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Union Membership Among Eastern Europeans: Almost On Par With Danes

Labour market researcher is surprised about the amount of Eastern Europeans, who become members of trade unions. 3F has experienced an upsurge in the amount of Eastern European members for a number of years. The significance of this development is very high according to union secretary Søren Heisel.
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Danish trade unions have made a concerted effort to recruit Eastern Europeans in Denmark since the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004. This effort has seen some success.

A fresh PhD thesis reveals that union membership among Central and Eastern Europeans is more or less at the same level as among indigenous Danes.

57 percent of the members of this group, who have been in Denmark for at least five years, are members of a trade union. This is the conclusion of the paper published at FAOS, the Employment Relations Research Centre of the University of Copenhagen. Among those, who have been a part of the Danish workforce for at least nine years, the percentage is as much as 65 percent.

As a result, the percentage of organized Central and Eastern European workers is very close to the average on the Danish labor market as such. The paper authored by labor market researcher Jonas Felbo-Kolding cites 68 percent as the national average of workers organized in trade unions.

“The proportion of organized Eastern Europeans is relatively high and much higher than expected. For me, this comes as a bit of a surprise that the respective degrees of organization of Eastern Europeans and Danes are so similar”, he remarks when interviewed by Fagbladet 3F.

Partner and workplace play a decisive role

Earlier, Danish trade unions have been less successful in organizing Eastern European labour. A survey made by FAOS in 2008 among 500 Polish workers in Greater Copenhagen revealed that only 12 percent were members of a union.

Labour market researcher Jonas Felbo-Kolding believes that Central and Eastern European immigrants who opt to stay in Denmark can be a factor in the resurgence in the significance of trade unions:

“This shows that it is possible for trade unions to boost the degree of organization. The Eastern Europeans are not opposed to unionization,” says Jonas Felbo-Kolding, who defended his paper Tuesday afternoon.

The thesis shows that most Central and Eastern European immigrants, who decide to stay in Denmark, join a union during their first two years in Denmark. The probability of joining a union is higher, if union membership is common at their workplace, and if their romantic partner is a member of a trade union.

More members

3F, the largest trade union in Denmark, is currently experiencing an upsurge in the amount of Eastern European members. In 2016, 3F had in total 5,672 members of Eastern European origin, according to a count made by the trade union. In 2018, the number has risen to 6,076 members – an increase of more than 7 percent.

This development is positive. But we also have to make an effort to achieve this, as the new foreign members don’t come by themselves. We have boosted our outreach work significantly,” says Søren Heisel, a 3F union secretary responsible for integration.

To explain this pick-up in numbers, Heisel points to the fact that 3F in later years has put a priority in finding employees who can speak and hold membership meetings with Eastern Europeans in their own language. Furthermore, 3F is collaborating with the Eastern European embassies in Denmark, and 3F is building networks for Eastern Europeans through social media and cultural and community groups.

“It is very, very important that also foreign workers become members. With a high degree of organization we can ensure that foreigners do not end up as easy targets for employers whose main aim is to exploit them. And it also ensures that employers cannot use foreign workers to erode the significance of collective agreements and, as a consequence, jeopardize the wages of Danish workers”, Søren Heisel concludes.

Large wage gap between Danish and foreign workers

In his thesis, Jonas Felbo-Kolding points to a substantial wage difference as measured by yearly income between Danish and Central- and Eastern European immigrants permanently living in Denmark. This is true even after seven years as a part of the Danish workforce.

According to the thesis, after seven years, Central and Eastern European permanent residents have a yearly income that lags 27 percent behind the wage level of indigenous Danes, who hold similar jobs.

“This is a large wage gap, and this gap increases over time. The main explanation might be that Piotr from Poland does a different job than Danish Peter and that they never get the same type of jobs. But Poles also get a smaller salary than Danes for doing the same job”, says Jonas Felbo-Kolding.

He states that Central and Eastern European immigrants primarily lack formal training in their trade and carry low salaries. Among other sectors, they can typically work in agriculture and hospitality.