From education to employment

Exclusive: Going that extra mile

Liz Smith, director of unionlearn writes her exclusive monthly column for FE News

Workers coming to Britain have been making headlines yet again recently with many of the same old myths being rehearsed in the media. Meanwhile unions are working with a variety of migrant workers throughout the UK, whether in agricultural jobs in rural areas, industrial estates or the hospitality industry in larger cities. And a lot of our time is spent dealing with or helping to prevent exploitation, and it is heartening to see that migrant workers are now not only joining unions, but also becoming union reps. I am particularly pleased to see that we now have some Polish union learning reps (ULRs), who are helping their colleagues to engage with learning. This is building their confidence, making them feel part of the wider workforce and being of value to their colleagues.
Take Joanna Szmit for example, she is a ULR at Metroline, a bus company in North London. At the multi-cultural and multi-lingual garage at West Perivale, she is part of a very varied community, but decided to take the plunge and train as a ULR with the help and support of lead ULR Tom Callaghan and a team of experienced ULRs. On World Book Day last month she found herself taking tea with the Prime Minister and John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, University and Skills, along with a lively group of ULRs from Metroline. Although she was pleased and proud to be invited into Number 10, she was also a little nervous, but buoyed on by her colleagues she relaxed and enjoyed the occasion.
But this month, unionlearn’s commitment to helping migrant workers meant going that extra mile, in fact more than a few miles, and resulted in a visit to the headquarters of the legendary Solidarity trade union in Gdansk, Poland. A trade union group, which included unionlearn staff, spent two days there, exchanging their experiences and discussing the difficulties faced by Polish workers in the UK, such as getting their qualifications recognised, being aware of their employment rights and getting access to learning opportunities. Although the trip was short, people were able to get a feel for Polish culture and get a greater insight into some of the reasons for migration.
Around the country, unionlearn has been active in helping migrant communities. In London, the Southern and Eastern TUC unionlearn has attended a work fair matching Polish workers with employers, in the Midlands, unionlearn is running a migrant worker project, and up in Darlington we have held a drop-in session with the local MEP. The immigration debate will rage on, but meanwhile unionlearn and trade unions are doing what we have always done – make life better for workers, wherever they come from.
Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn

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