Organizing the unorganisable: The rise of flat, associational organising


by Joyce Jiang

Migrant workers are an important part of the labour force in many contemporary economies. In the UK, it is estimated that 15.2 percent of the labour force were foreign-born migrants in 2013.

Migrant workers in the UK are largely concentrated in low-skilled sectors that involve high levels of exploitation. They constitute the worker group who are in considerable need of collective representation. However, the industrial sectors where they are concentrated have low rates of unionisation.

Given these points, the potential for collective mobilisation among migrant workers in the UK is an issue of considerable importance.

Traditionally migrant workers are often assumed to be less likely to be organised due to several important barriers.

The first barrier relates to the structure of the employment conditions of many migrant workers at the bottom of the labour market. The current phase of migration, dated from around 1990, has occurred in a context of a move to neo-liberal policies in which a laissez-faire state offers little protection to workers, and in which there are weak unions, and fragmented labour markets that open the door for exploitative employment practices.

The second type of barrier relates to the subjectivities that migrant workers may hold. Migrant workers may tend to be more quiescent in accepting low-end of the labour market employment conditions because they compare themselves less with the participants in the UK labour market, and more with their counterparts in their country of origin.

Further, even if mobilization may emerge, there remains a significant barrier to the longer-term sustainability of such mobilization. All these barriers raise an important question: whether can migrant workers be successfully organised?

In a recently published study of a migrant domestic workers self-help group – Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW) – my co-author, Marek Korczynski, and I argue that organising migrant workers is possible, but requires a flat, associational model of organising that is based on participative democracy and collective leadership development, combined with autonomous links to more stable formal organisations.

Prior to involvement in J4DW, migrant domestic workers were largely isolated, and outside of social networks. Working and living in employers’ houses, migrant domestic workers lacked autonomous space. It was commonly reported that they were not allowed to go out without company and supervision from their employers. The long working hours also prohibited them from going to public spheres.

Many migrant domestic workers initially framed their position as labourers of love. They defined whether an employer was good, less in terms of the wages and benefits they received, and more in terms of the quasi-family relationship they experienced in the employer’s homes.

Most migrant domestic workers who had children at home transferred a significant degree of their ‘motherhood’ to their employers’ children. Such strong emotional bonds with their employers’ children also blurred the line between ‘working’ and ‘mothering’. Further, many J4DW new members described themselves with low self-esteem as ‘domestic servants’ rather than ‘domestic workers’.

J4DW utilized three processes to help reshape migrant domestic workers understanding of their working lives and transform them from isolated ‘labourers of love’ to workers with collective rights. First, the starting point for J4DW was helping these isolated and often vulnerable people to come together to share their life experiences.

J4DW is characterized by non-hierarchical, democratic structures built upon trusting connections among participants. The recruitment method involved a migrant domestic worker asking another domestic worker, usually a friend of theirs, to join them in coping with working circumstances.

J4DW monthly meetings were characterized by informality and a sharing culture. Members were allowed to bring their children, partners, friends or their employers’ children to the meeting. When the emotions were overwhelming, people might clap in support on hearing some strong words such as ‘bastard’.

Second, sisterhood and mutuality were transformed into a resistive form of labour solidarity through politicised learning. J4DW organized weekly English classes and monthly art workshops where tutors helped MDWs create their own view of the world and develop their political consciousness.

The J4DW chair and directors were very aware of the danger that professional educators might be seen as part of the structures that workers would resist. Therefore, all tutors were either domestic workers or Union members and their learning activities had an obvious radical orientation.

Finally, the overall mode of participative democracy and collective leadership development constituted another part of the organizing process. The leader of J4DW, rather than being an outsider, came from the MDW community, and was a full-time domestic worker herself.

J4DW also had a conception of leadership as supporting and educating. All director positions within J4DW were non-paid and voluntary. J4DW’s link with the trade union was innovative. On one hand, Unite the Union offered venues for their classes and monthly meetings, and organized campaigns with J4DW together in relation to the issue of migration policy and employment rights. On the other hand, J4DW was an independent entity that had autonomous decision-making.

In terms of overall outcomes, J4DW has not succeeded in their lobbying regarding changes in domestic migrant domestic workers visa status. By the time of writing, campaigns are on-going to urge the British government to ratify International Labour Organization convention on International Domestic Workers and to abolish the government’s change of domestic visa policy announced in 2012.

However, we have clearly witnessed social and cultural gains in the sense of individual and collective agency and an improvement of working conditions in individualized labour processes. Some migrant domestic workers successfully brought unfair dismissal cases to an employment tribunal and won compensation. More importantly, it is clear that collective activism was engendered in J4DW. Nearly all J4DW members expressed their interest in joining campaigns related to migrant domestic workers or general workers.

We argue that to assess the success of organizing we should not only focus on institutional and political gains, as can be seen in mainstream industrial relations studies. Social and cultural gains in terms of psychological empowerment and the development of labour consciousness, are important outcomes of organizing as well because they pave the way for future mobilizations.

Our analysis suggests that this flat, associational mode of organizing based on may be sustainable at least in to the medium term.

We do not, however, want to necessarily suggest this as a new ideal type of associational organizing that can or should be reproduced in other settings. Rather, we see it as more likely that there are a range of types of associational organizing that are being tried out and developed in different settings by migrant workers in the current political economy.

The most important thing to learn from this case of J4DW, therefore, is that social scientists should go out in search of new creative modes of associational organizing being enacted.

Joyce Jiang is Lecturer of Human Resource Management at the University of Roehampton. This article summarizes findings from the paper “When the ‘unorganizable’ organize,” in Human Relations.

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