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Collective mobilisations among immigrant workers in low-skilled sectors: a study of community organising of immigrant workers in the UK

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posted on 12.11.2013, 09:19 by Zhe Jiang
Contemporary labour immigration into the UK has been underpinned by two structural positions: the uneven development within the capitalist system and an intensification of competition driving towards flexibility and precarity. Immigrant workers are overwhelmingly concentrated in secondary sectors of the labour market with low pay, long working hours and poor health and safety and closely associated with non-standard work and informal economy where unions are often not available. How these immigrant workers in highly exploitative industries respond to work-related exploitations poses a great challenge to traditional trade unionism. While community unionism has received increasing attention from researchers and practitioners, an institution-centric approach is dominated in the scholarship which tends to overemphasize the role of institutional entity, such as trade unions and NGOs, in shaping collective agency and consider it as the centrality to immigrant workers activism. In contrast to such union-centred research, this study adopts a social movement perspective to explore whether and how community organizing approach can empower immigrant workers and enhance union organizing when globalization compromises its validity. By conducting the multi-method (interviews, surveys, participant observations and videos) ethnographic studies in an immigrant domestic worker self-help group-Justice for Domestic Workers in London over a year and a post EU-enlargement Polish association and local Polish neighbourhood in South Somerset over five months, the research shows that gendered and cultural space rather than traditional industrial entities could offer a political context in which immigrant workers start recognising structural class exploitations and develop an agency and activism for changes. This suggests that the collective mobilizations of immigrant workers in informal and individualised sectors may require creative leaps of sociological imagination in nurturing such communities of coping, wherever they may be occurring - in social clubs, cafés or churches. Community, however, is not a naturally harmonious and unified group setting. The internal divisions and competitions within immigrant communities pose limits to how far ethnic cohesion can serve as a basis for collective mobilization of immigrant workers. The research points to the potential tensions between immigrant community organizations and trade unions to compete for membership and social influence in the coalition building. There is a risk that the institutional goals of immigrant community organizations, in terms of securing funding and expanding its organizational influence, may take precedence over substantive goals of support provision. The research also suggests that academics and practitioners need to rethink the criteria that define the success of worker organising. To win union recognition and achieve collective bargaining agreements in the workplace is a rare case in community organizing of immigrant workers. A distinction should be made between capacity-building from the perspective of workers and organizations involved in community organizing of immigrant workers. There might be a contradiction between organizational developments and grassroots empowerment. Instead of merely focusing on political outcomes as the existing research indicates, more attention should paid to outcomes in social and cultural arenas and how gains in one arena facilitate or hinder gains in another.


Loughborough University



  • Business and Economics


  • Business


© Zhe Jiang

Publication date



A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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