Organising around ESOL learning

Creating a Culture of Learning, the Power of the ULR. Unison HQ, London. © Jess Hurd/ Tel: 01789-262151/07831-121483 NUJ recommended terms & conditions apply. Moral rights asserted under Copyright Designs & Patents Act 1988. Credit is required. No part of this photo to be stored, reproduced, manipulated or transmitted by any means without permission.


Knowing where migrant workers are based, their job roles, which languages they speak, what (if any) language needs they have, what barriers to learning they may face, what workplace issues they are experiencing, how they feel about trade unions, and which community organisations they have links with, will help inform and structure workplace organising.

Trade unions and rights at work

Talking to workers about ESOL learning provides a great opportunity to share information about the role of trade unions, increase awareness of employment rights and encourage involvement in UNISON. There may be a negative perception of trade unions amongst some migrant workers arising from personal experience in their country of origin so this is an opportunity to stress UNISON’s independence from employers, the government and business interests.


Talking to migrant workers about ESOL learning and taking action to meet their needs is a great recruitment opportunity. Some employers may insist formal ESOL classes are open to members and non-members alike but branches have been successful in recruiting a whole class to UNISON before the first session starts.

Make the most of a group of workers learning together

Spend as much time as you can spare attending UNISON supported ESOL opportunities. Where possible, encourage the integration of UNISON values and activity into learning tasks. For example, ‘talking about UNISON’ could be part of a learning activity. Learners could then be encouraged to speak with two workplace colleagues about UNISON using English and/or their own language.

Build strength and solidarity in the workplace

Migrant workers with lower levels of English are often among the lowest paid, most precariously employed people in a workplace. Involving and organising our lowest paid members is a key UNISON priority. Workplace ESOL can increase migrant members’ confidence and language skills to enable assertiveness, greater activism and power in the workplace. This could mean greater participation in branch meetings and forums, more members voicing opinions and suggesting ideas, more involvement in local UNISON campaigns, and greater diversity in members stepping forward to become active members, reps and stewards.

Activist development

Involvement in workplace ESOL learning is a great opportunity to identify potential activists. You might identify natural leaders, people who are already active in other organisations, and people who are great at supporting others. You can then develop a plan to support your potential UNISON activists into activism. The plan could include: asking what support would help potential activists become more active; exploring branch roles and opportunities; offering a branch buddy or mentor; setting small tasks that utilise potential activists’ skills (talking to co-workers, translating posters, etc); establishing a branch migrant worker forum and linking into UNISON’s national migrant workers’ networks to promote self-organisation.

Identify workplace issues

Engaging with workers about ESOL learning may identify workplace issues for bargaining and campaigning. Encourage workers to identify ways to organise and tackle these issues collectively. Organising projects might involve challenging racism and xenophobia, or exploring your rights and fears in post-Brexit Britain.

Positive press

UNISON’s involvement in workplace ESOL learning can provide really positive media success stories, so make the most of photo opportunities, quotes from members about what UNISON has helped them achieve, and quotes from community groups, providers and employers about positive partnership working.

Back to overview of ESOL support

Photograph © Jess Hurd/