Cross-border labour markets and the role of trade unions in representing migrant workers’ interests

Adrien Thomas, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research

New patterns of labour migration are on the rise. Temporary migration, circular migration, short-distance and long-distance migration, and cross-border work are reshaping labour markets and raising new challenges for labour market actors. This contribution will focus on the role and perspectives of trade unions, and critically discuss the extent of migrant workers’ involvement in trade union policy-making, taking as an example the case of Luxembourg.

Due to its multinational labour market, Luxembourg can serve as a laboratory giving valuable insights into larger debates around migrant worker participation and European citizenship. Situated in the heart of Europe, Luxembourg has a highly internationalized labour market. In 2010, 44 per cent of jobs were filled by cross-border workers who reside in a neighbouring country and work in Luxembourg, 27 per cent by resident immigrants and 29 per cent by native residents. Trade unions in Luxembourg have been relatively successful in representing this internationalized labour market. They have set up specific structures to recruit and regroup migrant workers as well as cross-border workers. With some success, since 35 per cent of Portuguese immigrant workers in Luxembourg are trade union members, as well as 27 per cent of Belgian immigrants and 19 per cent of French immigrants.

In the recent period, research on the renewal of trade unions has been interested in the programmatic and organizational revitalization of trade unionism. The creation of specific branches for migrant workers has been discussed as a possible means to favour organizing efforts directed at migrant workers. The example of Luxembourg suggests that the creation of specific migrant workers’ departments (be they cross-border workers or resident immigrants), combined with the weakness of inter-sectoral local union structures, can lead in the long-run to a situation in which unionized migrant workers mainly find themselves in contact with other fellow migrants. The existence of specific organizational structures might thus end up weakening the internal cohesion of trade union which arises among others from social interactions, even if they might be conflictual. The prevalence of servicing relationships between trade unions and members and workers reinforces the effects of this internal segmentation by establishing a relationship to union members that tends to resemble, in some instances, a relationship of social assistance.

The contribution will thus address the role of trade unions in shaping, aggregating and articulating the interests of migrant workers in a cross-border labour market. Beyond its contribution to the field of employment relations, this contribution will contribute to broader debates in the field of European studies and in the literature on the “new regionalism” on the role of non-state actors and civil society actors in the social fabric of cross-border regions. The contribution will provide empirical evidence. The respective data stems from (1) in-depth interviews with trade union representatives in Luxembourg; (2) various secondary data sources, particularly archive material.

Keywords: trade unions, immigration, cross-border work, free movement of labor, Europe