How a Danish trade union is empowering migrant construction workers to demand equal rights

How a Danish trade union is empowering migrant construction workers to demand equal rights
As members of BJMF, migrant construction workers are demanding higher pay and better working conditions. Photo: Jakob Mathiassen/BJMF
Eastern European construction workers in Denmark have been plagued by unequal pay and subpar working conditions. Now the frontrunners of the Danish labour movement are trying to make them feel welcome.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

When you walk into the BJMF Trade Union in Copenhagen, you're greeted by posters in about six or seven languages, besides Danish, plastered on the wall. These signs will tell you at a glance about the union for construction workers, how you can get in touch with the right people, and about the many initiatives directed at the migrant construction workers that form an integral part of the union.

In Denmark, where Danish is the primary language of communication and attempts to communicate in other languages are often met with resistance, confusion, or even dismissal, this is a rare occurrence.

In recent years, the 3F Bygge-, Jord-, og Miljøarbejdernes Fagforening (BJMF) or the 3F Construction, Earth and Environmental Workers' Union, has come a long way in its journey towards advancing the rights of migrant construction workers in Denmark. However, things weren't always this way.

The Eastward enlargement of the European Union in 2004 and 2007 caused an influx of Eastern European workers into the West, including Denmark. The promise of decent wages coupled with better working conditions drew many to trades like construction.

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In order to regulate this and safeguard both the existing Danish workforce and the incoming foreign workers, Denmark, until May 2009, had an 'East Agreement' which required workers from the eight Eastern European EU countries that were included in the EU from May 1st 2004 as well as Bulgaria and Romania (from 2007), to have a residence and work permit before they could work for a Danish employer.

The gradual phase-out of this agreement, coinciding with the global economic crisis of 2008, increased the possibilities of exploitation of the migrant workers.

“This – together with the fast growing number of Eastern European workers – challenges the norms and traditions of the Danish labour market and can result in deterioration of occupational health and safety of both immigrant and Danish workers,” mentions Anja Kirkeby, co-author of a study on Eastern European Danish workers in the Danish labour market conducted at Aalborg University.

Because of the sheer numbers of these migrants in the market (approximately 56,000 in 2012), their presence became conspicuous on Danish construction sites, as did the inherent threat they posed to the standard of pay and work conditions.

“First of all, the migrant workers take up surplus jobs, so there is no situation for the formand, or the bosses, where they can't find workers. And in the olden days, if they couldn't find workers, they would start to increase the wages to attract more people. This didn't happen any more, because there were so many migrant workers”, says Jakob Mathiassen, construction worker and union organiser at the BJMF.

“Secondly, the migrant workers often work at a lesser price than the Danish workers. So Danish workers could easily make 200, sometimes 300 Danish krone (DKK) and now the migrant workers seldom go above 150 DKK an hour, and often settle for less than that.”

This was caused majorly by the lack of information available to the migrant workers about the rights available to them. When they arrived in Denmark, they wouldn't be given a proper introduction to the labour unions and the collective agreements that regulate their pay and work conditions and prevent them from being exploited by bosses. Having left their life behind and moved in search of greener pastures, they would find the reality was far from what they imagined. Many would be treated badly, forced to go without earning a penny for months, and some would even end up on the streets.

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In order to equip them to demand the fulfillment of their rights, Mathiassen and his colleagues started by trying to integrate them within their union that comes under the BJMF, which in turn is part of 3F, a trade union that represents unskilled workers in Denmark. But they soon realised it wasn't a one-size-fits-all solution.

The Eastern European work culture of “Every man for himself” was at odds with the motto of “Equal pay for equal work” adopted by the BJMF and other Danish unions campaigning for labour rights. Due to the clash of cultures and traditions, the organisers at the BJMF gave up and began to concentrate on forcing the bosses to give the migrant workers the same rights as Danish workers. Starting in 2006, over the first ten years of the EU enlargement to the East, they “failed miserably”, in Mathiassen's own words, but they did gain valuable insights that would shape the strategy going forward.

“We realised ten years too late that we simply cannot protect the migrant workers without their active participation. We also recognise now that we need the migrant workers. They're such a large group of workers in the Danish construction industry that to leave them outside the union makes the union weak, both financially and in other ways,” he says.

That is when the BJMF began to change its policies to accommodate migrant workers and make them feel at home within the union, even if they didn't speak Danish, which was then the only language used for communication. Taking a leaf out of the books of other European trade unions and labour movements, such as Swiss union UNIA's efforts towards migrant workers, the organisers have centered their efforts over the past six years.

They began by making the union website friendly for the migrant construction workers, by adding homepages in different languages. They also printed informative handouts in about 14 languages, including English, Polish, Lithuanian and Russian. The next step was to launch clubs for members speaking languages other than Danish.

