UniteLive stories of the year - The 'TikTok recruiters'

Sometimes you have to think outside the box

Reading time: 7 min

Every day over the Christmas period, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2023.  Today, we look back at how Unite reps Dave and Istvan are shaking things using TikTok to recruit migrant workers to Unite.

Unite reps and cousins Dave and Istvan Imre are giving the union a much-needed makeover on popular social media platform TikTok.

2 Sisters Sandycroft site convenor and deputy convenor respectively, Dave and Istvan fight for their members by day, but outside of their busy work lives they are TikTok stars with a massive following – they’ve notched up more than 400,000 followers between them.

Much of their content is dedicated to their common interest in drag, makeup, and dancing, but they’re now using their social media influence to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ in a completely revolutionary way.

Istvan told UNITElive that promoting Unite on TikTok wasn’t ever a planned pursuit – it all happened spontaneously, as all the best viral phenomena often do.

“We do livestreams on TikTok, and during one livestream, people would ask us what we did for work,” he said. “When we replied that we were worked in a poultry factory and that we were union reps, we got lots of comments from people asking that we follow them so they can privately message us.

“I opened my inbox one day to hundreds of messages from people all over the world telling us about the issues they’re having in work and asking about unions and how they can join the union.”

Dave said he and Istvan have since created TikTok videos that are focused on what it means to be a Unite member and how the union can help them.

But these videos aren’t the stuff of traditional union proselytising. In one video, Dave and Istvan are seen at a Unite recruitment drive strutting their stuff to Todrick Hall’s hit single ‘Attention,’ and later ‘walking the walk’ in seven-inch heels and irresistibly chic suits and ties to rapper Saucy Santana’s ‘Walk’. There’s no preaching to the choir in their videos – it’s content with attitude, and you can’t help but want to find out more.

Over the last year, they’ve continued to receive requests on TikTok for information about unions from all corners of the UK, Europe and further afield, and they’ve recruited more than 50 Unite members through TikTok alone.

Dave said that almost all the people who’ve approached them about Unite and unions through TikTok are migrant workers.

“If we want to connect with workers – migrant workers especially — as a union we need to have a TikTok presence,” Dave said.

He added that traditional union organising approaches in an age of hyperconnected social media simply aren’t as effective anymore.

“Migrant workers especially have very difficult jobs with long hours – when they finish their shifts, all the want to do is go home,” Dave noted. “There aren’t many who are going to stand around at the factory gate to talk to union organisers for hours and hours.

“They’ll get home, shower, have their dinner and they’re ready to go to sleep. Since many of them don’t speak English well, it’s hard to have a social life. Many of them feel very isolated so scrolling on TikTok helps them feel connected.”

Istvan said that the success they’ve had promoting Unite on TikTok is due in part to the way they present their information.

“When you do a livestream on TikTok, up to eight others can participate,” he explained. “During our livestreams sometimes our colleagues from the factory will join in and tell thousands of people watching what a difference we’ve made at our 2Sisters site. This way, it’s not coming just from us – otherwise people would just think we’re full of ourselves.

When it comes from lay members who are on the shopfloor, then our message is much more credible. People can see for themselves how the factory has changed through our collective efforts.”

For Istvan, one challenge has been dealing with the dozens of requests for information on unions from people living in different countries.

“When people from the UK come to us on TikTok, it’s easy to direct them to Unite and help them with the online application form,” he noted. “But with those from other countries like Germany, Italy and France, it was a bit more difficult helping them directly because we aren’t as familiar with unions in these countries.”

Still, Dave and Istvan did their best by doing a bit of online research and using the knowledge they’ve gained representing Unite at the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) and the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism (EFFAT) this year.

Dave emphasised that for those who aren’t on TikTok, there’s often a fundamental misunderstanding about what the platform is and who it’s for. It’s not, he says, just for social media-addicted teenagers.

“TikTok is for everyone, and TikTok is about everything – cooking, dancing, art, culture, sports – everything,” he said. “It is a much more diverse platform than many people realise and it’s not going away,” he said.

But, he added, TikTok should be seen as only the beginning.

“TikTok is only one platform – if you build on that in an authentic way, you can build on other platforms like WhatsApp groups, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. It’s not just about TikTok – it’s about connecting with the people who need our help.”

Ulitmately, both Dave and Istvan’s driving force is helping workers – and migrant workers in particular – because they know all too well what it’s like to have had no one to turn to.

“When I first came to this country, it was so hard for me to make myself understood,” Dave said. “We had no voice as migrant workers. We were looked down on, told to shut our mouths and not complain. We were all alone, with no one to help us. We don’t want anyone to go through what we went through when we first started work in this country. That’s why it gives Istvan and I huge personal satisfaction to help others.”

By Hajera Blagg