Is skills development the answer to economic and social upgradation in the Global South? Some reflections on evidence from India

Anita Hammer

Skills are considered the answer to economic development and reduction in inequality in industrialised as well as industrialising societies. Not surprisingly, skill development has attracted considerable attention from policy makers in India, e.g. the formation of the National Skill Development Council to coordinate skill development and various public-private partnership initiatives on skill formation. The policy changes in India, evident in the National Skill Development Policy 2009, are in line with strategies elsewhere: skill formation and upgrading has assumed a critical role with increased global competition, either as a means to retain competitive advantage by industrialised economies or to upgrade by emerging economies.

 

India has witnessed an impressive increase in GDP growth over the last two decades. At the same time, it is undergoing a demographic shift i.e. an increase in the share of working-age population in total population. With a working age labour force of 431 million (those aged between 15 and 59 years) in the total labour force of 470 million (NSSO 2009-10), the challenge is employment creation and skills upgrading of the existing as well as growing workforce. The National Skill Development Policy 2009 set a target of 500 million to be skilled by 2022, with the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) target of skilling at least 50 million people by 2016-17. Indeed the fear is that if the skills challenge is not met within the next decade, India may not be able to sustain growth and it may leave large numbers among the increasingly youthful labour force unemployed with all its attendant negative implications for equality and social cohesion (Mehrotra et al. 2013). The key question is: can India remain competitive through its existing patterns of skill formation?

 

The role of skills is particularly emphasised in new industrial regions that are developing in order to attract industry, especially multinational firms. Specifically inserted into global production networks, such regions are often associated with skill development and/or overflow. In policy literature, this has been examined through the concept of skill ecosystems (Finegold 1999) that rests on a certain balance of power between firms, the state, and skilling institutions. My research conducted in the manufacturing firms of one such region in North India during 2014-15 reveals there are considerable institutional barriers to the emergence of a skills ecosystem. Trade unions are excluded from skilling decisions and institutions, and labour is not an actor in a context where post-independence compromise meant that the state represents the interests of labour. For unions, their exclusion takes skills out of their bargaining portfolio further weakening their position.

 

One-sided supply side skilling strategies persist in firms that reinforce the institutional fragmentation within the Indian skilling system as well as the considerable unequal power relations in the labour market. On the one hand, the system of skilling institutions is fragmented between public and private institutions, between centrally certified providers and others that go considerably beyond this and are oriented at the German system. On the other, when it comes to the demand for labour, recruitment decisions always have to be considered against strategies of in-house production vs. outsourcing. Inevitably, long supply chains in the textile and automotive industry draw on the informal economy which, to a large extent, is based on informal skilling practices. Informal workers are /remain weak in the absence of a clear employment contracts, and with limited union coverage and social security.  Because of their weak labour market position, even skilled informal workers cannot bargain for much. These factors combine to entrench disincentives by firms to train or to involve labour in skilling decisions. Only 17% of firms provide training in India. The political economy encourages outsourcing, and thereby further undermines any requirement to engage in skilling.

 

In conclusion, while the government has put forward an integrated and holistic policy, underpinned by the insight of the skills ecosystems literature, the new policy faces severe challenges in a context of fragmented institutional skilling structure and unequal capital and labour relations both nationally and in the region. With over 93% of workers as informal, power relations are skewed in favour of employers. The imbalances between capital and labour do not provide any collective constraints or offer firms any incentives to develop work organisations that require skilling in a coordinated institutional environment. Firms draw their competitive advantage from recruiting from and outsourcing to the informal economy. This is unsustainable in a globalizing world where other destinations may provide the cost advantage to capital that India currently does. No matter how comprehensive a policy, it is unlikely to succeed unless unequal power relations in the labour market are addressed.

 

Industrial politics and global production networks: first, don’t make things worse

Phil Almond

(originally published December 14, 2016)

Current debates over the future of the UK’s relations with the EU seem to be taking place with a limited appreciation of how international productive capitalism works in a globalised economy. Some on the Right argue that being outside the single European market is likely to be a catalyst to trade with the rest of the world, without explaining how this might be the case. Some in the Labour Party argue for a ‘hard Brexit’ on protectionist grounds.  Both ignore the complexities of how the international production of goods and services works. It is therefore worth recapping what we know about competition between countries and regions in global production networks, and how this has developed. Our focus here is on Europe and North America, as globalisation processes have somewhat different outcomes in the Global South.

