Employment legislation is keeping ethnic minorities out of trade unions, according to a report from Warwick University.
The report, Organising the unorganised: race, poor work and trade unions, argues that the expanding sector of low-paid, unregulated, marginal work is under-unionised and full of ethnic minorities.
This sector, which includes sweat-shop workers, part-timers and cleaners, often contains very vulnerable groups of workers such as older Asian women, who speak little English, and newer arrivals in the United Kingdom such as refugees and "illegal" migrants.
Employment laws, which prevent unions from supporting small weak groups of workers through secondary picketing, have exacerbated the isolation of these workers. Employers also have a freer hand to refuse union recognition, making union recruitment difficult.
The authors of the report, John Wrench, principal research fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at Warwick, and Satnam Virdee, research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute, cite two cases, one of which was at Heathrow airport, to illustrate their argument.
Increasing concern at the working conditions of Asian women at Heathrow led to an attempt by the TGWU to establish a branch for cleaners who had previously only been able to join the baggage handlers' branch. The airport's refusal to sign a union recognition agreement meant that the local TGWU organiser had to rely on home visits to recruit the cleaners.
The total potential membership was 100, but despite a two-year recruitment campaign membership only increased to 50.
The authors also explore relations between unions and ethnic minorities, arguing that the initial enthusiasm of Asian and West Indian employees for union membership has been tempered by their treatment by unions over the years.
Up until the end of the 1960s the standard trade union position was that any special policy brought in to help black members, would amount to discrimination against white members.
As rules for work permits tighten across Europe, more migrant workers become "illegal" making trade union organisation harder.