Poles apart, or workers' unity?

Ewa Jasiewicz is a Transport and General Workers Union organiser in the north-west with particular responsibility for the recruitment of Polish migrant workers. She spoke to Peter Manson

Could you describe the type of work you do?

As a union organiser I work on behalf of all members - I underwent the same training as every other organiser. But originally I was brought in to translate at Grampian Foods in the Crewe area, where they needed Polish speakers to help with the union organising campaign. To my knowledge the TGWU employs four Polish organisers - admittedly not enough, given that the biggest migrant worker group in the country at the moment is from Poland. The T&G as a whole has probably recruited Polish workers somewhere in the low thousands since their accession to the EU - in our region hundreds.

Polish-speaking members from the shop floor who have been seconded to work for the union have been doing a really good job - they understand from personal experience what Polish workers go through. Their priority is to work with these migrants, although they do have the responsibility to communicate and liaise with all workers. We do, after all, have workplaces to organise.

I myself was born in this country, so for me it's not quite the same, but I've organised in the meat-processing industry and poultry manufacturing. I've also done a lot of work at Manchester airport, which employs thousands, including very many contract workers - cleaners, caterers and so on. In all these places there are a lot of Polish migrants, often in workplaces where there is weak union organisation. Sometimes there is a recognition agreement with the T&G, but they typically have low membership and no shop stewards or other representatives.

While the right claims that too many Poles have come to Britain since Poland joined the European Union, the government states that their contribution has been positive. How do you view this question?

It's positive for business, in that overall there's been a drive to casualise manufacturing industry and the service sector. Casualisation means big bucks, because companies sub-contract and use recruitment agencies whose workers are on self-employed contracts. These agencies are incredibly unscrupulous - some are ex-mafia who were operating in this country before Poland's accession to the EU. They are characterised by dodgy business practices and the use of heavies to put pressure on the workers.

We have seven Polish migrants who worked for Grampian Foods through an agency called Consistent. They took Consistent to court and have just won recognition that they are not self-employed, but are actually employed by the agency, which is a breakthrough. However, many such workers will not be registered as employed because these agencies circumvent all employment regulations by claiming that their workers are freelance or subcontractors. In that way they don't have to pay overtime rates, holiday pay or sick pay and can hire and fire at a moment's notice.

So these are very vulnerable workers, but for business and for the government it's great. They can keep a steady flow of workers on short-term contracts coming through. And the effect is to disorganise directly employed workers in some cases, because their industrial power is diminished when you've got up to 60% migrant workers. Even if they're not on short-term agency contracts but are on a direct contract, a lot of them are very afraid of losing their jobs: they don't really understand what the union is and union reps may be unable to communicate with them.

Traditionally migrant workers come over as individuals and don't really intend to stay for long. It's in their interest to keep their heads down and earn their money. The average wage in Poland is around £1 an hour, so if you're lucky enough to be employed on the minimum wage of £5.05, that seems like a really good deal. So unless these workers get organised and realise that they should have the same pay and overtime rates for doing the same job as the direct workers, they contribute to the undermining of the terms and conditions of all workers.

That is the economic side, but there is also the cultural impact. A lot of the young Polish workers don't have a very positive image of trade unions - in Poland they have been so closely connected to the state. Some of the older workers do talk about Solidarnosৠin a favourable way and they want to get organised in the union, but they find it very hard to get the younger workers, many of whom are very cynical, involved.

So recruiting them can be hard work. On the one hand, you need collective action to bring about change in the workplace, but, on the other hand, that collective action is always driven by individual leaders. If people aren't willing to come forward and you don't find those leaders, then you're really at a loss in terms of motivating workers to stand up for themselves. And when people don't really know and trust each other or are in competition with each other, then you've got a problem.

One example of leaders coming forward was at Woolworth's. The workers were all from one town in Poland, Wroclaw, and had been brought in through an agency called Resource. Two people emerged as leaders - one was a hip-hop star who was heavily in debt! He was very good and widely respected by the workers, but he ended up leaving. The other activist who was able to influence the workers has now become an organiser.

That situation had another thing going for it, and that was the support of the British shop stewards, who stood behind the Polish workers. This is really a key factor as well. If the migrant workers aren't confident and the indigenous workers reach out to them, that can make a big difference. Of course, in a lot of workplaces the direct workers want to tell them to eff off for undermining their terms and conditions.

In a lot of cases they don't realise that these people are living in substandard accommodation and are paying over the odds, or that the agencies can intrude upon them, walking into their accommodation at any time, or that they're threatened with the sack if they join a union. Lots of rumours go around but, once you dispel them and it's recognised that these people are in a vulnerable position and do need the support of other workers, that can help them to gain confidence and to start organising and actually feel part of the workplace community.

But you do need individuals to come forward to pick up campaigns - they are the ones who go in and organise the rest of the workers into the union. Sometimes we've managed to win minor concessions from the agencies anyway - the return of payments for processing pay cheques, for instance, or the acceptance of protective equipment. The workers supplied by Resource had been promised 40 hours a week at a certain rate but were only getting 35. Through threatening to go to an industrial tribunal they managed to win all the money they should have got according to their contract.

That was a win by the union, achieved by sticking together, for sure. But this occurred long after they left the job. That happens a lot. Gains are made after a really long process, but the workers don't necessarily get the benefit of actual organisation in the workplace. And for those who have already returned to their country that's not good enough.