The post-war internationalisation of production was done mainly by industrial firms with fairly integrated production systems. They benefitted from national markets which were protected by tariff and other trade barriers. These firms made monopoly rents on their domestic production. Where labour movements, or political pressures, were strong enough, these translated into rising real wages. To differing extents in different places, states and capitalists often came to support rising real wages, in order to boost demand.

Some of these firms sought to expand production beyond their national borders. This was done for a variety of reasons: to exploit national differences in wage levels, to reduce transportation costs, and to avoid tariffs and other trade barriers by opening branch plants. Branch plants basically reproduced domestic production for a foreign market. They did not generally engage in much R&D or other high value-added activities.

“Branches” continue to exist where product market access requires them to. Walmart, for example, obviously needs to open large stores outside the USA. However, in general, ‘production’, whether of goods or services, is increasingly fragmented. This has been enabled by the growth of economies outside the Global North, the liberalisation of global trade, the building of continental markets in Europe and North America, financial globalisation, and by technological advances.  Fragmentation refers to two things:

– organisational fragmentation – lead firms increasingly outsource large parts of the processes by which they create value. Outsourcing once mainly concerned relatively peripheral parts of firms’ value chains. However in recent years it has extended to previously ‘core’ functions such as manufacturing and R&D.

– geographical fragmentation – firms have become increasingly able to locate their production across a wider range of geographies.  This means they can make very fine-grained decisions about where to perform different elements of their production processes. This geographical fragmentation sometimes takes place within multinationals, and sometimes outside them, in wider production networks.

An example of this can be seen in the travels undergone by just one component, a fuel injector for diesel lorries manufactured by the US-owned component maker Delphi. As the FT’s Peter Campbell writes:

“This part uses steel from Europe which is machined in the UK before going to Germany for special heat treatment. The injector is then assembled at Delphi’s UK plant in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, before being sold on to truckmakers based in Sweden, France or Germany. If the resulting truck is sold into the UK market, the component or materials used in it will have crossed the Channel five times before the lorry is ever driven by the customer”.

Places – countries, regions, cities and towns – then compete to be the best location for specific activities. This is sometimes on a global basis, but perhaps more often at the level of continents. Different countries, and different regions within countries, may have different advantages. These might include, among other things, cost, light regulation, low tax, but also access to skills, to innovation systems, and access to markets.

Specific places may have well-known forms of advantage in this competition. So for instance Germany is often seen as having advantages in complex manufacturing through its high-quality training system, and relatively participative patterns of work organisation. However, being competitive, whether through ‘high road’ high quality, high wage approaches, or low road, low cost approaches, is not as simple as building competitive forms of labour and other regulation. It is also about continual processes of adaptation, as places continually try to boost their competitiveness by building relations with international firms. For example, in our research into multinationals and regional development, we examined an old industrial region in Spain (Asturias). This had excellent engineering education developed through its long history as a mining region. It was able to repurpose this in order to establish a high-end global R&D centre for a German multinational originally attracted to the region to perform lower-value assembly work. This process involved civil servants, a university, trade unions and various employer organisations.

Such processes of adaptation are necessary because lead firms have the capacity to make fine-grained decisions about the geographical and organisational location of their activities. This means that subsidiary units increasingly compete to exercise functions on an international basis. This is sometimes referred to as ‘mandate competition’. Units which are unsuccessful in these contests face dim prospects in cases where access to markets no longer requires the existence of national ‘branches’. This process also occurs, in a slightly different way, in external firms that the multinational has close links to.

In previous work, we have argued that this results in ‘regime shopping’. In other words, firms play the regulations and fiscal regimes of countries and regions off against each other.  It also leads to ‘resource shopping’. This describes the process of firms seeking places where the most ‘positive’ resource combinations are available for specific tasks.

