Vulnerable migrant workers and Swedish solidarity

What support do the trade unions, solidarity movements and other organisations offer vulnerable migrant workers in Sweden? A recent doctoral thesis from Linköping University examines this support, and describes the possibilities and challenges faced by the various actors. 

Bild på migranter i centraleuropa.The number of migrant workers in Sweden is increasing, as is the number of undocumented workers. Many face discrimination and their position in society is very precarious. A recent thesis from Linköping University, “Negotiating Solidarity”, shows how support organisations can improve the situation of migrants. It also describes the possibilities and obstacles that their work to improve the conditions of migrant workers faces.

Some trade unions

“Demand for cheap and flexible labour is increasing, and migrants who experience difficulty entering the labour market are being exploited. Since the state is not helping these people, organisations and the voluntary sector become involved. I wanted to find out about the help given and whether it works,” says Nedžad Mešić of the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), below.

Nedzad Mesik, doktorand Remeso 2017He has looked at the work carried out by trade unions (some of them members of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO), the SAC Syndicalist Group, and the Swedish Trade Union Centre for Undocumented Migrants, a voluntary organisation supported by LO, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO), and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Saco). In addition, he has investigated the work of two anti-discrimination agencies, some voluntary organisations, and local groups that have been formed around a specific question, such as support for foreign berry pickers. The groups of vulnerable workers he has studied are seasonal workers (including Roma berry pickers from Bulgaria), migrant workers facing discrimination in the labour market, and undocumented workers.

Private agreements

The results show that the solidarity initiatives taken by the actors have led in many cases to agreements between employers and employees.
“This is regarded as progress, since it ensures that the vulnerable party is paid for the work. But these agreements are made in private, not in the justice system, since in this case the undocumented workers would risk expulsion,” says Nedžad Mešić.
The work of the actors on behalf of the migrants has taken several forms: economic help for them to return home, the establishment of a certain degree of collaboration between the state and the actors, and bringing the situation of the migrant workers to the attention of the general public.
However, difficult questions have arisen for these organisations. Not all members of the trade unions, for example, are prepared to allow undocumented workers to become members. What are the consequences of this opposition? Polarisation can arise in local communities between groups that hold different views – for or against berry pickers, for example. And how is it possible to discuss vulnerability and rights when faced with serious language difficulties?
“This work is not easy, and places high demands on those who get involved.”

Contribute to new research

Nedžad Mešić hopes that the work presented in his thesis can contribute to new research questions, dealing with such topics as innovation in the trade union movement, solidarity and political activism. He hopes also to contribute to examination of the labour market from the perspective of migrant workers.
“When we consider what has been called the ‘refugee crisis’, although I prefer to call it the ‘solidarity crisis’, we can expect more undocumented workers and growth in the black market in labour. I hope that my thesis will bring deeper knowledge about this, how the Swedish labour market is functioning and how developments may affect it in the future.”

The thesis: Negotiating Solidarity – Collective Actions for Precarious Migrant Workers’ Rights in Sweden