Press Release: Launch of Charter for Migrant Workers

18 Dec 2020

ICTU Migrants Charter

The Crossing Borders, Breaking Boundaries project will launch today (on Friday 18 December) the Charter to Protect Migrant Workers from Exploitation and to Build Inclusive Workplaces. This launch also celebrates International Migrants Day.                                                              

The launch is initiated by Kevin Doherty from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who has worked since 2018 on a cross-border PEACE IV-funded programme, Crossing Border Breaking Boundaries in partnership with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, the Community Intercultural Programme, and Ulster University.

Since 2018, they have assisted vulnerable migrant workers, mainly from the agri-food sector across Northern Ireland and the border region, to speak out about the poor conditions they work in and the barriers that prevent them from accessing their rights. They have supported over 1,200 workers:

  • Fight to get back unpaid wages, to defend jobs, to challenge bullying, harassment and discrimination, to speak out about exploitation, to regularise their status and more;
  • Learn about their employment rights, how to access them, and to share this information with other workers to empower them to stand up for their rights;
  • Take part in courses to develop their knowledge, skills and English;
  • Establish community groups and build relationships with others;
  • Form campaigning workers action groups supported by local trade union activists;
  • Participate in research, that’s enabled us to bring together common experiences of workers, and giving them evidence to back up their demands for long-term change;
  • And, to develop this Charter, as their call for fair treatment at work and build social inclusion.

“It is time to acknowledge that people from a migrant background are now integral parts of our society as well as our economy,” Mr Doherty will tell the online audience of participants and supporters. “They must no longer be overlooked and regarded as just here to do the dirty, difficult, dangerous and unnecessarily low paid jobs that we distain to do.

“They are people, like you and me. And, like so many of our friends and relatives, they have left the land of their birth in the hope of a better life for them and their families. We would be outraged if we learned that our family members living abroad endured isolation, exploitation, racism and discrimination. So why do we tolerate this mistreatment of newcomers to our island?

“Why do our state agencies make it difficult for vulnerable workers to assert their legal rights and to challenge exploitation, discrimination and dangerous practices in the workplace? These are questions asked of us by migrant workers who participated in this project.”

And this charter attempts to give them a voice to call for change so that all people on this island can work, live, learn and socialise together with dignity, respect, free from exploitation, prejudice, hate and intolerance.

Mr Doherty will highlight some of the obstacles faced by migrant workers that lead to their vulnerability:

  • “Firstly, and probably most importantly, there is the language barrier. - If you have little or no English, then it is highly likely that you will be unaware of your rights and entitlements and how to access them. You will be reliant on the employer. Even amongst those workers the project came across with good levels of English there was a lack of knowledge of their rights.
  • The lack of resources and legal assistance, along with the fear of reprisals by the employer put off many of those aware of their rights from attempting to enforce them.
  • “There is the increasing use of precarious employment, particularly in NI, where the use of ZHCs and long term insecure employment through agencies has become the normal business model in parts of the agri-food sector.
  • “Low pay – minimum wage is the going rate in many un-unionised workplaces in this sector. - When your income is barely enough to cover your family’s cost of living and pay the rent you will have no choice but to accept mistreatment in work out of the fear of losing it.
  • “Low pay is normally combined with long, unsociable working hours. How do you integrate into society if you haven’t the money or the time?
  • “The lack of a wider family support network to fall back upon, to look after children for example, or should you become ill or unemployed. For many migrant workers in the meat processing sector the risk of Covid-19 was less worrying than the fear of being left to support their families on SSP.
  • “Then there are the restrictions on the immigration status. The rolling out of UK Government’s new immigration system, we will soon see an increase in the scale of this problem in NI.
  • “And, then there is racism and discrimination – Structural discrimination, and interpersonal discrimination – local to migrant, and also a hierarchy of discrimination within migrant worker communities that sees black and Roma workers firmly at the bottom. It was amazing to us how some of the workers have come to accept racial abuse both inside and outside of the workplace. Some employers we have come across seem to tolerate, if not encourage discrimination and ethnic divisions in the workplace to facilitate exploitation.”

The launch will be addressed by other expert speakers, including ICTU Assistant General Secretary Owen Reidy, who notes that the document calls for the right to collective bargaining and acknowledges that the trade unions must make themselves more open and welcoming for migrant workers to create a stronger and more inclusive society.

Another trade union speaker will be Nathalie Donnelly, herself a migrant worker who works for Unison which represents workers in health and social care from many countries. “Looking at this charter, every point can apply to our members”, she will say.

Dr Stephen Bloomer from Ulster University worked on the project and concludes that “the language barrier is and remains the most constant hindrance to migrant workers” and notes that the Charter “recommends that this must be addressed from the first stage of employment onwards.”

Andrew McCreery of the Community Intercultural Programme which co-delivered the programme will summarise the report by pointing out that “this Charter calls for all workers to be treated equally and with dignity, and in our experience this does not always happen.”

The charter makes recommendations that seek to overcome these obstacles. There is a section on Ensuring Decent Work covering:

  • The right to employment documents and information on rights in the appropriate language of the worker.
  • The right to fair pay and working hours.
  • The right to Equality, Dignity and Respect.
  • The right to work safely including recommendations around Covid-19.
  • Better rights to representation by trade unions.
  • Recommendations on immigration status and rights.
  • Rights for agency and precarious workers.

Also, proposals to improve access to justice and the better enforcement of legal rights.

There is also a section on Building an Inclusive Workplace with recommendations on recruitment of migrant workers, career development and policies to challenge prejudice and create a workplace culture based on inclusion.

This is an important section as we believe that building an inclusive society should begin in the workplace. In too many instances the workplace is the only site where people from different backgrounds come together.

The purpose of the charter is to raise awareness of the conditions faced by vulnerable migrant workers on the island, as a benchmark for decency and as a campaigning tool to move towards an inclusive, just, and equal economy and society.

Notes to the Editor

  • Crossing Borders Breaking Boundaries is a cross-border project looking at sectarianism, racism and discrimination in the labour market. The project is funded by the PEACE IV Programme and managed Special EU Programmes Body. Notes to Editor:
  • The Special EU Programmes Body is a North/South Implementation Body sponsored by the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in Ireland. It is responsible for managing two EU Structural Funds Programmes, PEACE IV and INTERREG VA which are designed to enhance cross-border co-operation, promote reconciliation and create a more peaceful and prosperous society.
  • The Programmes operate within a clearly defined area including Northern Ireland, the Border Region of Ireland and in the case of INTERREG VA, Western Scotland.
  • The PEACE IV Programme has a value of €270 million and aims to address the economic and social problems which result from the existence of borders.
  • For more information on the SEUPB please visit www.seupb.eu

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