To be clear, ‘regime shopping’ is clearly problematic.  It puts pressure on wages, on trade unions, and on the tax base of nations. Equally, we may object to vital public services being organised in private hands as a result of liberal regulation.

However, identifying that something about contemporary capitalism has bad consequences is quite a long way from finding a remedy for it. Having researched this subject in Canada, it is very clear that the game of attracting firms to countries and regions is very much dirtier in North America. This is because NAFTA is a much less regulated market for state support of firms than the European Union is. This enables overt competition on the grounds of high-subsidy, anti-union arrangements.

Britain is currently embarking on a process of striking a new round of deals with multinationals. It does so in a context of marked uncertainty about regulation. It is difficult to see how opaque deals such as that apparently reached with Nissan are likely to be more socially progressive than what they replace. Such deals are going to have to be reached with any firm with a loud enough voice.  This is likely to happen quite a lot in the case of a ‘hard Brexit’: from the firms’ perspective, gains from these negotiations simply compensate for the lost advantage of single market access.

Avoiding models of international competition built on worse outcomes for workers and the public has to be an international enterprise. This is, of course, difficult at the best of times. However, global production networks are not about to be abolished. The problems of regime shopping in general will be worsened, not cured, by attempts to build ‘walls’.

Some of the arguments here are developed in Almond, Gonzalez, Lavelle and Murray, ‘The Local in the Global: Regions, Employment Systems and Multinationals’, Industrial Relations Journaland in Almond and Gonzalez (2014) ‘Geography and International HRM’ in the Routledge Companion to International Human Resource Management.

Informal Economy/ Informal Work: Challenges for Industrial Relations

Anita Hammer

Industrial relations has predominantly focussed on the formal workplace and formal institutions of representation and neglected the informal economy/work. Informal work, instead of being a transitory phenomenon, has been a predominant form of work in the Global South and is increasingly prevalent in the Global North (Chang 2013; Kalleberg 2009). As work continues to reach beyond the formal workplace and into the informal economy – into the community, household and the realm of social reproduction – institutional forms of industrial relations face a challenge. While Organising and Social Movement literatures address this challenge, conceptual and methodological issues remain underexplored in industrial relations.

 

Initially conceptualised as the ‘informal sector’ (Hart 1973), since the 1990s the term ‘informal economy’ has focussed attention on a broad and heterogeneous type of employment and enterprises that are unregulated and unprotected (Portesand Castells 1989; Hussmans 2005; Agarwala 2009). The expanded definition of the informal economy sees it as segmented into a range of informal firms and employment relationships i.e. self-employed with assets and employees, survival self-employed (own account operators and unpaid family labour), wage labour, casual wage labour, domestic labour and industrial outworkers/homeworkers. As Breman (2013) puts it ‘there is not one but a variety of regimes of informal labour, not all vicious to the same extent. These also differ in coping behaviour and resilience, some segments being more successful than others’. In sum, informality has multiple levels of exploitation as well as of forms and avenues of resistance.

 

Accompanying this recognition of the permanence of the informal economy is also one that recognises its significance to capitalist development. The relationship between the formal and informal economy is seen as a continuum of economic relations of production, distribution and employment where firms and workers move along the continuum or can operate simultaneously in both (Chen 2007; Lerche 2010; Harriss-White 2010).There is a recognition of diverse socio-economic relations that can result from the interaction of the formal and informal economy.  Agarwala(2008) captures this in her relational understanding of the informal economy where informal workers are intertwined with the formal economy, society and the state through structures, networks and political institutions. Informality is now fused within formerly formal parts of the economy, through outsourcing and supply chains.

 

My research in a new industrialising region in North India shows how manufacturing firms, domestic as well as multinational, tap into and structure the informal economy. Over a span of ten years they have reduced their permanent workforce while employing three times the number of informal workers. These are segmented into contract, casual, company casual and apprentice workers and often fulfil the jobs of a full-time production worker inside the firm. In addition, firms draw upon informal workers through outsourcing and long supply chains both in the textile and the automotive sector. As in earlier industrial sociology, neighbourhood comes into the firm and the firm reaches into the neighbourhood. This blurs the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction when analysing control and contest. Trade unions are unable to respond to the needs of informal workers or formulate a strategy to counter the state-capital restructuring of work.

