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How important is language in industrial relations?

November 21st, 2016 by

Alcantara has been privileged to have been associated with an international research project looking at how language use defines, constrains or facilitates labour relations in multilingual workplaces. Despite a huge growth in labour mobility, not only within the EU but worldwide, there is a tendency not even to acknowledge that many workplaces are now multilingual, so this project is important in putting the issue on the agenda.

I’ve been working with London Metropolitan University on the UK-based dimension of the research which has produced a number of case studies of how language affects labour relations. These are being analysed alongside others from France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain in order to compare contexts and make recommendations.  It’s also produced a series of short training films for trade unionists and others, highlighting issues relating to multilingualism in labour relations.

The UK case studies show the complexity of the issues associated with a lack of English proficiency. At a waste-recycling plant in a UK region with relatively low numbers of immigrants, there are a high proportion of Polish employees and the employer does not care whether staff speak English or not. This creates barriers to communication between supervisors and operatives meaning that important issues are not raised or dealt with. One employee commented ‘the managers never speak directly to me’.  Bilingual employees bridge the communication gap and one was appointed shop steward because of his ability to speak to both sides.

Another case study looked at cleaning staff in the hotel industry in London. Here, a preponderance of Bulgarian workers who do not speak English is an advantage for the employer. They are unable to report health and safety issues and cannot defend themselves against complaints. The arguments for good communication in the workplace are turned on their head here, because if staff do not understand instructions, they pay for time lost not their employer. In this case, the incentive for the employer to take on migrant labour is not to do with their skills, but their exploitability. They are cheap to hire and fire and cannot complain.

The NHS is well known as a big employer of foreign staff. In 2013, 22% were born abroad and this proportion is likely to have increased since then.  There are many problems associated with lack of English proficiency, and the NHS is in the process of changing its policy to require recruits to have higher levels. Even when staff have good English, if they are trained in other countries they may not know specialist terminology and still have difficulty with accents and colloquialisms. However, there is little language support offered. One of the reasons for this is that funding for ESOL provision has been cut, but it is also because it is simply too big a problem to address: there are thousands of staff who need language training. Researchers uncovered a prevailing culture which is resolutely monolingual, with staff frowned upon for using their own languages, even for private conversations. One manager who was interviewed said she found it ‘really offensive’ when Filipino nurses spoke to each other in Tagalog and claimed that this provoked anxiety and suspicion. In a context in which many patients also speak languages other than English, the failure to consider the advantages that a multilingual staff might provide for their care looks like a lost opportunity. There would also be advantages in staff being able to use other languages in training alongside English in order to support deeper and more secure understanding.

For a more in-depth look at some of the issues identified, visit the project’s Youtube channel and website.

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