Clubs are an important part of Danish trade unions. They are powerful, democratic institutions, where the workers can meet and develop policies and make suggestions to the leadership that would influence the union. Earlier, even if the migrant workers found their way into these clubs, they would remain a minority, and their demands and suggestions would be brushed aside. To ensure their demands were met and their unique problems were addressed, they were organised into their own clubs based on language, such as the Polish Club or the Romanian Club.

According to Mathiassen, this was the most important thing they could've done to accommodate the migrant workers. “Through these clubs, they have tried and succeeded in influencing the union itself. They asked if the union could provide them translation for all democratic assemblies of the union (held only in Danish). And there was a vote and then they won. So they got the translation, which was paid for by the union, so they can now participate in the democratic assemblies,” he says.

Robert Marinescu, 36, is a Romanian construction worker who came to Denmark in 2015. Initially, he felt like he was “in a mess”, with the language barrier and the lack of understanding of the functioning of the Danish labour market posing as major challenges. Today, he's an elected representative of the Romanian club within the BJMF.

“Initially, there were many Romanian workers on the same construction site as me, and conditions weren't great. Most of us didn't know Danish or even English to know what was in the contracts we were made to sign. The concept of a union was rather unknown to us and when we asked the bosses for more information about our rights, they were very hesitant to give it to us, because that would mean they would have to pay us more and arrange for better work conditions. When the union reached out to us and offered their protection, we were relieved. There was an instant change in the way the workers were treated by the bosses – wages improved, and they would think twice even about yelling at a worker on the site. It was a very noticeable change,” he says.

Despite these efforts, Mathiassen is afraid they're not doing very well when it comes to empowering migrant constructions in demanding equal rights.

“We have organised approximately 300-350 migrant workers in my union, but that is out of a total number of possibly 3,000-4,000 migrant workers, or more, in the construction sector here in the Copenhagen area. So we're not doing well. But we really don't see that our project is finished. We think that we are in the process of learning how to do this, together with the union activists and the migrant workers themselves,” he says.

Small as the number might be, the workers they've been able to help have experienced long-term changes. Only recently in September 2020, demonstrations and demands by the union led to a collective agreement being signed on one of the largest Danish construction projects being run by the Dutch contractor Fehmarn Belt Contractors (FBC). This agreement ensures fair working hours for the 30-35 construction workers on site, many of them migrants, who had previously been forced to work 12-hour shifts for 28 days in a row.

Marinescu feels like Denmark is now his own country, and feels at home because he also has a girlfriend here now, who he has a daughter with. He realises that Denmark is not a bad country for workers, but the obstacles for foreign workers are many, which is why he regularly visits construction sites to educate migrant workers about their rights and to extend to them the protection offered by the union. But it's not always a seamless process.

“When foreigners come to a country like Denmark, even the smallest of problems seem like the end of the world to them. Sometimes we have to spend an entire day trying to address their problems. This is of great help to them. But in turn my own company asks me if this is necessary. They're worried that if the workers are aware, it means trouble for them. 'Do you really need to do this?', they ask. Well, of course we need to do it,” he says.


Photo: Jakob Mathiassen/BJMF

Mathiassen also agrees that the major obstacle to their work are construction companies, especially the large Danish organisations, who he argues are, in many cases, very happy paying paltry wages to migrant workers and try to do all in their power to keep the union from mobilising their employees. But the other major challenge comes from within, in the form of older union activists, who are staunchly set in their way of doing things and find it difficult to change with the times.

“The Danish union movement has a 150-year-long tradition of only speaking Danish and it's kind of hard to tell these old guys and girls that they now need to communicate in at least six or seven different languages. Many of the older activists have a hard time adjusting to the new reality.”

Aside from leading to rigidity among the activists, the language barrier is also what causes the most stress to migrants. Even if the workers do want to learn Danish, the class timings often clash with their working hours, and finding evening classes can be difficult. This is why BJMF also periodically offers free Danish classes to members who are interested in learning the language.

Over the past six years, the union has made major changes in the way they function to accommodate the increasing migrant workers on Danish construction sites. And they continue to extend their involvement to areas they've never intervened in before, in order to win the migrant workers' trust, which is a value the Danish society is built upon.

While earlier they would concern themselves mainly with issues of job safety and overtime pay, they have realised that the migrants have much broader problems that need to be addressed before they can even begin to talk about workers' rights. Thus, they are now beginning to campaign for their rights when they rent a place to stay. This has been a major issue for workers who often find themselves in subpar living conditions, scammed by their own bosses or middlemen in the housing business. They are also ensuring that the workers and their families receive safeguards like healthcare and social security in time, which further helps their integration into Danish society.

The transition period has been slow, but the changes and their effects are sustainable. The migrant workers who were beneficiaries of the union are now active participants in the struggle of the labour movement, upholding a collaborative solution wherein those in need of help and those initiating help work together.

Snigdha Bansal is an Indian journalist based in Europe. Her work focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, and politics.


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