An interview with Portuguese migrant trade unionist, Manuel Correia
Manuel Correia is the chairman of the electrotechnical industry union, SIESI (Electrotechnical Industry Workers´ Union for Southern Portugal, Azor Islands and Madeira), in Portugal and a member of the National Council of the Portuguese Confederation of Trade Unions (CGTP). He explains in this interview what led him to get actively involved in the unions and how the attitudes of Portuguese and Czech trade unions towards migrants differ.
Šárka Zelenková: In which year did you come to Portugal? And in what field did you work?
Manuel Correia: I came to Portugal in 1969. I come from the Cape Verde Islands, where at the age of thirteen I began working for a company in the field of electrical installations. After spending one year with them, they decided to send me to Portugal to get training in my field. After finishing the course I stayed and continued to work for the same company.
At that time I wasn’t actually a migrant because the Cape Verde Islands were still part of the Portuguese colonial empire. I became a migrant in 1975, after the Cape Verde Islands declared independence from Portugal and I became a Cape Verdean citizen. I later applied for Portuguese citizenship, but despite my official status, I've always been regarded as a migrant in Portuguese society.
What led you to get actively involved with the trade unions?
Right at the start I was elected to represent the employees of the company I worked for at the electrotechnical industry trade union (SIESI). I represented the Portuguese workers, who continue to make up the majority of the company's employees, as well as the foreign workers. At the time I was working as a manager and it was not common back then for people in such positions to become union representatives. My colleagues, however, were convinced that I was capable of addressing their demands for fair working conditions. My department at SIESI later invited me to join the union leadership, even though it was unusual for migrants to hold such positions at the time.
Today the situation is different, many delegates are migrants, and some have also gotten into the union leadership. However, despite great efforts by the CGTP, the number of migrant representatives in the union leadership is not proportional to the number of unionized migrants. It’s important to note that these numbers are just estimates. There are no detailed statistics documenting migrants’ membership. However, we assume that their membership is relatively high as it makes renewing residency permits easier as unions can provide documentation of employment, in cases when employers, for one reason or another, would not. It is, however, true that this is changing and companies have gradually come under pressure from the unions and are producing these documents themselves much more often these days.
Do migrants in Portugal have equal access to
unions and do the unions actively support their membership? Has it always been
this way or have these relationships evolved over the years?
Since its founding in 1970, CGTP has always had the same policy towards foreign workers as to domestic workers. Traditionally, Portugal is a country with strong emigration and therefore there has always existed a more accepting attitude towards migrants here. In the same way we want others to treat Portuguese workers well when they’re abroad, we must also treat foreign workers well in Portugal.
CGTP categorizes workers exclusively based on their job position; other criteria do not apply. Defending the interests of workers regardless of their origin or race is, after all, the mission of all trade unions. The European Union’s policy, in line with that of some EU states, uses a protectionist model of the labour market, which the CGTP has always refused, as it considers this approach to be discriminatory.
Does the worldwide trend of migrants from less developed countries working in the most vulnerable job positions also apply to Portugal?
Yes, it’s largely like this. Portuguese workers leave these jobs and go perform the same job for better pay in other countries (economically stronger countries in the EU, USA and Canada). Migrants then come and fill these available positions in cleaning, construction, hospitality, etc. Migrants are automatically offered these types of positions because, firstly, they are available, and, secondly, language skills or specific qualifications are not required for performing such work.
In an effort to maintain labour standards and labour costs, Czech trade unions favour a 'traditional' protectionist model of the labour market (which greatly restricts and regulates the entry of migrants into the labour market) over a focus on integrating migrants into unions.
I just explained the position of CGTP with whose leadership I work, in the introduction. In my opinion, the position of Czech trade unions, which you have described above, is very flawed. It’s a discriminatory position, which does not bring anything positive to anyone. The only result of such a protectionist attitude is exclusion.
As long as you are going to prevent migrants from entering the labour market, you are not going to be able to guarantee decent working conditions. The only fight in which unions should get involved in, and which actually protects workers against the deterioration of working conditions, is taking an uncompromising stance towards employers. Unions must prevent companies from employing anyone under conditions other than those established for each given profession, for example those set out by the Czech Republic or the EU.
Expelling migrants does nothing to guarantee that employers will not reduce the wages offered to Czech employees, and we can see this confirmed by current practices. Therefore, it is necessary that European trade unions jointly promote minimum labour standards for individual professions. No one will then be able to employ someone under different conditions, and this is the key.
How do you see the position of workers in our current times? In the world and specifically in Portugal?
In general there is a tendency to lower labour standards in Europe and the U.S. In Portugal the situation is genuinely complicated because people are working several jobs in order to support their family while they are still living on the edge of poverty. How can you work so many hours and earn so little!? Not to mention the fact that these people don’t have time for their families and raising their children. There is extreme disparity between the time spent at work versus the time spent with family. But this is not a problem specific to Portugal.
How do you see the future of trade unions?
Their role will continue to be important, as it always has been. It is
necessary to make European policies ensure that workers' rights are respected.
The current right-wing governments have not taken this path. We'll see if the
situation begins to change.
The problem is that the employees themselves are in a situation where they are apprehensive to get seriously involved in fighting for their rights because they are afraid of losing what little they have. This is especially true for those within the vulnerable workforce, though now it stretches far beyond them. In recent years, labour unions have also been complaining about significant restructuring of the labour market, where companies are breaking up into small businesses. Compared to large companies where unions work well, they are hard to establish within small businesses.
What do you consider as successes and failures during your many years of working with unions?
For me, success and failure are relative. There are certain things which I would have liked to have done during my work with the unions, but which I didn’t have the opportunity to realize. I joined the unions and dedicated my work to defending the values, ideas and people who are the least protected on the labour market. Through my work, I came to the conclusion that a socially just society is the real goal and I want to work for this, so that people are happy at work and they receive sufficient recognition for the work they do. That was why I gave up a career in managing the assembly department, where I could have earned more and I was excepting a promotion. I don’t live to make money; I need to earn enough to be able to lead a simple life with my family, and I primarily devote my energy to ensuring that workers’ working conditions do not deteriorate. This is my choice and, of course, there are other paths to choose. To be able to be involved in a project which I believe in is my own personal success.
Thank you for the interview.
n.b. This interview was conducted in the second half of 2012 in Lisbon. An abbreviated version was published in the bulletin produced by the Association for Integration and Migration, no. 2/2012.
This text was translated as a part of the project “Foreign workers in the Labour Market“, which is carried out by the Association for Integration and Migration (SIMI) in cooperation with the Organization for Aid to Refugees (OPU) and Multicultural center Prague. International partners of the project are Caritasverband für die Diezöse Osnabrück from Germany and Anti - Slavery International from Great Britain.
Marie Jelinkova, Ph.D. graduated in sociology from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Charles University in Prague. In her MA thesis she compared Czech and Australian integration policies. She currently pursues a PhD in public and social policy focussing on the quality of life among migrants to the Czech Republic. Ms. Jelínková presently teaches on social exclusion and inclusion.