 

For industrial relations, the challenge is how to conceptualise these interlinkages between the formal-informal work/economy and how to organise disparate, dispersed and often mobile informal workplaces and workers. This requires a rethink of definitions and conceptualisation of labour, framing options, organisational forms and strategies, and types of struggles for labour in spheres of production as well as reproduction. ‘New’ questions, with long history, have arisen. Is labour a mere production input or ‘social’ labour? Is work only in the sphere of production or is it all the work that helps in capitalist accumulation? Do we need to conceptualise labour as an actor, or only as collective actor? Can, or indeed should, the informal be ‘formalised’? Why is informal economy/work so difficult to regulate? What role do inter-firm relations play in informality? Do we need to go beyond institutional forms of industrial relations? What are the methodological challenges in researching the informal economy/work?

 

One of the many ways forward is Bernstein’s (2007) ‘classes of labour’. The approach provides an analytical framework that is flexible enough to capture the diversity of employment in formal-informal economy. Another possibility is the integrated framework of social reproduction (Luxton 2006; Ferguson and McNally 2015) that captures social relations of capitalism more comprehensively. Such approaches are sensitive to varied economic survival strategies of different groups of informal workers and the diverse means of resistance.

 

A more differentiated understanding of work and labour, and links between oppression and exploitation and production and consumption may help in framing strategies to address the challenges informal economy/work poses to industrial relations and to the labour movement.

Resisting Labour Reforms in France

Heather Connolly

On 4th November 2015, France’s labour minister, Myriam El Khomri, launched reforms designed to rewrite the labour code. France’s labour code is more than 3,500 pages long in its latest edition, plus vast amounts of supplementary case law. This fact makes it difficult for most people to make sense of and keep track of current legislation and hence to understand what is actually being reformed. Against a background marked by a high level of unemployment of around 10 per cent, and particularly high levels of youth unemployment, the two main objectives were to revise the entire labour code and to give company-level agreements a central role.

 

In a nutshell, El Khomri proposed a labour code with a new architecture resting on three tiers and centred on collective bargaining at the branch and company level. The first tier guarantees fundamental principles such as the minimum wage and working hours (the well-known 35-hour week) from which employers would not be able to depart. The second tier comprises areas open to negotiation, at branch or company level. The third tier covers the provisions applicable where there is no branch or company level agreement between employers and unions.

 

Earlier this year, on 24th March, the Council of Ministers adopted a revised version of El Khomri’s Bill. As a result of earlier protests the government has somewhat watered down the proposals to the extent that business leaders now see the law as irrelevant because the original intention – to allow small businesses to make deals directly with workers, rather than unions – has been removed in the revised version of the law. MEDEF, representing mainly large employers, was unhappy with changes introduced in the new version of the bill, while CGPME and UPA, organisations representing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), felt disadvantaged by new rules that offer greater flexibility to large companies than to SMEs through social dialogue. On the union side, the reformist unions (CFDT, CFTC, CFE-CGC, UNSA) noted improvements that brought the proposed changes more in line with their preferences. But other unions (CGT, FO, SUD) and student organisations have continued to demand the withdrawal of the proposals. Nevertheless, the government has presented the bill to parliament for debate with a view to its adoption in summer.

 

As France experiences more industrial action this month, notably during the run up to Euro 2016, it is important to reflect on what the labour reforms signify and why the new law has caused such widespread action and disruption. The new law was intended to start the same process that has long been under way in France’s neighbours, notably Germany and the UK, loosening up the labour market and reducing employee protection, but in turn creating new jobs. France is often accused of failing to adapt to the realities of globalisation and to hampering job creation and growth by having such ‘rigid’ labour protections.

