intercultural routes
and itineraries in Europe

en it fr es cz

Trade Union Guide for Migrant Workers

Ian Cook

Abstract (English)

Migrant workers are often those who face the harsh end of exploitation in the labour market, sometimes because they do not know their basic rights as employees. The "Trade Union Congress" produced a guide for migrant workers, tackling the most frequently asked questions and providing the information they deemed necessary to help labour migrants succeed in the UK labour market.


Abstract (italiano)

I lavoratori immigrati, spesso più degli altri, si trovano a fronteggiare la dura realtà dello sfruttamento nel mercato del lavoro, a volte perché non conoscono i loro diritti fondamentali come lavoratori. Il "Consorzio dei sindacati" inglese ha realizzato una guida per lavoratori migranti che risponde alle domande più frequenti e procura le informazioni necessarie per aiutare i lavoratori immigrati a integrarsi nel mercato del lavoro inglese.

1 The practice

1.1 Description of the project

Main Actor

Trade Union Congress
Congress House
Great Russell Street
Tel: 020 7636 4030
Fax: 020 7636 0632

The "TUC" is formed from around 70 affiliated unions representing around 7 million working people in the UK. It is not affiliated with the government, employers or any political party. The "Trade Union Congress" meets once a year for four days where its members decide upon the direction of its work for the following year.

On their website the "TUC" reports that it:

  • brings Britain’s unions together to draw up common policies;
  • lobbies the Government to implement policies that will benefit people at work;
  • campaigns on economic and social issues;
  • represents working people on public bodies;
  • represents British workers in international bodies, in the European Union and at the UN employment body (the International Labour Organisation);
  • carries out research on employment-related issues;
  • runs an extensive training and education programme for union representatives;
  • helps unions develop new services for their members;
  • helps unions avoid clashes with each other;
  • builds links with other trade union bodies worldwide.

The "TUC" produced the report Trade Union Guide for Migrant Workers to help migrant workers in the UK who they felt were being exploited. Part of the reason for their exploitation was believed to be the lack of knowledge of employment regulations in the UK.

The publication is a brief overview of the perceived most important aspects of the employment rules as well as useful contacts for migrant workers. It is available in electronic and paper format in Czech, English, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Slovak, French and Spanish.
The contents of the 16 page publication are:

  • Welcome to the UK.
  • Starting work in the UK.
  • National Insurance and tax.
  • Worker or employee?
  • Your rights as a worker.
  • Working time rights.
  • Agriculture.
  • Health and safety protection.
  • Protection from discrimination.
  • Union membership.
  • Special rights for agency workers.
  • Additional rights for employees.
  • Enforcing your rights.
  • More help and information.
  • Unions today - your friend at work.


1.2 Time, structure and steps of the project

The "TUC" gathered information about what the main cases of exploitation were, as well as what migrants wanted to know both formally, as part of research which they regularly undertake, informally through their members (some of which are migrants themselves) and face to face through advice surgeries.

1.3 Place and context

With the accession of many Central and Eastern European countries into the European Union much work, which was previously done on a semi-formal or informal basis, became completely legal. With this legality came labour rights, which was consequently an important issue both for employer and employee.

A "TUC" report revealed that “Migrant workers in the UK, including those with the right to work here, are subject to such levels of exploitation and control that they meet the international legal definition of ‘forced labour” (Forced Labour and Migration to the UK by Anderson and Rogaly available at The report details many cases including the story of two Polish construction workers that were brought by agents to the UK. “They were told that they would be provided with housing and employment, and that they could pay their agent later. On arrival in the UK they were moved around, put to work for long hours, closely monitored, and paid no money. They attempted to run away, and were badly beaten in the fight that resulted, but they did manage to escape and slept in Heathrow airport for two days. They were however terrified that they were going to be discovered I wouldn’t have survived long there, not because I couldn’t work in construction but because of these guys”.

Furthermore labour migration from the new EU countries has been extremely high with 1,440 Poles alone coming to the UK in 2004 (source: Many are attracted to Britain by the higher wages and high levels of unemployment in their home countries. Britain has a relatively “flexible” labour market. Neo-liberal advocators such as current Chancellor Gordon Brown argue that this helps create jobs in the country; however some labour groups argue it allows more space for exploitation. For instance employers can manoeuvre around the European directive on maximum working hours (currently 48 hours per week) by getting the workers to sign an opt-out form at the beginning of their employment. Though technically voluntary, confused migrants unfamiliar with British employment regulations often sign away their rights early in their stay in the UK.

1.4 Target

The main target is migrants who are coming to work, or currently working in the UK. They can download the information before they come as well as reading a paper copy once they are already working. Although the primary target of unions is their own members this is not always the case as Sean Bamford, a Policy Officer at the "TUC", explains “As for this notion of passing on information of non members, well the information we put out it open to everyone. And though we want to get as many people to join unions as possible it is also important to remember that not all of these people come from unionised backgrounds. So we have got a sales job to do. It is harder to convince people that we have services and uses to them and also to make them to be realistic about what is their long term future in the country. Furthermore we have to ask migrants if they are going to stay here, whether they want to continue putting up with some of the abuse that many of them are suffering.”

1.5 Methodology

The "TUC" researched the main problems which migrants faced in the following ways: as part of the daily activity they research working rights and conditions in the UK; they also run advice surgeries for migrants, for instance in Brighton at their annual conference (Brighton is in the South of the UK where many migrants are based) which allows them to gather information on what migrants needs are.

Producing the information in many different languages is important because although people are working in the UK they may not necessarily be able to speak the language at a high level. If they are working in the construction or agricultural field they might not need to have good language skills for their work. The publication is suitably un-flashy in its style and concisely put together allowing information to be quickly accessed. The print and PDF downloadable web version are the same.

Having the information online is important so that people can research their rights before coming to work in the UK if they are thus inclined. Many rumours often circulate about labour rules and regulations amongst migrants so it is good to have the information produced by an reliable source which is available before myths are heard.

1.6 Authors, financing and networks

The "TUC" is funded by its affiliate unions who are in turn funded by its members. In a sense it can be seen as a way in which the workers of Britain are funding a project to help to workers entering the country.
International networks of Trade Unions are beginning to take shape to tackle the problems faced by non-unionised migrant workers. 

2 Hints for an evaluation