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Social justice for migrant workers

Following the 2004 accession of the Central and Eastern European countries to the European Union, eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, became an easy target for Britain’s popular press. A recurrent theme was, and remains, the ‘stealing of British jobs’. However, the reality for many Polish workers who came to Britain immediately after accession was poor working conditions and difficult employment relations.

Research carried out between 2005 and 2007 by Dr Ian Fitzgerald provided for the first time a robust evidence-base for the often unethical and at times illegal treatment of Polish workers in the North of England. This led to a greater recognition of the problem by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and other UK unions, and resulted in more strategic approaches to supporting migrant workers to achieve better working conditions.

Dr Fitzgerald conducted four action research projects for the TUC. They revealed that many Polish workers were underpaid, had illegal employment contracts, poor housing conditions and some had experienced violent employers. As a result of these finding the Northern TUC realised that it needed to do more to support Polish workers. It therefore appointed a Polish-speaking recruitment officer:

“The appointment of a Polish-speaking officer by the Northern TUC helped us to engage directly with workers in the region. It encouraged other individual trade unions to engage with this key area of workplace relations too,” says Kevin Rowan, Head of Organisation and Services at the TUC.

With a strong evidence base, the TUC was able to seek additional funding from the then Regional Development Agency to support strategies such as educating Polish workers on their rights and representing them in the workplace.  Funding was also sought from the Learning and Skills Council to provide English language classes.

Fitzgerald’s research supported the TUC in developing their relationship with the Polish Union NSZZ Solidarność. He offered help and advice to NSZZ Solidarność which in turn led to it collaborating with other major UK unions such as the GMB and Unison. Together these unions contributed to joint strategies to develop practical policies to organise and represent migrant workers in the UK.

Fitzgerald has contributed to European-wide research in relation to the Posting of Workers Directive which has been used by the European Commission to inform policy. His most recent work has investigated integration of Polish workers into British society.


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