 

However, job creation is held up as being the Holy Grail to achieving growth, but with little attention paid to the types of jobs that would be created as a result of loosening up the labour market and the ((un)intended) social costs that creating more precarious jobs has on society more widely. The UK is hardly a model that France would want to follow, considering the high levels of income inequality and the proliferation of precarious work in the form of zero-hours contracts, for example. Is Germany the model to follow, again with its (often underestimated) high levels of income inequality and low-paying service sector jobs? Indeed it was only in 2014 that Germany introduced a minimum wage to redress the high disparity in incomes and precariousness in parts of the labour market, particularly in the service sector. There are of course social costs attached to high levels of unemployment and particularly for young workers who find it difficult to enter the core of permanent, protected workers. The question is whether the answer is to make everyone more precarious.

 

Trade union radicalism and mobilisation has been a significant feature of the labour movement in France. While in general there has been a decline of strikes in France, there has been a persistence of resistance and protest. However, most of the current protests are about demands to open up negotiation and social dialogue rather than more radical demands. Recently, the usual suspects in transport have been at the centre of strikes and mobilisations against labour reforms, including a railways strike lasting 10 days from 1st June and workers on the underground beginning an open-ended strike on 10th June. The three main unions representing rail workers – the more radical CGT, UNSA and SUD-rail – have engaged in several bouts of strike action and encouraged open-ended strikes. The CFDT union has cancelled some more recent calls to strike after succeeding in gaining guarantees from the government. The motivation for the most recent walk-out is in part due to opposition to France’s labour reforms – however rail workers have also organised the strike to put pressure on SNCF bosses as negotiations continue over their pay, working conditions and working hours.

 

Over the last fifteen years, France has introduced radical changes into its labour law. The latest reform is thus one more component of this protracted process of reform. It takes even further the liberal rationale of greater flexibility in the labour market which, in the view of some trade union and student organisations, is not offset by the provision of increased security for workers.

 

French union activists have been described as ‘reactionary radicals’ – reactionary because union activists are attempting to prevent a change from taking place, and radical because they aspire to a type of far-reaching change that would foster a balance of power more favourable to labour, neutralise the neo-liberal project, and allow for the continuation of the sociocultural world of public sector workers.

 

However, much of the protests and strikes since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 have been guided by a defensive rather than offensive agenda centred on the defence of employment benefits, the acquis sociaux (acquired rights), and the status quo. The most recent strikes reflect not only continuity of reactionary radicalism and defending hard-won rights, but an expression of the relationship of subordination between workers and their employers and the shift in the balance of power towards employers, which has notably taken place under a Socialist government.

 

The current strikes are therefore a test of strength for the French trade union movement and their ability to resist reforms. Similarly, the reforms are also a test for the French government. The outcomes arising from the industrial action will be watched closely by employers, big and small, and will demonstrate the government’s commitment to reform of the labour laws.

This post was originally posted on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield, 16th June 2016.

 

 

Social exclusion and labour rights in the banlieues of Paris, Part II

Heather Connolly

This post was originally posted on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield, 14th April 2016.

Last month I returned to the banlieues of Paris on a research visit, four months after the November attacks, and during the week of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22nd March.  Whilst in Paris issues of social division and community cohesion inevitably dominated political debates and press headlines.

 

Anecdotally, public reaction in the mainstream media in France in the days after the Brussels attacks, suggested a lack of understanding of past and present French (and European) immigration and the citizenship status of ethnic minorities from the banlieues.  Calls were made by some members of the public to send the terrorists, many of whom had French or Belgian nationality, ‘back home’.  This sentiment has been somewhat fuelled by François Hollande’s proposals, as a direct response to the November 2015 attacks, to make controversial changes to the constitution to strip militants convicted of terror attacks of their French nationality (proposals which have now been dropped).

 

Other important contextualising factors feeding political debates and public perceptions around immigration and social exclusion include the current and emerging tensions surrounding the migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and restrictions of movement and increased police powers as a result of France’s continuing ‘state of emergency’ (état d’urgence).

 

As was the case in the Paris attacks, the terrorists in Belgium grew up in the suburbs of Brussels, with high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst second and third generation youths of immigrant origin.

 

Immigration flows to France are often linked into debates on models of integration and patterns of social exclusion of migrants.  France’s assimilationist model has in many ways failed in relation to the integration of past flows of immigrants.  As a result second and third generations of immigrant origin find it difficult to access employment and often remain trapped in the banlieues of Paris.

