Are German Employee Representatives Learning to Speak on Behalf of Migrant Labour? Addressing the Problems of Status and Organizational Dilemmas

Friday, 20 July 2018: 09:30
Oral Presentation
Michael WHITTALL, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany
Ingrid ARTUS, FAU, Germany
Ronald STAPLES, Friedrich-Alexander-University, Germany
Drawing on the findings of a European Union funded project into industrial relations and multilingualism, IR-Multiling, the following paper discusses the issue of employee representation and the problem of foreign language barriers in the context of a German labour market increasingly dependent on migrant labour. Focusing on three case studies, a foundry, Fair Mobility (a DGB project for migrant workers) and a hospital employing Spanish nurses, we exemplify how employee representatives in Germany continue to struggle to talk on behalf of migrant labour. Although the problem of communication, conversing with migrants who possess a limited or no understanding of German, is undoubtedly a huge challenge, the paper contends two deep rooted historical problems might explain the inactivity of employee representatives’ in Germany. The first concerns the question of migrants’ status, specifically the political establishment’s stance that the Gastarbeiter would return “home”. While it would be an exaggeration to claim unions and works councils openly supported such a government line, they seem to have struggled to challenge such a mantra. Consequently, employee representative structures have labored to 1) free-up resources to address foreign language barriers and 2) only partly construct democratic platforms to provide migrants a voice. Undoubtedly, unions and works councils have welcomed migrant members into existing structures, but the proliferation of such involvement remains limited. The second issue concerns the construction of class identity, perceived organizational dilemmas on the part of works councils and trade unions. At this juncture in the paper we suggest employee representatives have been reluctant to acknowledge the diverse character of the workforce, i.e. the problems specific to migrant employees, out of a fear that such an acknowledgement could lead to the emergence of special interest groups, a development considered a direct threat to the hallowed notion of working class solidarity.