Stefania Marino (University of Manchester)

"Trade unions action in segmented labour markets: migrant care work in the UK and the NL"

26 October 2017, 2:00 pm


The recent ‘Brexit’ decision by the UK has provided a strong illustration of a widespread negative perception of immigration and migrant labour as detrimental to welfare resources and decent employment conditions. However, this debate has often ignored political responsibilities in terms of immigration policy as well as the role of the regulatory actors to preserve decent terms and conditions of employment. This paper aims to address this gap by arguing that the relationship between migration and worsening terms and conditions of employment is not direct but mediated by the size and type of labour market regulation. More specifically, it claims that the increasing labour market segmentation is not only the result of lack of adequate labour market protection (size of regulation) but especially of weakening industrial relations and of the role of collective actors (type of regulation).

The paper analyses the regulatory power (defined as the capacity to influence terms and conditions of employment for all workers) of trade unions in the care sector of two countries with very different labour market regulation in both size and type: the UK and the Netherlands. The focus is on elderly care and in particular care homes, a sector traditionally characterized by rather low levels of migrant labour. While this remains the case in the Netherlands, care homes in the UK have seen a stronger increase of migrant labour, especially in the south. The paper aims to investigate the factors that contribute to the different working conditions and presence of migrant workers in the care homes across the two countries and to underline the extent to which trade union actions have contributed to these outcomes.

The paper relies on qualitative data from union documents and semi-structured interviews with representatives of the TUC and Unison in the UK and the FNV in the Netherlands. Care home workers, including migrants where present, have been interviewed in the two countries thanks to the access to a care home in the UK and union organizing meetings in the Netherlands. The main data on the UK has been collected between 2012 and 2015 within an ESRC funded research while the data on the Netherlands was collected in the spring of 2017.

The findings confirm the importance of regulation including, for example, skill requirements for care workers and operational requirements for care organisations. Moreover, they highlight the potential contribution of unions to more inclusive labour markets. Trade unions in both countries have strengthened regulation through often innovative strategies (i.e. partnership in the UK and organizing in the Netherlands). Unions in the UK have shown a greater sensitivity to the specific conditions of migrant workers than those in the Netherlands. However, while union initiatives in the UK have resulted in rather fragmented regulatory outcomes, the greater union institutional embeddedness in the Netherlands has provided greater regulatory power, in particular through sectoral collective bargaining. This has major implications for the share of migrant workers and in particular the perceived negative dynamics between migration and precarious employment.