Brazilian migrant workers

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Solidarity with Brazilian workers

Speech to PT meeting abroad

27 May 2011

Owen Tudor, TUC Head of EU and International Relations, addressed the 4th meeting of the Brazilian Workers Party groups abroad in London on 27 May, about migrant workers' rights.

It is a great honour to have been invited to speak in the opening session of the 4th meeting of the Workers Party's groups abroad.

The Workers Party has an outstanding tradition of serving the ordinary people of Brazil and, of course, of winning three successive Presidential elections, which is no mean feat these days.

And I am particularly pleased that the British trade union movement is able, by hosting this meeting and addressing it, to demonstrate our commitment to deepening our friendship with the workers and unions of Brazil.

Since Brazil emerged from military rule, it has become one of the world's leading nations - economically, socially and politically. It rightly has a key seat at the table in the G20 and in the WTO. And I understand there's a top job at the IMF vacant at the moment!

As fellow members of the International Trade Union Confederation, the TUC and its sister union confederations in Brazil face a huge range of challenges.

I've been talking today with colleagues about the campaign for a financial transactions tax - what we in Britain call the Robin Hood Tax. We are holding a global day of action on 22 June, and we have developed a letter for Parliamentarians to sign which I hope PT deputies in Brazil will be supporting.

And we've been working increasingly closely on trade union campaigns around major world sporting events like the London Olympics next year which will be followed in close succession by the 2014 World Cup and then the 2016 Olympics.

We're running a campaign in Britain called Playfair 2012 designed to ensure trade union rights in supply chains for goods branded for the Olympics - part of an international Play Fair Alliance. And I am pleased that the Brazilian Playfair campaign was launched in Rio de Janeiro a couple of months ago.

We will make sure that the Brazilian trade union movement can learn from our achievements, and also our failures.

Next week, the International Labour Conference opens in Geneva, and British and Brazilian trade unions will play a major role in the discussions and decisions there. The Brazilian Government is likely to be a bit more of an ally than the British Government.

One of the major decisions that we hope the Conference will take next month will be to adopt a new Convention on domestic workers' rights. As the nephew of domestic workers in the UK, I know how few rights those workers have.

My uncle and aunt were, however, indigenous workers, whereas so many domestic workers around the world are migrants, and it is to migrant workers that I now want to turn.

Migration is hardly new. People have been moving around the world for millennia. But for most of our history, migration was uncontrolled, unmanaged, and unregulated. If you wanted to go somewhere else - and it often took months to do so - you just did it, settled somewhere new and fitted in.

Over the last century, as migration has become physically easier, laws have been introduced which have often restricted the free movement of people, and, rather than ensuring their rights, have actually made them more vulnerable.

Indeed the trade union movement around the world - and especially in Britain - would argue that migration laws have often managed the astounding trick of making both migrants and indigenous workers more vulnerable at the same time.

They have also driven a wedge between the migrant worker and the indigenous worker which benefits neither, and profits only exploitative employers and right-wing politicians.

Migrants often contribute hugely both to their new home, and also to the home they left behind, in remittances.

In the UK, many public services and private businesses would simply not be sustainable without the skills and the work of migrants.

In return, however, migrant workers often face exploitation, and that exploitation leads to the undercutting of indigenous workers' terms and conditions.

There are highly skilled, well rewarded migrants, of course. Financiers, for example, and some footballers, although I should be careful here because the Professional Footballers' Association is one of the TUC's affiliated unions!

But most migrant workers are not well off, and their migration status often conspires to make them poorer.

Let me illustrate this with one of the most bizarre stories ever to cross my desk at the TUC.

You will be aware that one of the achievements of the European Union is that workers in one European country have the right to go and live and work in another country without any restrictions.

So Portuguese workers are legally entitled to live and work in the UK.

For Brazilian workers it is not so easy - as some of you will know from personal experience. Brazilian workers have to meet a number of criteria before they can come to the UK to work, and so some people who do not meet those criteria come to work here illegally.

That puts them in a difficult position when it comes to enforcing their rights at the workplace, and insisting on a decent wage - and unscrupulous employers know that only too well.

They offer jobs at poverty pay to such workers, safe in the knowledge that if they complain, or demand more, the employer can suddenly 'discover' that they are illegal, and hand them over to the authorities to be dealt with.

It means that such work is precarious, poorly paid, and often dangerous. But for some people, it is the only work they can get, and better than what they left at home. Including, unfortunately, for some Portuguese workers.

We have come across Portuguese workers, legally entitled to live and work in the UK, who have bought forged Portuguese passports so that they can pretend to an employer that they are illegal Brazilian immigrants in the hope that the unscrupulous employer will then be willing to give them a job that would not be available to them if the employer thought they were legal migrants who would be able to make a fuss!

You will understand that - where migrant workers are forced by economic circumstance into taking jobs at low wages, or overcrowded homes at lower rents, or dangerous jobs - the impact on workers already in the labour market is to undercut their terms and conditions, and that can cause tensions.

And where workers are divided by nationality or race, that can also lead to other tensions, with unscrupulous, racist politicians often seeking to benefit by stirring up further social strife.

Over the last century - and even longer - Britain has experienced its fair share of such problems, such stresses and strains, and such social tension and even violence.

The answer, however, is not to restrict people's free movement, not to try as the current British Government is trying, to cap immigration at a certain number. That's as pointless and undeliverable as trying to stop people having children and swelling the population in a different way!

The TUC is not opposed to managing migration, having fair and transparent rules about who can and cannot travel, although we have yet to encounter a system that doesn't have flaws.

But what we do believe is that it is the job of governments, working with employers and unions, to ensure that the impact of migration is positive and progressive.

That is why we have supported equal treatment at work for migrants and existing workers, tackling exploitation and undercutting at the same time.

This is not just a policy, not just a demand, and not just an aspiration.

British trade unions don't have a flawless past on this sort of issue, but over the past decade or more, as mass immigration has taken place in the UK, our unions have put their principles into practice.

We have recruited migrant workers with the same vigour we have recruited any new arrival in the labour market, including using translated materials.

We have negotiated with employers to have migrant workers, often employed as temporary staff, brought into the permanent workforce.

And we have demanded equal pay for workers regardless of their nationality or immigration status - although sometimes we have had to strike to get it.

Today, we began discussions with the CUT about an agreement we could jointly sign to address these issues more formally.

British unions are there to represent all workers in Britain, regardless of race, colour or nationality.

I said that our commitment to workers' rights - migrant or otherwise - was not just a policy for governments. But we do of course also have such policies, and I want to end on some of those.

If workers are going to be treated fairly and equitably, then they need a level playing field.

I mentioned housing, where our experience is that many migrant workers are provided with accommodation by their employers: all too often expensive and sub-standard, but crowded.

That sort of provision can undercut the livelihoods of existing workers just as much as paying low wages, so we believe that migrant workers should have the same rights of access to housing, education and health as the existing workforce.

And it means that they need the same access to deferred wages, like pensions and unemployment benefit.

I know that this is an issue which the Workers Party is concerned about, and I can pledge to you that the TUC will support any measure to provide Brazilian workers in the UK with equitable pension accrual rights so that they are not disadvantaged by a working life that includes working in another country.

The TUC's view is one guided by practical workers' solidarity. At the workplace that means that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our workmates. And globally it means no less - so we stand shoulder to shoulder with Brazilian workers, with their unions and with their party.

Thanks for listening.

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