Dissertation Abstracts

Agency of Labour in a flexible pan-European labour market: a qualitative study of migrant practices and trade union strategies in the Netherlands

Author: Berntsen, Lisa , L.E.Berntsen@uvt.nl
Department: Global Economics and Management
University: University of Groningen, Netherlands
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: agency , migrant organising , migrant workers , posted work
Areas of Research: Labor Movements , Work , Migration


Regulatory frameworks on intra-EU mobility and flexible cross-border employment relations have stimulated competition on labour costs by recruiting migrants via cheaper labour market regimes. While it allows firms to remunerate migrants under different terms and conditions, blurring regulatory boundaries also generates opportunities for non-compliance, resulting in violations of migrant labour rights across Europe. Against this background, this thesis explores the agency of labour, more specifically of temporary migrant workers and unions, and the ways they cope with and respond to the competitive dynamics of the pan-European labour market. This study draws on 90 qualitative interviews with migrants, local workers, trade union officials and employers and on participant observations of union (organising) practices, in among others, the Dutch construction and supermarket distribution sector. It adds micro-level accounts of union practices with regards to mobile migrant labour and insights into the agency and experiences of work of a group of workers that is often talked about, but rarely talked with for academic or policy purposes. This contributes to our understanding of the dynamics of migrant employment and labour relations in contemporary Europe.

This thesis regards migrants as social actors who influence and shape working conditions and labour market structures through their actions. The variety of ways migrants exercise agency, more often through undeclared small-scale social and oppositional practices than through overt, organised acts, are embedded in and reinforce overarching oppressive employment relations. A discrepancy exists in the preferred ways migrants and unions exercise agency: small-scale and invisible versus overt and organised, respectively. The empirical material highlights the difficulties unions experience in bridging this distance to protect migrants from substandard employment conditions, but also points to some potential pathways to enforce migrant labour rights, engage migrants in union activities and reregulate the labour market for migrant employment. This adds to industrial relations literature a refined understanding of the multiple forms, intentions and effects of individual and collective agency and to migrant organising literature insights on the limits and possibilities of representation and organising strategies among fragmented and mobile workforces.