Unions have discovered a way to help their members stand up and speak up for themselves. Simon Midgley reports
SUKHWINDER Dadra came to Britain from the Punjab 13 years ago but until recently did not really speak or understand English very well.
Earlier this year however he attended two union-run courses which have transformed his English language skills and given him the confidence to represent fellow Asian workers as a shop steward.
Mr Dadra, aged 34, who works for St Martin Food Products, a food production firm in Southall, west London, decided to become a union representative in order to help many of his fellow workers who had poor English languageskills.
Some 80 per cent of the company's 280-strong workforce is Asian.
He undertook a basic shop stewards' induction course which was specially designed for those for whom English is an additional language and then went on to successfully complete a 10-week English communication skills course.
The courses were supported by his union, the GMB, the company and by the Union Learning Fund, a Government initiative which is helping to transform workforce learning.
They were delivered by In House Training Services, an independent teaching company which specialises in English in the workplace.
"The reason many Asian workers don't join trade unions is because of the language barrier," Mr Dadra said. "Many cannot read or speak English well, so they don't understand the information the unions send us or what the unions can do for them.
"Having more confidence doesn't only benefit me but also the other Asian workers who feel more secure that they have someone who can represent their cases to management and who they can communicate with."
The Union Learning Fund was launched in May 1998 to increase learning at work, promote lifelong learning and spearhead a collaborative approach to the challenge of updating and re-skilling England's workforce. Trade unions make competitive bids to the fund for up to pound;50,000 a project.
These are assessed by a Department for Education and Employment bidding panel with TUC and CBI representation. Some pound;12.5m of funding has been earmarked for the four-year initiative which runs until 2002.
To date more than 66 unions have been involved in 120 ULF-funded projects in more than 1,000 workplaces. Some 92 third-round funding bids are currently being considered. Such projcts have involved either continual professional development or improving basic literacy and numeracy skills.
So far 8,700 people have undertaken training - 2,000 of whom have trained to be learning representatives, providing initial advice and guidance to fellow workers about how to access further training. Ninety-one accredited courses and qualifications have been established and 26 new learning centres opened.
Of the pound;12.5m government funding, pound;3m is earmarked to support unions promoting basic skills. Last year 400 workers undertook basic skills courses through the Fund and nearly half achieved qualifications.
Since autumn last year the Trades Union Congress has worked with the Basic Skills Agency on nearly 20 union-led projects funded by the Union Learning Fund.
These have led to some effective workplace programmes between unions, employers and providers.
The ULF projects included the National Union of Journalists supporting freelance members by offering courses in desktop publishing, picture processing and the use of the world-wide web. Such courses are run by journalists at a fraction of the cost of commercially-provided training and have proved to be hugely popular.
The National Association of Probation Officers is developing a certificate in community justice, a stand-alone professional qualification for people working within the broad community justice field including youth and voluntary workers.
The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers is training representatives in how to overcome the barriers to learning that are faced by their dyslexic members.
The ULF was originally set to run for just one year but David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, decided that the scheme was so effective that he extended it for a further three years. He praised the initiative for its impact on shaping the skills agenda.
Nick Stuart, the Department for Education and Employment's director general for lifelong learning, said: "It's enormously rewarding to see the way in which a relatively small amount of money bid for and spent with trade unions through the Fund has produced really substantial dividends in terms of both the unions ready to encourage learning within their organisations and for their members but also to develop trade union learning representatives willing to bargain for skills. This has had a tremendous impact."