The decision by the TUC to launch a slick new website in Polish (http://www.pracawbrytanii.eu/) represents a huge step forward.
According to National Insurance figures, there are over 223,000 Polish workers resident in the UK today. Probably only a tiny fraction of them are union members – making them a major target for unions that want to grow. But Poles are not the only migrant workers in the UK and Polish is not the only language spoken by migrant workers in this country.
In 2006-7 alone, over 700,000 migrant workers applied for national insurance numbers in the UK. Poles were the largest group, but 29,000 Slovakians also arrived, as did 24,000 Lithuanians. Another 145,000 came from Asia and the Middle East – with the largest groups coming from India and Pakistan.
If unions want to reach out to those hundreds of thousands of unorganised workers, they are going to need to use the Internet as never before – because many of those workers are online. They stay in touch with friends and family back home using email and the web.
Creating the TUC’s website in Polish was no doubt a big challenge. Any attempt to create similar sites in the languages spoken by the more than 400,000 migrant workers who are not Polish would be hugely expensive.
But this need not be the case. There are examples of multilingual websites in the trade union movement, sometimes done practically for free. An outstanding one is LabourStart, which works in 17 languages.
It has done so by applying three rules.
First, website design must be modular, so that new languages can easily be “plugged in” to an existing web architecture. Sites cannot be designed from scratch for each new language.
Second, websites in different languages are not going to be translations of the English. They’ll need to be given a large degree of autonomy if they are to work.
Third, the hundreds of thousands of workers now living in Britain whose native languages may be Portuguese, or Slovak, or Urdu, have as much of an interest in there being trade union media in their languages as unions do. Among them will be many who are willing to volunteer to write and to translate.
The launch of the TUC’s Polish website needs to be understood for what it really is – a big step forward, but a first step only.