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Educating Social Partners Toward Ethnic Diversity in Small and Medium Sized Enterprises

The increasing flow of immigrants and refugees from third-countries to the EU, as well as the continuing internal migration of European citizens from one member state to another, have led to the ethnic diversity of the European workforce. According to a Eurofound report (Eurofound, 2015:1), immigration by non-EU nationals in 2015 represented half of the employment growth in the past five years. At the same time, in 2014 some 2.7% of the EU population resided in a Member State other than their country of origin (EY, 2014).

In this context, ethnic diversity management and migrants’ integration in the labour force constitutes a major challenge for the EU. There are continuing ethnic inequalities in the workforce and a lack of equality awareness by many employers and employees. Ethnic minorities and migrant employees are more vulnerable to discrimination (Kirton and Read, 2007:134). They have less access to training and learning opportunities and they are under-represented in decision-making positions in the trade-unions (ibid: 134). At the same time, cultural differences between employees and employers and/or between employees themselves may lead to communication difficulties between them, drawn from the lack of skills and awareness in regard to multi-culturism and diversity management.

Because of all these factors, ethnic diversity is a complicated challenge. The role of the trade unions and the employers’ organisations is critical. Trade unionists need to acquire specific skills and knowledge, and have equality awareness in order to meet the needs of all their members and have a fruitful contribution towards handling ethnic diversity and promoting migrants’ integration at workplace level. Employers’ organisations should have the relevant awareness, knowledge and skills in order to promote a diversity management agenda at the level of the enterprises. Both social partners need to acquire conflict resolution skills, have knowledge of the relevant legislation, of good practices and policies. The principle objective of this project is to address those needs by developing social partners’ knowledge and skills – particularly trade unionists and employers’ organisations – to manage ethnic diversity and promote migrants’ integration in the SMEs of five European countries; Cyprus, Greece, Italy, France, and Denmark

The team decided to focus on the SMEs due to certain characteristics they acquire. Importantly, the role of SMEs in the European economy and the total employment is decisive. In 2014, EU SMEs employed almost 90 million people which represent the 67% of total employment (European Union, 2015;3). Nevertheless, the literature in the field of industrial relations has given much greater weight on equality and diversity issues within large organisations rather than the SMEs (Kirton and Read, 2007: 132). However, the SME workforce consists of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the labour market, including an over-representation of ethnic minorities and migrant workers (ibid:132). At the same time, the legislation for equality is often notwithstandind in SMEs due to the informality and unitarism character of SME employee relations (Woodhams et al, 2004). Although this makes the role of social partners even more crucial, they often fail to successfully play that role because of the lower levels of trade union membership and organising by the employees of SMEs, compared to the larger organisations.

The project sees ethnic diversity management in SMEs as a mainly European issue which should be addressed as such. Although ethnic diversity and migration issues are a matter of national policies as well, they are progressively determined by common EU directives and regulations. Thus transnationality is a determinative factor for the project to have an impact. In this context, another objective of this project is the exchange of knowledge and good practices between the participant member states

The overall objectives of this project are to help trade unions and employers’ representatives to develop knowledge and skills to manage ethnic diversity; to empower them to promote migrants’ integration and equality awareness in European SMEs; and to help them develop intercultural competences and conflict resolution skills. Beyond the Social Partners – which consist the main target group – the project will include an adults’ training program addressing the migrant employees. This will be an induction course aiming to strengthen migrants’ competences to integrate in the labour market. This way, the project will provide training opportunities to the disadvantaged. The project will also enhance VET trainers’ skills towards ethnic diversity by creating a relevant VET material and making it accessible to all. The accessibility of the VET material will be ensured by uploading it on an Open Educational which offers an open and accessible-to-all training material.