Whose interests do trade unions serve?

What is the response of trade unions to immigration, and what consequences do their attitudes and strategies have for immigrants? These are some of the questions explored by postdoctoral researcher Rolle Alho with funding from the Academy of Finland.

In the past decade, researchers have increasingly begun to study the relationship between immigration and the labour market. Migration has increased as a result of the EU’s expansion in 2004, and many citizens from the new EU member states have moved to the older, more prosperous EU member states for work. Migration from Poland to Ireland, for example, has been significant. Immigration has become a political and labour market issue in Europe – and Brexit has partly been a result of this development. New immigration has been viewed by various parties as a case of ‘us against them’.

“In Europe, trade unions have strived to oppose today’s far-right populism, but the issue of immigration is far from easy for them. For example, immigrants in low-wage sectors are often the unwilling victims of wage dumping, which means that they are paid lower wages than their native colleagues. Such cases have led in several countries to ethnic tensions in the labour market. In the best case, trade unions can oppose this type of development by showing their solidarity with immigrants in concrete ways,” Alho says. “The issue has definitely assumed its place on the social agenda in Europe, and research based on new perspectives is needed.”

Alho’s research project Whose interests? A Comparative Study on Trade Unions’ Responses to Migration and Migrants in Finland, Ireland, and Portugal will compare the attitudes of trade unions to immigration and immigrants in the above three countries. From having traditionally been countries of emigration, Finland, Ireland and Portugal have relatively recently become countries of immigration. Large-scale immigration to them did not begin until the 1990s and 2000s.

The three countries also have very different labour market and social policies, which provide different conditions for each country’s trade unions. Like in the other Nordic countries, the unions play a major role in Finland’s highly coordinated labour market – whereas, for example, the Irish system is based on a liberal market economy. Interestingly, the issue of immigration has not been as strongly politicised in Portugal and Ireland as it has in Finland. These national differences give the unions’ different starting points for responding to immigration. In the case of Ireland, Alho also examines how Brexit will affect the current freedom of movement between Ireland and Britain and how the Irish labour market will be impacted by several companies moving their headquarters from London to Dublin.

New research perspectives

Previously, Alho has extensively investigated issues of ethnicity and employment-based immigration. He now wishes to introduce a new dimension in his research.

“Comparative studies on trade unions’ immigration strategies have primarily been about comparisons between countries. What is different about this project is that I am exploring whether it is the countries’ different national labour market models, or the sectors in which the unions operate that best explain the unions’ approaches to immigration. After all, immigration affects different labour market sectors in different ways. That is why it is important to understand how the different sectors explain the unions’ approaches to immigration and immigrants. I wish to develop a new theory concerning the reasons behind the unions’ approaches,” Alho says.

“This is possible thanks to a comparative approach that explores trade unions representing two labour market sectors in three countries. I also wish to challenge the methodological nationalism characteristic of previous research. In the previous comparative research the approaches of trade unions have been compared by considering the unions as uniform national actors.”

In all three countries, Alho will compare the reactions of trade unions to immigration by examining unions in both the highly regulated healthcare sector and the less regulated hotel, cleaning and restaurant sector. Both sectors employ a significant number of immigrants in the three countries.

The strategies have consequences for immigrants

Examining the attitudes and immigration strategies of trade unions is important, for the unions are involved in and influence immigration and labour market policy. The unions can affect immigration policy on the state level and the position of immigrants in the labour market particularly in Finland, where unions play a major role.

“I wish to answer questions about the unions’ approach to immigrants in the labour market, their views on who is entitled to move and work, what the unions are doing about the new type of undocumented immigration, how they approach asylum and refugee policy, what role immigrants play in the unions, and so on,” Alho states.

The immigration strategies of trade unions have consequences for immigrants. These strategies can influence, for example, how liberal or strict a country’s immigration policies will be, encompassing matters relating to work permits, language requirements and protectionism. Trade unions can also promote migrants’ rights and protect their position.

“I am also interested in finding out whether the unions consider immigration to be a gender issue. For example, women dominate employment-based immigration in the healthcare sector. If the unions consider it a gender issue, I would like to know how they are responding to it. Their responses tell us about who they identify with and whose interests they are serving. The response also shows whether the unions’ have capacity to renew themselves and find solutions to the politically complex immigration situation in Europe,” Alho points out.


Rolle Alho’s research project aims to provide an international comparative perspective on the response and attitudes of trade unions to immigration. In summer 2017 the project received €245,632 in funding from the Academy of Finland for a postdoctoral researcher position at the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science. The Academy granted funding to just 12% of the applicants.

Alho will use a diverse range of data in his research. In addition to interviews and observations made at trade union seminars, he will analyse media texts and the unions’ own documents and statements to create new knowledge and a theory of the unions’ role in immigration in various contexts. As part of the project, Alho will conduct research visits to the University College Dublin, the London School of Economics, the University of Leeds, the University of Lisbon and the Cornell University.

Additional information:

Rolle Alho, postdoctoral researcher, phone +358 40 7204 121, rolle.alho@helsinki.fi