A conviction that lies at the very heart of international trade unionism is that a worker is a worker, wherever he or she is from. But how can unions put this principle into action when it comes to migrant workers? With over 22 million non-EU citizens living in the EU in 2018 (according to Eurostat figures), which represented 4.4 per cent of the EU28 population (now EU27, following the UK’s departure from the European Union on 31 January 2020), plus more than 17 million EU citizens living in a different member state than their own, migrants account for a significant part of the European workforce. This is without even counting the people who do not have the necessary papers to work or reside legally in the country where they live; figures are harder to come by on these ‘undocumented’ migrants, but their number has been estimated to be in the millions.

Trade unions, however, face a few challenges in their efforts to organise these populations. First of all, the concentration of many migrant workers in the above-mentioned sectors means that they can be harder to reach, because they are not based in the workplaces and forms of employment where unions tend to be strongest. Secondly, language and culture can pose significant barriers in communication and recruitment, depending on which countries the workers come from and what their perceptions and experiences of trade union action are. Furthermore, it may be difficult for many migrant workers, struggling with heavy work schedules and low pay, to make time for trade union meetings when they have to prioritise the immediate need to make enough money to send home to their families.