UNISON has welcomed new research showing the value of trade unions to migrant workers.
The report by social policy charity the Rowntree Foundation was launched in Parliament on Monday.
It hails the work of UNISON’s pioneering Overseas Nurses’ Network, which participated in the research, and the authors highlight the union’s value in helping immigrants integrate as well as in resolving problems.
The findings confirm what UNISON has long believed – ‘that trade unions have an important role to play in engaging with migrants in UK workplaces,’ said Greg Thomson, the union’s national development manager for migrant workers.
‘UNISON is committed to taking up this challenge,’ he continued.
‘Recent debates on immigration have become politically loaded – preventing recognition of the many benefits migrant workers bring to the UK. It also overshadows the real issues at stake – that public services must be properly funded to reflect the needs of a changing population.
‘By highlighting what some of these changes are, hopefully this report can help bring about constructive debate on how we can create a more inclusive society.’
Overseas Nurses’ Network founder Sofi Taylor said ‘it is encouraging to know that UNISON’s initiative is a step in the right direction.
‘Hopefully, things like our migrant workers charter – launched in the Scottish Parliament last month – will take us further along this road.’
The charter commits employers to sign up to treat migrant workers fairly – offering them the same pay and conditions as indigenous workers, helping workers with travel and housing needs, and to overcome language and cultural difficulties.
Taylor also welcomed the report’s recognition that the intervention of the local council and other public agencies had turned round initial hostility to asylum seekers in Glasgow’s Sighthill district.
‘This shows that the public sector can make a significant difference in bringing communities together,’ she said.
The Immigration and Social Cohesion in the UK report’s summary says:
‘This research draws on original material gathered from six UK sites with different experiences of migration and post-industrial transformations, and comprising different populations of long-term residents and new immigrants.
‘Between them, they illustrate various contexts of social cohesion in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
‘Most people felt that social cohesion was about negotiating the right balance in expressing difference and unity in local areas, rather than expecting complete consensus on values and priorities.
‘Some majority ethnic long-term residents experienced government concerns with immigration as prioritising the interests of private business, while neglecting their specific needs.
‘The arrival of new immigrants could highlight the resilience of some communities, or the profound disconnections between people, groups and institutions in others.
‘Many long-term residents and new arrivals valued the UK for being multi-ethnic and multicultural.
‘Communities which thought of a locality as belonging to them in particular were more likely to blame new arrivals for problems that often already existed.
‘Communities which thought of a locality as belonging to everyone tended to be more open to new arrivals.
‘When the arrival of new immigrants brought about improvements in infrastructure support and opportunities for new arrivals and long-term residents, these shared circumstances were welcomed and valued by all.’
The researchers conclude that the limited opportunities and multiple deprivations of the long-term settled population in parts of UK towns and cities undermine social cohesion.
To ensure cohesion, the impact of social and economic changes needs to be addressed as well as how people relate to each other.
The reseachers noted: ‘New immigration has contributed to the pressures on social cohesion arising from the economic and social transformations of the twenty-first century, which have created new economic and social opportunities, but also communities of worklessness and structural deprivation.’
Looking at family, work and housing, the report noted: ‘People were generally committed to their families, and new arrivals with families as well as the settled population, devoted much of their non-working time to them.
‘This, combined with the demands of work, reduced the time available for wider social activities and relationships.’
It added: ‘Many long-term settled residents in parts of UK towns and cities have experienced diminished social lives because of worklessness. . .
‘Limitations placed on asylum seekers generate another form of worklessness – they are legally unable to work, but are nonetheless identified as scroungers.
‘The combined impact of such worklessness created employment opportunities for arrivals from the 2004 accession countries (A8), who were able to respond to UK labour-market demands.’
On education, deprivation and social cohesion, the report said: ‘Not all schools could meet newly arriving pupils’ language needs.
‘Where resources were adequate, schools enhanced new arrivals’ ability to participate in the community, and new arrivals could enhance the school’s educational performance.
‘When challenges and tensions arose, schools and other local organisations could play a key role in defusing the situation.’
The researchers conclude that to ensure cohesion, the impact of social and economic changes needs to be addressed as well as how people relate to each other.
‘The limited opportunities and multiple deprivations of the long-term settled population in parts of UK towns and cities undermine social cohesion.
‘These fundamental issues of deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination impact on both majority ethnic and minority ethnic settled residents.
‘This research suggests that a restructuring of the housing debate away from arguments about need and entitlement to a focus on the provision of adequate housing for all would be beneficial for social cohesion.
‘There are opportunities across a number of policy areas to integrate addressing disadvantages and ensuring cohesion.’
The researchers conclude that a key factor influencing whether new immigrants are accepted is the dominant story in each locality about who belongs there.
Their findings go against the grain of the idea that we need a fixed notion of Britishness and British values.