 

I was in Paris to follow up on my research on trade union responses to immigrants and those known as the sans papiers (undocumented workers) (which Part I of this blog explored), and found a somewhat depressing picture emerging.  Immigrants and especially the sans papiers are increasingly being stigmatised and placed under restrictions while trying to live and work in France.  This situation isn’t being helped by the current political debates mentioned above.

 

Signs initially looked better for the sans papiers when in 2012 the circulaire de regularisation, which sets out guidance and defined sets of conditions for administrators processing regularisation claims was introduced in response to growing unrest among sans papiers workers.  Trade unions, particularly the CGT, have been an important resource for the sans papiers in fighting for criteria for regularisation and in making sure they are applied, even though the circulaire has no legal status and doesn’t give automatic rights to work permits.  The strategy seems to be working and since 2010 the union has obtained some 10,000 regularisations of migrants.

 

At the same time there have been increasing sanctions on employers found to be employing undocumented migrants, with two circulaires in 2013 against illegal work and against irregular immigration.  Also, there are some who are critical of the circulaire de regularisation, claiming that there have been fewer regularisations per year since its introduction. During last month’s field work with my French colleague Dr Sylvie Contrepois, one undocumented Senegalese worker, who had found regular work in France for 24 years, suddenly found himself without work as a result of the greater restrictions on employers, and without recourse to any rights to unemployment benefit or state aid.

 

The CGT, one of the largest French trade unions has provided a ‘permanence’ (advice service) for the sans papiers in the banlieues of Paris since 2014.  The union has between 70 and 80 sans papiers attending the ‘permanence’ every week with the aim being to help the migrants to obtain work permits, and the immediate aim to protect them from having problems with employers and the police.

 

The advice given to the sans papiers demonstrates the uneasy nature of accessing labour rights as an undocumented worker in France.  One Senegalese union activist we spoke to (still a sans papier himself) explained that many of the migrants did not understand the process of accessing their rights in France.  There were heated exchanges between the sans papiers and the union activists advising the migrants, with some suggesting that it was particularly the Bangladeshi migrants who weren’t so aware of the process for obtaining papers.  In asking what the process was we discovered that it was important first to obtain fake papers, then find a job, stay in that job for a certain amount of time, collect some pay slips and then come to the union, who would then be able to help with their case for a work permit.  The union was able to draw on the conditions set out in circulaire de regularisation to make the case for regularisation, even where workers were working with fake papers.

 

By offering a service to undocumented workers, in spite of its service-based appearance, the union aims to identify and call out poor employer practices and force them to apply regulations.  The broader political goal is to fight illegal work, prevent social dumping and to encourage self-organising and future mobilisations of sans papiers.  The union also hopes for the greater integration and involvement of the sans papiers within the wider union.  Whether trade unions are able to build and sustain this kind of solidarity and action remains a key challenge, but an important one in such uncertain times.

 

Social exclusion and labour rights in the banlieues of Paris

Heather Connolly

NOTE: this article was originally posted on the SPERI blog in December 2015.

The terrorist attacks in Paris have again highlighted the problem of social divisions in France and the extent to which they lead to feelings of exclusion that in some way incite violent responses.  It appears that some of the terrorists grew up in or had links to the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris, where there are high concentrations of immigrants and minority ethnic groups, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty and a recent history of racial tensions.  Many of the youth in the banlieues are unemployed, with the unemployment rate for immigrant youth above 30% according to the OECD.  More generally, migrants and their children are also over-represented in low qualified jobs, with workers of North African origins experiencing the highest ethnic penalty in terms of access to employment.

France has a republican model of integration, built on the universalist values of the 1789 Revolution of secularism and equal individual rights for all.  Recognition of cultural difference or ethnic communities is considered unacceptable.  In contrast to the British multiculturalist model, where ‘difference’ – whether of ethnicity or religion – is tolerated or even prized, ‘difference’ in France is seen as a form of sectarianism and a threat to the republic.  The French notion of laïcité, dating back to the Revolution, actively blocks religious interference in affairs of state and public manifestations of religious identity in public spaces, including workplaces.  The problem for the recent generations of Muslim immigrants to France is that the proclaimed universalism of republican values – and the focus on assimilation – has meant that many Muslims feel that, if they want to be ‘French’, they must learn to be citizens of the republic first and Muslims second.  This is a difficult and, for some, impossible task.

