Hello. My name is Charles Woolfson and since 2010, I have been professor of labour studies at Linköping University in Sweden. I am a research professor, with an interest in labour migration, industrial relations and working environment (and much else). My website will tell you something about myself and what I have been doing both more recently and in the past.
An academic who tries to make a difference
Throughout my time as an academic researcher and teacher I have maintained a strong commitment to social justice issues and to the engagement of research results with society. This has led me on a long and instructive journey, from studies of workers in the shipyards, coal mines and engineering factories of my native Clydeside in Scotland, to the barren de-industrialised wastelands of post-communist Eastern Europe, and now to Sweden, once a model of an advanced egalitarian Nordic social democracy, but today conflicted by issues of integration, ethnicity and social cohesion. At each step in this journey, I have attempted to produce scholarship that impacts public policy agendas and provides a critical understanding of the choices and dilemmas facing society.
As a result, much of my research activity has been in the public eye, commenting, disseminating and occasionally irritating “the powers that be”. When the Piper Alpha oil rig blew up off the coast of Scotland in 1988 with the loss of 167 lives, I realised that industrial relations and the conditions under which people work are intimately related in terms of good or bad outcomes. Together with my colleagues John Foster and Matthias Beck, we spent nearly ten years studying this disaster and its aftermath. Now twenty-five years later, we see that there are still lessons to be learned that have not been properly understood by the industry, most recently evidenced in the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. Critical scholarship is more necessary than ever and, with that view in mind, I briefly outline some of my more recent ‘destinations.’
After a career, first in one of the UK’s leading social science research departments, the Department of Social and Economic Research at Glasgow University, and thereafter serving as a full-time Faculty appointment as Associate Dean in charge of the Graduate School responsible for graduate training in social science research methods, I returned to full-time research in 2000. So it was that I left the sheltered cloisters of Glasgow University for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former Soviet republics still in the backwash of the turmoil created by social and economic transition. I remained there on secondment from Glasgow University in various capacities, including as a European Commission appointed Marie Curie chair, for the next ten years, making my stay one of the longest of any “Western” academic in Eastern Europe.
Back to the (former) USSR: Marie Curie Chair
The three-year Marie Curie Chair excellence award under Framework Programme 6 of the European Commission was to develop “leading-edge” and “interdisciplinary” research excellence at a European level and to promote European researcher mobility. The Marie Curie Chair was one of only forty allocated through international peer review, according to the key criterion of its recipient being “a world-class researcher with outstanding past achievements in international collaborative research”. Based at the University of Latvia, I was specifically tasked to develop research in all three Baltic states as these countries moved from being candidate to full members of the EU. My research programme was in the area of labour relations and working conditions which had undergone significant change during the previous decade of transition from state socialism to the market economy.
During these intensive years I carried out field research, social surveys and taught at all the major Baltic universities and generated new interdisciplinary networks in an area of social science that had previously fallen into academic neglect. Based on published articles and stakeholder reports, I made presentations at nearly eighty academic conferences, workshops and other scientific meetings in a total of eighteen European countries advocating the goal of “excellence in European research”.
Did this activity “make a difference?” My answer would be a cautious “yes”, perhaps for the following “unexpected” reason. As the global economic and financial crisis finally struck Eastern Europe in late 2008, the three Baltic states in particular, suffered some of the most severe economic downturns on the face of the planet. Living standards fell sharply and demographic issues now threatened their future sustainability as a result of extensive out-migration of the working populations. In the case of Latvia and Lithuania, this amounted to around ten per cent of the workforce. Migration, social conditions in the workplace and workforce retention thus became the most urgent problems facing these societies. While I cannot claim that I personally have provided all the necessary public policy prescriptions, there were at least in place the academic networks, resources and scholarly interest both within the Baltic states and internationally, sensitive to labour questions. Such issues are fundamental to resolving the current dilemmas facing policymakers. Paradoxically, as a result of the crisis, the Baltic states have become “models” for “austerity management” providing “lessons” endorsed by international financial and political community, including the EU and the IMF. Together with US colleagues, I am currently engaged in deconstructing a new “myth-in-the-making” – the supposed “success” of the Baltic austerity programmes. Thus, critical engagement with perhaps a key issue of our time, namely austerity and its possible aftermath continues.
Sweden: Feeling the strain
As my assignment in the Baltic region drew to a close, I was delighted to be recruited by the Institute for Research in Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO) at Linköping University in Sweden. I thus became, at least figuratively, part of “the great westward migration” from the Baltic states to Western Europe! My current home institute is funded by the Swedish Council for Research on Working Life and Society (FAS) as a designated “centre of research excellence”. First on a temporary secondment basis, and from 2010 onwards, as a full “excellence chair” professorial appointment, my key tasks have been to provide research leadership, generate project funding, secure overall strategic development of new avenues of research based on my international research management competences, and ensure continuation of core funding.
In terms of research, my main areas of activity have been to mobilize research momentum to address the impacts of migration on Swedish society, at first concentrating on the arrival of East European migrants, their labour conditions and working arrangements in Sweden, but now also, on the conditions of migrants from so-called “third countries” outside of the European Union, especially “temporary” migrant workers from South-East Asia. In particular, I have been concerned to raise problems posed by employment practices which are producing new strains in the existing Swedish ‘model’ of industrial relations, spilling over into wider issues of terms and conditions of migrants and their integration in Swedish labour markets.
In pursuing this agenda to date I have successfully obtained major grants from the Swedish government’s Swedish Institute and the Swedish Council for Research in Working Life and Social Research (FAS). I have also played a major role in the securing of continuing financial support for the institute from its core funding body in the successful completion of a lengthy and detailed interim evaluation process. I therefore have been able to engage with a new research funding environment with some degree of success, as well as help to develop an important wider debate.
Have I “made a difference” in Sweden? It has been a tougher nut to crack than I had initially anticipated, and after three and a half years, modesty dictates that I concede “the jury is still out”. I have published as sole author or with colleagues over a dozen peer-reviewed articles in the most recent period and delivered nearly thirty international conference papers, external workshops and stakeholder seminars, and have made popular media and on-line contributions in order to stimulate debate and to further dissemination. I have successfully created new networks for research collaboration and major joint project applications. What is certain is that the issues have not gone away, and that following significant recent urban unrest in the Spring of 2013 in Stockholm and elsewhere, questions of migration, exclusion and employment are now moving foursquare to the centre of public debate. It will be interesting to see how Sweden responds to these new challenges.
Conclusion but not yet journey’s end
My current research portfolio is a mix of applied and more theoretically-driven projects. Funding is derived from a variety of sources including the European Commission (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities), the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, the UK-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation and partnership projects with various leading universities and international research consultancies. European level policy engagement, both as Marie Curie Chair and subsequently, has been continued by acting as an evaluator for European Commission research applications in the area of corporate social responsibility, and as an advisor to the Commission on the establishment of European research chairs in the newer member states. I have also worked as an independent expert advising the EU’s Dublin-based agency, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (EuroFound) on future migration research. Thus, policy relevance and societal engagement continue, hand in hand.
One last word. Each individual can make a difference, but what really counts in the end is the collective commitment to change this world for the better.