The hardest thing about the job is the unpredictable nature of some of the agencies and companies you're dealing with. Also the intransigence of some of the big companies. For example, Tesco. A Polish shop steward has just been sacked who was working for an agency called Driving Edge, which is used by the haulage firm, Wincantons, which in turn is employed by Tesco. He was sacked for speaking to the Daily Mail about the exploitation of Polish workers by Driving Edge.

We have given Tesco an ultimatum - they have until the end of the week to call on them to reinstate the shop steward. Probably they won't do that because it is so much in their interest to have this captive pool of transient labour - it could be English; it could be any nationality. So we're up against a whole process and the escalation of competition in the marketplace.

There's another example of Bulgarian cleaning workers being exploited by companies used by Transport for London on the underground. We put pressure on them to cancel the contract of the unscrupulous companies and use another company that employed the Bulgarian workers on better pay and conditions. We succeeded after the mayor intervened - London Underground didn't want to be associated with the exploitation of migrant workers. But it has to be said that a lot of this was down to publicity rather than organisation in the workplace.

On the other hand, we had an instance in Luton where Polish workers were brought in as baggage-handlers at the airport by a company called Menzies. The directly employed workers, who were longstanding union members, realised that these Polish agency workers were doing a lot of the overtime and weren't getting bonus pay. They could see that it was in their interest to support the agency workers and make sure they were on the same terms, otherwise their own conditions would be undermined and they could be casualised out of a job. They threatened to walk out - they were strong enough and well organised enough to do that - and those Polish workers got the same terms and conditions as a result.

This is what we've got to convince people of - it's not just in the interest of the migrants, but of all workers, that equal terms and conditions are won. At present I'm working on a campaign at Alpha, the catering company. The shop stewards were saying, 'We're not racist, but these people are coming over and taking the work' - it was previously going to local lads who live around Manchester airport. The migrant workers were seen as not wanting to get organised in the union and this was creating a lot of animosity. I was saying that when our members were stronger and better organised, with 80%-90% membership and more shop stewards, they would actually be able to turn around and say to the company, 'No you can't bring these people in unless they're on our terms and conditions' - and I'd love to see the return of the closed shop to enforce that.

In some industries the company can't afford to have workers walk off the job - especially contract catering or the meat-processing industry, where there is very tight production and if stock lies unattended for a few hours everything can be ruined. So you can hit the employers where they're vulnerable, but that sometimes depends on the Polish workers being up for it too.

The other leverage we have apart from workplace organisation is outside support - people on picket lines, people at the mosque, the church. Every possible means needs to be used - local papers, petitions. If Tesco won't ensure our shop steward is reinstated, then we'll do customer petitions and pickets.

What about the notion that there must be some kind of limit on the numbers wanting to come in and take 'our work'?

I don't buy that at all. Firstly there is a lot of work, which is why there's such a racket with these agencies. Ideally we'd like to see direct employment, of course, so that migrants have the same rights and benefits as those negotiated with the employees. Every migrant worker dreams of that - they don't like precarity. They don't want to have to wait to be phoned up and told, 'You're working tomorrow' - or not.

But the only thing undermining employment conditions in this country is lack of workplace organisation. What we are looking for are minimum standards - in the aviation industry, in cleaning, in meat-processing. In other words, workers cannot be paid below a certain standard - some are actually getting below the minimum wage when you take into account actual hours worked and the price they are forced to pay for accommodation. If that can be the basis agreed upon by all the major players in those industries, they would compete not on workers' wages and conditions, but on terms of quality.

But for that you're up against the whole capitalist system, because some companies might not want to sign up to such minimum standards and others might decide it could be cheaper to move the work abroad.

Which brings us to the argument that if capital has the right to switch from country to country, workers should have that right too.

Of course. Without a doubt.

So what do you say to those who claim there needs to be a clampdown on migration once Romania and Bulgaria join the EU?

No, I don't believe in any kind of immigration controls - people should be allowed to come over, no problem. But workers and trade unions must target these people to get them organised. Whichever union is in a given workplace and has the strength to speak on their behalf - it doesn't matter. There is a drive to lower standards and Bulgarian and Romanian workers will be used as tools - they'll be the new Poles, if you like, and they could be in for even worse terms and conditions.

People have to accept that it is coming - migrant workers will be used in any industry that has a casualised element to it. But agency workers must be integrated into the workforce and migrants must be won to join the union.

With Romania and Bulgaria coming in, there definitely will have to be an organising campaign across the EU, where common standards can be implemented and you don't get some of the more shocking examples of exploitation like the Puglia camp in Italy or some strawberry-picking farms in England. We need international cooperation at the trade union, community and activist level.

So far you have talked about legally registered migrants. But you must come across workers without such documentation.

You don't always know whether particular workers are legal or failed asylum-seekers, for example (you don't ask). But personally I don't think any worker should be illegal - no way.

You talked about union cooperation across the EU. But what about at the political level?

Of course, political parties should be championing workers' rights, but if you're talking about governmental intervention, that pressure has to come from the trade unions, backed up by the threat of industrial action, for greater regulation and the enforcement of minimum standards.

There have been protests and May Day events in support of migrant and illegal workers. But I don't really have much faith in governmental change.