The role of identity in the lives of migrant workers

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Jane Holgate is Professor of work and employment relations at the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change at the University of Leeds.

Group photograph of the participants of the Seminar on Migrants, Workplace and Community

Exploring the role identity and oppression play in the lives of migrant workers campaigning for social justice

Migrant workers are a valuable vantage point to explore current transformations in civil society (a society concerned with representing the needs of the local community) and to consider how social justice and cohesion is fostered and a fairer society created.

They perform an important role in contemporary society and economy, yet they are constructed as one of the key contemporary problems in current public and political discourse. However, at the grassroots level there are interesting examples of migrants and non-migrants working together to build cohesion from the bottom-up in different communities across the UK.

This Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seminar is part of a series that foregrounds, reflects on and theorises how workplace and community collective actors (eg from religious and labour organisations through to broad-based coalitions) come together to organise around social justice and what this means for migrant workers and wider society. The series – “Migrants, Workplace and Community: Learning from Innovation in Civil Society (2016-2018)” – is organised by leading academics from six UK universities and the founder of the Migrant Rights Network. It draws on interdisciplinary theoretical approaches to provide a deeper understanding of the factors that make civil society initiatives by migrants ‘work’.

This particular seminar (number four of nine in the series) will focus on how identity and oppression mobilise people to act. More specifically, how different forms of oppression (eg race, gender, class) intersect such that individuals are able to come together to act for ‘the common good’ – campaigning for a society that reflects the needs of its community.

As part of the day-long seminar, delegates will hear from leading academics researching the lives of migrant workers. The participants in these studies are from various backgrounds and in different types of employment. The case studies will show how these workers have resisted the often negative dominant narratives ascribed to migrants to organise themselves to challenge exploitation, racism and marginalisation.

Gabriella Alberti, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at Leeds University Business School, will begin the day by providing an intersectional theoretical framework to understand trade union strategies used to organise migrant workers. Gabriella will suggest that bringing ‘migrant intersectionalities’ (overlapping or intersecting social identities) into different levels of the analysis can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the strategies used by trade unions to organise migrant workers.

Following this, Jean Jenkins, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations at Cardiff Business School will take us to India where she has been researching women working in the garment sector. This presentation will explore the dynamics of production and consumption in this sector, which have traditionally generated intense competition between manufacturers. Her focus will be on Indian garment workers and the ways in which becoming organised can weaken the oppressive constraints of gender and class for women in their society and at the workplace.

Following lunch, Joyce Jiang, Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the University of York, will draw upon an ethnographic study of community organising by Polish migrant workers in South Somerset, UK. Joyce’s presentation will look at the fragmentations within the migrant community which are derived from the integration of ethnicity, class, gender and other cultural dynamics.

This will be followed by Heather Connolly, Reader at De Montfort University and Sylvie Contrepois, from the Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris who, together, will focus on class and identity politics in the representation of migrant workers, comparing France and the UK.

Finally, the day will conclude with a session from Julie Hearn, Lecturer at Lancaster University, who will discuss the significant successes and major setbacks of a campaign led by Latin American cleaners for union recognition and better pay and conditions at the University of London. Her presentation will show how they overcame fear, resignation, intimidation, racism, poverty alongside cultural and linguistic alienation to find their political agency.

Throughout the day there will be plenty of time for discussion and debate and we are hoping to attract practitioners as well as academics in order to enrich the discussions that take place. All are welcome to attend this free event.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.