My recent research has looked at how trade unions have responded to migrant and minority workers in France.  As context, it should be said that trade unions in France have one of the lowest levels of membership density among OECD countries, with only around 8% of workers being members of a union.  Moreover, the union movement is divided along ideological and political lines.  It also confronts ideological employers, which means that social dialogue tends to be conflictual and fairly hollow.

However, trade unions in France still have a high level of institutional embeddedness, manifest in the level of collective bargaining attained with over 90% of workers covered by some form of collective agreement.  They also benefit from relatively high levels of worker turnout in workplace representative elections which are organised every 2-4 years.  Elected worker representatives participate and negotiate at all levels of the organisation and enjoy a legal framework for employee representation that is the envy of trade unions in the UK, including a right to strike enshrined in the French constitution.

My previous work on French trade unions has shown that the institutional embeddedness of trade unions gives them access to resources (time, space and financing) that allows them to represent the wider interests of workers and mount campaigns to organise workers who are excluded from regulated spaces, both inside and outside the workplace.  The unionisation rate among immigrant workers is only around 2%.  However, this figure is based on nationality, not ethnic origin, as ethnic monitoring is not permitted in France.  Migrants and their descendants are likely to be counted as ‘nationals’ as soon as they access French citizenship. This of course poses problems in terms of how we can study issues of social exclusion and discrimination, as the data needed often doesn’t exist.

What is emerging from my research in France is that trade union behaviour is still fundamentally shaped by the assimilationist model of integration.  For migrants and minorities working in France this has generally meant that they have had to leave their ethnic and religious identities at the factory gates, the office door and even the picket line.  One trade union activist to whom I spoke about Muslim workers taking part in a strike said that there was a ‘time for everything’ and added that he had told Muslim workers that praying on the picket line was not appropriate.  There was no issue with the workers being Muslim; only the public demonstration of religious identity.

Attitudes have been changing, however, as evidenced in the debates on the wearing of headscarves.  In a recent case where a woman was fired for refusing to remove the veil when asked to do so by her employer, trade unions supported the court’s decision which allowed women to wear the headscarf when working for private employers and thus not involved in providing public services.  There has also been some recognition and support by trade unions for workers discriminated against on the basis of nationality and immigrant status in the past. This was the case recently when 800 Moroccan workers, working on private contracts for the public railways since the 1970s, won a case of discrimination, as they had been excluded from the benefits and status of the public-sector workers alongside whom they worked.

Even though they still approach the issue from a mainly race-blind and social rights perspective, trade unions have made attempts to integrate undocumented migrant workers who have been excluded from accessing their labour rights.  Trade unions in and around Paris have done a lot of campaigning around and organising of the sans papiers workers, a large number of whom are of African origin.  Ever since the 1970s trade unions have been in favour of the regularisation of undocumented workers and from the early 2000s onwards organised mass strikes of these workers to demand regularisation and respect for their labour rights.  As a result, over 5,000 workers have been regularised in recent years and the campaigns continue, with greater numbers of undocumented workers organising campaigns themselves with the support of the trade unions.

This brings me back to the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent discussions around social exclusion.  There surely now exists a double challenge for trade unions to act as a force for integration for socially excluded members of society.  Firstly, migrant and minority workers tend to work either in the margins or not at all, which means trade unions find it difficult to access and represent them.  Secondly, the denial of ethnic and racial differences means that structural and institutional forms of discrimination and exclusion are ignored or not explicitly addressed, which can easily lead to a lack of engagement with the trade union movement on the part of workers who feel they have to suppress their core identities.

By contrast, the successes of the sans papiers campaign shows that trade unions can organise in sectors with high concentrations of migrants and minority workers and can demand labour rights for those working and living on the margins of society.  France needs its trade unions to build on this example.