Polish and Lithuanian Workers: Opportunities and Challenges for Trades Unions

Overview

This research project, conducted in collaboration with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), aimed to explore the kinds of difficulties experienced by Polish and Lithuanian workers in the labour market, and their potential for joining trades unions. It was motivated by the accession of the “A8” countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) to the European Union on 1 May 2004, which allowed workers from these nations to work in the UK, so long as they registered their employment with the Workers Registration Scheme (WRS).

According to Home Office figures, about 345,000 workers from the A8 states registered for employment during the period between May 2004 and December 2005. The largest nationality represented was Poles (59%). On receipt of registration documentation, workers were given an English language leaflet from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) outlining their rights as workers. They could also request a version of the leaflet in their first language.

In light of this, the research sought to identify who among registered Polish and Lithuanian workers in the UK joined a trades union and why; what the obstacles were to joining a trades union; the sectors in which prospective union members were working; and the kinds of difficulties that Polish and Lithuanian workers faced in their employment relations and conditions.

Principal Investigator

Bridget Anderson

Researchers

Nick Clark (Public and Commercial Services Union)
Violetta Parutis (University College London)

Funder

Trades Union Congress

Partners

Trades Union Congress

Countries

UK

Topics

DiscriminationLow Skilled MigrationRights

Regions

Europe

Methods

The study did not attempt to obtain a representative sample of Polish and Lithuanian workers in the UK, but chose rather to focus on workers who were interested in obtaining information on their rights. A mail survey was distributed by the TUC to some 2,210 workers who had requested TUC leaflets in Polish and in Lithuanian. This survey was developed from that used in the major COMPAS project ‘Changing Status, Changing Lives?’ in order to facilitate future comparative analysis. It asked workers for basic socio-demographic information, and comprised principally closed pre-coded questions. Questions on problems at work and attitudes to unions were open ended. The response rate was high (n=504) for a mail survey at about 25%. Data was then coded and analysed using SPSS.

Findings

The principal findings of the research were as follows:

  • Polish and Lithuanian workers surveyed generally found work quickly in the UK, despite often limited language skills.
  • A large proportion are working as agency workers in insecure, poorly paid employment. Many of the problems that they face are shared with UK nationals in the same types of employment.
  • One of the particularities of their situation however is the relationship between accommodation and employment. Nearly one third of our respondents had found accommodation facilitated by their employer. There link between accommodation, low pay (below minimum wage) and excessive hours merits further investigation.
  • Some Polish and Lithuanian workers had higher expectations of working in the UK labour market and are surprised at insecurity, lack of holiday pay and overtime rates.
  • Many of the problems are of a basic nature, which may be relatively easily rectified through informed intervention – perhaps even using only the threat of legal action.
  • The newly arrived Polish and Lithuanian workers are interested in joining trades unions, and indeed to be active in trades unions, for their own protection, and to contribute to the struggles of all workers in the UK labour market.