conditions do migrant workers define their labour market interest (and the means to achieve these) in collective as opposed to individual terms?
Labour markets are characterised by power imbalances between workers and employers, and workers organise collectively to overcome this imbalance. Contemporary studies on labour migration have however mainly scrutinised formal institutions such as collective agreements and migrant workers’ engagement with host-country institutions and actors. Additionally, the literature has mainly built on a dual labour market thesis, where migrant workers have a different ‘frame of reference’ and compare their working conditions and wages to home-country rather than the host-country conditions (often building on agruments from Piore, 1979). Migrant workers therefore accept inferior working conditions and wages; however, this assumption appears to be oversimplified. Accordingly, questions of how and why collectivism – here understood as when migrant workers define their labour market interests (in particular in relation to wages and working conditions) and the means to achieve them in collective terms – emerges among migrant workers, remain under-researched.
Collectivism must furthermore be understood as a dynamic continuum, rather than a static phenomenon that is either permanently present or not. Hence events and everyday practices may spur collectivism, which is what this project seeks to investigate. It seeks to contribute to overcoming the knowledge gap on migrant collectivism through comparative case studies in Denmark, Germany and the UK that can illuminate the main factors explaining how collectivism emerges. The project focuses mainly on intra-EU migrant workers since this is one of the largest migrant groups. However, migrant workers are a heterogeneous category, and different types – commuting, seasonal, posted and recently settled – can be identified.
The project addresses furthermore how the migrant type influences migrant workers’ or orientation towards collectivism. The migrant workers selected for the study will as far as possible reflect these different types. While there are migrant workers in high- as well as low-income jobs, the project focuses on low-paid migrant workers, as these are most exposed to the problems mentioned above (which is also reflected in the sector selection).
Between coping and resistance: migrant networks and alternative forms of collectivism
By Andrea Borello & Mark Friis Hau